Novi Pazar’s entrepreneurship, combined with its traditional cultural and historical wealth, provide assets that should be capitalized on by both Serbs and Bosniaks, regardless of their political or ethno-religious differences, for the city to move forward and flourish as it did in the nineties.
By Eugene Golubitskiy
Walking into the American Corner on Novi Pazar’s Stefan Nemanja Street on Friday, June 18th, TransConflict was given an incredibly warm welcome by the twenty or so students gathered there to engage in a discussion on National Minority Councils (NMC’s) and, more broadly, the role of multiculturalism in fostering both a strong sense of one’s own ethno-religious identity, and a common desire and capacity for all citizens to actively work for shared, democratic community goals, irrespective of cultural differences.
The students were attentive listeners and made insightful comments both about the material we had prepared and their own personal experiences. In particular, the lingering presence of Islamophobia - both in Serbia and throughout Europe - was discussed. Students spoke poignantly of the fear of “the Other” as the driving force for every kind of discrimination, with one young woman commenting that “today, everyone who is different is somehow labeled as ‘bad’, as undesirable.” Another young woman shared her unique perspective as an ethnic Serb who, upon converting to Islam, was met with disapproval from her Orthodox Christian family, as well as the broader social stigma that is prevalent in most European cities regarding the hijab (Arabic) or marama (Serbo-Croatian), both words meaning headscarf. “It’s as if they’re waiting for me to pull a bomb out from under there” she said with a sardonic smile, as her classmates sniggered raucously. We all laughed at the absurdity of such a proposal, but it nonetheless remains a sad truth that in much of Serbia, Islam is perceived as a threat, and a person in Islamic dress a potential terrorist.
Such is the case in much of Europe, a notable example being that of France, the first European country to have banned the face-covering veil (niqab or burqa depending on whether the eyes remain visible) in September 2010. Having spent the past year living and studying in Paris, I have constantly heard this measure be publicly justified in terms of the integration of France’s Muslim citizens and a Western discourse of “gender equality”, the latter particularly hypocritical in France, which, compared to other Western European countries, has always been rather late in adopting gender equality as a goal and designing policies to achieve it, mostly due to its “universalist” culture, which either leaves women out of the definition of “universality” or else, by recognizing them as part of it, claims the same rights for each individual, thus occulting the specific needs of women; needs that need to be taken into account due to their historically institutionalized inferiority. Thus, the burqa ban is indefensible both because of the false interpretation of integration it entails (the forcible removal of a physical covering hardly facilitates more active citizenship, instead increasing a feeling of rejection and marginalization) and due to its erroneous assumption that the same paradigm of “equality” works regardless of historically different sociocultural contexts.
Such topics were discussed with interest and facility by the students in Novi Pazar, and despite the seriousness of the conversation, and the sensitive nature of a discussion regarding issues whose impacts are felt daily by many of the students, the tone was convivial and light-hearted, constructive suggestions were offered, and any potential sectarian resentment was effaced in the name of joint brainstorming and cooperation. The open-mindedness and maturity of the students was particularly remarkable in a region divided both inter-ethnically (with Bosniaks and Serbs living parallel lives), and intra-ethnically, with certain Bosniaks preferring greater integration into mainstream Serbian political life, as advocated by the Sandzak Democratic Party (SDP), led by Rasim Ljajic, and others autonomy for Sandzak, a movement led by Sulejman Ugljanin’s Party of Democratic Action (SDA), a status similar to that currently maintained by Vojvodina.
Despite the daily hardships faced by Novi Pazar’s inhabitants, including sectarian divisions and an unemployment rate hovering around 50%, the city is bustling, its residents welcoming, and its students intellectually curious and socio-politically aware. While the city’s famous textile industry reached its peak during the turbulent nineties, when UN economic sanctions made a negative impact on much of the country’s economy, Novi Pazar’s streets are still lined with shops filled with inexpensive, locally-produced clothing, and street merchants keep up a lively bazaar area along the Raska river. These, along with a stunning skyline of mountains and minarets, have equipped Novi Pazar with many of the assets of a thriving social and commercial hub, assets that should be capitalized on by both Serbs and Bosniaks, regardless of their political or ethno-religious differences, for the city to move forward and flourish as it did in the nineties.
Eugene Golubitskiy is an American undergraduate student enrolled full-time in Amherst College in Massachusetts, having just finished a year abroad studying anthropology and sociology in Paris. Born in Ufa, Russia and raised in Brooklyn, New York, he speaks several languages fluently – English, Russian, French and Spanish, and has an intermediate command of Arabic and Serbo-Croatian. Eugene is currently working for TransConflict on minority rights issues in both south Serbia and Sandzak.
This visit to Novi Pazar was conducted as part of TransConflict Serbia’s project, ‘Promoting and strengthening the role of the Albanian and Bosniak National Minority Councils (NMCs)’, supported by the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.