By Michael Allen
The prayers are melodic, almost like chanting, and the sound of them, dominated by one voice, fill the building during prayer times. The imam, a tall, slender man with bright brown eyes, and short, black hair, wearing a flat, white cap, plain, black robes, and no shoes, leads the prayers here.
It is a place where it seems all who share a common ideal in a powerful and great God are welcome, but a place that caters especially to a specific group who share a recent history streaked with darkness and misfortune. While the prayer, conducted in Arabic, fills the room in the semi-musical tones of a religious devotee, attendees rise and fall according to the gentle commands of the speaker, bowing low to the ground when appropriate, or kneeling, or rising to stand upright, and frequently pantomiming the cleansing of their faces and bodies.
Outside, a white spire towers above the main building. A bronze-colored dome with a crescent star sits atop the main building, paralleled by a smaller version of itself over an overhang with the letters:
BOSNIAN ISLAMIC CENTER
The inside is decorated simply, and with minimal furniture aside from the black leather couches with fleur-de-lis covered pillows. Like the pillows, the carpet on the floor bears a flower motif. The emphasis on flowers is not accidental.
Today, the flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina contains seven white stars and a yellow triangle on a blue background, but this was not always the case. When the former Yugoslavia fell apart, the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina created a blue flag adorned with six fleurs-de-lis, a symbol well-represented in the Bosnian Islamic Center.
The mosque’s imam is a polyglot, a man who speaks multiple languages fluently. A little past noon, or at exactly 9:41, according to the enormous — and dead — black clock hanging over the entrance to classroom where the imam teaches children, the imam concluded a midday prayer in Arabic, laughed and spoke with two of the prayer’s attendees in Bosnian, and proceeded to answer questions in English.
Muamer Sljivic said that he knew when he was a child that he wanted to become an imam, like his father before him. After studying at Gazi Husrev-Bey Madrasa in Sarajevo, where his parents live, and Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, he accomplished that goal, and now leads services at the Bosnian Islamic Center of Bowling Green, preaching his faith and encouraging integration with the surrounding community.
Sljivic is very much aware of the effects that the Bosnian War has had and continues to have on Bosnia and Herzegovina. He lamented that the country has lingering divisions and economic difficulties that can be traced back to the Bosnian War.
“The progress is not as we expected it to be,” Sljivic said, frowning. He then added “The problem is politics. They make the progress very slow.”
On April 6, 1992, when Bosnia and Herzegovina’s independence was recognized by the U.S. and by the European Community (later replaced by the European Union), Serb forces began shelling the city of Sarajevo, beginning the violent and ethnically-motivated conflict known as the Bosnian War. It is impossible to discuss the history of Bosnians in any modern community in the United States without acknowledging the context that was the Bosnian War, which impacts to this day the views of the Bosnian community worldwide.
The war displaced thousands of Bosnians who fled the country fearing ethnic cleansing, and led to many Bosnian families migrating to Bowling Green and other places in the U.S.
Sljivic went on to explain that he feels the country’s rotating system of government, by which three individuals—one Serb, one Croat, and one Bosniak—temporarily hold power and use it to promote their own ethnocentric interests and policies while undoing those which they don’t find favorable, perpetuates problems in the country. He also said that he believes Bosniaks — who are Muslim — want to move to a more accepting and effective society, while he claims Serbian and Croatian politicians currently “just want to divide.”
In contrast, Sljivic talked about how America has, in his experience, focused less on divisions and has been a place where people in his community have found a home.
“We don’t have any problems with Americans here. We are well-accepted,” Sljivic said.
Bosnians make up a sizable portion of Bowling Green’s population, he noted, adding that he think Bosnians are so accepted because they are known as hard workers.
According to the Bowling Green Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, there are almost 5,000 Bosnian Americans in Bowling Green — just under 8 percent of the total population, which is 65,000, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.
“I teach children in the mosque. We try to tell people to take values from Americans and keep our own, to take what’s good and avoid what’s not good,” Sljivic said.
On Saturdays and Sundays, the mosque holds educational services for children in a room by the side of the mosque, inside of which are couple dozen chairs, a few run-down tables, and a large, flat television. The imam teaches them, among other matters, to avoid alcohol, drugs, theft, and premarital intimacy with the opposite sex, and that they should focus their efforts on their education, and that they must listen to their parents, teachers, authority figures and, of course, their imam.
“These moral values will come with religion. That is what I believe,” Sljivic said.
At the Bosnian Islamic Center, discussions held outside of the official prayers are in Bosnian, but the actual prayers used and the acts of worship done are the same as would be practiced in any mosque.
There are five pillars of Islam. These are the testimony of the faith, called Shahada; prayer, called Salat, which Muslims are ideally supposed to perform five times a day; the giving of a certain percentage of one’s income, called zakat (which literally translates to “purification” or “growth”); fasting during Ramadan, a month-long period that begins on May 15, and pilgrimage, called hajj. Ideally, those who are wealthy enough to go on pilgrimage to Mecca or Medina, cities which hold a special religious and historical significance to Muslims due to their connection to the Islamic prophet Muhammad, who is regarded as the greatest of the prophets of Allah, one of the many names of God in Islam.
The mosque finished construction in mid-2012, and there was an opening ceremony for it later the same year. Its services are in keeping with Sunni practices.
The main room of the mosque is simply called the mosque. Inside the Bosnian Islamic Center of Bowling Green, the mosque has room for roughly 40 rows of about 18 people each, people who are encouraged to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with no gaps between them for the sake of brotherhood and solidarity.
“If there is space between you, Satan is going through you,” Sljivic said with a smile.
Above the members who come to pray at the Bosnian Islamic center is a large chandelier, and below them is a burgundy-red carpet. During prayers where both sexes are present, women pray in rows nearest to the exit, and men pray farther in the mosque, near the minber, the steps the imam walks up.
The religion of Islam encourages its faithful to practice five prayers a day, but Sljivic says that he usually sees roughly 10 people per prayer, due to, he believes, daily constraints such as work or school. He mentioned, however, that on Fridays he typically sees between 70 and 100 for the midday prayer, the Salat al-Jumu’ah.
Although Sljivic said that the mosque has more than 300 members, he clarified that a member can either be a single individual or one family unit. He also wanted to emphasize that, although the mosque is run by Bosnians and is an important part of the Bosnian community, any Muslim person is welcome there. Despite this openness, he says that the mosque rarely received non-Bosnian visitors.
“A lot of the members are related—cousins mostly. It’s a lot of the same family names,” Sljivic said.
Age certainly does not cause anyone to be excluded at the mosque; old men were given the same smiles and handshakes that went to men in their 20s, and even young children are welcome in the midst of these worshippers. During one Salat al-Jumu’ah, a toddler was gently corrected a number of times by his father to join in the actions, be they rising or kneeling, that were expected as part of the prayer. At the same time, a boy around the same age as the toddler scooted along the floor on his rear-end.
In a crowd of roughly 70 people, none of them seemed to notice the appearance of a 23-year-old stranger who hesitated in the movements of the prayer and who spoke neither Bosnian nor Arabic, and if any in attendance did notice these peculiarities, no one approached this man.
The red carpeting of the mosque is soft, which is convenient because, at the call of the imam, attendees press their faces into it, with their bodies inclined in the direction of Mecca, the ancient home of their revered prophet, Muhammad.
When the faithful attend prayer, they mostly sit spread-out, with families close together, sitting quietly while the imam conducts prayer. Even during the midday prayer service of a Friday, during the Salat al-Jumu’ah, which is considered the most important prayer of the week, the worshipers attend in various levels of semi-formal dress, though most wear at least polo shirts.
Safet Muskic is one such polo-sporting Muslim, and, following the Salat al-Jumu’ah, he was chatting with a friend outside the mosque, wearing, in addition to his kiwi-green polo, a pair of denim blue jeans and a pair of black Nike shoes. He is from Bosnia. Although he has spent most of the last nine years living in Bowling Green, it was not the first place where he lived in the U.S.
Muskic said that he came to the United States in 2000, and that he had initially come to Utah. After six months, he moved to New Hampshire. It was not until 2009 that he came to live in Bowling Green.
Muskic emphasized the importance of having a place in the community where the members share a common culture and history.
“At other mosques, they are still Islamic, but they have a different language and culture,” Muskic said. He paused for a moment before adding, “We are Bosniak, you know?”