Bihac feels menace of imam's knock

Andrew Gumbel reports on the sinister tactics being used on Muslims in the run up to elections
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The war may be over and the threat from besieging Serb forces a receding memory, but plenty of Muslims living in the Bihac pocket in north-western Bosnia still have reason to fear a knock on the door. These days the unwelcome visitor is not likely to be a thug threatening violence or expulsion, but rather the imam from the local mosque.

Hundreds of people suspected of disloyalty towards the ruling Muslim nationalist party, the SDA, have been visited by their local clerics, sometimes accompanied by agents of Bosnia's internal security service, in the run-up to the elections on 14 September.

The questions are delivered in a friendly manner but every one is laden with menace. How is the family? How are you managing to rebuild your life? You wouldn't want to do anything unwise and jeopardise all that, would you? "The message is quite clear: We know who you are and if you step out of line you might just get shot in the head," said one western official who has heard several stories of this kind.

In many respects, the election campaign in the Bihac pocket looks like the continuation of war by other means. The Muslim-dominated area suffered a double trauma during the fighting: not only a long, debilitating siege by the Serbs, but also an internal conflict between the government's Fifth Army and a renegade force led by a local potentate, Fikret Abdic, who had ambitions to make the area autonomous.

Mr Abdic has taken refuge in Croatia but many of the men who fought for him have tried to resume their former lives. Many were given "welcome beatings" when they returned to the area, according to human-rights monitors, and have found it almost impossible to get work. Mr Abdic's party, the DNZ, has put up candidates for the elections but has been unable to campaign openly for fear of violence.

Such tensions have poisoned the electoral process. The other opposition parties in the area say their supporters too have been thrown out of jobs and harassed by a ruling party apparently determined to control every aspect of public life. Their posters have been systematically ripped down and ordinary citizens are too scared to display them in their windows.

"The SDA is trying to make us all out to be Abdic supporters. One of their election slogans reads `Vote for us, not for the enemies of Bosnia'," said Ibrahim Topic, a candidate for the Social Democrat Party who lost his job as a teacher-trainer nearly three years ago and has been excluded from employment since.

In the first three weeks of last month, armed gangs roving the streets after the curfew hour of 11pm launched 28 bomb attacks against opposition figures, bringing the climate, in the words of an election official from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, to "the verge of civil war". The SDA-controlled police, who are supposed to enforce the curfew, appear to have seen nothing.

The attacks have become much less frequent since Carl Bildt and other senior international mediators visited the area late last month and urged local SDA leaders to restore order for the sake of their own reputation. Opposition campaigning has resumed, albeit with the help of heavy protection by local and international police. But the climate of intimidation has persisted.

The role of the Islamic clergy is particularly striking. There are SDA posters outside many mosques, especially in the countryside, and imams are constantly making pitches in favour of the ruling party in people's houses, at public meetings and even, according to some international observers, during religious ceremonies. Many are SDA members, seeing no conflict of interest between their religious and political roles.

"The Serbs may have destroyed our mosques but they created thousands of them in our people's hearts," said Djemal Ljubijankic, imam in the village of Liskovac. "The SDA is the only party not ashamed of its religion and nationality."

The religious tolerance that the SDA espouses towards Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs does not seem to apply to its own people. So strongly has institutionalised Islam become associated with the ruling party that many people who are not naturally religious have started attending mosques to protect themselves and their families.

Imams like Mr Ljubijankic tell them that the opposition parties are pro- Abdic or pro-communist groups who want to suppress free expression of religious faith, and that the bomb attacks are merely struggles between rival gangs of wartime smugglers.

According to international observers and opposition groups, imams in rural areas have spread rumours that voting will not be secret - so anyone daring to vote for the opposition will be found out. "To make sure everyone votes just once, the election monitors plan to mark people who have cast their ballot with an invisible ink that shows up under a light sensor," Mr Topic said.

"But the imams have distorted this, saying that people are going to have their fingerprints taken like suspected criminals. In the countryside, where people are not educated and in many cases not even literate, these stories are believed."

Not everyone in the Islamic community approves of this manipulation of religion for political reasons. But dissenting imams are too scared to speak up. "If I could change anything, I would try no matter what the price," said one, who did not wish to be identified. "But for the moment it is useless."