Back to the Future

by Aleksandra Priestfield

November 27, 2000



And so it begins.

A dispatch dated Sunday, November 19, 2000, credited to AFP, trumpets the headline: SANDZAK MUSLIMS SEEK AUTONOMY IN NEW YUGOSLAV DEMOCRACY. The article in question begins right away by invoking the name of the man cast as Satan in today's world - it is Slobodan Milosevic who has been neglecting and oppressing the Sandzak Muslims. This neglected and oppressed community is now "pinning its hopes on Belgrade's new administration" to grant it autonomy. The thinking seems to be, well, Kosovo got its way. Now it's our turn. And this is yet another piece that can be quietly and easily nibbled out of Serbia - the International Community will back them, won't they? And so the misinformation and the lies start…

The very next paragraph of the AFP dispatch describes the town of Novi Pazar as bristling with the minarets of no less than 35 mosques. The town is also the site of a Muslim religious school. The headmaster of this school is quoted as saying that there were no "politics" here… and in the very same breath he goes on to say, "if the politicians act against our interests, we will not hesitate to rebel." (Translation: there is no politics here, no. But let the "politicians" start acting in the way that is disapproved of by the thoroughly apolitical headmaster and his seminary students, and they will take to the streets - and God help anybody who dares to think about putting down this domestic uprising. Yugoslavia has been bombed for less.) And yet, as people quoted in the article seem to insist, this region has been systematically and thoroughly oppressed by the authorities. Naturally nothing of the sort had been heard here before - it is only now, when it might seem that stories of "oppression" trigger bombing attacks by third parties, that it seems to pay to bring up such themes, however bogus any quoted "facts" might be.

The Headmaster goes on to mention the roots of Islam in Sandzak, which dates back to the Ottoman empire's bloody grip on the Balkans. For him, the seniority of Islam in this region is not in dispute. And so it isn't. Such things would not seem to be in dispute in any place where freedom of religion is so obvious as to be manifested in 35 mosques and a religious seminary. If anything, the place of Islam in the region would appear to have been given a gracious nod to.

"Muslims make up about 60 percent of the region's 440,000 people, while the remaining 40 percent are of the Serbian Orthodox faith, although everyone here speaks Serbian," the AFP article goes on to say. And here we enter the sphere of the fuzzy math again. Does it ever occur to anyone to question this logic? The "region" happens to be part of a greater region. Where the Muslims are not in the majority. For heaven's sake, do the teeming thousands of Hispanics in Miami really qualify the place for independence from the United States on the grounds that the dominant ethnicity there is Cuban? The United States would probably be the first to hotly deny such a proposition. And yet I am prepared to take a bet that someone in the State Department will come up with some sort of statement supporting the poor oppressed Sandzak Muslims. Complete with some cutesy name the equivalent of "Kosovar" - "Sandjaki", perhaps. Also, Islam is not an ethnicity, it is a religion. The inhabitants of this region are mostly of Serb ethnicity, having accepted or been forced to accept the Muslim faith during the half-millennium period of slavery that Serbia endured under the yoke of the Ottoman empire. No wonder "everyone here speaks Serbian". What other language would anyone EXPECT them to speak?

The article quotes a Sulejman Ugljanin, former leader for the so-called Party of Democratic Action or the SDA, as saying, "Milosevic always tried to get rid of the Muslims, he wanted a pure Sandjak." There is no qualification to this bald statement, nor is any evidence produced to support it; it is simply offered as pure truth and expected to be received in this way. Naturally. The principle is to invoke Milosevic early, and invoke him often. So far the poor idiot has been indicted for everything in sight - why not for an event that nobody had ever heard of before now? Why haven't the SDA people come up with this during the whole Kosovo crisis? Did they just wake up late and think, hey, our chance might be slipping away here? The SDA is on record as having called for the setting up of a "Sandzak republic" in the early nineties, by armed force if necessary. Pardon? Armed force? What would have been the consequences if any national government in Yugoslavia had attempted to put down such an armed insurrection on its own territory?

Ugljanin goes on to, significantly, invoke Vojvodina - the next secessionist hotspot in Yugoslavia. The former leader of the SDA is now the leader of the so-called "Bosniak National Council of Sandzak" which is calling, amongst other things, for the end of legislation it considers discriminatory against Muslims. The author of the AFP dispatch did not seem to see the necessity of asking what such legislation might be - the laws allowing for the existence and support of all those mosques and the seminary, and which helped the Muslim identity and culture of the region to survive this well and this long? Ugljanin goes on to speak of "old wounds" - he speaks of kidnappings, murders, attacks on villages and torched flats. He even puts a figure on this - 317 have been registered in the recent years, in a bid to "terrify Sandzak Muslims into fleeing the region". Some 70 000 of them, Ugljanin says, have left. The Council has put their return at the "top of its agenda". What old wounds? What kidnappings, murders and attacks? Registered where? And is Ugljanin the sole authority on this? Did the journalist writing the piece bother to speak to anyone else in the region - say, Orthodox Serbs -- and find out if they had any grievances against their militant Muslim neighbours, perchance, people allied with the hardcore Bosnian Muslim parties, the same ones who invited Afghani mujahedeen into the Yugoslav civil war of the early nineties?

"Nowadays," Ugljanin is quoted as saying, "we favour a multi-religious Sandzak." And the people who made Novi Pazar a town of 35 mosques and a Muslim seminary did not do so?…

There is a small geographical problem, though - and that is that the region of Sandzak straddles the Serbia/Montenegro border. Shame, that. It is truly a pity that the facts on the ground do not support the militant Sandzak Muslims' dreams of glory. This region is so much a part of Serbia, so much a part of the greater geographic region in which their much-vaunted "population majority" begins to be a very small consideration, that they could not even produce a viable entity with any sort of obvious "border". This is not even a province. This happens to be a geographical region. Everyone has been free to live here in cooperation for a very long time now. But now that it seems to be acceptable for every midget rooster in the Balkans to demand to be king of his own midden Sandzak is climbing on the bandwagon. The sad thing is, instead of reprimanding them and telling them that the trick is to learn to live in peace with your neighbour, the West is likely to start asking loudly and demanding that yet another region of Serbia (with considerable cultural and historical Serbian roots) be handed to a self-styled "council" whose only idea is to cleanse this region of whatever Serb heritage it has ever had. Harking back to the question of language… if the Orthodox Serbs leave… what would these benighted Councilmen be speaking between themselves? They would have to rename the Serbian language. Ethnic cleansing, anyone?

Another spokesman, a "chief of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights", is quoted as saying that he believes that the Muslims and the Orthodox Christians in the Sandzak region are "forced by circumstances" to cooperate. Actually, they appear to have been cooperating for a good long while and there had been no trouble except that being stirred up now. In the light of this, one has to take a good hard look at this spokesman's motivations, and it is illuminating that his name is Sefko Alomerovic, a Muslim. Once again, was there any other local Serb whose side of the story might have been told here?

But it is at the end of the article that the death knell of Orthodox Serbs in Sandzak is to be found: "Of the 735 towns and villages in Sandjak, only three are religiously homogenous," he said, adding that ethnic incidents are now rare, but that the mistrust still runs high. That difference was clearly reflected in the two communities' voting in the September presidential polls: while Muslims massively backed reformist Vojislav Kostunica, the region's Serbs mostly cast their ballots for the old regime of the ousted strongman."

So - part of the population in Sandzak, the Orthodox Serbs, voted for Milosevic. They are therefore evil people. They must be driven out. In order that…. in order that the Muslim Serbs of Sandzak can continue to enjoy the mosques and the seminaries which have never, according to their own words, been denied them.


Note from the Editor: Sulejman Ugljanin is an interesting character. Ejected from the SDA (the Party of Democratic Action, i.e., the branches of the Muslim party of the same name from Bosnia and Herzegovina) over a split a few years ago, last month he won the local election in Novi Pazar and has taken over the local administration of the municipality. Ugljanin's personal interpreter, Vasvija Gusinac, is the new mayor; the deputy mayor is Nedzib Hodzic, Ugljanin's former driver and bodyguard; and Sadik Ugljanin, Ugljanin's brother, is president of the executive board of Novi Pazar.

For the past decade Sulejman Ugljanin has been behind various attempts to call for the political and cultural autonomy or the independence or reattachment of Sandzak to Bosnia- Herzegovina. He has consistently failed for a variety of reasons. Sandzak was an administrative part of Bosnia (itself an administrative region) until 1878, under the Ottoman Empire. It was reintegrated to Serbia and Montenegro in 1912. Of eleven municipalities, five are located in Montenegro and six in Serbia. In the 1991 census, the Muslim Serbs comprised 54 percent of the Sandzak population (over all, the Muslim Serbs formed 2.7 percent of the population in Serbia and 14.6 percent in Montenegro).


       Aleksandra Priestfield is a writer and an editor. She contributes her regular columns to Swans

Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Aleksandra Priestfield 2000. All rights reserved.


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Published November 27, 2000
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