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Grand Mufti opposes the politicization of the refugee crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina

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By: Ermin Sinanovic

In a recent Ramadan address, the Grand Mufti of the Islamic Community of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Husein Kavazović, eloquently expressed his concerns about the politicization of the refugee crisis in Bosnia. In a context of weak leadership from political leaders, the Grand Mufti’s stance positions him as one of the few proactive voices on this issue.

In a recent Ramadan address, the Grand Mufti of the Islamic Community of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Husein Kavazović, eloquently expressed his concerns about the politicization of the refugee crisis in Bosnia. In a context of weak leadership from political leaders, the Grand Mufti’s stance positions him as one of the few proactive voices on this issue.

Grand Mufti evokes empathy and calls for action

In the address, the Grand Mufti connected long held traditions with the country’s new responsibilities. After reminding his listeners that Bosnian homes have always been open to guests, Mr. Kavazović succinctly characterized the crisis, “Our humanity is being tested once again. Refugees, migrants and human trafficking victims are redirecting their routes towards Europe from Serbia to Bosnia.”

The Grand Mufti did not shrink away from calling out political leaders seeking to use the issue to further divide Bosnian society. He explained, “As far back as February, we warned that we should all prepare to be ready to respond to this challenge. We knew there would be those who would try to use this tragedy to further destabilize our country and present this as a political issue. We fear all the consequences poor management of this issue might have for our country and society.”

Finally, he evoked a spirit of empathy, even as he cautioned that empathy was an insufficient response: “We remember that not so long ago many of us were refugees as well and we feel the pain and suffering of these people. I do not doubt the kindness and generosity of all of our nations, but that cannot be our only response to this crisis. We need a systematic solution and we need to put a stop to the attempts to make this a political issue.”

The Grand Mufti’s call offered a refreshing perspective in an otherwise bleak context. The impending refugee crisis, expected to culminate this summer, threatens to further destabilize the fragile political situation in Bosnia. It has already created a number of political crises.

Crisis unfolds

First, as the number of refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers increased, they began to set up tents, most visibly right across from the old city hall in Sarajevo. Ordinary citizens, NGOs, religious and humanitarian organizations jumped in to provide basic necessities, such as food, clothes, towels, and sanitary materials. But the government’s response was muted until it could no longer ignore the problem.

Second, once the citizens’ pressure and the Council of Europe moved the government to start addressing the problem, it became clear that post-Dayton Bosnia was not built for successfully dealing with such immediate and acute problems. Devolution of power created by the Dayton Agreement and the creation of multiple governance layers often leads to passing the responsibility around from one level of government to another. Who should have the authority: the cantons, entities, or state-level institutions? And, how would the disagreements among these levels be resolved?

The absence of a clear authority to address the refugee problem led to a third crisis that brought to the fore once again the uneasy peace that has existed in Bosnia and Herzegovina since the war ended in 1995. Just a week ago, the Canton of Sarajevo government transferred 270 refugees to the Salakovac asylum center, some 70 miles to the south-west, near Mostar. But Salakovac is located in a different canton, one with a Croat majority. As soon as the bus convoy exited one canton and entered another, it was stopped by the Hercegovina-Neretva Canton police. After a five-hour standoff, Bosnia’s Security Minister, Dragan Mektić, intervened and demanded that the canton police chief be arrested. The convoy was eventually allowed to proceed and the refugees arrived safely to the Salakovac center. There, they were received by the Red Cross and other humanitarian institutions. Mektić accused the Canton police of staging a coup by disobeying state-level institutions, while the Canton leaders – including the Croat member of the tri-partite Bosnian Presidency, Dragan Čović – replied by saying that Mektić was overstepping the boundaries.

Compounding the problem is the anti-refugee, anti-Muslim rhetoric by leading Bosnian Serb and Croat politicians. Milorad Dodik, President of Republika Srpska – the Serb-dominated entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, did his best to impersonate Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s right-wing, populist Prime Minister when he suggested that Bosnia should close its borders to prevent the influx of refugees. He also sought to whip up inter-communal strife by accusing Bosnian Muslims of loving the refugees because they share the same faith. But his contribution to the crisis is more than just rhetoric. Dodik recently purchased 2500 machine guns for the Republika Srpska police force, and continued to fuel secessionist rhetoric even as he appears to prepare for armed conflict. His new ally, Dragan Čović, is widely seen as being behind the aforementioned bus convoy standoff.

Not to be denied his part in contributing to the problems, the Bosniak (Muslim) member of the Presidency, Bakir Izetbegović, hosted Turkish President, Recep Tayip Erdogan, on May 20th for the latter’s campaign rally. After he was denied the opportunity to hold such a rally in several European cities, Erdogan turned to Izetbegović who duly obliged.. Thus, Erdogan got his wish to hold the campaign rally in Europe, while Izetbegović appeared weak and subservient to Turkish interests.

With the upcoming elections in October and the expected influx of refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers in coming months, this promises to be a very hot political summer in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In a recent publication, a number of prominent US diplomats and policymakers provided a list of recommendations to American diplomacy in Western Balkans. A very sensible and well-argued report, it contained one major flaw. It suggested that Europe should lead the way in finding the solution for the Western Balkans, and that the US should merely follow on these efforts. But this has precisely been the problem all along. The EU could never provide such leadership and many of the problems the region is facing today go back to Europe’s inability to deal with them. Going back to the 1990s, it was not until the US got directly involved that the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo were stopped. America needs to get directly involved and lead Europe in the Western Balkans, not the other way around.

Voice of reason

In midst of the chaos, the Grand Mufti’s words provide a calming effect and give reassurance that at least some important Bosnian leaders are able to rise above the fray and resist the politicization that does not bring good to anyone – neither the refugees, nor the Bosnian government officials. The Islamic Community, the body that the Grand Mufti leads, has already donated 100,000 KM(convertible marks; about US$60,000) for refugee assistance. As such, it has provided the kind of leadership that Bosnian politicians – and many of their European counterparts – seem to be lacking these days.