War in Europe: `God will not forgive the Americans for this'

The leader of Serbia's Muslims is walking a tightrope of tact. Robert Fisk talked to him
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The Independent Online
"I AM A MUSLIM by religion and a Yugoslav by my political opinions. I feel like a Yugoslav, because we are Slavs who live in the southern part of Europe."

The Mufti of Serbia spreads his big hands out in front of him. He has a big grey beard, bushy eyebrows and an imposing white and red turban that speaks of authority and wisdom, although these are days in which wisdom is a private commodity. "I cannot say much," he says. "These are difficult times."

Indeed. Everything which Hamdija Effendi Jusefspahic says can be understood in several ways, all of it relevant, all of it - like the good theological scholar from Cairo's Al-Azhar mosque that he is - capable of re-interpretation. There are 500,000 Muslims living among the Serbs of what Mr Jusefspahic calls "Serbia proper"; 200,000 in Belgrade. So when I ask about the current bloodbath in the Balkans, he replies with great care.

"I pray to God to put obstacles in the way of people hurting other people, regardless of their colour or religion or where they live," he says. "Our Prophet Mohammed delivered this message to us in the 7th century - don't kill elderly people, don't kill children, don't kill women. In that century, people were more humanitarian than in this so-called civilised century; so we do not wish to say anything other than what was told to us by God through his Messenger."

Was he talking about events in Kosovo? Or about Nato's bombardment of Serbia? Or both? There is certainly no stopping the Mufti's criticism of the US; he courteously makes no reference to the RAF. Were not bombs dropped on Palestinians, he asks? "When there was a war in Somalia, the Americans wanted to be the first there because the Somalis were Muslims. When there was someone to be pursued in Libya it was the Americans who did it. They bombed the Iraqis, who are Muslims; they hit women and children in shelters."

Mr Jusefspahic was born in Bosnia and came to Belgrade in 1967. Thousands of Bosnian Muslims sought sanctuary from Bosnian Serbs in Serbia - an irony that has been forgotten by all but the Serbs. For years the Muslims of Belgrade ran a humanitarian organisation for their brother refugees.

"In Bosnia, the Americans kept telling the Muslims they would give them guns to fight the Serbs," he says. "But the Muslims lost two thirds of the land they owned. Then this year they withdrew the international observers meant to protect the Albanians of Kosovo. This is why we told our brothers in Kosovo not to trust the Americans. I don't believe God will forgive this, and I am sure they [the Americans] will be punished."

Outside, the rain gutters off the beautiful 400-year-old Bajrakli Mosque with its high brick dome and delicate minaret. In the 1790s, Belgrade boasted 273 mosques. Prince Eugene of Austria-Hungary tore down most of them; today, the Yugoslav Assembly stands on the site of one long-destroyed mosque, military headquarters on another.

"In Kosovo now," says the Mufti, "the war is not about religion. It is about lack of belief. The Albanian people believe that all the leadership, and also the one who was here yesterday" - an allusion to the Kosovo Albanian leader, Ibrahim Rugova, who was in Belgrade - "are communists. So our poor believing Muslims are targets."

Do the Mufti's people suffer in Serbia itself? "We have good relations with everybody - with Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Jews. During the communist period, we had good relations with the Arab world - this is where the Islamic world became familiar with the Muslims of Yugoslavia. Now, our relations are mostly turned towards Bosnia. We are neglected. Nobody helps us - neither Serbia nor the Islamic world."

I have obviously touched on something which perturbs the Mufti, whose Egyptian wife, Nabila, a theologian, watches him intently. "We are trying to find our way," he continues. "We live as best we can. And we hope and believe that God will help us and help us preserve Islam in this part of the world. There are some attempts by some extreme nationalist elements to frighten and displace us. Certain elements threaten and offend. But these are elements whom even the state does not want. We believe Serbia will help us and protect us."

His words contain a wealth of meaning: he looks at me to be certain I have understood. America should be in shame for what it has done, he adds - there is much balancing of books by the Mufti. Mr Clinton should be put on trial for his crimes, he adds.

"You must also believe something else. Nobody is at the top for a very long time. The bigger you are, the faster you fall - especially when immoral acts have been committed. When Nero came to power in Rome, Rome declined. A nation doesn't remain on top for very long." I didn't ask which nation - or leader - he had in mind; but I had a shrewd idea.

As I left I spotted an old framed photograph of a much younger Mufti. Sitting beside him was the Great Leader himself, Marshal Tito, the Hero of Brotherhood and Unity, massive in a glistening suit, grinning behind narrow-framed glasses. Tito gave autonomy to Kosovo. And someone else took it away. As the Mufti would say, these are difficult times.