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COLUMN ONE : In Bosnia, Islam Has Many Faces : The former Yugoslav republic's ties to the Muslim world were once tenuous. Now mosques are crowded, and foreign help comes in Allah's name--although for some, religion may simply be the fashion.

May 29, 1994|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — 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.

Between licks of a dripping ice-cream cone, the enshrouded 12-year-old says she has every intention of wearing lipstick, eye makeup and jewelry when she's old enough.

She shrugs off what some might see as an incongruous melding of religious modesty and a young girl's 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.

Her fleeting earnestness provokes a look of amused tolerance from her father, Hajrudin, a wry smile that suggests he thinks she is just going through a phase.

Ajla may be unevenly absorbing the religious instruction offered at the Muslim parochial school she has been attending for two years.

But amid the hardships of war and the Christian world's growing indifference to the plight of Bosnian Muslims, 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 Serbian nationalist campaign of "ethnic cleansing."

And as Western nations turn their backs on Bosnia because its conflict seems too complex to resolve, moderates warn that 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, are traversed by 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. Muslim feasts and celebrations are now official holidays.

Most obvious, and most worrisome for the non-Muslim majority of Bosnia, is the strengthening bond between this secular country in the heart of 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 U.N. embargo that most Western countries concede has 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.

"We have been waiting for two years for the West to help us defeat fascism, for its own interest if not for our benefit," says Osman Brka, a leader of the Muslim-dominated Party of Democratic Action. "We still hope against hope that America will see it must help us defend the democratic values we share. But we will look to anyone willing to help us, and no one in the West will have the right to blame us if they turned away."

Until the Serbian rebellion that began in April, 1992, threw this former Yugoslav republic into social and economic chaos, Bosnian ties to Islam were tenuous at best.

Today's 2 million Bosnian Muslims are descended from Serbs, Croats and a schismatic Christian sect known as the Bogomils who were repressed by both Catholic and Orthodox Slavs. Their forebears acquiesced to the Turkish conquerors' religion and mores, creating a culture through half a millennium distinct from that of the Serbs and Croats.

The Muslims--or Bosnjaks, as most preferred to be called, identifying themselves with the territory rather than religion--were ruled by the Turks until the Serbs threw off the Ottoman yoke late in the 19th Century. While Serbia retained its independence, Bosnia was swallowed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, providing the friction that led to World War I and eventual creation of Yugoslavia.

The years between the two world wars subjected the Muslims to crude assimilation attempts by both Serbs and Croats until Communist partisan leader Marshal Tito led the country to victory over Nazi Germany. During his 35-year rule--arguably Eastern Europe's most benevolent dictatorship--Tito imposed peace among the fractious Balkan ethnic groups through a delicate balance of force and personality.

In recognition of their divergent lifestyle, Tito conferred the status of a nationality on Bosnian Muslims in 1970.

In the twisted rationale of propagandized Serbian nationalists, the Muslims have "stolen" Serbian 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.

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