- Published on Sunday, 01 July 2012 01:18
- Written by Aida Ramusovic
When the Montenegrin parliament announced in March of 2003 that it would be taking a census this year in which all citizens would be expected to express, among other things, their ethnicity--an ever-sensitive topic across the region--the government realized that the country's Slavic Muslim population could be hard pressed to find a suitable box to check on the census sheets.
Who Are Montenegro's Muslims?
Parliament's announcement sparked a hurried debate that was set off with a March seminar called "Muslim-Bosniaks, What Is Your Name?"
At the seminar, held in the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica, 138 of the country's Slavic Muslim intellectuals signed a declaration asking for their ethnic name to be changed from Muslim to Bosniak--the ethnicity indicator that Slav Muslims in many other former Yugoslav republics use.
"The people who signed the declaration think that the name 'Bosniak' should be given equal treatment alongside other names (of ethnicities) listed in the census," said Esad Kocan, a Montenegrin journalist and one of the signatories of the "Name Declaration."
But Kocan said the country's Muslims, or "Bosniaks," shouldn't feel pressured one way or another. "This declaration is not obligatory for anyone. Everyone should declare in the census how he or she feels," he said.
The identity of Montenegro's Muslims, Bosniaks, or as some say, Muslim-Bosniaks, is not in question. The question is this: Are Muslims, Muslim-Bosniaks, or Bosniaks from Montenegro a diverse community in comparison with Bosniaks from Bosnia, Serbia, and other former Yugoslav republics?
Kocan thinks the census is the best opportunity to address that question, and to declare, once and for all, the group's official name.
"This is the most natural and normal way to publicly state your own ethnicity," said Kocan.
TOILING WITH TERMS
The term "Muslim" was used to describe the Slavs who converted to Islam during the reign of the Ottoman Empire. Since 1971, the term "Muslim" has been used to describe the ethnicity of almost the entire Slavic Muslim population in the former Yugoslavia. In censuses, Slavic Muslims could officially declare themselves Muslim in terms of ethnicity.
Yugoslav ethnic groups were constitutionally divided into peoples and nationalities (narodi and narodnosti), the former representing Yugoslavia's "constituent" ethnic groups, while the latter referred to members of minority ethnic communities. Along with Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, and Montenegrins, Muslims were one of Yugoslavia's constituent peoples.
But an obvious problem has always been that "Muslim" has a religious rather than an ethnic tone. Capitalized, "Muslim" in the former Yugoslavia referred to an ethnic group, as opposed to the term "muslim" with a lower-case "m," which was used in reference to Islam.
"The term 'muslim' is used for all members of Islam, and in Arabic it means 'to surrender to god.' The religious title became an ethnicity name (in the former Yugoslavia) in 1971," explained Serbo Rastoder, a professor and editor of the Almanah cultural-historical magazine, which focuses on preserving the heritage of "Muslim-Bosniaks" in Montenegro.
Even though some think that the term "Bosniak" is artificial and Bosnian-made, it was actually used as early as the 15th Century to describe the Muslim population in the Sandzak area--an area that is now partly in Serbia and partly in Montenegro, and bordering Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo.
According to Rastoder, Muslims from Bosnia and Herzegovina chose "Bosniak" as their official nationality during the Bosniak congress in Sarajevo in 1993. And in 1994 the term "Bosniak" was constitutionally established in Bosnia. After that, Muslims from Slovenia, Croatia, and Kosovo followed suit, also adopting the term.
"Even in the latest census in Serbia 90 percent of Muslims declared themselves Bosniaks. Only in Montenegro is there a debate about such a basic human right and freedom of choice," said Rastoder.
The situation in Serbia, the other part of the newborn union [LINK TO A Farewell To Yugoslavia in the News], is slightly different. During the April 2002 census in Serbia--excluding Kosovo--more than 130,000 Muslims declared themselves Bosniaks.
Rasim Ljajic, Serbia and Montenegro's human and minority rights minister and the leader of the Sandzak Democratic Party, says he is Bosniak. The Sandzak Democratic Party has representatives in the Serbian Parliament, in contrast to Montenegro, where Bosniaks are not represented with their own political party in parliament. There are, however, prominent Bosniak politicians in Montenegro's multi-ethnic parties.
But the flaring debate in Montenegro about the group's official ethnicity illustrates how far behind it is in terms of questions of identity.
"The fact that we are discussing the name shows that something is wrong with the identity question, because we have to admit that name is the first sign of identity, not only for a whole population, but for any human being," said Rastoder.
But Rastoder says there should be no real dilemma. "We have to say that the national name 'Muslim' no longer exists. The real dilemma is not whether we are Bosniak or Muslim, but whether we are Bosniak or Serb, or Bosniak or Montenegrin," he said.
The journalist Kocan says that regardless of the name, every Montenegro Bosniak's homeland is and will always be Montenegro.
"A Bosniak's homeland is Montenegro. Montenegro's Bosniaks are part of the Balkan's Bosniaks, but their homeland is only Montenegro," said Kocan, eliminating any question in his mind of whether or not the term was borrowed from Bosnia.
SIMPLE NAME OR PROPAGANDA TOOL?
Still, not everyone agrees with the declaration signed in Podgorica. Avdul Kurpejovic, chair of the Muslim society Matica Muslimanska, believes that something smells foul with this debate. He thinks that the introduction of the term "Bosniak" in Montenegro is part of*greater, sinister plan that involves the "organized propaganda of denial and assimilation (of all Muslims from the former Yugoslavia)."
"The ideological basis for this project is the 1970 Islamic Declaration written by [wartime Bosniak leader] Alija Izetbegovic, and the aim is the creation of Sandzak as a separate Bosniak entity," said Kurpejovic.
Along with other nationalist projects--such as talk of*greater Serbia and a Greater Albania--this project, Kurpejovic says, "is very dangerous for Montenegro because it embraces five [Montenegrin] towns in which the population is more than 80 percent Muslim."
Muslim-Bosniaks, as well as Orthodox Montenegrins and Serbs, comprise the population of Sandzak, located in northern Montenegro. According to the last census in 1991, just over 73 percent of the population of the five towns of Sandzak are Muslims: 87 percent in Rozaje, 58 percent in Plav, 42 percent in Bijelo Polje, 30 percent in Berane, and 18 percent in Pljevlja.
The 1991 census also showed that 5 percent of residents of the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica are Muslims, with 14 percent in the port city of Bar, and 2 percent in Niksic.
Minister Ljajic says that the dilemma about the name is "artificial and fake."
"The Communists gave false hope and a religious name to the Muslims. That's a unique case in the world. In an ethnic sense we (Muslims from Serbia and Montenegro) belong to the Bosniak corpus--and that was resolved in 1993 in Sarajevo," said Ljajic.
Ljajic thinks that Bosniaks in Montenegro should solve the problem on their own, without any interference.
"All states formed out of ex-Yugoslavia accepted the term 'Bosniak.' Only Montenegro did not--but the advice should not be from Sarajevo or Novi Pazar [the center of the Serbian part of Sandzak]," said Ljajic, adding that Bosniaks from Montenegro have the right to self-determination.
Matica Muslimanska chair Kurpejovic holds different view, however, insisting that the Bosniaks from Bosnia and the Muslims from Montenegro have only one thing in common--religion.
"Muslims in Montenegro have individual origin, language, culture, and ethnicity," said Kurpejovic.
And as far as the declaration signed by 138 "Bosniaks" in Montenegro, Kurpejovic says it by no means represents the desires of the entire Muslim population here.
Azra Jasavic, president of the Executive Forum of Montenegrin Muslim-Bosniaks NGO, said that whether or not the term "Bosniak" is linked with Bosnia itself will have to be determined by Montenegro, which she says is democratic enough to understand and support the Muslim population's choice.
"[The introduction of the term 'Bosniak'] would mean the establishment of political and legal terms during the future population census. We believe that Montenegrin political, cultural, and scientific circles will support the term 'Bosniak.' This term does not put in question Bosniaks' affection toward Montenegro," said Jasavic.
Professor Rastoder agrees. "Ethnic self identification based on proper beliefs is necessary, but the rules must be the same for everybody," he said.
Though the chair of the Islamic community in Montenegro Idriz Demirovic thinks that the name game is a political question, he does believe that Montenegro has "enough understanding to solve the problem in the best possible way."
While many have differing opinions on what the new nationality's name should be, most agree that the process itself is a positive one that should show that Montenegro can respect the freedom of choice that each of its citizens have a right to. And some, such as Radio Bar editor Suljo Mustafic, who attended the seminar, say that freedom of choice means a lot in and of itself.
"I was told: 'Your grandfather was first a Serb, then a Montenegrin.' I was told: 'Your great grandfather died thinking he was Turk.' I remember how my father was pleased when he could choose the ethnicity option of 'Muslim' (on the census). Before he was always 'Undecided,' or maybe 'Yugoslav,'" said Mustafic.
This article was first published in May, 2003