Saudi 'charity' troubles Bosniaks
by Brian Whitmore
Saudi Arabian charities have spent millions of dollars to help rebuild Bosnia. But their generosity comes with a catch. The Saudis are also promoting a fundamentalist version of Islam that is anathema to most Bosnian Muslims, who practice a more tolerant form of the religion.
The activities of Saudi and other Islamic charities in Bosnia have come under increased scrutiny since September 11, and specifically since the arrest in October of six Algerians accused of being part of a terror network plotting attacks against US interests here. Five of the six, who US officials say are tied to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, worked for various Muslim charity organizations. Western and Bosnian officials say they suspect some of these relief agencies may be front organizations for terrorism.
Whether or not the terrorism allegations prove accurate, officials and analysts here say Saudi-funded aid groups in Bosnia are spreading an intolerant and anti-Western form of Islam, undermining the country's rich and diverse religious heritage, and provoking conflict with Serb and Croat minorities. ‘We have a big problem with the Saudis,’ a senior Bosnian official said. ‘They are spreading around huge amounts of money to help rebuild Bosnia. But they are also building mosques and spreading a version of Islam that is alien to our Bosnian Islam.’
That different version of Islam was on display here earlier this month, when hundreds of angry Muslim protesters, many in veils and headscarves, tried unsuccessfully to prevent the six Algerian suspects from being turned over to US authorities. Chanting ‘God Is Great,’ the protesters pounded cars and blocked streets around Sarajevo's Central Prison before riot police dispersed them. Some called the US-led war on terror a war on Islam and claimed that Israel was behind the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington.
Officials here said they strongly suspect a fundamentalist group called Active Islamic Youth organized the demonstration and bused in the protesters. The group's leaders, while allowing that their members may have participated in the two-day protest, deny they organized the demonstration. ‘Active Islamic Youth did not organize the demonstration,’ Almin Foco, head of the group told the weekly Bosnian news magazine Slobodna Bosna. ‘We try to invite people to Islam.’ Active Islamic Youth, which local media say has Saudi ties, was founded in 1995 to spread a stringent version of Islam called Wahhabism. The Wahhabis are a strict Islamic movement founded in the 18th century by Abdul-Wahhab. He converted the Saud tribe, which now rules Saudi Arabia.
Bosnian officials announced last week they would begin investigating about 120 relief organizations here for possible terror ties. At the top of the list, officials say, is an organization called the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Sabir Lamar, one of the six Algerian terror suspects turned over to the United States last week, worked for the High Commission. ‘Nobody here supports terrorism,’ Fahd Al-Zakari, the High Commission's director, recently told the Associated Press. But the group is spreading around a lot of money to promote its version of Islam.
The High Commission was founded in 1993 by Saudi Prince Salman bin Abdul-Aziz and says it has spent more than $600 million in aid to Bosnian Muslims. It has been caring for 500 war orphans, and paying the utility bills for many Bosnian families impoverished by the country's 1992-95 war. Its Sarajevo headquarters cost an estimated $9 million, and includes a massive mosque that accommodates 5,000 people, modern classrooms, a library, restaurants, and a sports hall. But according to a report by the International Crisis Group, an international think tank, ‘female beneficiaries were required to cover their head, and their children to attend classes in their faith.’
Bosnian officials say Saudi-sponsored Wahhabism is more widespread in Bosnia's rural areas than in its cosmopolitan capital, Sarajevo. ‘This is destructive to Bosnia morally and culturally,’ said Rusmir Mahmutcehajic, a Sarajevo-based sociologist. Mahmutcehajic and other Bosnian intellectuals say everything from the Wahhabis' strict dress codes for women to the severe architectural styles of their giant mosques, and their claim to be the sole true Islamic faith, contradicts - and even offends - Bosnian tradition.
The new Saudi-built mosques, huge, box-like structures, stand out from the centuries-old Ottoman-style mosques that characterize the urban and village landscape in Bosnia. ‘There is a conflict here between a Saudi-sponsored Wahhabi interpretation of Islam and an Ottoman perception,’ said Jacques-Paul Klein, head of the UN mission in Bosnia.
Bosnian officials also say the Saudis are provoking conflict with Serbs and Croats. In the city of Mostar, local media reported graffiti reading: ‘Bin Laden, brother, send a 767 against the Croats.’ And the Bosnian Foreign Ministry recently sent a formal protest to the Saudi Embassy over anti-Croat statements in one of the Saudi High Commission's brochures distributed in the central Bosnian town of Bugojno.
Mahmutcehajic called the attraction to fundamentalism, specifically among rural youth, ‘an emotional reaction to social problems’ caused by decades of communism and the trauma of war. ‘You will find among many Muslims in Bosnia a great need to reconstruct their lost identity,’ Mahmutcehajic said. ‘Young people have found themselves in an empty space after the moral destruction of nationalism and communism.’
The fundamentalist influence, Mahmutcehajic added, is as deadly to Bosnia's diverse multi-religious culture as the destruction wrought by Serb and Croat militias during the war. ‘All our experience in Bosnia is living with other traditions,’ Mahmutcehajic said. ‘This kind of epistemic modesty is the basis for the Bosnian experience. What we have is valuable.’
This article appeared in The Boston Sunday Globe, 27 January 2002