Rise of Bosnian mayor with a head scarf challenging assumptions about Islam

By: Michael Birnbaum

Source: Washington Post

VISOKO, Bosnia and Herzegovina — For years, Bosnian Muslims embraced a form of religion so moderate that many capped dinners during the holy month of Ramadan with an alcoholic drink.

But the bloody war that pitted Muslims here against their Serbian Orthodox and Croatian Catholic neighbors tested the faith of one of the few European countries where Islam is the most common religion. It was once rare to see public expressions of faith on the street. Now, more women are donning head scarves — and one who does so just became mayor of this small town in the mountains of central Bosnia.

Amra Babic’s election victory in Visoko late last year made her the first mayor in this war-scarred Balkan country, and perhaps all of Europe, to wear the hijab. Her rise in this river valley town of 46,000 is making inroads for others who have also taken up visible signs of their religion. And it is challenging assumptions across Europe as societies debate whether to reject as repressive the Islamic practice of women covering themselves or to embrace it in the spirit of moderation.

France banned the niqab, or full-face covering, two years ago. Turkey, which has long put up barriers to observant women in public life, recently eased restrictions on wearing the hijab in public universities. Other countries are debating their policies.

In Bosnia, an inland, rolling country of 3.8 million, Islam was introduced in 1463 by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror. The hijab has long been a part of the country’s life, especially in rural areas such as Visoko, but it dropped away during more than 40 years of communism. Practicing religion openly in the officially atheist state meant jeopardizing opportunities and jobs.

Many women cite their wartime experiences in their decisions to return to the moderate form of Islam that has defined religious practice for centuries. Some say they felt that Europe and the United States were slow to come to their aid during the war because of concerns over Islamic terrorism, and that their only recourse was God.

The war drew jihadists from the Middle East, and there are still pockets of violent religious extremism here. But many Bosnian Muslims say that the resurgence of moderate religious practice is a counterbalance to the ultraconservative forms practiced at the periphery.

Babic, a trained economist, is quickly making waves in her country for her political acumen. In the short time since she took over the town hall in the middle of November, she has earned a reputation as a tough administrator. Even jaded observers of Bosnia’s deeply divided political system hold out hope that she could help overcome years of government turmoil that have put the country far behind its rivals, Serbia and Croatia, which are both on a path to joining the European Union.

“I am European, I am Muslim. This is my identity,” she said. The hijab “is what you see on the outside. But the strength is what’s inside, not to do bad deeds. To live my life in honesty, and not to speak the language of hate.”