Those Ungrateful Bosnians

We liberated them. Why are they still against us?

As countries from the Netherlands to Hungary to Ukraine peel off from America’s fast-shrinking “coalition of the willing” in Iraq, one unlikely new ally is riding to the rescue. Welcome Bosnia-Herzegovina, a nation that has yet to remove the war rubble from recent carnage at home.

Featured in the credit column of America’s involvement in the Muslim world, Bosnia is often held up as proof that the United States—despite a deepening belief to the contrary among many Muslims—hasn’t embarked on an evil crusade against Islam. After all, here is one place where Americans actually fought to help Muslims, against Christian Serbs.

So, as Washington cast a wide net in its quest for international partners in Iraq, it seemed only natural to ask Bosnia to return the favor. Paul Wolfowitz first broached the subject on a visit to Sarajevo shortly after the fall of Baghdad. Bosnia’s three-man presidency acquiesced. And, after several months of training, a multiethnic Bosnian mine-clearing unit numbering about 30 soldiers is slated to begin its Mesopotamian stint next month.

Of course, such a token force won’t make much of a difference on Iraq’s battleground. But, in Bosnia itself, the debate over the Iraq expedition has bared the extent of anti-American feelings that flourish these days, even in such unlikely places as Sarajevo. As reactions in Bosnia show, the U.S. engagement in Iraq, which was meant to convert the Muslim world to America’s gospel by building up a model democracy there, has so far achieved precisely the opposite result: Anger over Iraq’s unfolding tragedy has superseded the memories of America’s own past good deeds in Muslim lands.

For Bosnia’s politicians, the Iraq deployment was all about keeping America happy. “Bosnia-Herzegovina’s future lies in strong political ties with the U.S.,” Adnan Terzic, the country’s prime minister and the deputy head of the main Muslim party, told me. Sending the troops would also certify Bosnia’s new status as a nation at peace: “This is our main message—we’re such a stable country that we ourselves can assist the stabilization of other countries.”

But Bosnia’s public wasn’t quite buying such arguments. Polls published in Sarajevo newspapers showed that military involvement in Iraq was highly unpopular. Bosnia’s non-nationalist opposition focused its political campaign on rejecting entanglements on America’s side. In a Friday sermon at Sarajevo’s Begova Mosque, the second most senior cleric in the country, Ismet Spahic, decried American actions in Iraq as “genocide.”

Near that mosque I bought a glossy magazine called Saff, the favorite publication of Bosnian Islamists—a once-tiny group that has gained strength in postwar years thanks to Saudi proselytizing. The editor, Kemal Bakovic, met me over a fruit juice in a grim neighborhood of Soviet-style housing blocks, still pockmarked by shrapnel. An Arabic-speaker, he had studied in Zarqa, in Jordan—the hometown, he was pleased to remind me, of the man described by the United States as al-Qaida’s chieftain in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

“We are all sick of wars here in Bosnia,” Bakovic scoffed when I asked him about the Iraq troop deployment. “These guys, if they get killed in Iraq, they’ll be killed for a foreign idea, not for their own country. Nobody will take care of their kids.”

Some other Bosnian Muslims, he added, had already joined the war—on the insurgent side. This should be no surprise: Back in 1993 and ‘94, while the United States mostly watched from the sidelines, jihadists from around the world streamed to Bosnia to help. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, was in Bosnia at the time, as were at least two of the 19 hijackers, according to the 9/11 commission report.

Bakovic told me he had run into a young Bosnian man who had just returned to Sarajevo from Fallujah, where he participated in attacks on U.S. soldiers. Bakovic asked the jihadist what he would do if he came across fellow Bosnian Muslims serving alongside Americans in Iraq. “The Iraqi fighters won’t give preferences, won’t look at what flag patch you carry on the shoulder, or ask what’s your name. They will shoot at anyone who’s on the enemy side. And so will I,” the man had answered coolly.

These, of course, were extreme opinions in a country where beer billboards dot the landscape and miniskirts outnumber veils. But I was intrigued: Where did Bosnia’s Muslim religious establishment stand on all this?

In a Sarajevo mosque, I met Mustafa Ceric, the reis ul-ulema, or chief religious leader, of Bosnia’s Muslims. A former ambassador with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, he is known as a rare voice of sober, European Islam. But, as our conversation drifted to Iraq, he abandoned the detached professorial tone with which he had greeted me.

Muslims everywhere, Ceric said, are losing the ability to think rationally. “You see every day the scenes of your relatives being killed, and no one is doing anything about it. … Why Abu Ghraib could happen? Why Srebrenica could happen? Your mind is getting stretched. The Muslims feel that they are threatened, that the West is trying to enslave them, literally.”

I asked Ceric whether he shared his deputy’s description of American actions in Iraq as genocide—a loaded word for Bosnia, which itself experienced the real thing so recently. Ceric wouldn’t endorse or disavow the imam. Nor would he condemn those Bosnians who head off to join the Iraqi insurgents.

In early 2003, he said by way of explanation, Bosnia’s Islamic hierarchy issued a statement against the looming Iraq invasion—while at the same time cautioning the believers not to mistake the Iraq war for a religious clash between Christian and Muslim civilizations. “But now people are beginning to change their views,” Ceric said, looking at me. “People are questioning [Western] motivations—and of course including the factor of Islam.”

He clasped his hands before getting up and abruptly ending our meeting: “Everyone sees. I don’t think we have a safer world now than before.”