Friday December 02, 2022

Role of Muslim countries in the 90s’ Bosnian conflict

November 07, 2016

The nature of support for the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) from the Islamic countries interestingly came in two forms, one as Mujahideen and the second as part of the UN peacekeeping mission. Pakistan was among the countries that extended support to the Bosniaks during the war of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

To an event on Thursday titled “Black beards and blue helmets: Jihad, peace-keeping and Islamic universalisms in the Bosnia crisis”, the Habib University invited Darryl Li, an associate professor at the University of Chicago with a doctorate in anthropology and Middle-Eastern studies, to explore the significance of the Bosnian conflict in the Muslim world which gave rise to various solidarity efforts.

Rooted in ethnic conflict, the war came in the aftermath of the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina declaring independence in February 1992. The republic was inhabited largely by Bosniak Muslims - 44 percent – Orthodox Serbs – over 30 percent – and Catholic Croats – less than 20 percent.

As religious divisions came into play in various conflicts that emerged during the Cold War era, it was but natural for religious differences of the three ethnicities to give a devastating impetus to the conflict.

To add to that, the Bosnian war also came at a time that was pivotal for the UN’s peacekeeping as well as European integration since it had only been months to the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Reading out his paper, Li shared how since Bosniaks were a majority Muslim population in Europe, helping them in the conflict became equivalent to saving Islam (read Jihad).

Among the famed Muhajideen was Abu Zubair, an Arab, who had travelled to Bosnia, in August 1992, after having fought in the Soviet-Afghan war.

He was among the few men who had stayed back to defend the Sarajevo airport in October 1992 and had ironically died while fighting with the peacekeeping battalion.

Apart from Abu Zubair a number of other ethnic Muslims also reached Bosnia, majority of whom settled down with local women and started their own families.

Discussing the impact of these marriages, Li shared that Bosnian women were not only used by the Mujahideen, but the trend later paved way for more serious sexual exploitation at the hands of rich Gulf leaders.

The leaders started contracting marriages with women ravaged by the war, only to be later divorced by them.

This practice of marrying women with the intention of divorce was also sanctified by the Saudia Arab’s grand Mufti ‘Abd al-Aziz bin Baz’. The edict was, nevertheless, assailed by other Islamic schools of thought.

But the sexual exploitation of poor Bosnian women was not only committed by the Mujahideen. As the conflict extended, soldiers serving on the UN peacekeeping mission, the UN Protective Force (UNPROFOR) were found to be involved in more serious sexual crimes.

Li also spoke about a female officer of the UNPROFOR being fired from her post after she attempted to expose the racket.

According to Li, what made the two kinds of exploitation more distinct was the fact that both the Mujahideen and the soldiers deployed in the peacekeeping mission belonged to Muslim countries.

The first country to have agreed to send its soldiers to serve in the mission was Egypt for which the government of Hosni Mubarak was severely criticised by other Muslim countries.

The decision, however, according to Li fractured the idea of Muslim ‘Ummah’ and gave away the divisions between Muslim countries.

Li also highlighted several instances of defection of soldiers from the peacekeeping missions to the Mujahideen, which included soldiers from Turkey among other countries.

The most prominent example of defection quoted by him was of Lt. Colonel Abdul Manaf al Kasmuri, a Sandhurst educated gentleman in the Malaysian army who served in the peacekeeping mission sent from his country.

Frustrated by the limitations of the UN, he resigned the Malaysian army and joined Qateeba – the local Mujahideen group - where owing to his experience in infiltration tactics he led several serious attacks at the end of the conflict.  

“These defections serve as another reminder of the overlaps of the two projects but also remind us of their different emphases,” Li concluded.