bosnia report
New Series No. 5 August - 1998
 
The Mufti's Funeral
by Anna Husarska

Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina

He was a living symbol of the multi-ethnic Bosnia. His death sparked ethnic hostility that symbolizes the divided Bosnia.

Ibrahim Halilovic, the mufti of Banja Luka, leader of the decimated Muslim community of Republika Srpska, died last month at age 52 of a heart attack. His death provoked pain in some quarters and, not entirely surprisingly, shameful behaviour by some Bosnian Serbs.

Following an appeal by the supposedly moderate Serb Party of Posavina and Krajina, about 1,000 Bosnian Serbs gathered on the grounds of what was once Banja Luka's central mosque to prevent the mufti's burial there.

It is tragically ironic that the death of this gentle and soft-spoken man, who had dedicated himself to preserving a multi-ethnic Bosnia, provoked such a display of ethnic intolerance.

The demonstration followed a familiar pattern: the Serbian flag was hoisted; loudspeakers blasted nationalist Serbian songs; the mob chanted, 'We won't give up Serb land'; a UN policeman and another international officer were attacked; Bosnian Serb police prevented 10 buses of Muslims from coming to what the believers had hoped would be the mufti's funeral; three journalists were roughed up, and two cameras were smashed.

It brought out the worst in a small group of fanatics and failed to bring out the best in Banja Lukans or in the Republika Srpska authorities, who did not so much as squeak in protest or in shame.

Mufti Halilovic stayed in Banja Luka throughout the Serbian ethnic cleansing that decimated his flock. At the beginning of the war, in 1992, he organized humanitarian aid. He helped those who wanted to leave and those who decided to stay. Only two imams remained in Republika Srpska, six were murdered and almost 200 were expelled.

In May 1993 the Bosnian Serbs blew up Mufti Halilovic's beloved Ferhadija mosque. The other 207 mosques in Serb-controlled Bosnia, of which 16 were in Banja Luka, were either burned to the grounds or blown up by the Bosnian Serbs.

The postwar Republika Srpska is a Muslim-unfriendly place. Political violence continues, with expulsions and intimidation. Of the 220,000 Muslims in Mufti Halilovic's congregation, only 14,000 remain. The mufti stayed on to protect them, fighting untiringly for religious tolerance and reconciliation. Recently his battle was to obtain permission to rebuild the Ferhadija mosque.

This spring the Serb mayor of Banja Luka announced that reconstruction of the mosque 'would be perceived by Serbs as the darkest humiliation, which would open up old wounds and bring far-reaching consequences.'

Mufti Halilovic was saddeÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ ned but determined. He was convinced that reconstruction of the mosque and his presence were a sine qua non for the return of the Muslim refugees to Banja Luka.

The mufti, always respectful of Bosnian Muslim tradition, wanted to be buried on the grounds belonging to the Islamic community, where the Ferhadija mosque once stood. This was made impossible by some of his neighbours, and he was buried in Sarajevo.

Apart from the human tragedy this represents and the moral shame that it brings to the Banja Lukans who allowed a group of thugs to impose their will - and to the international community, which has troops on the ground and could have offered protection - there is a political lesson to be drawn. The presumably peace-loving, Dayton-agreement-supporting and multi-ethnicity-favouring authori- ties of Republika Srpska - Milorad Dodik and Biljana Plavsic - were either unwilling or unable to show a minimum of humanity and stop the rule of the mob. This does not bode well for democracy's chances in the Bosnian elections, scheduled for 12 and 13 September.

This story of his funeral would have broken the mufti's heart.

The writer, a political analyst with the International Crisis Group, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune, 13 August 1998.

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