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in Eutope islamists gain ground in SarajeveIn Europe Islamists Gain Ground in Sarajevo
Part 1 of 2
Radical Muslim imams and nationalist politicians from all camps are threatening Sarajevo's multicultural legacy. With the help of Arab benefactors, the deeply devout are acquiring new recruits. In the "Jerusalem of the Balkans," Islamists are on the rise.
The obliteration of Israel is heralded in a torrent of words. "Zionist terrorists," the imam thunders from the glass-enclosed pulpit at the end of the mosque. "Animals in human form" have transformed the Gaza Strip into a "concentration camp," and this marks "the beginning of the end" for the Jewish pseudo-state.
Over 4,000 faithful are listening to the religious service in the King Fahd Mosque, named after the late Saudi Arabian monarch King Fahd Bin Abd al-Asis Al Saud. The women sit separately, screened off in the left wing of the building. It is the day of the Khutbah, the great Friday sermon, and the city where the imam has predicted Israel's demise lies some 2,000 kilometers northwest of Gaza.
Sarajevo's King Fahd Mosque was built with millions of Saudi dollars as the largest house of worship for Muslims in the Balkans. The mosque has a reputation as a magnet for Muslim fundamentalists in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the imam is said to be the patron of the Wahhabites, although they call themselves Salafites, after an ultra-conservative movement in Sunni Islam.
Nezim Halilovic - the imam and fiery speaker of the Mosque is familiar with the allegations. He explains the general air of suspicion surrounding the Mosque as follows: "The West is annoyed that many Muslims are returning to their faith, instead of sneaking by the mosque to the bar, as they used to do, to drink alcohol and eat pork."
The traumatic experience of the 1992 war left a deep mark on the traditionally cosmopolitan Muslim Bosnians - and opened the door to the Islamists. Years later, the religious fundamentalists have declared the attacks by Christian Serbs and Croats a "crusade" by infidels - and painted themselves as the steadfast protectors of Muslim Bosnians.
Halilovic served during the war as commander of the Fourth Muslim Brigade. A photo shows him standing next to a 155 milimeter howitzer, dressed in black combat fatigues, a flowing beard and a scarf wrapped around his head. He witnessed the arrival of the first religious warriors from countries in the Middle East and northern Africa. These fighters brought ideological seeds that have now found fertile ground - the beliefs of the Salafites, Islamic fundamentalists who orient themselves according to the alleged unique, pure origin of their religion and reject all newer Islamic traditions.
Sarajevo is at the crossroads of the West and the Orient, in the heart of Europe - a place where Islam meets the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and a place that shares the historical legacies of the Ottoman Empire and the Austria-Hungary of the Habsburgs.
Bosnia's capital city still remains a bustling town with well-stocked bars, concerts and garish advertisements for sexy lingerie. Men with billowing trousers and full beards and women with full-body veils are still a relatively rare sight on the streets.
According to a survey conducted in 2006, however, over 3% of all Muslim Bosnians - over 60,000 men and women - profess the Wahhabi creed, and an additional 10% say that they sympathize with the devout defenders of morals. But since the radicals and their Arab benefactors have been subject to heightened surveillance in the wake of 9/11, they tend to keep a low profile.
In the evenings, though, individuals and small groups quickly exit the shell-pocked apartment buildings surrounding the King Fahd Mosque. At this time of day, there is a much smaller crowd of worshipers than at noon during the big Friday prayers, and the fifth column of the islamists can almost feel as if it has the mosque to itself.
They pray differently, with spread legs and in tight rows, "so the devil cannot pass." They refuse to allow fellow worshipers to say the ritual peace greeting "salam" at the end, they don't say a word, they don't want to be part of the Jamaat, the community, and they leave the mosque together as a group before the others.
The older generation of Muslims in Sarajevo's mosques now has to listen to lectures from bearded missionaries on what is "halal" and "haram" - lawful and forbidden - as if they and their ancestors had been living according to a misconception for over half a millennium.
This clash of civilizations also takes place in less prominent places, like the Internet forums of the Bosnian Web site Studio Din. Here the heirs of the officially godless, socialist Yugoslavia can learn about the Salafi doctrine. They ask questions that have to do with everyday life - listening to music, smoking, earning money - but also questions dealing with clothing and moral rules.
The answers from the preachers on the Web are unequivocal: "Music is forbidden in Islam, listening to instruments is a sin." "Smoking is forbidden in Islam." "Whoever works as a cleaning lady at a bank that charges its customers interest is an accessory to a sin. It's no different than having cleaning ladies in bars and brothels."
In October, 2008, the Baden-Württemberg state branch of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, conducted a study on the Studio Din Web site, which is also regularly visited by Bosnians living in exile. Entries in the forum - which include discussions on jihad as a direct way of reaching Allah - indicate time and again visitors from the Wahhabi King Fahd Mosque in Sarajevo, Imam Halilovic's flock.