bosnia report
New Series No:32-34 December - July 2003
by Banac, Fischer, Mahmutcehajic, Sells, Seligman

Appeal for Support for the Restoration of Traditional Mosques and Other Religious Endowments in Bosnia


During the 1992-1996 war against Bosnia-Herzegovina, more than 1,200 mosques were razed to the ground or badly damaged. They had been the key symbols of identity in the villages and towns of Bosnia throughout centuries of sustained religious pluralism. Their demolition was part of an undertaking to destroy the plural nature of Bosnian society and culture. The destruction of mosques was of major symbolic significance for those who planned and perpetrated the atrocities that wrought such havoc through the country by denigration, torture and killings. The genocide, ethnic cleansing, mass rapes, concentration camps, torture and killings of the war were all part of that criminal venture.


Since the war ended, the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina have been living with trauma, of which the formal evidence, more than anything else, is the destruction of their mosques and fact that returnees to the places they were forced to leave are finding it impossible to restore them on their own initiative and through their own endeavours. Although these mosques were part of the European cultural heritage, there is no systematic European support for their restoration and reconstruction as part of restoring normal living conditions in this country. This unhealed trauma of the Bosnian Muslims also has a new feature: their suffering is experienced and understood as the result of their ‘apart-ness’ in Europe. ‘Since our religious heritage is not being protected with sufficient resolve by those who uphold the European order,’ many of them say, ‘the conclusion to be drawn is that we are not wanted, that we are seen as an alien element in a part of the world that we have always lived in.’

The discrimination experienced by Muslim returnees, and the spread of aggressive attitudes towards them, symbolized in the physical sense both by the ruins of their mosques, the restoration of which has been prevented, and the aggressive placing of crosses in public places where sacred buildings of other faiths once stood, is increasingly seen as the triumph of the power of intolerance and of the subjugation of the Muslim minority to the Christian majority. This paves the way for the presence and influence of radical fundamentalism, whose protagonists exploit the trauma of the Bosnian Muslims to radicalize them in regard to Europe and the West. These forms of radical views and behaviour by individuals and groups among the Bosnian Muslims are also exploited by the ideological elite that perpetrated the atrocities and ravages of Bosnia as a way of justifying their claims of the threat of Muslim radicalism.


Since the normalization of Bosnia's plural society is impossible without ensuring that people can exercise their rights where they live - which includes the right to restore their religious heritage - returnees are now confronted with a dilemma: it is impossible to restore their traditional mosques, given the lack of support, but the alternative, with the support of fundamentalist organizations and states, is to build new ones that are wholly foreign to the cultural environment in Bosnia. This unresolved dilemma leaves the door wide open to maintaining and indeed reinforcing the current social and cultural fragmentation and disruption in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and to the growing incursions of fundamentalism as prescribed by militant fundamentalists who exploit these circumstances further to radicalize certain Bosnian Muslims.


The restoration of the traditional mosques that have been destroyed or damaged is consistently opposed by those forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina that are under the direct influence of Saudi Arabia and of elements linked, financially or in outlook, to that country. While new ‘Saudi mosques’ wholly foreign to the Bosnian culture are being erected throughout the country, hundreds of other mosques, the majority of them several centuries old, still lie in ruins. This, too, has a radical impact, ideologizing the Muslim identity along lines that are not indigenous to Bosnia and are contrary to its entire historical experience.


There is, however, one instance that is based on and being carried out with a wholly different approach. A group of returnees to Stolac, in eastern Herzegovina, with the support of more than a hundred intellectuals, coming from different religious backgrounds, at home and abroad, has formed a Committee for the Restoration of the Mosques of Stolac. Among the principles that guide the Committee's work is that no foreign ideological influences will be permitted to direct their undertaking of reconstructing the mosques of Stolac. All Stolac's mosques, along with other religious and cultural buildings, were demolished between 1993 and 1995. With the start of reconstruction of the Carsija mosque (first built in 1519), the long process of reconstruction and restoration of a total of eleven destroyed mosques and other religious buildings has begun. The group is now caught between fundamentalist power which encounters no barriers to its expression and its own limited capacities resulting from the absence of moral and financial support.

We believe that to support and encourage this example would have paradigmatic value in countering fundamentalist abuses of the misfortunes and trauma of the Bosnian Muslims. Support and encouragement for this and other, similar groups in Bosnia, and abroad, is one of the most important means of opposing the criminal agenda of annihilation of others and those who shield and protect what has been achieved through the perpetration of such atrocities. Ending and reversing the current tendency to reinforce ideologies of which terrorism and intolerance are just two of many manifestations depends on support and encouragement for this and similar examples.

We, the undersigned, believe that the reconstruction of the Bosnian Muslim heritage cannot be solely an internal, Bosnian project. Nor can it be left only to the resources of the Islamic world. The attempt to destroy European Islam in Bosnia was undertaken by certain groups of Europeans with the complicity of many others. This has not been the first time in the lives of many of us that European societies attempted the genocidal destruction of their own, internal, other. The attempt to eradicate the Jewish presence in Europe cannot but be on the minds of many of us today as Europe again struggles with the existence of individuals and communities who are not perceived to share, in all respects, the European cultural heritage.

The painful slowness of the judicial process, in bringing to justice even a small proportion of those who committed or ordered the atrocities, is blocking the start of a real reconciliation process. That reconciliation process, we sincerely hope, will eventually include the recognition of those non-Muslims who risked and in many cases lost their lives, in defence of their Muslim neighbours. Again, the parallels with events six decades ago in Europe are clear. The willingness of refugees and the displaced to return to their homes, even many years after their expulsion, even without the prospect of work and with the very real fear of discrimination deserves every encouragement. The rebuilding of houses of worship is an important component of the sense of security which returnees need.

The expanding Muslim presence in Europe - an aspect of the global economic order as well as of the continuity of religious identities worldwide - engages us all. The extent of this shared, mutual, indeed global, engagement is being made clear daily, from New York to Bali to Gujarat; most often in negative and destructive manifestations. The project of reconstruction in Bosnia is, however, an opportunity to realize this mutual engagement and responsibility in new and creative ways. Those of us who have suffered discrimination and destruction have a special responsibility to this engagement.


With this proposal that, as part of a wider programme of support for the restoration of Bosnia's pluriform heritage, the restoration of the mosques and other religious buildings of Stolac receive direct support, we enclose a survey of the atrocities against Stolac, with photographs of the destruction of the town's cultural heritage.


We the undersigned, authors of this appeal, Ivo Banac (Yale University, New Haven), Shlomo Fischer (Hebrew University, Jerusalem), Rusmir Mahmutcehajic (Sarajevo University, Sarajevo), Michael Sells (Haverford College, Haverford) and Adam B. Seligman (Boston University, Boston), affirm our affiliation to diverse religious traditions and feel a sense of responsibility for the need to improve people's social circumstances in Bosnia as a case of universal significance.


Ivo Banac

Shlomo Fischer

Rusmir Mahmutcehajic

Michael Sells

Adam B. Seligman

25 December 2002



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