In 1970, Yugoslavia was experiencing a form of glasnost ; writers took up previously taboo subjects such as religion. A Sarajevo lawyer named Alija Izetbegovic imposed a document entitled "The Islamic Declaration." The document, an anticommunist assertion of religious rights, spelled out the conditions for a just Islamic society and contained several provocative statements concerning the incompatibility of Islam with other systems. The principles of an Islamic state were discussed in an abstract manner, without specifying any particular nation. A few years later, Izetbegovic wrote a more extensive work, Islam between East and West , which suggested two models—Islam and European liberal democracy—as antidotes to the problems besetting Europe at the time.
When Izetbegovic became president of Bosnia in 1990, many Bosnians had never read his Islamic Declaration. But Serb militants not only read it, they published a Belgrade edition of it and used it to claim that Bosnian Muslims were radical fundamentalists or "Islamists," that is, Muslims who desired a state based on Islamic religious law (sharia ).
The charge that Bosnians were Islamists was combined with the charge that they were plotting to re-create the Ottoman rule over Bosnia. Serb radicals claimed that Bosnians wished for a state based on the leadership of religious scholars and a new Ottoman sultanate based upon imperial rule. Bosnian Muslims were accused of plotting to steal Serb women for their harems (Bosnian Muslims do not take more than one wife) and of drawing up lists of viziers (ministers in the Ottoman Sultanate) to rule the country. Croatian Defense Minister Gojko susak claimed
that 110,000 Bosnians were in Egypt studying to become fundamentalists.
The representation of the Muslim as an alien "other" has been called Orientalism. During the Christian Middle Ages, Muslims were viewed as perverted heretics and frequently associated with Jews and persecuted with them. During the period of European colonialism, Western scholars, artists, and other intellectuals reflected the ideology of the age: the need for Western colonial rule to "civilize" barbaric Oriental lands. Orientalism abounds in contradictions. Muslims were portrayed as mysterious, sensuous, and sexually obsessed (the harem fantasy in Western writing). At the same time they were portrayed as sexually repressed, authoritarian, rote-learners, and lacking in all creativity and imagination.
Religious nationalists in Croatia and Serbia used such of tentalist stereotypes both for home consumption and for the audience in the wider Christian world. Those who spread hate are seldom concerned about logical consistency, and stereotypes are not fashioned to appeal to reason but rather to semirepressed fears and hatreds. The contradictions of Orientalism appeared in a vicious and dehumanizing new form. Now Serb Orientalists had come up with the Islamist vizier, without the slightest embarrassment over the fact that modern Islamist ideologues believe in a state run by religious scholars and despise as corrupt and anti-Islamic the former imperial Ottoman structure with its sultans and viziers which collapsed in World War I. Similarly, the language of hate lacks even a basic concern with plausibility. Thus susak claimed that 110,000 Bosnian Muslims were studying fundamentalism in Egypt—a number that would represent 5 percent of the entire Bosnian Muslim population.
Religious nationalists in Serbia then charged a plot between Libya and Bosnian Muslims. During the 1970s Yugoslavia and Libya had been partners in the nonaligned block of nations that refused allegiance to either the Western Alliance or the Soviet Bloc. Through cultural, educational, and economic interchanges, many Yugoslavs of all ethnic and religious backgrounds worked or studied in Libya, including Bosnians such as Haris Silajdsis, who went on to become Prime Minister of Bosnia.
According to the religious nationalists, Silajdsic and other Bosnians who had visited Libya were trying to set up a fundamentalist Jamahariyya ("People's State," a word used by Libya's Qaddafi to describe his regime) without noting the difference between Qaddafi's Arab nationalism (based on the socialist ideas of Jamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt) and modern Islamist militants (who oppose Qaddafi and whom Qaddafi suppresses).
According to Tanjug, the news service controlled by Slobodan Milosevis, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of Milosevis's Yugoslavia has been none other than Muammar Qaddafi, President of Libya. By December 3, 1994, Tanjug was reporting on the visits to Libya of high-level Serbian officials. Praise for close cooperation between the two states, both of them outcasts from the international community, resounded through Tanjug reports. The same Serb nationalists who attacked Bosnian Muslims for alleged involvement with Libyans were posting Tanjug's effusive reports on Serbo-Libyan cooperation.
In 1994, Bosnian Minister of Culture Enes Karic defended a Muslim cleric who had discouraged mixed marriages and criticized the playing of enemy (i.e., Serb) music. His provocative statements were denounced by a wide range of government and extragovernment leaders, including Haris Silajdsis, the Prime
Minister. Yet Karic's statements were enough to set off announcements by Western observers that multireligious Bosnia was now dead and that Bosnia should therefore be partitioned along ethnoreligious lines.
Particularly galling to many Bosnians is the phrase, popular among diplomats and newscasters, "Muslim-dominated government of Bosnia-Herzegovina." The Bosnian executive branch of government is made up of two Catholic Christians, two Serb Orthodox Christians, and three Muslims; the Bosnian parliament and diplomatic corps contain Muslims, Jews, Serbs, Croats, and atheists. It is true that Muslims are in the majority in Bosnia and that, as large numbers of Croats and Serbs choose or are compelled by their own nationalist leaders to live under all-Croat and all-Serb governments in Herceg-Bosna and the Republika Srpska, the percentage of Muslims has increased. Yet Bosnians ask why there are not references to the "Protestant-dominated government of the United States" or the "Anglican-dominated government of Britain."
Behind much of the official, governmental propaganda were academics. University of Belgrade Professor Miroljub Jevtic, for example, wrote of the imminent threat to Europe posed by Muslims and also wrote of Balkan Muslims as having the blood of the martyrs of Kosovo on their hands—an almost direct copy of the blood-libel, that European Jews had the blood of Christ on their hands, used to persecute Jews from the time of the First Crusade in 1096. Dr. Aleksandar Popovic wrote of Islam as a "totalitarian" religion because it embraces all aspects of life. His use of the term "totalitarian" evokes Stalinist and Nazi totalitarianism, mentions of which are still painful in the former Yugoslavia. Belgrade academician Darko Tanaskovic described Bosnia
as the scene of a struggle between fundamentalist Muslims on the one hand and Serbs dedicated to keeping Church and State separate on the other. He thereby reversed the reality in which a clericalist Republika Srpska had eradicated every trace of peoples and cultures outside of Serbian Orthodox Christianity, while the Bosnian government struggled to maintain a multireligious culture.
The refusal of European governments to either defend Bosnians against genocide or allow them to obtain arms to defend themselves has been based in part on stereotypes about Islam. The attitudes of policy makers in Europe and North America are also influenced by a nativist backlash against immigrant communities, especially non-Christian immigrant communities, and an environment of increasing global tensions between some Muslim governments and the West. As Croatian President Franjo Tudjman noted, he had taken his mission to Europeanize Bosnian Muslims from the expressed desires of Western European leaders. Serb President Slobodan Milosevic was equally desperate to play up to European leaders and be accepted by them. In his 1989 Kosovo speech Milosevic stated that Prince Lazar's battle six hundred years before had been a battle to defend Europe from Islam, that Serbia was the bastion of European culture and religion, and that Serbia's future actions would demonstrate that now as in the past, Serbia was always a part of Europe. Tudjman and Milosevic felt a duty as Europeans to destroy the Bosnian Muslims and felt that doing so would facilitate their acceptance by Europe.
Central to the Orientalist stereotype is a confusion in the presentation of Islam between religious observance and religious militancy. While few would argue that the militant wing of the
Irish Republican Army represents all observant Catholics, the association of observant Muslims with religious militancy is widespread. Some defenders of Bosnia have fallen into this trap, arguing that Bosnian Muslims are not "real Muslims" since many of them eat pork or drink alcohol and dress in Western fashion. The implicit logic seems to be that if Muslims in Europe eat pork, they deserve to exist. Desperate to counter false charges that they were fundamentalists, there were Bosnian Muslims who used the same logic, arguing that some of them also ate pork and drank alcohol, or were religious skeptics. Ironically, while European powers out of prejudice against Muslims and fears of fundamentalism tried to prevent Bosnia from attaining arms to defend itself, support in the Islamic world was slow in coming, partly because some Muslim leaders viewed Bosnians as not rigorous enough practitioners of Islam. A particularly sad absurdity awaited many Bosnian refugees in Western nations. Having been driven out of home and country for being Muslim, the refugees sometimes find themselves castigated for not observing what certain Muslims in the West deem proper Islamic observance, dress, or behavior.
The stereotypes of Orientalism did not have to be subtle to be effective. However crude the presentation of Islam, however filled with interior contradictions, they provided a justification for many among Christian Croat and Serb populations for what was done to their Muslim neighbors, and they worked outside the region to militate against any effective, coordinated action by Western powers to stop the aggression.
As evidenced by those commentators who immediately assumed that the terrorist behind the Oklahoma City bombing was a Muslim, when it turned out the suspect was a follower of the
Christian Identity movement, a militant anti-Islamic prejudice has now pervaded much of Western society, subduing any popular sentiment for protecting "them," the religiously "other" in Bosnia. Tragically, the betrayal by Western powers of Bosnian Muslims into the hands of genocide will only strengthen the argument of Islamic militants that the West is by nature inimical to Islam, thus further polarizing elements of Muslim and Christian populations.
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