Driving through the Bosnian countryside, I was surprised to find a few mosques dotting the landscape of the villages. I was in the ethnically homogenous Republika Srpska (Serbian Republic) and was stunned that Orthodox churches were not the only places of worship I saw. This is the area in which buses en route from Sarajevo to Zagreb were too afraid to stop for gas during the war since they were in Serb territory. To this day it remains the most tense and xenophobic area of the former Yugoslavia.
But do the mosques truly represent and reflect the way in which people on the ground feel in Republika Srpska, or in Bosnia as a whole? Have attitudes in fact shifted to include the marginalized and denigrated Muslim community?
During the war, money flowed like the river Drina into Bosnia to rebuild infrastructure. One of the most popular undertakings was to renovate old churches or mosques, depending on the ethnic makeup of the area. This served as a way to further alienate the warring ethnicities and to build unhealthy competition and anger between the groups. The money now coming into the country is mostly directed to construction of new religious centers and is not put toward much needed hospitals, schools, or other such multiethnic and heterogeneous places for the benefit of the country as a whole.
Mosques are symbolic and allude to something else, something more. While pictures may be worth a thousand words, symbols are worth millions – perhaps even more so in Bosnia. Maybe it is my naiveté that makes me think that accepting the mere presence of a mosque in Serbian territory is a step forward, but when the symbol is something so antithetical to reconciliation and transformation for some, what does it really mean? For the Muslim community it may be the realization of hopes of one day having their religion accepted and welcomed into the community. Unfortunately, attitudes point towards a shoddy façade of forced appearances of inclusivity and friendship in a country that may be almost as far from positive peace as it was during the war.