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Ethnic War in Bosnia?

COMMENTARY

Ethnic War in Bosnia?

Cornelia Sorabji
Bosnia is fading from the news, winter has descended to sever its
population from the outside world, and military intervention of
any significant scale has not occurred. In Britain much of the
debate over the desirability of such intervention has revolved
around the idea of ‘ethnic war’. Given that most wars are waged
between members of different ethnic groups, it is not selfevidently clear what would constitute an ‘ethnic war’ or what are
the implications of intervention in such a war. In his numerous
television appearances Radovan Karadzic, leader of Bosnia’s
Serbs, has assured us that it is a conflict fuelled by mutual and ageold ethnic hatreds, and dissuaded the world from intervention.

The Islamic world agrees that it is an ethnic/religious war, but sees
this as the precise reason for which intervention should have
occurred. Croatia agrees that an ‘ethnic war’ does not call for
intervention, but insists that ethnicity has nothing to do with
Serbian aggression which is based on calculated economic and
territorial ambitions. (On closer examination this view grows
more complicated, since greed and barbarity are frequently regarded as essential aspects of Serbian ethnic identity.)
In Britain the idea of ‘ethnic war’ based on ancient feuds and
centuries of spilled blood has had various connotations. In the
earlier phases it was endowed with moral implications, suggesting that the violence was an internal matter and therefore none of
our business (an analogy with the dubious idea of wife-battering
as mere ‘domestic dispute’ in which outsiders have no place). As
public opinion moved on, and the view that all parties were guilty
became less tenable, the phrase ‘ethnic war’ assumed a second
charge. In early summer 1992 its implications became less moral
than practical and could loosely be summed up thus: military
intervention could not do any good because, in an ethnic war, the
ethnic groups will fight on and on, incited by overwhelming
hatreds, regardless of the options or consequences. A third meaning has been present all along: the idea that since ethnic identities
and grudges are self-contained and self-propelling, our involvement to date has not really affected the war’s internal logic and we
have merely been observers and mediators.

These understandings of ethnicity are as essentialist, if not
ferocious, as the nationalisms of ex-Yugoslavia. They suggest
that ethnic identities are set in stone and hence immutable,
whereas in fact they developed into existence and continue to
develop; that they are constructed in isolation without reference
to other identities, whereas in fact they are constructed in relation
to other identities; and that they are necessarily more important to
their bearers than any other identifications, whereas this is not
invariably the case.

Far from three pristine ethnic identities meeting each other in

Radical Philosophy 63, Spring 1993

a war, Bosnian identities have been negotiated in the course ofthe
conflict itself, and in the build-up to it. And since war is not just
a matter of arms and terrain, but also of motivations and beliefs What are we fighting for? Who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them ‘? – these
shifting identifications then feed back into the violence itself.

Because the idea of European identity has been increasingly
central to Serb, Croat and Muslim self-perceptions, and because
the EC took Yugoslavia on board as a European problem, it cannot
but be implicated in the construction and mutation of identities in
ex-Yugoslavia. Europe is not merely an observer or mediator of
self-contained ethnic identities and clashes; it is intimately involved in the ethnic dynamics of the region. This involvement is
(at least) twofold. Firstly, by lending legitimacy to essentialist
conceptions of ethnicity and to nationalist leaders, Europe has
contributed to the triumph of ethnic (Muslim/Serb/Croat) categories over all other possible ways of understanding the conflict, and
thus to eroding the potential for political solutions not based on
ethnic principles. Secondly, it has played and will play a part not
only in the shifting relationships between Bosnia’s three ethnic
groups, but also in the process of reconceptualisation of national
identity internal to each ofthem. Bosnia’s Muslims are the major
casualties.

Pre-War Sarajevo
The Bosnian capital- urban, multi-ethnic and proud vis-a.-vis the
seljaci/peasants – cannot be taken as representing Bosnia as a
whole, and during the course of its long siege it has become one
of the last bastions of multi-ethnic unity and tenacity. Nevertheless, it should not be taken as a place where understandings are
totally divorced from the rest ofBosnia: Sarajevo may be unique;
but it is not completely alien to its surroundings.

City .voices have been heard to claim that, before the war, ‘we
didn’t even know who was Serb or Croat or Muslim, we were all
just friends.’ This doesn’t seem an accurate description of the
situation in which, I suggest, people were acutely aware of who
was what. Other people’s customs and traditions – Uskrs and
Vaskrs (Croatian/Catholic and Serbian/Orthodox) and Kurban
Bajram, coloured eggs brought to school by Serbian children and
Ramazan baklava by Muslim – were all noted and understood as
signs of the differences. In spite of the oft-noted number of intermarriages, most marriages were made within the ethnic group
From this it does not, however, follow that the groups hated each
other or had been doing so ever since the Second World War and
merely waiting for a chance to get even. For the most part
tolerance, good will and a conscious desire for cooperative and

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civil relationships filled the joints between the three populations.

At the same time, non-ethnic differences, differences of class and
status, of rural or urban origin, and of access to resources, were far
more salient than much current analysis suggests.

Islam plays a central role in the popular understanding of
Muslim identity but its meanings are diverse and differently
understood and emphasised at different times, in different contexts and by different people. Islam is no monolith and implies no
cast-iron relationships with Serbs, Croats, Albanians, Western
Europe, or the Middle East.

The terms nacija (loosely – nationality) and vjera (faith) are
frequently used interchangeably; the answer to ‘what’s your
nacija?’ being, for example, ‘Protestant’, rather than ‘British’.

This does not, of course, mean that all Muslims were devout and
clearly individual Muslims and Muslim families greatly vary in
their levels of religious observance. There are those who pray
regularly, fast Ramazan etc., those who fast token days ofRamazan
and participate in some religious rituals, and those who never pray
and who drink heavily and openly. In themselves, however, such
infringements of Islamic regulations say little about the role of
Islam in self-perceptions. The consumption of alcohol no more
prevents a Muslim being a Muslim than petty thefts stop a
Catholic being a Catholic.

This is an important point for, like the other religions of the
region, Islam is not simply a set of clearly definable rules of
practice and is not so understood by Muslims. Alongside detailed
prescriptions for daily prayer, the annual Hajj, etc., Islam is also
understood as a domain of loose moral imperatives – hospitality,
cleanliness, generosity, honesty, compassion, courtesy, industry,
and so on. This reliance on Islam as a moral system was very
evident in the Muslim or Muslim-dominated neighbourhoods
above Bascarsija. Here people greeted each other with M erhaba
or Aksam Hajrula in place of the Serbo-Croatian Dobar dan or
Dobar vecer used in the town centre. The neighbourhoods were
self-consciously Muslim and Islamic, yet Islam was seen to lie
less in ritual or theology than in life values. To have a dirty home,
be mean with the guests, or gossip too much were far more
pertinent signs of the inadequate Muslim than a failure to pray or
fast. Rarely did Muslims evaluate each other’s actions in religious
language. It was not haram (Arabic: forbidden by God) to slander
someone, but neposteno or ne valja (Serbo-Croatian: dishonest,
not good). It was not sunnet (Arabic: recommended by the
Prophet and pleasing to God) to wash your hands before meals,
but Jino/valja – nice/good. These values form part of a general
field of morality which can potentially be seen as overlapping
with that of non-Islamic or non-Bosnian Muslim societies.

In socialist Bosnia many self-confessed believers whose families had Party links could easily assert that, after all, Islam and
Communism said the same things – work hard, don’t cheat your
neighbours, redistribute your wealth, etc. These sorts of accommodations between Islam and Communism have been noted in
other parts of the socialist bloc. In part they are born of necessity
under unsympathetic or openly oppressive regimes, but they
should not be viewed as utterly bogus concessions to the authorities, made through guilty self-delusion or with fingers crossed
behind the back. As a moral system Islam is capable of being
interpreted as related to other moral systems and this process of
interpretation did not end with the end of one-party socialism.

Even the loose Islamic revival movement of the mid-1980s,
largely composed of young people in their teens and twenties,
relied heavily on Islam’s nature as a system of values. Many of
those who could be seen to fall within the domain of the revival
were (or had been) students at Sarajevo’s medresas or Islamic
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Theological Faculty. Of these some were urbanites and some
from rural backgrounds, the latter’s secondary or higher education made possible by the stipends and accommodation which
religious academies could offer in a way that secular ones could
not. Others were studying at the University or working as professionals – lawyers, doctors, architects, engineers, etc. All were
religiously observant and keen on acquiring or improving their
knowledge of Arabic, the Quran, the hadiths and the Islamic
world. Some, but by no means all, of the young women had
adopted headscarves and long dresses. But what largely dominated their conversation and behaviour was not religious prescriptions for specific action, but broader moral questions of
modesty and respect. It was on this axis that they stressed their
association with the wider Islamic world outside Yugoslavia.

Turkish boys, for example, were deemed adept Quran reciters
because proper family relations of obedience and respect provided them with an appropriate environment for learning.

In the same vein, the fairly widespread anti-Albanian feeling
of the mid-1980s was supported by accusations that their Kosovan
co-religionists were lazy, ungrateful, undisciplined and therefore
somehow not properly Muslim. In this case too the loose field of
morality was the idiom through which Bosnian Muslims constructed their relationships with non-Bosnian Muslims.

The late 19805 on
With the decline of one-party socialism and Serbia’s increasing
self-assertion, particularly over Kosovo, Muslim understandings
began to change. Where the Albanians were concerned, images of
nobility under oppression began to replace those of idle ingratitude, as Kosovo came to stand less for a threat to Yugoslav unity,
than a Serbian threat which might soon redirect itself towards
Bosnia. At the same time, Muslims’ identity as Europeans began
to receive greater stress. In emphasising their Europeanness,
Muslims did not deny their Islamic identity. On the contrary,
Islam was precisely understood as one of the things linking
Bosnian Muslims to Europe.

The end of the Cold War witnessed religious revivals within
all three ofBosnia’s religious communities. In Sarajevo 1990 and
1991 saw Muslims celebrating Ramazan and participating in
religious rituals in greatly increased numbers. The old Islamic
revival of the mid-1980s now appeared to be joined by new
enthusiasts. The meeting of the two was sometimes the cause of
conflicts and misunderstandings over motives and meanings. But
what is important is that the majority of those enjoying the new
freedom of religious expression saw their activities as intimately
related to their new European future. Whilst increased Islamic
religious activity provided ammunition to those Serbian (and, to
a lesser extent, Croatian) propagandists warning of the Muslims’

desire for a fundamentalist state, for Muslims themselves the
freedom to worship openly was one strongly associated with the
values ofthe West. Moreover, the demise of Communism and the
one-party regime which had inhibited religious activity were
greeted as the opening of a door to freedoms and democracy
intimately associated with ideas of that West and with eventual
EC membership.

The restructuring of the Islamic Religious Establishment
echoed this feeling. In its 1990 Constitution the!slamska Zajednica
adopted Arabic names for various of its organs – Mesihats and
Rijasets replaced the Serbo-Croatian Staresinstvos – and thus
legitimated itself vis-a-vis the wider Islamic world. The restructuring of the Zajednica and the election of the first non-Bosnian
Reis-ul-Ulema supported its new supra-national, all-Yugoslav

Radical Philosophy 63, Spring 1993

tone and aims. Above all, however, the new Constitution
fore grounded the concept of democracy and of giving voice to
Muslims at the lower levels of the establishment. Given the
popular association of democracy specifically with the new
Europe, this move stressed the Islamic community’s relationship
with the Western rather than the Eastern world.

The association of Muslim identity with European values was
also evident in attitudes to the possibility of war. In summer 1990,
when Belgrade-registered cars were reported vandalized on the
Adriatic coast and Serbs feared to venture there, Sarajevans felt
free to take their seaside holidays (and happy to enjoy the reduced
prices). As war loomed and then began between Serbia and
Croatici in 1991, many Sarajevan Muslims held fast to the belief
that, while Serbs and Croats might fight, Muslims were too
rational and civilised for such hostility and would remain calm
and reasonable in the face of it all. (In retrospect many now
construe their reasonableness as plain naivety.) This rational and
peaceful stance was one deemed entirely in keeping with the
Europe which they wrongly believed would protect Bosnia’s
integrity, as well as in accord with an Islam seen as the religion
of tolerance and justice.

With war approaching Bosnia itself, the idea of Europeanstyle civil values was interpreted by many Sarajevan Muslims as
pertaining to Bosnians en masse, rather than Muslims in particular. When the shelling of Sarajevo commenced a third interpretation began to emerge. Rather than Muslim civility versus nonMuslim aggression, or Bosnian civility versus non-Bosnian aggression, this was a conflict between urban civility and rural
aggression and the attackers were described as ‘the peasants/
criminals/hooligans’ or just ‘them’ – but not as ‘the Serbs’.

The war and the build-up to it have thus not been understood
along the simple Muslim/Serb/Croat ethnic lines that the muchrepeated phrase ‘ethnic war’ implies. Bosnian identity and rural
versus urban identity are not ethnic identities. At the same time the
interpretative emphasis placed on the ethnic identities by their
bearers have changed over time.

Europe
Through its insistence on an essentialist treatment of ethnicity, in
which Serbs, Croats and Muslims have immutable identities,
Europe has played a part in legitimating nationalist leaders,
highlighting the ethnic boundaries, and creating the sort of ethnic
war (one based on mutual and compelling hatred and fear) which,
so it claims, had been there all along. The EC’s role in endless
‘peace’ talks, its pre-war acceptance of ethnic ‘cantonisation’,
and its wartime negotiations with leaders whose precise aim is
ethnic division and purity achieved through slaughter and exile these have all contributed to a situation in which, the killing and
destruction having lasted so long, poison rather than good will and
tolerance now fills the joints between Bosnia’s populations.

Simultaneously, Europe’s stance has inevitably affected the
internal ‘content’ of the ethnic identities. The flexibility of such
identities, and the way in which they reach out to incorporate or
legitimate themselves in reference to other identities, makes them
vulnerable. In the Muslim case I have suggested an increased prewar emphasis on Muslim identity as European identity. This is
also true of Serb and Croat identity in different ways. In the recent
past both Croats and Serbs have seen themselves as reclaiming a
European birthright of which either Communism or Tito himself
had deprived them. The nature and bases of the claims vary – one
drawing on the Austro-Hungarian legacy, Catholicism and antiCommunism, the other more on ancient battles with the Ottoman
Radical Philosophy 63, Spring 1993

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Turks. But both see and stress themselves as essentially European. And in their different ways both deny the Muslims’ claim
to such status – Serbia emphatically damning the Muslims’

supposedly deep-rooted Middle Eastern militancy, while Croatia
mourns their allegedly ineluctable transformation into Mujahedin.

In the context of such Europhilia, the EC’ s apparent acceptance or rejection of competing claims to European identity
matters. Given the current de facto partition of BosniaHercegovina, the Muslims’ enclosure into a small central area of
it, and Europe’s continued passivity, it seems thatthe Muslim bid
has been rejected. Accordingly, a renegotiation of Muslims’

understanding of themselves in relation to Islam and to Europe is
more or less inevitable. Contrary to popular opinion in Croatia
and Serbia, this does not necessarily mean abandonment of the
whole (read: ‘skin-deep’) idea of European identity and an
espousal of Middle Eastern style fundamentalism. But, since the
notion of Islam and Europe as joined by civic values, peace,
rationality, etc., has been shattered by the perception of Europe’s
failure to reciprocate, a path is paved for Muslims to reconstrue
the nature of ‘Europe’ in less positive terms and the meaning of
their own Europeanness in more radical terms.

In whatever direction Muslim (and Serb and Croat) selfperceptions have moved or will move, the process is not dictated
merely by some pure, internal ethnic logic. It is because ethnic
identities do not exist in isolation but are always constructed in
relation to other identities – and in this case particularly by the
idea of European identity – that the EC’s stance cannot but be
implicated in the shifting relationships and identifications of exYugoslavia. (Should the Islamic world’s future support rest solely
on the idea of Islam oppressed by Europe, then it too will be
implicated in Muslims’ changing self-perception.) In this light the
view that avoiding significant military intervention has in itself
kept our hands clean (an idea shared by those on the Left who
damn intervention as imperialism) appears in all its questionbegging shabbiness. The merits and demerits of such intervention
can be and have been rightly debated at length. But the notion that
inaction equals distance from the dynamics of ethnicity and war
holds as little water as Sarajevo’s pipelines.

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