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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Turning to Islam: Bosnia's Moslems

SARAJEVO -- Black nylon stockings and patent-leather shoes peeking out from beneath Ajla Nuhbegovic's tunic clash flirtatiously with her head scarf and neck-to-ankle garb. Ajla has every intention of wearing lipstick, eye makeup and jewelry when she's old enough, the enshrouded 12-year-old explains between licks of a dripping ice-cream cone. She shrugs off what some might see as an incongruous melding of religious modesty and a young girl's natural interest in being attractive to boys. "We have drifted too far from our religion. I think girls should dress in this manner, at least until they are 18," Ajla insists, contradicting her father's aside that she can more often be found in form-fitting leggings and sweat shirts. Amid the hardships of war and the Christian world's growing indifference to the plight of Bosnian Moslems, the desire to express a faith that was repressed here for most of this century is becoming more common. The Slavs whose ancestors embraced Islam during Ottoman Turkey's 500-year rule are increasingly searching for solace where they can find it, as they continue to be targeted by a deadly Serb nationalist campaign of "ethnic cleansing." And as Western nations turn their backs on Bosnia because its conflict seems too complex to resolve, moderates warn they have no choice but to grasp the hand of Islam, as long as it remains the only one offered to them. Bosnia's streets, even in cosmopolitan Sarajevo, see growing numbers of women who dress with at least partial deference to Islamic tradition. Mosques that were mostly tourist attractions in the Communist era are crowded with the faithful; Moslem feasts and celebrations are now official holidays. Most obviously, and most worrying for the non-Moslem majority of Bosnia, is the growing bond between this secular country in Europe and fundamentalist Islamic nations that have come to its aid out of sympathy for a people endangered because of their faith. Iran has smuggled weaponry to the Bosnian government defying a UN embargo that most Western countries concede tied the hands of this nation's defense forces throughout 26 months of assault by heavily armed Serbs. Libya has supplied oil when there was no money for imports. Saudi Arabia has bankrolled pilgrimages to Mecca for 350 invalids and war casualties. And Islamic warriors from Afghanistan to Algeria have flocked to Bosnia's battle zones to fight for Allah, perverting an already beleaguered defense effort into a holy war no one in Bosnia wanted. In the twisted rationale of propagandized Serb nationalists, the Moslems have "stolen" Serb land by taking on a separate identity. The current war in Bosnia is, in the eyes of the rebels, a campaign to recover territory lost when Serbian and other Slavic owners converted from Christianity. To justify their rebellion to the outside world, Bosnian Serb rebel leader Radovan Karadzic has repeatedly warned that the presence of Moslems here poses a risk of fundamentalist Islam establishing a foothold in Europe. Bosnian government and social leaders insist theirs could never become an officially Islamic state. But some concede the stronger ties to Islamic countries emerging as a consequence of abandonment by the West play into the hands of propagandists in Belgrade. "We Moslems have never sought to live separately and we still believe the best solution for Bosnia is a country that unites all three nations," said Husajn Smajic, the mufti of Sarajevo. Ajla is one of many young Bosnian Moslems who seem to be following Islamic doctrine more out of fashion than conviction. It is not unusual to see young women on the streets with gauzy white scarves draped to expose earrings and cosmetics. "We laid in a big stock of beer for Bajram," said waitress Dina Hasanagic. "We are aware of the irony, but this is our way of doing things. Whether it's Bajram or Easter, it's a holiday."