Islam a Growing Force in Bosnia Military

The Christian Century, October 18, 1995 | Go to article overview

Islam a Growing Force in Bosnia Military


In his black uniform, Hase Tiric the 30-year-old brigadier of the Black Swans, the Bosnian army's elite commando unit, cuts an imposing figure and exudes the tough professionalism that is his unit's trademark. In contrast to the often rag-tag regular army troops, the Black Swans are the Bosnian army's most disciplined and effective fighting force. In recent govern ment offensives, theunit has been at the front of almost every battle, going directly against Serb forces that haye dominated in the three-year war.

The key to the Black Swans, success, says Tiric, is Islam. The 800-man Muslim brigade lives according to Islamic law--daily prayer, no alcohol or women, exemplary personal hygiene. "We,re not fundamentalists," says Tiric, who, like most of his soldiers, is a newcomer to religion. "These rules simply ensure the highest militar,v standards."

The Black Swans are just one of a number of units in the Bosnian armed forces that have taken Islam to heart. Since the war began, the once-multinational Bosnian militar,v has become an almost exclusively Muslim force. For more and more units, Muslim nationalism and Islam rather than multicultural coexistence have become the rallying cry. In part the upsurge of religion in the military reflects a new interest in Islam among many Bosnian Muslims. The hardship of the war and the pressures of the rampant nationalism around them have led more and more people to look to Islam for solace and orientation.

Before the war, Bosnian Muslims were overwhelmingly secular, and their fondness for drink and earthly pleasures was legendary across former Yugoslavia. Today mosque attendance is up as never before and religious education classes are full. In the armed forces, young soldiers are eager to learn about Islam. At their base camp high in the mountains of northeastern Bosnia, the Black Swans have two hours of religious training a day. "I am here to tell these boys what they,re fighting for," says the unit's Hodja, or religious leader, whom the troops call by his first name, Hamza. "First they learn the rules of Islam and follow them, then comes faith."

Until recently the Bosnian government has either denied or played down the existence of the Islamic units, carefully concealing them from the international media. Even many Bosnians reacted with shock to the third-anniversary celebration of the Seventh Muslim Brigade, televised across the country earlier this year. The packed sports hall in Zenica shook with cries of "Allahu Akbar!"--"God is great! "--delivered from columns of sol diers clad in olive-green uniforms and bright green headbands with Islamic insignia.

Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic appeared to inspect the 3,000 troops, the army's first and largest religious outfit. "That's not my army," says Mevlid Vladic, a chemist from Tuzla, shaking her head. Vladic, a Muslim, is married to a Serb--nothing out of the ordinary in ethnically mixed Tuzla. …

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