Justin Vela

Travels 2006-2009…an interview with Zukorlic…March 2008…

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Flowers and butterflies.

Information presented in a certain way.


The next day Samir calls us into his office at the “Intellectual Club.”

Spreadsheets are open on the computer and piles of paper are strewn across his desk. He looks far more like an accountant than a mufti’s secretary. We make small talk. He says that the US embassy recently gave the Islamic Community in Serbia money to restore a Novi Pazar mosque. More money is needed however.

“The mosque must be restored using the traditional methods,” Samir says.

We continue talking for about twenty minutes. Then Samir picks up the phone and makes a call. Several minutes later a man with a closely trimmed beard dressed in a black suit walks into the room. He is slightly flushed and quickly shakes our hands before disappearing into an adjoining room.

“That’s the guy,” Igor says

“Wait just a moment,” Samir says.

A few minutes later his phone rings.

“Go in,” he says.

Zukorlic has put a black robe over the suit and has on a tall round white hat. He again shakes our hands and then sits down in an ornately carved wooden chair.

Born in Tutin, a small town east of Novi Pazar, Zukorlic had gone from the rural countryside to completing undergraduate studies in Algeria and graduate studies in Lebanon before returning to Serbia.

“The ability to travel was unusual,” he says.

Even more unusual was his desire to come back to an area as small and isolated as Sandzak.

“They are my people. I have a moral obligation to these people,” he says. “I don’t agree that all people from Sandzak have to leave to be successful. I wanted to come back and prove that it was possible to help my people and also be successful at the same time.”

The way Zukorlic chose to achieve his success was to become a mufti. Religion might have been something he was sincerely interested in, but it had served him more as a vehicle. First to study outside Serbia and then to gain a position inside of it.

Regardless, he became a businessman and a politician. It has been lucrative. The Mercedes SUV and BMW sit in the parking lot outside. The furniture in his office is made from dark brown wood and inscribed with passages from the Koran.

Talking with him, he appears nervous. He shuffles and there was a hint of water in his eyes. He keeps glancing at the drawer of a cabinet near his right hand which I assume contains a gun. It is only when Igor begins making photos does he loosen up.

“Open the blinds for better light,” he says. He clearly wants to portray himself well and says little of significance throughout the interview other than then to push the view of his political allies that Serbia should join the EU.

“Islam is a global religion,” He says. “Every removal of borders is good for Islam.”

Islam is a global religion. But Zukorlic’s success is based more on the criminal anarchy of the nineties than anything that has to do with Islam or what EU membership might bring to Serbia. For the political parties that are pushing for the EU, Zukorlic is a means to an end. He tells his disenchanted followers to vote in what will be one of Serbia’s most important elections.

While being photographed, he sits back comfortably with his hands clasped together.

Igor goes to make more photos inside a mosque.

When I go to meet him later, he is surrounded by a group of wahabbis.

Outside the mosque they are all around him, pushing him, examining the photos in his camera’s LCD screen. They don’t know how to react when he tells them that he just met with Zukorlic.

Igor sees me walking up. “There he is,” he says. “We have to eat.”

The whabbis don’t move.

“Where are you from?” one of them asks me in perfect non-accented American English.

“Too bad about the 49ers,” he says. “Maybe they’ll have a better team next year.”

Igor detaches themselves and we walk off.

“There were women praying upstairs. Those guys made me delete one of the photos because one of the women’s face was slightly exposed. I was right there next to the women taking the pictures though. They knew I was taking them. They weren’t trying to hide themselves.”

He shows me his phone.

“While those fuckers had me I got an SMS from M An arrest warrant has gone out for Zukorlic.”

Not having gone to Belgrade for the court summons, Zukorlic is suddenly a wanted man. He puts out a statement saying that he had left for Belgrade, but “fearing for his safety” he returned to Novi Pazar.

Obviously, he doesn’t want to risk being arrested upon leaving Sandzak. As long as he stays in Novi Pazar he is protected by his supporters and his allies in the local political parties.

We go to the mosque Samir claims needs more money from the US embassy to be rebuilt using “traditional methods.”

As we open the gate a group of teenage boys come out of a building and go into the street. Scattered around the grounds there are a few piles of blocks and some stacked wood, but otherwise no sign of construction. In the building where the boys came from there are boxes of Islamic textbooks. The mosque is serving as a religious school, but is not being rebuilt. After a few minutes of poking around a guard finds us. He tells us to leave.

Read the previous chapter

Learn more about this book.

Read about my return to Sandzak in October 2010


Written by Justin Vela

March 23, 2011 at 11:57 am

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