Sarajevo - "No 'Westerner' can erase the Islamic influences in Bosnia, and no 'Easterner' can impose their own influences on our way of life."
This statement, overheard at a Sarajevo coffee bar, explains the unique character and identity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Despite the conflict of the previous decade, it is still a unique case of a country following a middle path of coexistence between individuals with different religions and ethnicities.
Islam was introduced to Bosnians in the 15th and 16th centuries during the Ottoman Empire. Bosnian Muslims, ethnically identified as Bosniaks, have long been neighbours with ethnic Serbs who are largely Orthodox Christian, predominantly Catholic Croats and other ethnic and religious minorities, such as Sephardic Jews, Albanians, Roma and others.
If you talk to members of the older generation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, they will recall a time when Yugoslav communist leader Josip Broz Tito pointed to Bosnia and Herzegovinia as a model for Yugoslavia to coexist without conflict.
Though there has been intolerance and conflict between members of various religious and ethnic groups, tensions never pitted the entire populations of one group against another. Most conflicts in Bosnia's history were imported or orchestrated from Istanbul, Vienna, Berlin, Belgrade and Zagreb – for territorial occupation or the exploitation of local natural resources.
One critical exception in recent history was the Bosnian War (1992 to 1995), which erupted as a result of the breakup of Yugoslavia and brought much misery and destruction to the region. Eventually, peace was restored by NATO forces. But after the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995, which brought an end to the three-year war, refugees returned to their homes to find their cities divided – sometimes physically – along ethnic lines. And local laws limiting freedom of movement exacerbated these tensions and obstructed reconciliation efforts.
As a result, parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina remain divided – politically, religiously and ethnically – even today.
Since the war, however, restoring the middle path of coexistence has been the goal of ordinary Bosnians working with non-governmental organisations in local cities. Reconstruction has served as a way for various groups to work together for a common good. Non-governmental organisations such as the Sarajevo-based International Forum Bosnia, which houses the Center for Interreligious Dialogue and facilitates dialogue among different religious groups, and the International Mennonite Organization which aids in home reconstruction and youth programmes, are hard at work to ease remaining tensions in this post-conflict society.
But what is most notable is those places where coexistence between ordinary people of different religions and ethnicities never stopped, not even during the war. These are the communities that the rest of the region can learn from, the people that adhered to the middle path and refused to align with those who committed acts of violence along ethnic or religious lines and turned against their neighbours in times of trouble.
Cities like Sarajevo, Mostar and Tuzla, were known to have the largest inter-ethnic populations in the Balkans. In various sieges throughout the war, neighbours came together, regardless of ethnicity or religion, to protect one another and their towns from destruction. In fact, the heavy artillery raining down upon them created solidarity among them, instead of separating them.
Historically, neighbourhoods in these cities were not divided between one group or another. There had been inter-ethnic and inter-religious mixing for generations, and this kind of coexistence was considered the norm, unlike other towns in the region where one ethnic or religious group comprised the majority.
This attitude of coming together during the war demonstrated that not all communities can be driven apart along ethnic or religious lines, even in times of war. In fact, people of various backgrounds came together in reaction to the aggressive attempts to divide them.
Despite the violent upheaval in the 1990s and the tumultuous years that followed, coexistence amongst the diverse population of Bosnia and Herzegovina has endured. The resilience of the people in the region, particularly those still working to build united communities out of divided groups, serves as an example not only in the Balkans, but for conflict-torn countries around the world.
* Amir Telibečirović is senior editor of Sarajevo-based online magazine Bosnia Daily and part-time reporter for the Slovenian weekly Mladina. This article is part of a series on lesser-known Muslim societies written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 10 February 2009, www.commongroundnews.org
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