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Islam Is Part of the West, Too

November 20, 2001

Islam Is Part of the West, Too


SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- The Sept. 11 attack on America has sparked a debate about Islam that has, unfortunately, been framed in terms of us (the civilized, Western world) and them (the dangerous, suspect Muslims). Even well-intentioned statements dismissing the rhetoric of crusades have not softened an implicit skepticism among many people toward Islam. This wariness is of immediate concern to the 12 million Muslims who are citizens of European Union countries, five million of them in the Balkans.

While Europe is searching for its response to the new strain of global terrorism, it must at the same time actively reach out to Muslims in Europe with the values it stands for: democracy, individual rights, and religious and national tolerance. This must include Europe's opening itself to the idea of admitting countries to the union that have large Muslim populations or even, as in Turkey, Muslim majorities.

It also means that Europe has to stand by its political and economic engagement in the Balkans. The war against terrorism cannot be won by military means alone. There must be a corresponding effort to close the rapidly widening gap between us and them. Exclusion and alienation would only breed fundamentalist ideas.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I work as the leading representative of the international community — I am responsible for implementing the civilian provisions of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement — roughly half of the country's population, two million people, are Muslim. Much has been made of the residual influence of the mujahedeen fighters who stayed on in Bosnia and Herzegovina after the 1992-95 war. But no evidence has been produced that the country has served as a base for Al Qaeda, although this cannot be excluded; after all, the organization had an active cell in Hamburg. Allegations made by some Serb extremists that the wars in the former Yugoslavia were fought to fend off Muslim fundamentalism are ridiculous — was Mr. Milosevic at war with mullahs when his forces bombarded Dubrovnik? What is truly worthy of note is that the influence of fundamentalist Islam in the Balkans has been so weak.

When we step beyond the us-and-them paradigm, we might remember that Islam is part of the European tradition. This is the larger context in which the small country of Bosnia and Herzegovina must prove that peaceful coexistence of Islam and Christianity is possible. More than ever, it needs Europe's support in doing so.

The Dayton Peace Agreement ensures that no statelets will emerge in Bosnia based on the religious divide. The challenge before the European Union is to intensify its efforts to help Bosnia develop as a self-sustaining multiethnic, multireligious and multicultural democracy.

The overarching idea that unifies all three ethnic groups in the country is Europe. Bosnian Muslims do not feel any less European than their Croatian or Serbian countrymen. Since 1995, Bosnia has made impressive progress. It has a multiethnic, reform-oriented government that has abandoned the nationalist policies of the past and is working to improve the lives of its citizens through economic reform and European integration. This government is also demonstrating, with ongoing investigations and several arrests over the past eight weeks, that it is committed to fighting global terrorism.

The best proof of Bosnia and Herzegovina's recovery is the accelerating rate at which refugees are returning to areas from which they were driven during the war, and where they now form ethnic minorities. Over the last 24 months, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees registered 144,852 so- called "minority returns." The real number is probably much higher. But even the official number is three times higher than it was in the early days of the peace process, and there is a real prospect that the remaining 700,000 refugees, abroad and inside the country, will be able to return to their homes over the next few years.

It has become a common occurrence to see communities reconstitute themselves in places like Srebrenica, Kozarac and Foca, where the worst "ethnic cleansing" campaigns took place. However, the returnees suffer from the lack of funds to rebuild their homes. Now is the time to provide support. In helping to re-create Bosnia and Herzegovina's multiethnic society, the international community, with Europe in the lead, must in particular continue reaching out to the country's Muslims, who were the main victims of the wartime "ethnic cleansing" campaigns.

In the long term, Europe must integrate Bosnia and Herzegovina into its political, social and economic structures. A first concrete step is Bosnia and Herzegovina's accession to the Council of Europe, which is expected to take place early next year. A second step is to continue toward greater formal association with the European Union.

Bosnia is the place to render the notion of a clash of civilizations null and void and to prove that democracy, freedom and human rights are universal.

Wolfgang Petritsch is high representative for the international community in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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