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Paths Ahead: Reflections on Bosnian Muslim Presence in the United States
Mar 1, 2011

This commentary offers a few reflections on the impact of the American experience on the formation of a Bosnian identity in the United States. I have befriended several members of two Bosnian immigrant communities in the northern part of New York state over the course of field research carried out for academic purposes. The reflections in this piece have their origins in those friendships. Most of what I have to say here stems from casual as well as systematic encounters with individuals in the Bosnian community in the city of Syracuse. Syracuse has been the adopted home of about three thousand Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks, relocated to the region from the Bosnian town of Srebrenitza, where brutal killings occurred in July 1995. Many surviving Srebrenitzans, who left behind their murdered relatives and a homeland, have been living in Syracuse for about fifteen years. The largest Bosnian presence in the United States is found in St. Louis, Missouri, where the number of Bosnians is reported to be in the tens of thousands. New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco also house thousands of Bosnians. What sets Syracuse apart from these locations, however, is the fact that it is home to predominantly former residents of Srebrenitza, which was left to the mercy of Serbian general Ratko Mladić upon the departure of Dutch peacekeepers who were “protecting” the town, a declared “United Nations safe-zone.” Safety was a rare commodity in Srebrenitza though: Some seven thousand boys and adult men were separated by the Serbian forces under Mladić’s command from their mothers, wives, and children, and massacred in the span of a few days.

Turning to the path that Bosnian identity has followed in the New World, we must first recognize that ethnic identity and religion can intersect at different angles. Over the course of my encounters with members of the Bosnian community, I have come to observe that Bosnian refugees consider themselves Muslims in a cultural sense, a sense they said was generally devoid of actual practical content. This suggests a conception of ethnic identity perceived to be one and the same thing as religious identity. This “culture=religion” formulation may help explain, at least in part, the rather scarce presence of Bosnian Muslims in American mosques in cities where Bosnian refugees have resettled (This, however, should not be construed to mean that one can express piety only by going to the mosque; the role and function of mosques in American society would itself require another essay). The relative indifference of important segments of the Bosnian population toward religious practice is additionally due to the lack of understanding and focus on the suffering of Bosnian Muslims during the 1992–1995 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The influence of recent memories of not having been treated fairly by the international community-including the Muslim world-during the war, it was reported to me, plays a role in the scarce presence of Bosnian Muslims in the greater American Muslim community.

Among Bosnian refugees in the city of Syracuse, statements by both the refugees themselves and the officials of the Islamic Society in Syracuse confirm the actualization of the “culture=religion” identity formulation amongst Bosnians in Syracuse. Some young Bosnians, for example, do not attend in big numbers at the otherwise compulsory congregational Friday prayer performed in the multinational Syracuse mosque. My own observations and the remarks of the officials from the Islamic Society confirm that no more than ten per cent of the Bosnian Muslim population attends the Friday prayer. Nevertheless, these same youth convey the unease they feel when their identity as Muslims is questioned (especially by non-Muslims in the workplace, at school et cetera). Bosnians have recently launched a mosque of their own in the eastern part of the city; however, leading members of the community told me the number of attendees in Friday prayers since the facility opened about two years ago is far less than they would have liked. However, attendance of commemorative events and bajram (eid) celebrations is remarkably more sizeable.

At the same time, some Bosnian Muslims have expressed discontent regarding the prevailing formulation in which religion is perceived as a cultural décor. There are sincere efforts by some members of the Bosnian population toward an authentic religious identity filled with actual content. Included among such efforts are the weekend classes offered at the Bosnian mosque, in particular for young Bosnian children, in which the essentials of faith, practical information about prayers, and similar topics are taught. But I have also been privy to conversations in which concerns were being raised that some young Bosnians have for some time been, to use their word for it, “Americanizing”: They are not as respectful toward their elders any more, they come home late, and drink-all of which suggest to the concerned that there are dangers ahead which might arise from experiments with American notions of freedom. Though one could argue that these notions do not necessarily or always imply these behaviors, it is important to recognize that Bosnian youth are growing up in an individualistic culture that includes values and practices which parents might find to be at odds with their own upbringing back in Bosnia. Coupled with the lack of adequate parental supervision over children due to demanding work schedules, this clash of values is a cause of concern for a youth that is not given the guidance to navigate through the intricacies of becoming American. In addition, a Bosnian friend of mine, who is currently a professor of political science, reminded that the refugees will soon face another hurdle: the increasing inability of young Bosnians to speak the Bosnian language. He claims that Bosnian children in particular speak only English among themselves, raising the probability that in a generation or two, the Bosnian language may become rare among Bosnians themselves.

Refugees from Srebrenitza living in Syracuse seek to keep the memory of the Srebrenitza massacre of 1995 alive. They publish booklets in English and Bosnian languages, issue bumper stickers (‘Never Forget Srebrenitza’), and hold commemorative ceremonies on the anniversary of the event. Bosnian Muslims concerned about the future of Bosnian identity in the New World see these activities as vital in terms of constructing a collective Bosnian consciousness in America.

It seems quite clear, at least to this observer, that the hyphenated identity term “Bosnian-American” is on its way to becoming the standard description to use in relation to Bosnians in the United States. The exact referent of that term will become clearer based on certain issues including (but certainly are not limited to), on the one side, the scope, nature, and effects of their feelings toward America, and on the other, their choice between cultural or practical religion.

Fethi Keles is an Adjunct Instructor of Anthropology at Syracuse University.