Justin Vela

Travels 2006-2009…Zukorlic…Wahhabis….the CIA…March 2008…

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A local journalist gives us an amused look when we tell him we are interviewing Zukorlic tomorrow. “But Zukorlic is supposed to be in a Belgrade courtroom tomorrow,” he says.

This is unexpected. Then the journalist explains:

In March 2007 six wahhabi muslims were arrested in a camp thirty kilometers north of Novi Pazar. Rocket-propelled grenades, ten kilograms of plastic explosive, and automatic assault rifles are found with them. Police allege that they were planning attacks in Belgrade on the American embassy, a theatre, and a hotel, and were also planning to attack a police station in Novi Pazar and assassinate Zukorlic, who they accused of being a CIA agent.

Though Islam originally came to the Balkans with the Ottoman Turks in the 13th century, mujahadeen fighters introduced the extremist wahhabi ideology to the Balkans when they came to fight in the Bosnian war. Only the smallest part of the Balkan’s Muslims population are wahhabis, but after concerns over their presence in Sandzak was raised, Zukorlic issued a statement saying that their numbers were insignificant and that he was banning them from Novi Pazar’s mosques.

All the same the Serbian police were investigating a possible link between Zukorlic and the wahhabis, though the wahabis maintained their accusation that Zukorlic had betrayed Islam and was working for the CIA. Zukorlic had been called to testify in their trial the next morning, which is scheduled for almost the same time we are supposed to interview him. There are two hundred and fifty kilometers between Belgrade and Novi Pazar. He couldn’t be in two places at once. With more researching and interviews with Novi Pazar politicians, the story becomes more complicated.

When Sulejman Ugljanin, the current mayor of Novi Pazar, first came to power in 1991 he called for the unification of Sandzak with Bosnia on the basis of Bosniaks being ethnically more similar to Bosnians than to Serbs. He was accused of attempting to “overthrow constitutional order” and in 1993 was forced to flee Serbia. Before leaving he helped found the Islamic Community in Serbia and installed Zukorlic as its head, making Zukorlic one of the youngest muftis in the world.

While Ugljanin was abroad, Zukorlic consolidated power for himself. Sandzak found itself a center of black market trade during these years; the district prospered. Zukorlic allowed and most likely was involved in the illegal activity, claiming responsibility for a rare economic boom.

Ugljanin returned from exile in 1996 to find Zukorlic with a larger following than himself and claiming that Sarajevo was the spiritual center of Serbia’s Bosniaks. Scrambling for power the two men launched a series of attacks against each other. Both men wanted to be the leader of Bosniaks in Sandzak and Zukorlic accused Uglijanin of using Islam for political purposes while Uglijanin accused Zukorlic of being more a politician than a religious leader.

After Milosevic was overthrown in 2000, the new government made their first attempts to integrate Bosniaks into Serbian society. Rasim Ljajic, another Ugljanin ally turned political rival, was made a government minister, but it was Zukorlic that Serbia’s reforming Prime Minister Zoran Dindic met with for negotiations, snubbing Ugljanin, infuriating him further, and encouraging him to strengthen ties with Kostunica, who became Prime Minister when Dindic was assassinated.

Zukorlic’s insistence that Sarajevo was the spiritual center of Serbia’s Muslim population was increasingly being viewed as negative by Belgrade politicians. They wanted as few reasons as possible for another part of Serbia to break away. There was also increasing tension within the Islamic Community in Serbia. Many felt that Zukorlic was becoming too powerful. On 19 February 2007, the mufti of Belgrade, Hamdija Jusufsphahic, declared himself the Reisul-Ulama, the spiritual leader of muslims throughout Serbia. Zukorlic considered the Reisul-Ulama in Sarajevo to be the spiritual leader of muslims in Serbia, and himself to be the spiritual leader of Muslims in Sandzak, a rank below the Resisul-Ulama. He compared Belgrade being the spiritual center for Serbian Muslims as Tehran being the spiritual center for Protestants. Belgrade was a Christian city. Sarajevo was a Muslim city and, as most of its residents are Bosniak. It is linked to the Bosniaks in Sandzak through ethnicity and religion. “Belgrade can only be a center for Muslims relative to their numerical strength and their spiritual infrastructure,” Zukorlic declared.

Before we motorcycling to Sandzak, Igor and I had gone to the single surviving mosque in Belgrade. The others had been destroyed in a nationalist rampage after the 2004 violence in Kosovo. The mosque has a twenty-four hour police guard and appears not to be active. Not surprising as Belgrade has only a very small Muslim population. Inside we meet Hamdija Jusufspahic’s son, Mustafa Jusufspahic. “You must go to Sandzak with the mentality that the entire conflict is about money,” he says.

Grudgingly, he gives his version of a situation in which Serbia’s two strongest muftis, Zukorlic and his own father, want to control the donations Saudi Arabia makes to Sandzak, the ability to sell Halal certificates, which are needed to export goods to Muslims countries, and whatever other lucrative activities, legal or illegal, that might be happening in Sandzak, as well as to be the leader of Serbia’s Muslims.

In order to wrench control away from Zukorlic, Hamidija Jusufsphaic had been among the people that founded the Islamic Community of Serbia to rival Zukorlic’s Islamic Community in Serbia. “We are the muslims of Serbia,” his son says. “Not merely the muslims in Serbia. It makes much more sense.”

After the Islamic Community of Serbia was founded, Zilkic was installed as leader to provide a rival to Zukorlic. He recognized Belgrade as the spiritual center of Serbian Muslims and Hamidjia Jusufsphaic as the Resisul-Ulama. It was likely Prime Minister Kostunica had backed the action, as Zilkic quickly aligned himself with Ugljanin and the Islamic Community of Serbia was registered by the Ministry of Religion, despite it being illegal for two religious organizations of similar names to exist.

Jusufsphaic uses our interview to lash out at Zukorlic. “He has a shooting range under his house. If he is a spiritual leader why does he need that?” The two had been in grade school together. Jusufsphaic claims that Zukorlic had been ambitious and disliked. “When the teacher asked for someone to report on what the other children were doing Zukorlic immediately volunteered,” Jusufsphaic says. “Each side in this conflict wants to wipe the other out.”

There is a final layer. There are 200,000 people in Serbian Sandak*.*Sandzak as a region extents into Montenegro. In the January presidential election Belgrade and most of the larger cities voted for Tadic (DS). The majority of the countryside and smaller towns voted for the more nationalist parties, Kostunica (DSS) and Nikolic (the Radicals). The majority was only won by a thin margin. Therefore the politicians need to find some way to make the minority populations, who are traditionally ignored except when their votes are need, to vote. In this case they have found themselves speaking through the muftis. Aligned with the opposition parties, Zukorlic tells his followers to vote for Tadic (DS) and the parties aligned with him. Aligned with Ugljanin, Zilkic tells his followers to vote for Kostunica (DSS) and the parties aligned with him.

It is a web that goes directly from the people to the heads of state. The Machiavelism is a little more visible, but the situation is not unique to Serbia or developing countries. In this case the politicians get votes and Zukorlic and Zilkic are left to vey for the money that comes through Sandzak. It makes sense, in some sickly kind of way. The muftis serve as one more form of control.

Read previous chapter.

Learn more about this book.


Written by Justin Vela

March 22, 2011 at 10:52 am

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