I have recently become aware of the existence of a flag for Muslims in Bosnia. It’s green with a white crescent and star. These symbols are not purely Islamic and Ottoman in origin. In fact, they’re also related to the Illyrian heritage of the western Balkans.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is among the most diverse countries in Europe, ethnically and religiously. It’s held together by a 22-year-old peace agreement and strong outside pressure from the EU and the UN. For example, the national flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina was introduced by the UN High Representative in 1998.
On paper, the country functions as one republic with one flag. In reality, the population is heavily divided between Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats. Cultural and religious divisions that existed for centuries were made physical and political by civil military conflict and many instances of war crimes and ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian War of 1992-1995.
Today, half of the country is the Rebublika Srpska which is 80 % Serb and uses a red-blue-white horizontal tricolour similar to the flag of Serbia. The other half is the Federacija Bosne i Hercegovine which is three quarters Bosniak and one quarter Croat. Following a ruling by the Bosnian Constitutional Court, this part of the country has no official flag. Among Bosnian Croats, however, Croatian flags are in widespread use.
The medieval Christian Kingdom of Bosnia was conquered by the Islamic Ottoman Empire in 1463. Four centuries of Turkish rule left its mark; the history of Bosnia is full of animosity between people who share the same South Slavic language and the same beautiful land.
In 1878 the country was annexed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo in 1914 led to World War I. After the war, Bosnia and Herzegovina became part of Yugoslavia. World War II brutally opened up old wounds along ethnic and ideological lines. At the beginning of the 1990s socialist federal Yugoslavia as well as multicultural Bosnia disintegrated.
Muslim Bosniaks, part of the patchwork that is the Balkans, also share in the heritage of the much larger Islamic world. The political and cultural ties which once connected Bosnia with Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East are still visible, especially in Sarajevo. Here, the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, Bosnia’s largest historical mosque, is a prime example of Ottoman architecture and an important centre for the Islamic community in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Green flags with a white crescent and star decorate the entrance to the mosque. I haven’t been there myself; I know this thanks to a holiday photo of a Facebook friend of mine, Michael Sinan Amir Aslanes, who visited Bosnia not long ago.
At first glance, these flags look like Turkish flags where the colour red have been replaced by green, the colour of Islam. They may be inspired by the national flag of Turkey, but green flags with a crescent and star were used in Bosnia already in the second half of the 18th Century in the struggle for autonomy from the Ottoman Turks, and later the Austrians and Hungarians.
Around the same time, a red flag with a white crescent and star became the flag of the Ottoman Empire. The crescent was already a long-established symbol of Islam. The inspiration to use the crescent and star together may have come from Constantinople or from the Illyrians, the ancient people of the western Balkans. Illyricum was a Roman province roughly corresponding to 20th Century Yugoslavia.
In the first half of the 19th Century the Illyrian Movement drew on the name and memory of the ancient Illyrians in an effort to unite all South Slavs. The common Serbo-Croatian language, spoken today in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, was a result of their efforts.
A star and crescent is the oldest known symbol of Croatia from the 12th Century; it can still be found in the current national flag of Croatia. A star and crescent in a field of red represented Illyria and (Christian) Bosnia in medieval (fictional) heraldry. Three stars and a crescent in a field of blue represented Slovenia in the royal arms of Yugoslavia.
So, stars and crescents have been used by both Christians and Muslims in the Balkans for hundreds of years. On a field of green, the crescent and star represent the Muslims of Bosnia.