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By Vedran Obućina
For six years, Serbia has existed with two very different and highly-politicized Muslim communities, one composed of Belgrade Muslims and the other in Novi Pazar at the center of the Sandžak region. After bitter political disputes and stalemates between the two, a group of imams led by Bekir Makić is undertaking plans to unify the two groups as part of moving the country’s politics and economy forward.
But with an overlap between religious and political interests at hand, attempts to pacify the groups have long presented a monumental challenge for the country’s politicians. In a new move, Makić is soliciting the help of international players, with Bosnia, Montenegro and Turkey trying to calm tensions between the groups’ muftis, scholars whose primary work involves interpreting Islamic law.
After the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the country’s Muslim community was nearly wiped out following a period of attempted ethnic cleansing. This led to the spread of Muslims throughout the region and the development of distinct communities and decentralized leadership. The effects of this are still apparent today, as Serbia’s Muslim communities fail to see eye-to-eye on many issues and the country’s political and social climate is especially vulnerable to change.
According to a 2002 census, there are 280,000 Muslims in Serbia who comprise almost four percent of the country’s population. Most of these Muslims are either ethnic Bosniaks, a South Slavic ethnic group, or Albanians, but the population also includes Serbians of Roma, Gorani and Turkish ethnicity also compose the country’s Muslim population. In Sandžak, along the border of Serbia and Montenegro, Muslims make up almost 90 percent of the population, and in Southern Serbia they are more than 60 percent of the population.
Serbia currently exists as a centralized particracy, with numerous political parties in charge of the political process rather than citizens or individual politicians. Together, these parties share control of government powers that shape political, social, and economic life in the country. But some also believe these politicians are wrongfully influencing religious behavior in Serbia.
The Bosniak community in Sandžak, for example, is especially influenced by the Party of Democratic Action, a sister party of the ruling Bosniak party in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The group’s leader, Sulejman Ugljanin, is a prominent figure in Serbian politics.
Among his trademark stances is support for a united Muslim republic that would stretch across Sandžak and Muslim parts of Montenegro. An alternative, he believes, would be the unification of Sandžak and Bosnia. If implemented, this could easily result in the people of Sandžak revolting and attempting to secede from Serbia, thus being united with Muslim communities with whom they disagree.
In 2007, Ugljanin proposed creating a special office that oversees a community of Muslims – called a meshihat - in Novi Pazar, sending a symbolic message that Sandžak would not be subjected to the central government in Belgrade and its meshihat there. The Islamic Community of Belgrade, under the leadership of Reisul-ulema Adem Zilkić, and the Islamic Community in Novi Pazar, under the leadership of Mufti Muamer Zukorlić, clashed in political talks that eventually led to the polarization of the two Muslim communities.
Zukorlić, like Ugljanin, stated that the Islamic communities in Bosnia and Serbia should stand united, while Zilkić believed that Serbia deserved its own distinct community. As a result of the disagreement, Zukorlić’s Muslim community seceded from Belgrade and pledged allegiance to Sarajevo.
Two years ago this case was given much attention in Ankara, with Turkey standing to benefit politically and economically from stability in the region. Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, created a plan to help the two communities reconcile, which ended in an agreement between Ugljanin and Rasim Ljajić, Serbia’s Minister of Foreign and Domestic Trade and Telecommunications. But the agreement was short-lived, as the two Muslim leaders refused to cooperate and tensions between communities persisted.
After negotiations fell apart, Ljajić accused Zukorlić of being uncooperative and ignoring the wishes of his constituents. Meanwhile, Boris Tadić, Serbia’s president at the time, and Vuk Jeremić, Minister of Foreign Affairs, maintained their distance from the dealings, not wanting to influence what they saw as a religious matter.
Most recently, Bekir Makić, a former associate to Zukorlić, has been leading imams in a mission to reengage Serbia’s Muslims in reconciliation talks. But Zukorlić remains opposed to the concept and has accused the imams of receiving bribes from Belgrade and Ankara, with 500 euro monthly payments being made to the imams. Makić countered that these payments are only for services offered, and that he has been pushing to lower the payments by 200 euros.
Makić believes that the Muslim community in Serbia has managed to avoid large-scale violent conflict because of Serbian Muslims’ growing impatience with Zukorlić’s refusal to enter negotiations or make compromises. An alternative proposed by Makić’s group is to remove both Zilkić and Zukorlić from power altogether, along with the help of other countries. Zilkić, like Zukorlić, he says, has not been an effective leader or negotiator, and prolonging discussions only risks the rise of radical groups and further conflict.
Recently, Turkey proposed an initiative to completely unite the two Muslim groups under a new name. Under this arrangement, Zilkić and Zukorlić would be ineligible for leadership positions in the new group, but could stay active in its religious dealings. Many Turks also want this initiative to be overseen by religious authorities in Ankara, Belgrade and Sarajevo.
While on the surface disagreements between these communities might appear to be solely a religious matter, the relationship between Serbia’s Muslims has significant implications for political and economic dealings in and outside the country. Diplomacy and trade between Serbia and countries like Turkey could arguably improve if disagreements were resolved or greater political unity were seen between Serbia’s Muslims.
Over the last few years, Turkey has been investing heavily in improving its ties with surrounding countries, including Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro. This is being done in part to renew diplomatic relations and create a relationship where countries can voice their opinions on each others’ political dealings. In a small move in this direction, the Turkish news agency Anadolu has been offering Bosniaks in the Balkan region free access to its news reports. In Bosnia, many media outlets are already under Turkish jurisdiction.
The expulsion of Albanians and Roma from negotiations is especially noteworthy. The exclusion of Roma, who compose the largest Muslim community in Serbia, gives the impression that Belgrade, Ankara and Sarajevo are not interested in the outcome these talks will have on the group. For Albanians, whose territory stretches across Albania, Kosovo, western Macedonia, southern Serbia and eastern Montenegro, the decision to exclude them from negotiations has been met with contention.
With the fate of Serbia’s Muslim population and its relationships with other countries hanging in the balance, the Serbian government desperately needs a figurehead that is able to unify the groups – including Muslim expatriate groups abroad – while gently helping them maintain their sense of identity and pride.
Vedran Obućina is The Atlantic Post’s Foreign Affairs Analyst, based in Rijeka, Croatia.