Just days into our trip, we took a walking tour of Belgrade. Srđan, our guide, took us to the Belgrade mosque. It is the only one in Belgrade, and it is fairly inconspicuous. The four policemen outside the mosque immediately caught my attention. They were there, our tour guide explained, to protect the building and those in it from any potential vandalism.
It was at this point that our guide shared the story of a new mosque which was bulldozed by the government just last week for not having the correct building permit. It is my understanding that the city did this to assert its power. This bears a striking resemblance to the story of the mosque in my hometown, Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Locals strongly opposed the presence of the latter out of fear. It fell victim to arson twice in the construction process and was challenged in court.
After finding the similarities in the challenges these two mosques faced, I immediately began to note the differences. Our guides explained to us that the mosque on the outskirts of Belgrade was bulldozed not out of racism, but as a political act. Nobody has a particular problem with the ideology or the people found in the mosque. Meanwhile, the locals in my city challenged the mosque out of fear and a twisted understanding of the religious ideology.
Many visitors would look at the tale of the Belgrade mosque and frown. I certainly did. It provides an opportunity for one to be appalled by the government, call it corrupt, and dismiss it as flawed. But can I really look at this government and call it more corrupt than my own, whose Supreme Court would not hear the case of my local mosque that was burned to the ground? Can I call people acting out of political fear worse than those carrying out acts of hate against their Muslim neighbors? I cannot help but look at the mosque in Belgrade which is still standing, guarded by several policemen, and wonder where the authorities were at home to guard the Murfreesboro mosque.
While I certainly disagree with the actions of Belgrade’s government last week, I feel that I can in no way allow the story to skew my perception of the people and the city. I would rather allow myself time to observe the strengths of the individuals and their government here, before I immediately begin pointing out weaknesses. Perhaps over the coming weeks my understanding of this complex place can grow to mirror the understanding I have of the complex society I live in at home.