The amazing story of the Bosnian American Muslims who safeguarded their faith despite a century of systematic and horrifying persecution
The leaves on the trees around the pretty Bosnian mosque in Queens, N.Y. had turned a bright claret hue, as if they wanted to join the ongoing celebrations within. The mosque was all lit up and brimming with a festive mood. People dressed up in fine clothes were streaming in, as were huge trays of food. Giggling children were chasing each other.
Tonight, New York’s Bosnian Muslims were celebrating two events — the Prophet’s (Salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) birthday and the mosque’s tenth anniversary. Girls in matching bright, crimson satin hijabs and flowing jilbabs glittering with sequins sang naats and sent duroods and salaams on the Prophet. The imam and guest speakers spoke of the Prophet’s life in Bosnian. A sumptuous dinner followed.
Local Bosnian Muslims purchased this mosque for $850,000 in cash, thereby avoiding interest. Real-estate values have since almost doubled in this area. To date, Bosnian Muslims have established nine mosques in New York and 55 nationwide. What makes these spectacular successes in such a short time so mindboggling is that these Bosnians not only survived Tito’s highly repressive communist regime, but also the only UN-recognized post-WW2 genocide in Europe. Even after a century of sheer horror, they have maintained strong ties to Islam and the rest of the umma.
This community has also started making a difference in the American political scene. Anesa Kajtazovic, born in Bihac, Bosnia, relocated to the U.S. when she was ten. Thirteen years later, she became the youngest woman ever elected to the Iowa legislature to represent her district (2011-15). She also ran, unsuccessfully, for a Congressional seat in the June 2014 primaries.
Dr. Harun Karčić, editor and host of a foreign affairs show on Al Jazeera’s Balkan-language channel, made a short YouTube documentary for Georgetown University’s Berkley Centre for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. He explained in the movie’s discussion webinar that under Tito, Muslims were prevented from practising Islam to such an extent that even the nikah was banned. This reportedly caused many Bosnian Muslims to leave Islamic practices — alcohol, pork consumption and interreligious marriages became common. When the Serbs started killing the Muslims, the nonpracticing Muslims realized that they were being targeted because of their names.
In Karčić’s movie, Dr Zuhdija Adilović said he had just completed his Master’s degree in Saudi Arabia when the war broke out in Bosnia. According to him, the “greatest advantage was, if we can call it as such, was that the war broke out under intense media attention, which managed to unite the entire umma for the first time, and Muslims from around the world who had never heard of Bosnia wanted to know how they could help.”
Islamic Horizons spoke with Imam Idriz Budimlić and Vahid Durmic, a Bosnian soldier who served in the war and is one of the Queens (N.Y.) masjid’s past presidents. Imam Budimlic served as imam, khatib and mu’alim for 14 years at MIZ Zenica, and professor of Islamic studies in ZE-DO Canton, both in Bosnia. He holds a master’s degree from Zenica’s Pedagogical Faculty. For the last six years he has been the imam, khatib and mu’alim of the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Islamic Center in New York.
Bosnia, a mountainous country in southeastern Europe with the Dinaric Alps stretching along its western border, is slightly smaller than West Virginia. Half of the country is covered by forests, and natural springs and wildlife are present everywhere. It has small 15-mile-wide panhandle access to the Adriatic Sea. The Bosnians embraced Islam while under Ottoman rule.
Nineteen-year-old Vahid Durmic was finishing his year of mandatory military service in the Yugoslav army when war broke out. Just before the war, Belgrade ordered all hunting rifles to be deposited at the police stations under the pretext of routine inspections. Durmic joined the Bosnian army to defend the Muslims being attacked by the Yugoslav army-backed Serbian paramilitary forces.
Finding themselves unarmed and under vicious attack, the Bosnians scoured their attics and found a few vintage World War I guns and a few single bullet M-48 rifles, with which they started resisting the heavily equipped Serbian units. Soon they were approached by Serbian middlemen who sold them AK-47 assault rifle(s) in exchange for cow(s) or the equivalent of $1,000 cash per AK-47 rifle along with a box of 200 bullets. With these weapons, the Bosnian Muslims fought better and gradually started capturing enemy equipment.
Once the Bosnians realized that the West would not come to their rescue, they turned to Muslim countries for help. Regrettably, Iraq and Libya were helping the Serbs. Only Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey helped Bosnia. Saudi Arabia provided money for food and arms purchases and Iran supplied the much-needed heavy weapons to fight back. Turkey’s then-secular government, however, dragged its feet in sending any meaningful help.
When the Bosnian Muslims, now armed with modern weapons, took the fight to the oppressors and quickly started making rapid gains on the ground, the West imposed the lopsided Dayton Agreement.
The war-related deaths and mass migration caused a huge decline in the country’s population. Balkaninsight.com’s “Bosnia Powerless to Halt Demographic Decline” provides the graph, shown below, and explains, “According to the United Nations, unless something changes, Bosnia’s population could shrivel to 3.05 million by 2050, which would be some 29 per cent less than just before the war.” Bosnia’ fertility rate fell from 2.8 births/woman in 1971 to 1.2 births/woman in 2020, thus exacerbating the problem.
This 1.2 rate is also one of the world’s lowest. “Assuming zero emigration, for the population in any area to remain stable, an overall fertility rate of 2.1 births per woman is required. However, depending on the rate of emigration, this figure could be reached much sooner.”
This rapidly declining population has now become an existential threat. Dermic stated that the present governmental structure of three simultaneous presidents is causing massive emigration and low birthrates, for the Serbs stonewall all plans to create jobs for Bosnian Muslims.
Bosnian Muslims such as Imam Budimlić and Durmic strongly feel that the Dayton Agreement should be immediately replaced or reformed so the Bosnian government, finally freed from Serbian interference, can develop the country’s infrastructure and economy. This, they contend, would stem the mass emigration of young people and, hopefully, allow the country to survive and prosper.
Misbahuddin Mirza, M.S., P.E., is a licensed professional engineer, registered in the states of New York and New Jersey. He served as the regional quality control engineer for the New York State Department of Transportation’s New York City Region. He is the author of the iBook “Illustrated Muslim Travel Guide to Jerusalem” and has written for major U.S. and Indian publications.