Serbia's Sandzak at odds with Belgrade

Calls for greater autonomy for Sandžak – particularly by the head of the Islamic Community in Serbia, Mufti Muamer Zukorlic – continue to place Serbia’s predominantly Bosniak south-west corner at odds with Belgrade.

By Justin Vela

A new café called Meydan was opened about a year and a half ago by the brother of Mufti Muamer Zukorlic in downtown Novi Pazar, a majority-Muslim Bosniak town in Serbia’s southwest region of Sandžak. Meydan sits at the edge of a wide square where men expertly move pieces across a life-size chessboard. A stylish place that is rented without public tender from Zukorlic’s Islamic Community in Serbia, Meydan is commonly known as the “Mufti’s café.” Inside you can listen to soft Andalusian guitar music. Sheets hanging from the roof make the café seem almost like an Arab tent. It’s just the kind of place a mufti who had studied internationally in Tunisia and Lebanon might want to establish, both as a place for his supporters and to send a message.

There is no exact meaning for Meydan in Serbian. Having ruled the Balkans for centuries, the Turks left a large influence. For instance, Sandžak derives its name from the administrative bodies the Ottomans divided their lands into, in this case the Sanjak of Novi Pazar. In Turkish Meydan means “square.” In Arabic it also means square, but also refers to a field or battlefield. Taking this line of thinking slightly further, in many languages the sound for the letter ‘Y’ is written with a ‘J’. Change Meydan to Mejdan and you get “a battle” or “a place where a battle takes place.” Highly intelligent and fluent in Arabic, Zukorlic may enjoy the play on words as he adds fuel to Serbia’s Sandžak question, one that is invariably tied to the country’s slow path to European Union membership.

The head of the Islamic Community in Serbia, earlier this year Zukorlic began demanding autonomy for Sandžak, becoming the latest in a long line of headaches for Belgrade. He accused the Serbian government of a slow genocide of Muslims from the country, aiming his rhetoric at gaining more support for himself among Bosniaks, who have long felt discriminated against and forgotten inside Serbia.

The harsh words come after Zukorlic has survived years long attempts to unseat him. His funding most likely comes from various Islamic countries, the Sandžak Diaspora, yearly fundraising trips abroad, owning various local businesses and donations from supporters. The protection he had enjoyed for years from parts of the Serbian state appears to be gone. Yet he continues to retain support based off the state’s failed policies and remains a force that Serbia will have to contend with into the future.

“Zukorlic was an inevitable result of failed state policies,” said Sonja Biserko of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia during an interview in Belgrade in October 2010. “The situation is the responsibility of the Serbian political elite. Hooligans, crime, everything is normalized in Serbia. There is a cynical approach and frustration in the country is high.”

Frustration finds a valve in various ways. Sometimes through placing hopes in a person or movement. Other times the desire for violence is greater. On the way back to Belgrade from northern Kosovo in January 2008, the car two Serbian journalists and I were traveling in hit a rock and got a flat tire. As it was Orthodox Christmas morning there were little chances of repairing the tire nearby. Unable to return to Belgrade on the spare, we drove west a few kilometers to the majority Muslim Novi Pazar and quickly found an open garage.

Then, the city appeared to be a mess of mosques that hadn’t be refurbished in decades, cracked sidewalks, and crumbling buildings with broken clay shingle roofs. A few women walked around in burkhas. Old men stood on the main street in leather jackets and berets, watching each other. A palatable degree of tension could be felt in the air. Suddenly, there was the blasting of horns and a small convoy of three or four vehicles sped past, young men leaning out the windows, one of them holding up the green flag of Islam, yelling at a passerby’s.

France’s ambassador to Serbia Jean Francois Terral recently said, “Some people think that after Kosovo, the next open question with Serbia will be Sandžak. Well, it won’t happen, and this is not only the position of France but also of the other EU member states. We see the situation in Sandžak as a local question.”

Born near the town of Tutin, in the village of Orlje which is situated in one of the poorest parts of Serbia, Zukorlic became interested in religion at an early age from his grandfather who was a local imam.

Because religious education in Serbia at the time only went to a primary school level, Zukorlic studied in Sarajevo, the religious center for Muslims in communist Yugoslavia. He went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in Tunisia and a master’s degree in Lebanon. When he returned to Serbia at twenty-three he was perceived as being a charismatic speaker, clever and ambitious. Probably because of this and also to no small degree because of his youth, he caught the attention of Novi Pazar politician Sulejman Ugljanin.

When Ugljanin called for the unification of Sandžak with Bosnia on the basis of ethnicity, he was accused of terrorism by Serbia’s then president Slobodan Milosevic and forced to flee to Turkey. “At the beginning of the nineties every ethnic group in the former Yugoslavia had different ideas and different political wishes,” said Safeta Bisevac, a Bosniak editor at the Danas newspaper “Ugljanin made different statements about autonomy, or a special status for Sandžak.”

Before he left Serbia he helped establish the Islamic Community in Serbia and got Zukorlic elected as its head. “Ugljanin made a mistake,” Bisevac said. “[He thought] Zukorlic was young and could be controlled.”

After making an agreement with Milosevic, Uglyanin returned to Serbia in 1996. He found Zukorlic to have consolidated power for himself. Due to its geographical position at a crossroads between Kosovo and Bosnia, Novi Pazar was at the center of a rare, largely black market, boom during the United Nations embargo of Serbia. Zukorlic took credit for this, though the extent of his participation is not clear, becoming the local power holder. “No crime can flourish without support,” said one Novi Pazar resident.

Though Uglyanin maintained some popularity in Sandžak, it was Zukorlic the new government came to meet with after Milosevic was overthrown. Serbia’s first post-Milosevic Prime Minister Zoran Dindic of the Democratic Party (DS) even gave Zukorlic funding to establish a multi-ethnic university.

In Serbia elections are closely won due to the dissimilarities between the different political options and general discontent with politics. The 420,000 strong population of Sandžak would be a vital tipping point. Yet Sandžak was facing some of the highest unemployment in the country. There were more Serbs in the local police force than Bosniaks. There were not enough schools for the number of students and there was little investment in infrastructure of any kind. Two massacre and displacements of Bosniaks by Serb forces in the nineties had not been fully addressed. “In Sandžak, the politicians did not deliver anything socially,” said Biserko. “There were high expectations after 2000 in terms of dealing with the past and stabilizing the country. The new regime has done little to convince the Bosniaks that they are distancing itself from Milosevic’s policies.

The politicians in Belgrade had to discover a way to make Sandžak’s population vote. Zukorlic’s position as the head of the Islamic Community in Serbia was relatively unchallenged until October 2007. Then, another Sandžak mufti named Adem Zilkic founded the Islamic Community of Serbia, on the basis that Zukorlic had been in power for too long.

According to Bisevac, Zilkic had been among the other contenders to head the Islamic Community in Serbia when it was initially founded, but lost out to Zukorlic. Zilkic quickly associated his community with Uglyanin, whose party was in coalition with the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS). It was unlikely that the founding of the new Islamic community would have been allowed without the permission of high ups in Belgrade, as the Ministry of Religion forbids the existence of two religious organizations with similar names.

Zilkic also acknowledged Hamdija Jusufspahic, the mufti of Belgrade, as the spiritual leader of Serbia’s Muslims. Jusufspahic had only declared himself the spiritual leader or Reisul-Ulama of Muslims in Serbia the previous February. A long-time associate of the Serbian government even during the Milosevic time, the Jusufspahic family had gained a reputation for doing what Belgrade wanted while at the same time running a number of lucrative businesses that benefited from those connections.

Zukorlic had long considered the mufti of Saraejvo to be the spiritual leader of Muslims in Serbia. Quoted in Serbian media, he compared Belgrade being the spiritual center for Muslims in Serbia to Tehran being the spiritual center for Protestants. “Belgrade can only be a center for Muslims relative to their numerical strength and their spiritual infrastructure,” he said.

A few months after initially visiting Novi Pazar, I decided to do a story on the conflict between the rival Islamic communities with Serbian photographer Igor Barandovski. We understood little of the situation before we set off, the local media for the most part erroneously describing the conflict as between Muslim groups practicing different levels of extremism. The mufti’s supporters had taken to clashing hand-to-hand and with rocks and small arms in mosques, soccer stadiums, and cafes in several towns in Sandžak. In our early twenties and following the tradition of journalists who look for a story by identifying where violence is, we thought that was all we needed to know. Some of the little prior research we did before motorcycling to Novi Pazar in April 2008, Barandovski and I went to Belgrade’s single still surviving mosque and met Mustafa Jusufspahic, the son of self-declared spiritual leader Hamdija Jusufspahic.

“You must go to Sandžak with the mentality that the entire conflict is about money,” Mustafa said. With some prodding, he told his side of a story in which Serbia’s two strongest muftis, Zukorlic and his own father, competed to control the donations Saudi Arabia made to Sandžak and the ability to issue halal certificates, which were needed for Serbian companies to export goods to Muslim countries. Wanting to wrench control away from Zukorlic, Hamdija Jusufspahic had been among those who founded the Islamic Community of Serbia to rival the Islamic Community in Serbia. “We are the Muslims of Serbia,” Mustafa said. “Not merely the Muslims in Serbia. It makes much more sense.”

The characterization, or at least the benefits that came with it, now appear to make sense to Serbian President Boris Tadic as well.

Zukorlic’s decision to ratchet up the tension in Sandžak by having his supporters clash with police in Novi Pazar, inviting the mufti of Sarajevo to Sandžak, and insisting on autonomy for the region comes after the end of his years long association with DS. “Tadic has broken the contract,” he said in an interview with me in October 2010. Though Zukorlic had in the nineties declared that politics should be kept out of mosques and religious leaders should not directly endorse politicians, in the lead up to the May 2008 parliamentary election he was seen with DS ministers and members of local parties in coalition with them.

Furthering the impress of solidarity between DS and the Islamic Community in Serbia, before the election Serbian President Boris Tadic went to Novi Pazar and in a speech to more than 20,000 Bosniaks said, that as a member of the single Serbian Orthodox Church, he believed “in a united Islamic community in Serbia.” He later repeated the message at a meeting of a Sandžak political party allied with Zukorlic in Belgrade. Given the association between DS and the Islamic Community in Serbia, most Bosniaks were given the impression that Tadic was supporting Zukorlic and cast their vote for DS.

However, after the eventual DS victory in May 2008 Tadic made Uglyanin a minister in his government and his new minister of religion began dealing with Jusufspahic and the Islamic Community of Serbia, infuriating Zukorlic. “The people of Sandžak voted for DS because they thought that he had promised to unite the Islamic community, and take Zilkic out of power and make Zukorlic the head of the Muslims in Serbia,” Bisevac said. “Belgrade wants a Muslim leader they can control. With Zukorlic that is not possible.”

When I returned to Novi Pazar in October 2010, the town’s atmosphere had changed considerably. The pre-election tension had dissipated, as had the frequent clashes between supporters of the two rival Islamic communities. Off the square that had Meydan café at one end and the chessboard at the other, a long pedestrian street had been laid, giving the downtown a cleaned up appearance.

While the tension between the rival Islamic communities was no longer at the forefront, Novi Pazar residents I interviewed said that the overall situation had deteriorated. A supporter of Zukorlic when we had first met in 2008, local politician Tarik Imamovic said that Zukorlic had grown to powerful and was acting unwisely.

Characterizing Zukorlic as an autocrat, “he always was,” Imamovic thought that Zukorlic was radicalizing the region by threatening the state. “Tensions rose again after the elections for the minority councils,” Imamovic said. He was referring to this past summer’s attempt to elect members to councils that would protect minority rights. Following a victory for Zukorlic, the rules surrounding the elections changed and two members of an opposing list who changed sided were suddenly forced to resign. Some calls to hold a revote were made, but Zukorlic said this would only be possible with monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). “The idea is to play with the international community and to push for the highest standards possible,” said Biserko.

Imamovic said that Zukorlic was looking for a larger leadership position. “Not just as a religious leader, but as an earthly leader,” he said. “He always had these ambitions. Maybe he did not see deals come in that could make it happen before 2008.” Imamovic verified hearing Tadic’s promise to unify the Islamic communities, but said the president could not be blamed for the continued division.

“You can’t expect a third party to do it. Zukorlic has to show the will to do it. This is his obligation more than others. This is an Islamic principle. He has shifted the full blame on the central government and everyone else.”

While Zukorlic has lost the support of many of Sandžak’s elites, his support among the general population remains strong. “Zukorlic is the strongest leader in Sandžak,” said Bisevac. His success lies in speaking about the discrimination of Bosniaks at the hands of the Serbian state and presenting himself as the defender of Bosniaks. He uses the words of the state to portray himself as a victim, though he has clearly become wealthy from his years in power.

During an interview in 2008 Zukorlic told me, “They are my people. I have a moral obligation to these people. I don’t agree that all people from Sandžak 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.”

To defect criticisms about his level of wealth, one local NGO worker told me Zukorlic had said, “I know people here. They want to see their mufti driving in expensive cars.”

The national media in Serbia currently portrays him as the country’s next bogeyman. While in Novi Pazar I couldn’t help, but remember a dark joke told by Serbs before Kosovo declared independence. “How is Serbia like Nokia?” The appropriate answer was “Serbia is smaller every year,” a reference to bits of the country that might next attempt to break off. While Zukorlic is only demanding autonomy, the joke tells something of the mentality in Serbia, a country that is facing increasingly low birth rates and fears that their centuries old culture might soon be lost.

Zukorlic’s foray into politics is seen as an event that will create further instability in Serbia. The conflict will remain local however. Loyal supporters or not, no one I interviewed in Novi Pazar thought the conflict would spin too far out of control. “He does not have the capacity to enter into serious conflict,” said one Novi Pazar resident. “He does not have a partner to support him. He knows his people do not want a serious conflict.

Currently at the top, there is little for Zukorlic to do except grow his voice inside the coutnry and maintain his power. To do that he appears to have taken a lesson from his old mentor Uglyanin.

“Since 2008, a lot has happened, changed,” said Emir Elfic, Zukorlic’s brother-in-law who is preparing to found a new political party by the end of the year. Elfic felt that the “democratic options” Sandžak possessed were limited to politicians who had not shown any results in the decades they had been in power. He was founding his new party to change that. “They must be sensitive to the emotions of Bosniaks,” he said in an interview in Novi Pazar. “[Bosniaks] can raise tensions throughout Serbia.”

Young, affable, and intelligent, Elfic was the brother of Zukorlic’s second wife. “There is a huge chance for new subjects that want to lead political results,” he said. A critical difference from the current politicians representing Sandžak who spend most of their time in Belgrade, Emir said, “I was born here, I’m going to stay here.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his political agenda was nearly identical to Zukorlic’s: Autonomy, increased Bosniak rights, a redefinition of the power structures within Sandžak, any new vote for the national minority councils will have to have OSCE monitors. Moving Serbia closer to joining the EU and also NATO was desired.

“What determines Bosniaks is that our religion is Islam, our traditional Ottoman, and our civic values European,” Elfic said. Autonomy was a goal he insisted upon. “Sandžak as an historic region has the right of regional autonomy of a level we should talk to Belgrade to decide upon. Something not to break the territorial integrity of Serbia. There should be talks between all to find the best solution.” Increased regionalization and autonomy for Sandžak was an indication of the level of democracy in the country, he insisted.

When I asked about his relationship with Zukorlic he said that once established his political party would welcome the support of influential people, “especially by the mufti who is the most influential person in Sandžak.” He’d been asked by the national media about an advantage in founding a political party as the brother-in-law of the most powerful man in Sandžak. Elfic grinned. In return he had asked the reporters what kind of advantage Hillary Clinton had in becoming United States Secretary of State.

“I can’t see the problem there,” he said.

Upon meeting Zukorlic for the first time in 2008, his secretary, Samir, warned me only to ask questions regarding religion.

“The mufti is a man of religion, not of politics,” Samir then said.

By helping Elfic gain power in Sandžak, Zukorlic could retain the facade of not being involved in politics. Again meeting me in his study at the Novi Pazar offices of the Islamic Community in Serbia, Zukorlic was more relaxed than in our previous meeting. Few journalists stayed in Novi Pazar more than a few hours and some impoliteness with his bodyguards may have previously placed some suspicion on Barandovski and I.

While more relaxed, he also came across as more arrogant, rolling his eyes towards the ceiling at some questions. “Yes, there are some elements that could be political [in his recent statements]. The more important matter is what could be good in that. You can’t defend from politics without using politics. The Islamic community is the pillar of survival for the Bosniak community. No one has the right to prevent us from expressing political views.”

Zukorlic claimed not to want a political position himself, however. Not even a mayoral or parliamentary seat. “The position I have is higher than all,” he said. He believed that while politicians thought theirs was the most important position, they were in fact the implementers of rules, “not the architects.” He also claimed that he would retire from being the head of the Islamic Community in Serbia in the next years. “I’ve been the mufti two decades, it is become a little boring to me. I see my future in education and religious activities.”

First though he wanted to push for a new status for Sandžak and a greater level of freedom regarding rights for Bosniaks. “This was mentioned in the nineties and now this year again,” he said. “We have given DS ten years to improve this. [But] Belgrade bases its strategy on a genocide basis. The best for Belgrade would be for Bosniaks and Muslims in general to disappear for the country.”

One of the ways for Bosniaks to be protected within Serbia was autonomy.

“We can’t allow Belgrade to make decisions on our destiny. The constitution is not against this. The least we would accept is a highly regionalized Sandžak with a certain degree of autonomy. The autonomy will respect the borders completely. It is only a question of the Serbs wanting stability in the region.”

Justin Vela is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. For further analysis and insight by Justin, please click here.

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