Religion and Spirituality

Amel Emric/AP
An elementary school in Sarajevo,

Bosnian Council’s Decision to Teach Islam in Schools Recalls Ethnic Rifts

February 17, 2009 10:32 AM
by Anne Szustek
A move to allow Islamic education in Sarajevo’s preschools raises concerns that the sectarian tensions of the 1990s could be reignited.

Sarajevo Council Approves Religious Education in Preschools

A group of children at a Sarajevo preschool is taken aside from their classmates. A “bula,” who serves as “an intermediary between an imam and the family,” as Agence France-Presse describes her, proceeds to describe the flight of the Prophet Muhammad from the holy city of Mecca to the holy city of Medina.

Such a scene would seem innocuous—an Islamic version of Christianity’s Sunday school or catechism. But some in Sarajevo, including Muslims, say it is an undercover attempt to impart the city with a distinctly Islamic identity. Muslims make up 40 percent of Bosnia’s population, while 31 percent are Christian Orthodox and approximately 10 percent are Roman Catholics.

Bosnian journalist Nedim Dervisbegovic, a Muslim father of three children, told the AFP, “It is yet another step in an obvious attempt to Islamicize the city,” he said. “I wonder what will be the next.”

The preschool religious classes were launched in October after a survey showed that one-third of parents supported religious education for preschool-age children. Optional religious education has been available for Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox adherents in public primary and high schools since the end of fighting in the country in the 1990s.

In addition to the parental poll, the Muslim-led Sarajevo county council, the organization responsible for introducing the religious instruction, points to a religious freedom act in force since 2004 as the legal basis for its ruling. “We would have been violating that law if we did not organize religious teaching,” Srecko Zmukic, an education official, told AFP.

Others fear that non-Muslim children will be stigmatized. “I do not want to explain to my 4-year-old son, Sven, who is in love with his Muslim classmate Esma, why they suddenly have to sit in different rooms,” Vedrana Pinjo-Neuschul told The New York Times at a Jewish community center in Sarajevo. “Nobody has the right to separate them.” Pinjo-Neuschul, herself from Serbian Orthodox and Bosnian Muslim backgrounds, is married to someone part Jewish, Catholic and Serbian Orthodox.

The country itself is trying to forge past the separations that riled the country during the 1990s. Bosnia, while avowedly secular, has been seeing a recent resurgence in Islam. Bars outnumber mosques in Sarajevo, writes The New York Times. At the same time, however, “More than half a dozen new madrasas, or religious high schools, have been built in recent years,” writes the paper, “while dozens of mosques have sprouted, including the King Fahd, a sprawling $28 million complex with a sports and cultural center.” And bearded men and women in headscarves, a rarity a few years ago, have become commonplace.

Related Topic: Turkey’s religious education in public schools

In Turkey, the concept of national identity is all-encompassing. Each school day, children repeat the phrase “how happy he is who can call himself a Turk.” Turkish nationalists believe one key facet of Turkish identity is being a Sunni Muslim, leaving other religious groups feeling disenfranchised.

Among them is the Alevis, a religious minority whose beliefs are distantly related to Shia Islam. While Sunni mosques receive funding, “cem” houses, Alevi homes of worship, are left to survive on their own. And since they are simply labeled “Muslims” by the government, they are subject to the Education Ministry’s requirement to take classes in Sunni Islam.

Lawsuits have been filed by several Alevis to either change the requirement or get their students exempted. Among them was the daughter of Hasan Zengin, an Alevi man who took his case to the European Court of Human Rights. Six years after beginning his struggle, the court ruled that Turkey failed "to respect the rights of parents to ensure education in conformity with their own religious ... convictions".

Reference: Guide to Islam


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