Confronting fears of Islamization in Sarajevo
By Nitika Khaitan
The King Fahd mosque’s green dome glistens in the late afternoon light, its minarets parallel to a cluster of apartment buildings pockmarked by artillery fire in the Bosnian War. The Sarajevo mosque is the largest mosque in the Balkans, one of several built and financed by Saudi Arabia in the region. It has attracted significant controversy in global news media, amid growing fears of the “Islamization” of the region. One story in NPR, for instance, cites the Sarajevo mosque in an article titled “Radical Islam Uses Balkan Poor to Wield Influence.” The article points out that Saudi Arabia spent $30 million building the mosque that “soars over a working class district,” right after describing how “Saudi Arabia… and missionaries of Wahhabi Islam” are spending large sums of money to target young populations mired in poverty and unemployment.
Local opinions on the mosque, however, are far more nuanced and complicated than such articles might suggest. Mirnes Kovac, a specialist on Islamic culture who reports for the Preporod, one of the oldest news magazines in the Balkans, describes why the King Fahd mosque has attracted such controversy. He doesn’t endorse the same fear of Saudi Arabia trying to spread radical Islam in BiH, although he does clarify that the mosque has garnered a reputation as one attended by many individuals with controversial radical beliefs. However, the actual content of what is preached in the jumma is legally regulated by the Islamic community of BiH, a non-governmental body headed by a Mufti; imams can only preach according to the moderate Hanafi schools endorsed by the community.
Many others more directly associated with the mosque similarly believe the mosque serves a concrete use, and was not built out of any nefarious political ends to spread radical Islam. For instance, Kemal Gracić, an employee in charge of logistical operations at the mosque, said he thought it had been built to fulfill an important need. Since there previously hadn’t been a religious site nearby to serve Muslims in the neighborhood, visitors throng to the mosque now. He thought people who saw this as a political project were overstating things, falsely interpreting mosques as symbols that groups were using to mark territory.
Tariq, a Sudanese-born employee of the King Fahd mosque educated in Saudi Arabia, clarified that the education center accompanying the mosque focused on culture and not religion. It does not impart religious education, but instead organizes sports tournaments for youth and inter-cultural exchange programs between the two countries. In addition, Tariq believes Saudi Arabia’s past support of BiH is evidence for its benevolent intentions in constructing the King Fahd mosque. Tariq described Saudi Arabia as the only country that had stood by BiH throughout its troubled past. He mentioned that during the war, King Fahd visited the US and tried to persuade diplomats to encourage negotiations and interventions to stop the war, and how after it, Saudi Arabia invested millions in aid towards BiH across several sectors. He further cited the special nature of Islam in Bosnia as one that had been so deeply rooted in centuries of tolerance of diversity that it would be foolish to assume outsiders could now come and dictate change.
Many Bosnians do hold concerns about the possible rise of radical Islam in the Balkans in the future, but they hold them on a global scale and not on one particular to the Balkans, like Tariq and Kovac, who cited the ease in spreading extremist ideas through new media like the Internet. Igor Kožemjakin, a member of the Sarajevo-based Inter-Religious Council, an organization that promotes harmony between different religious groups, agreed that the threat posed by Wahhabi Islam to the Balkans was nothing greater than the threat posed by radical Islam to communities around the world, the vast majority of which are moderate. Thus while the debate about the Islamization of the region is far from settled, the King Fahd mosque is an excellent example of how on-the-ground realities are far more complex than global news outlets seem to suggest. While such coverage often reduces mosques to symbols or strategic moves in state foreign policy, to local communities, a mosque is much, much more.
Nitika Khaitan is a senior in Silliman majoring in the Humanities. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.