Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Historical Presence of Bosniaks in the Arab World

The Bosniaks in the Arab world continue to preserve their cultural heritage while forging new connections with their Bosnian roots.

Historical Presence of Bosniaks
Tunisian singer of Bosniak origin Lotfi Bouchnak performs during the 56th International Carthage Festival on July 14, 2022 in Carthage, Tunisia. Yassine Gaidi/ Anadolu via AFP

Youssef M. Sharqawi

The Bosniak community is a significant part of the diverse array of peoples and ethnicities that have settled in the Arab world. The swift integration and assimilation of Bosniaks into Arab societies, particularly in Palestine, Tunisia and Morocco, are unique among the ethnic groups inhabiting the area.

Their integration has been so thorough that the populace of Arab nations collectively – but erroneously – perceive the Bosniaks to have Arab roots. This perception, however, is inaccurate, as the Bosniaks’ roots are Slavic.

Migration to Arab countries

Originally, the term “Bosniaks” denoted Muslims of Slavic descent residing in Bosnia and Herzegovina. These people had embraced Islam during the period of Ottoman conquests.

Following the conclusion of the Treaty of Berlin with the Ottoman Empire in 1878, Bosnia and Herzegovina were designated to fall under the governance of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Moreover, the sovereignty of Montenegro, Serbia and Romania was recognised. Bulgaria, meanwhile, attained autonomy as an independent principality under the nominal sovereignty of the Ottoman Sultan.

Following the transfer of control over Bosnia and Herzegovina to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bosniaks had to leave their homeland, particularly because of religious dimensions that were prevalent in the ongoing conflict at the time.

Some opted for overland routes and resettled in what is now Turkey, while others embarked on voyages by sea towards Palestine and other southern Arab nations, as these regions were subordinate to the Ottoman Empire at the time. The migrants came to be known as Bosniaks, reflecting their origins.

The migration of Bosnian Muslims from 1878 onwards was not a new phenomenon. During the period of Ottoman governance in Bosnia and Herzegovina, individual migration occurred for purposes such as employment, trade or the pursuit of improved living conditions.

The arrival of Bosnians predates the Treaty of Berlin, as some Bosnian leaders were already part of the Ottoman army deployed to the region. Among them, Ahmed Pasha al-Jazzar stands out prominently. Al-Jazzar served as the governor of Acre and led the defence against Napoleon Bonaparte’s army in 1799, successfully thwarting their attempts to breach the city walls.

Subsequent to the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the region experienced numerous waves of migration. Dissatisfaction with prevailing conditions, coupled with challenges and uncertainties regarding prospects for life, prompted many to seek emigration. Among those departing were Serbs, Muslims, Croats and Jews. Muslims made up the largest share.

While official immigration records were not maintained between 1878 and 1883, it is widely presumed that the greatest exodus of Muslims from the region up until then took place during these initial years.

The implementation of a new Territorial Defence Law – which facilitated processes leading to the conversion of Muslims to Christianity and the persecution of those who adhered to Islam – instigated another wave of emigration.

Bosnian Muslims, under the leadership of Sheikh Ali Fehmi Džabić, naturally rebelled against the oppressive measures and the Austrian administration in 1900. They also rose up in opposition to Austrian rule following the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austria in 1908.

Reports indicate that the largest of all migration waves followed this annexation. After the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, significant migratory movements to the Ottoman Empire ceased.

Another significant wave of migration occurred after 1919, coinciding with the emergence of a new historical and political landscape in the Balkan Peninsula.

During this period, considerable numbers of Turks and Muslims, proficient in the Serbo-Croat language, departed from the newly liberated territories that became part of the state of Yugoslavia. Additionally, following World War II, some residents also immigrated to Turkey.

Reports indicate that numerous families migrated to Arab countries during these waves. Among them were families with names such as Lakšić, Begović, Muradović, Jehanović and others.

All these families eventually adopted a unified name, linking them back to their ancestral homeland: Bosniak. Elders from these families convened to deliberate on their relationship with the surrounding Arab community.

Mustafa Muradović, a Bosniak, recalls his father’s words, “The Arab peasants were kind and cooperative towards us. We encountered no issues with them, prompting the Bosniaks to integrate into Arab society.”

Parents enrolled their children in Arab schools, arranged marriages between their daughters and young Arab men and collaborated with Arab peasants in agricultural pursuits.

Four generations later, the grandchildren of these migrants have lost touch with the Bosnian language and customs. They just know their roots are Bosnian.

The building of Caesarea in Palestine and the Nakba


Historical Presence of Bosniaks
A view of a Bosnian Mosque in the ancient port city of Caesarea on June 24, 2018. Ronen Tivony / NurPhoto via AFP

Reportedly, the Bosniaks asked the Ottoman government for assistance in relocating on the condition that they could remain together as a community.

Subsequently, the government agreed to their request and granted them the freedom to select a new place of residence. Upon learning about Caesarea, a semi-ruined archaeological site near Haifa, a group of Bosniaks migrated there.

Meanwhile, a smaller contingent comprising families such as Lakišić, Šilić, Mezević and Mekišić chose to settle in the village of Yanun, near Nablus.

Initially, the immigrants in Caesarea were the sole inhabitants of the newly established village. Later, the Ottoman authorities resettled seven Circassian families, a Bulgarian Muslim family and two Turkish families in the village. The Bosniaks fostered amicable relations with the newcomers and all neighbouring communities.

It is noteworthy that the Ottoman authorities did not offer assistance to the immigrants in constructing the village. Consequently, the Bosniaks had to address the challenges they faced independently, using their own resources to hire a German engineer.

The village was constructed within the confines of ancient Roman and Byzantine settlements, yet its design was modelled on the immigrants’ memories of Herzegovinian villages near Mostar.

As documented in the book All That Remains by Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi, the Bosniaks developed Caesarea into a thriving community. They constructed basements, pantries and a mosque. In 1884, they founded a primary school for boys.

The mass influx of Bosnian immigrants to Caesarea led to accelerated changes in their way of life and sped up their integration into the neighbouring Arab population. In the population censuses conducted by the British authorities during their occupation of Palestine, Bosniaks were categorised as Arab Muslims.

During the Palestinian Nakba, the Bosniaks, like many other Palestinians, were forcibly displaced from Caesarea. They were uprooted and resettled in neighbouring Arab countries, including Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Egypt. Consequently, with the departure of the Bosniaks, Caesarea ceased to exist as a village.

The strategic location of Caesarea put it on the agenda of Zionist military organisations shortly after the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine in 1947, as Israeli historian Ilan Pappé discusses in his book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.

In his book, he traces the origins of the Zionist vision for a comprehensive invasion of Palestinian territories, ultimately resulting in the expulsion of the indigenous population.

On 5 February 1948, an order was issued to execute this plan in three villages, including Caesarea. The directive entailed the occupation of the village, the expulsion of its inhabitants, and its subsequent destruction.

On 15 February 1948, Caesarea became the first village in Palestine to fall victim to the new plan. The operation took place in broad daylight, under the eye of the British forces stationed at a nearby outpost.

As a result, the Bosniak inhabitants of Caesarea were forced to leave, dispersing to neighbouring Arab countries. Some emerged as notable figures in the Palestinian struggle, for example, Abd ar-Rahman Bushnaq (1913-1999).

Bosniaks Today

At present, Bosniaks reside in various locations across the occupied Palestinian territories, specifically in the West Bank cities of Tulkarm, Nablus and Ramallah.
Approximately sixty families of Bosniak descent have settled in the Jordanian capital, Amman.

There is also a notable presence of Bosniaks in Kuwait. Well-known Bosniak families have settled in Lebanon. The Drachi family resides in Beirut, the Rybavac family in Tyre and the Champo family in Tripoli.

In Syria, Bosniaks live primarily in Damascus and Tartous. A small community can be found in Egypt and Gaza. Significant numbers of Bosniaks are scattered across Tunisia and the Maghreb region, as well as in Saudi Arabia.

Numerous Bosniaks choose to return to Turkey. A notable example of return migration includes the family of Dr. Suleiman Kathoda. Previously based in the Jordanian capital, they returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1980s. The family successfully regained Bosnian citizenship and currently lives in Mostar.

The new generation of Bosniaks, along with their parents, have fostered closer connections with their Bosnian heritage. Organised group trips, facilitated by family members, have become increasingly common.

Ikram Muradović recounts her experience, stating, “I travelled there with my husband and children, and I met a person who belongs to the same family as my mother. He invited us to his home, and it felt like a dream.”

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