SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Mela Softic stopped drinking alcohol a month ago as part of her preparations for Ramadan fasting that began last Monday.
“This is the only religious holiday when I obey all the rules,” said Softic, a 24-year-old junior marketing manager, joking that she was a “Muslim on batteries” since she behaved as a true believer only once a year.
Softic belongs to a new generation of urban Bosnian Muslims who embraced their faith during and after the 1992-95 war, in which the Muslims suffered the greatest losses. They come from families of moderate Muslims, most of whom were secular during the socialist era, when Bosnia was part of the former socialist Yugoslavia.
Obeying an Islamic taboo, many do not eat pork, which is seen rarely in Sarajevo butchers or on restaurant menus. But outside Ramadan, the majority still drink alcohol.
“All my Muslim friends are fasting,” said the blue-eyed woman with a carefully coiffed bare head and smart business outfit.
The Bosnian capital Sarajevo had been known for its peaceful co-existence of Muslims, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians as well as Jews over the past five centuries.
But since the war it has become a predominantly Muslim city. The return to religion can be felt in all spheres of life, not least because Muslim politicians and Islamic clerics have promoted Muslim values.
“Religious identification has become much higher after the 1990s, and some studies have shown that nearly 90 percent of population in Bosnia identify themselves according to their respective religion,” said Zilka Spahic-Siljak, coordinator of religious studies at the University of Sarajevo.
She explained the trend partly by the war and partly by a new political and social system following Yugoslavia’s break-up.
Before the war, urban Muslims preserved religion in their homes only as part of their family tradition and culture, but religious customs were rarely observed.
“Religion had been pushed out of the public sphere before the 1990s and then freedom arrived and people opted to express publicly their religious identity,” she said.
Softic said all Muslim students in her high school fasted during Ramadan and that it was something of a trend which students of other faiths respected.
“I know many people of other faiths who really respect Ramadan, and I find it great,” she said. “I have Catholic and Orthodox friends who don’t drink during Ramadan.”
In nearby Albania, where religion had been virtually erased under the Communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, the majority Muslim population is still overwhelmingly secular but imams and Islamic scholars say more young people are coming to mosques.
“In my 10 years here, I see more people coming every Friday and there are even more during Ramadan,” said Ahmed Kalaja, the imam of a mosque in central Tirana where young and middle-aged believers prayed or sat talking after prayer.
Albanian Muslim scholar and journalist Agim Baci said even people who do not pray regularly observe Ramadan.
“I have been observing Ramadan for 11 years and I have seen the number of practitioners rising. I have seen youth come en masse. They are engineers, journalists, lecturers,” said Baci.
He said most people fast only during the Night of Kader, which falls towards the end of Ramadan and marks “when the Koran came to our sky. Even Christians observe it in Albania for luck because it is believed that the night is more important than 1,000 months (of praying).”
The exception to the trend is Kosovo, a province which declared independence from Serbia in February after being a U.N. protectorate for nine years.
The majority of Kosovo Albanians are secular Muslims and people drinking beers during Ramadan are a common sight in bars in the capital of Pristina.
Sociology professor Ismail Hasani said there were no reliable figures on the number of believers in Kosovo but added he had not observed any increase in religious sentiment.
Enver Bajrami was the only one fasting among a group of six people sipping coffees and smoking in a cafe in Pristina on a recent sunny day.
“Everybody in my family is fasting except my two-year-old daughter,” Bajrami said. “This is the private matter. I respect decisions of other people. I have never asked anyone why they were eating or drinking on Ramadan.”
In Bosnia, organizing iftar dinners at sunset has become a matter of prestige among Muslim politicians and businessmen alike, and a social event for common Muslims.
Traders have to prepare for the fasting month and have to adjust their orders: less alcohol and cigarettes, more dried fruits and sugar, nuts, almonds, hazelnuts and ingredients for baking oriental cakes, such as baclavas.
“There are big fluctuations in the sale of some products. We sell only a dozen packages of dates in a year and during Ramadan we sell them in cases,” said Zilha Zornic, the manager of a large shopping centre in Sarajevo.
Muslims traditionally break their day-long fast with dates before going on to a full meal.
During the 15 hours of down-to-dusk fast, Muslims must not eat, drink or smoke. So when they break their fast they take easily digestible foods such as soups, dairy-based dishes and stewed fruits.
“Ramadan is a really special month for me, I associate it with a special kindness of people,” Softic said. “I feel that only then all of us truly respect each other.”
Additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci in Pristina and Benet Koleka in Tirana; editing by Adam Tanner and Tom Heneghan