March 05, 2017

Utah Bosniaks open doors and minds

Photo by David Ricketts
Photo by David Ricketts||| Photo by David Ricketts||| |||
By The West View

By Chris Ginzton

It’s a busy Saturday morning in December for the Islamic Society of Bosniaks. They are hosting an open house to share their culture with the wider community and to celebrate the recent renovation of their new mosque. (“Bosniak” refers to Bosnians who are Muslim.)

There is a group of people listening to a children’s choir perform in the main space. On the floor listening to the performance are two little girls sitting side by side. One is wearing a headscarf and the other a Santa hat. At times there is a line to get in. One little boy sees his friend in line and says, “I didn’t know you were Muslim!” People are chatting and taking off their shoes to enter the mosque. In front of the niche in the wall of the main space that indicates the direction of Mecca, towards which Muslims pray five times a day, The Bulbuli Children’s Choir performs several songs in English, Bosnian and Arabic. Yes, the mosque is a place of prayer, but it is also a social gathering place for community events.

Imam Sabahudin Ceman, who traveled from Phoenix for the event, is the Head Imam of the Islamic Association of Bosniaks in North America. Imam Ceman describes the religious tolerance in Bosnia and Herzegovina and particularly in the capital Sarajevo. “They call Sarajevo the European Jerusalem. In one courtyard there is a mosque, synagogue and a church,” he says. “Although differences exist, we have more similarities. We as human beings get stuck on differences.”

In an effort to help build bridges with the Christian community The Islamic Society of Bosniaks In Utah have chosen to name their mosque “Maryam.” The prophet Jesus and his mother Maryam are important people in Islam. The open house is a way for the Bosniaks to reach out to non-Muslims to share their history, culture and religion, but in particular to try and combat the negative stereotypes of Muslims in the media and popular culture.

A study conducted by Media Tenor, a media analysis organization based out of Switzerland, showed that as many as 80 percent of the news stories on U.S. television featuring Islam are negative. The four most common topics while covering Islam were international terrorism, international conflicts, political unrest and domestic terrorism.

Imam Ceman says, “We are human beings and citizens. That is why we are having this open house. This is our home, not only to live here, but to defend as well.”

Downstairs people are sitting, talking, and eating a variety of Bosnian dishes and desserts. Coffee, cream, and sugar are offered around the room.

Mesha Zelkovich holds his toddler daughter on his lap as the call to prayer sounds from upstairs. After a few minutes of silence, Zelkovich continues speaking about some of his experiences. He was born in Bosnia and lived in Sarajevo. He escaped Bosnia during the Bosnian War and came to Salt Lake City. He jokes that since Sarajevo hosted the 1984 Winter Olympic Games and Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Winter Olympic games, he “only lives in Olympic cities.” He went to Highland High School and met and married his Catholic wife here in Salt Lake City. When asked if he and his wife’s different religions have ever been a problem he replies, “The more we talk about religion, the better our marriage. It’s all about mutual respect.” He adds, “We come here to mosque and then we’ll go home and set up a Christmas tree.” Their twin daughters are young, so they have options for religion when they grow up. “They could be Muslim, Catholic...or they could even be Jewish,” Zelkovich muses.

Zelkovich was in the U.S. military and dealt with stereotypes. However, he believes education is the solution. “If you don’t know the answer to something, ask, don’t stereotype. The misconception is that all Muslims are Arabs. There are all types and colors of Muslims…It's a lack of education.” Utah is his home and he enjoys that it has four seasons, low crime, and that his “LDS neighbors are awesome.” He is bothered by ignorant comments made by some public officials. “It is the politicians that are making it like this. Most people in Bosnia have mixed marriages.”

There weren’t many Bosnian families in Utah prior to 1992. Many of the Bosnians in the U.S., like Imam Ceman and Zelkovich, came here as refugees from the Bosnian War. The Bosnian War saw the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II, characterized by genocide, ethnic cleansing and systematic mass rape. It is estimated that 100,000 were killed and 2.2 million people were displaced in the conflict. Some of the worst atrocities were committed against the Bosniaks, most notably, the Srebrenica massacre. The Bosniaks fled religious persecution and ethnic cleansing. They settled all over the U.S. and seven to eight thousand found their way to make new lives for themselves in the Salt Lake Valley.

Today, there are multiple generations of Bosniaks living in Utah and they struggle to maintain their cultural identity here in the US. Before the Islamic Society of Bosniaks was founded in 2007, Salt Lake Bosniaks didn’t have their own place of worship. In 2007, they rented a space for their prayer services. In 2010, they purchased the former Baptist church at 425 N. 700 W. and finally had a space to call their own. Samra Boskailo, a member of the mosque, says, “The community came together and we bought it. We are happy to have our own little mosque.”

There are social spots for Bosnians to hang out like restaurants and coffee shops, but now they have their own place for cultural events and religious ceremonies like marriages and funeral services. Choir Director and Sunday School teacher Lejla Ramic says that having their own newly renovated space allows Bosniaks the opportunity to teach and preserve some of their cultural traditions that would otherwise be lost.

Photos by Chris Gintzon: