Monday, 8 February 2010

Of mosques, medresas and beer

Given that we live less than 20 metres from a mosque, I am embarrassed at how little I know about the Islamic religion and practices. But it has struck me that the Bosnian way of being a Muslim isn't anything like the impressions of Islam that you can get from the media.

Bosnia's Muslim community is a legacy of the Ottoman occupation and as such, the Bosnian Islamic tradition echoes that of Turkey. It is the most Western country to have a (narrow) Islamic majority and the only European country apart from Turkey to have such a preponderance of Muslims.

Having said that, the Muslims here appear to have found their own way to practice their religion, which seems far removed from the Middle East. Here the mosques are small, intimate, cosy affairs. Not for the Bosnians the ritzy, glitzy, enormous buildings occasionally seen further east. Drinking alcohol is common amongst the Muslims here, a beer, some sljivovica, all quite normal almost expected.

Nor are the women covered up. In all my time here (approaching 3 years in total) I have only ever seen 2 women that have been fully covered, one in Tuzla, the other in the airport in Sarajevo and they really stood out. Quite a few women do wear headscarves. But in the rural areas, older women tend to wear headscarves whether they are Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox and seldom have I seen a rural younger woman in one. In the cities the younger Muslim girls often do wear headscarves and appropriate dress and my goodness me do they look glamorous. But many Muslim girls do not and there is no tension surrounding their decision. One look at the lakes in Tuzla in the summer and you will understand that this is a region that leans far more towards Europe than conservative Islam: the bikinis on display are spectacular.

There is a Medresa school in Tuzla (in other words, an Islamic school) as there are throughout Bosnia. But these Medresas are not the fundamentalist schools that concern people in other countries. The Tuzla Medresa is acknowledged to be one of the top schools in Tuzla, and runs regular courses during the summer which are attended by students of all religions and backgrounds. Friends of mine who teach there talk about how exceptional the facilities are.

That is not to say that there are no radical Islamists in Bosnia. There is an extremist sect, the Wahhabi, who number about 4,000 in total, but they tend to live in remote villages. Last week, one such village was raided by the Bosnian police and several of its members were arrested on suspicion of planning to use force to bring about change in the constitutional order. But the Wahhabi are unusual in Bosnia, in reality they probably number less than the number of extremist Muslims in the UK. They are closely watched by the police and many of the Bosnian Muslims make efforts to distance themselves from them.

Most of my Muslim friends are Muslim in the way that I am Christian. In other words, it informs my cultural background and heritage, but the actual practicing of the religion? Well that is probably best described as patchy. Here mosques say that people come during Ramadan, but outside of that, not so much. Perhaps on a Friday. Or for a funeral. They know how to pray, much as I can recite the Lord's prayer without too much trouble. They seem to pick up the aspects of religion that they want, when they want and put them to one side when it doesn't suit them. Another friend of mine put many Bosnian Muslims attitude towards their religion well - 'we'll never make good Muslims' he said 'we like too much being able to drink beer and chase scantily clad women'.

I find it fascinating that a European country has developed its own Islamic traditions and is happy that they are able to be both European and Muslim with no tensions in that. When a country that has a tolerant reputation such as Switzerland, votes to ban minarets being built and other countries are struggling with the juxtaposition of Islam in Europe, could it be that the continent should be looking to Bosnia to learn some lessons about how being Muslim and being European are not concepts that are mutually exclusive?


Working Mama said...

Really informative post. Great to learn about other cultures

WeDoAdventure said...

Only yesterday we were in the BBI Centar - again - and I was marvelling that while the Islamic finance that funded it came with the requirement that no alcohol be sold onsite (no pork either) it doesn't stop an extensive range of lingerie shops operating with all the usual advertising their windows.

I'd agree that things are very different here to the perceptions of Muslim culture given off by the UK press.

nappy valley girl said...

That is interesting. Sounds like a very sensible approach - let's hope it doesn't ever revert to fundamentalism, like some other Islamic countries.

Gappy said...

I really like your blog. You always have something interesting to say, and I particularly enjoy the beautiful descriptions of the country you have made your home.

I'm a bit confused about your assertion that there's little tension between the muslim and christian communities though. The viscious ethnic cleansing of muslims in Bosnia is really very recent.

Did I get your meaning wrong? Please feel free to correct me if I did.

Dino said...

Hi Emily,

I agree with just about everything you've said here. So many people in the UK seem to think that to be Muslim you have to be 1) dark skinned and "covered up" and 2) some sort of radical fundamentalist who wants to take over the world. This perception of Muslims has always upset me, and I often want to scream "It's a religion, not a race and not all Muslims are the same!"

I wouldn't say that there are no tensions between Muslims and Christians in B & H though. Perhaps there aren't any obvious tensions in Tuzla as there was no major fighting there in the war, but I know that in Mostar a Muslim can get beaten up if he or she walks onto the Croat (Roman Catholic) side, and vice versa.You only need to watch what happens when football clubs from the two sides play a game against each other to see all the hatred pour out-it's shocking and disgusting.

When I was in Mostar last year I heard some really horrendous stories about intollerance, and one of my friends said that one of the things she hates the most about contemporary Mostar is the division between the two religious communities and how they continously fail and refuse to understand each other, and how she doesn't feel comfortable going over to the Muslim side for that reason, although she herself hasn't got anything against anyone. Of course not everyone is intollerant in Mostar, but a fair few people are and that spoils the entire city for everyone living there. I just hope that one day they will all learn to get along and tolerate each other again.

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

working Mama - glad you enjoyed it.

WDA - that, to me, sums up Bosnia!

NVG - There are a few, very few, radical Muslims here. But they have the same relationship with the vast majority that the extremist Christian right in the states have with most of us - ie pretty distant and not much similarity.

Gappy and Dino - I'm going to answer your comments together. Hope that is ok!

My intention was not to suggest that the Christian and Muslim communities here get along well. In some areas they do, in many others they don't (Mostar being a prime case here!). What I was trying to do was to say that the Muslims here seem to have developed a way to be comfortably both European and Muslim which is unusual and which other European countries could probably learn from.

The conflict here wasn't caused by religion, but religion happens to identify the different groups. Usually I prefer not to bring religion into descriptions of Bosnians at all, because I feel it is misleading. Bosnian Croats are not referred to as catholic, nor are the Serbs labelled as Orthodox, so it doesn't seem right to identify the Bosnian Muslims by their religion. In my normal day to day life, I usually refer to them by their more accurate name, Bosniaks, but find that for people who are just starting to try to understand Bosnia this is very confusing. The difference between Bosniak and Bosnian is very distinct, but easily confused without a confident knowledge of the country, which is why, although I hate it, I use the term Bosnian Muslim in this blog.

Tensions between the different groups here are high. Mostar is particularly bad. The football matches there are case studies in potential violence. There are many reasons for this - it is a derby game, which are always the most passionate, the recent conflict certainly adds to this passion, the take over of Velez's stadium by Zrinjski during the war, the interference of politicians wanting to create a sense of instability for their own reasons. The list goes on. Mostar is such a beautiful town, it is such a shame that it remains so riven with differences and intolerance.

Gappy said...

Thanks for helping me to understand your point better.

Anonymous said...

It's sad that someone with such a perceptive eye and ability to communicate won't be reporting from Bosnia after April.


Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

Owen - thanks so much, I really value your comments. We will miss Bosnia very much but for many reasons the time has come to return to the UK.

Santa said...

Excellent, perspicacious article about my homeland.

Thanks guys!

(“Bosnia is one of those places where you come as a guest, leave as an acquaintance, and return as a friend” — Nenad Velickovic)

Lynn said...

That's interesting. The reality of Islam is that most practicing Muslims aren't fundamental extremists, but it's the ones that are that scare everyone. It's the same in Christianity--there are extremist groups, and they commit acts of terrorism.

You're so lucky to be able to see the juxtaposition of European culture and Islam!

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

Santa - glad you like it. Very true quote, I like if very much.

Lynn - we are lucky indeed. I enjoy it every day.