Skip to main content

Producing and Annihilating the Ethnos of Bosnian Islam

The war in Bosnia is a tragic testimony to the political and ideological abuse of religious differences in a society whose historical integrity is embedded in their mutual acculturation. Despite the succession of different indigenous and extraneous rulerships in the nine centuries of its history, Bosnia has managed to preserve religious and cultural pluralism. Why is this pluralism now in jeopardy? Why does the same history that bears witness to Bosnian diversity serve as a platform for its destruction? This paper will attempt to answer these questions by discussing the interplay of different pluralist and exclusivist ideologies pouring into Bosnia in the 19th century from neighboring Serbia and Croatia.

Historically, Bosnia has escaped the transformation into a nation-state. What it has not escaped, however, is an "internal nationalization," which subjected its population to partition along ethnonational lines. Consequently, Bosnia is not a land inhabited by Bosnians; it is the land of Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Jews, etc. Ernest Gellner proposed that the function of nationalism is endowing a culture with its own political roof. With that in mind, one can infer that in the process of nationalization the existing communities did not feel ready to enframe their shared history and common language in a single Bosnian nation within a single state. Instead, "Bosnian-ness" has remained a statement of regionalism, and within it, "Serb-ness," "Croat-ness," "Jewish-ness," and "Muslim-ness" as the declaration of national belonging. Bosnia, then, is a geographical reference mapped out in the world atlas, but not in the imagined cartography of national ideologies. Historically, it is the shared property of ethnic Jews, Muslims, Serbs, and Croats, who all rightfully call it their home. Ideologically, it belongs to none of them as far as the one-nation-one-polity paradigm goes. It is thus an atomistic construct composed of several communities that have, due to their confessional differences, become ideologically alienated from each other. The shift from an essentially integrative, multireligious context to ethnonational "othering" is key to understanding this alienation. The focus here is on the ethnonationalization of Bosnian Muslims that may be explained as a reaction to the infiltration of national ideologies designed in Serbia and Croatia. In other words, the question raised is how an essentially religious community became both an ethnic and national community, without changing its appellation. Or, to pose the question in the format of the political language in the former Yugoslavia, how did muslims become Muslims?

The present wear is arguably an extension of the Serbian and Croatian nationalistic preventions set up in the 19th century. Its consequences are tragic: since the beginning of the aggression on Bosnian unity in early 1992, some two thirds of the pre-war Muslim population have been misplaced or killed. Most of the cultural heritage of Bosnian Muslims has been destroyed, not as a side-product of fighting, but as a result of a systematic targeting of architectural, cultural, and religious symbols of Bosnian Muslim identity.

A testimony to the existence of "another" national group does not automatically propel assault on its historical identity. In the present war, however, the question of "otherness" is the main motive behind the "ethnic cleansing" campaigns that have aimed at altering the cultural and historical landscape of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Why has Serbian (and to an extent Croatian) national ideology singled out Bosnian Muslims in their "cleansing" policies? National myths, as Benedict Anderson argues, are ephemeral in nature, and their claim to transhistoricity can readily be disputed. Thus, it seems quite necessary to move beyond the popular image of this war as an intimidating historical labyrinth perpetuated by ancient hatreds, and understand the dynamics at play among different national ideologies. Bosnian Muslims, unlike Serbs and Croats, never managed to put together an adequate national mythology, which rendered them the most vulnerable party in the exploding nationalistic arena. Their religious belonging, constructed in the early 20th century as a separate ethnonational identity, has failed short of providing a convincing mythological discourse, that would spatially and temporally preserve this identity as a nation state.

Bosnia in History

As a medieval state, Bosnia began asserting its independence under Ban Kulin in the 1180s. The assertion of political independence led to the weakening of ties with both Orthodox and Catholic institutions and the establishment of an independent church, known as the Bosnian Church. The studies in the Bosnian Church have frequently linked it with neo-Manichean Bogomil beliefs, but more recent findings indicate a stronger affinity with Catholicism than previously suggested.

Significantly, religion played a minor role in state affairs, so the expansion of the Bosnian borders in the 14th century did not lead to a dissemination of the teachings of the Bosnian Church. Another handicap of this church in spreading its influence was its being labeled as heretical by the Pope. Consequently, while the Bosnian Church remained confined to the heartland, it was the Francuscans who carried out more widespread missionary activities that lasted until the arrival of the Ottomans in the mid-15th century.

For a number of complex socio-political reasons, a large number of Bosnians, primarily the followers of the Bosnian church, chose to convert to Islam in the course of the 15th and 16th centuries. The number of new converts surprised even the Ottoman authorities and, as a result, Bosnia came to be perceived as the western stronghold of the imperial polity throughout the four and a half centuries of Ottoman rule.

In Ottoman times, the population was administratively grouped according to the millet system, whereby their rights were determined by their religious identity. Bosnian converts to Islam were the privileged community, set apart from their Catholic and Orthodox neighbors. Such political inequality, however, did not necessarily imply social segregation: numerous popular narratives bear witness to a continuous interaction among these religious communities, as well as a shared sense of regional patriotism. However, the normally peaceful coexistence occasionally burst into explicit conflicts that would crystallize the lines of religious differentiation. Given that the political consciousness in both the privileged and the unprivileged population was still underdeveloped, it was an emotive pendulum that would swing their mutual perception from the conjunctive background of the shared history to the disjunctive foreground of cultural differentiation. Towards the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, however, these conflicts began to be guised in ideological attire, even though they were often socio-economically motivated. With national awakenings in Croatia and Serbia, the pendulum swings were determined by more immediate ideological and political concerns of southern Slavs.

With the gradual breakdown of the Empire, Bosnia in 1878 was taken over by yet another imperial power, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Such doomed political circumstances surrounding Bosnia in the 19th century created much bitterness among the Bosnian intelligentsia, leaving it vulnerable to external influences. Both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires were foreign powers, and their agendas for the future of Bosnia took little account of the indigenous aspirations. Although Croatian and Serbian national ideologies began seeping into Bosnia, too, they were promptly diluted by an unaccommodating political reality. A synchretic history on one and the continuous foreign rulership on the other ensured the resistance of Bosnia to both succumbing completely to the wooing ideologies of neighboring Croatia and Serbia and articulating an indigenous ideological agenda. Yet, even without achieving far reaching goals, these diffusive ideologies left a powerful and lasting impact on the consciousness of the Bosnian population.

Serbian and Croatian National Awakening

Nation-building, as Anderson points out, necessitates the removal of a people from their historical context of "objective modernity" towards the creation of a myth about their "subjective antiquity." Serbian and Croatian nationalisms, arising from their respective political and ideological climates, clearly demonstrate this transformation of consciousness. In 1830, Serbia gained independence from the Ottomans. Shortly thereafter, in 1836, the leading Serbian intellectual and language reformer, Vuk Karadzic, initiated a form of linguistic centrism with his article "Serbs All and Everywhere" ("Srbi svi i svuda"). Wherever Serbian is spoken, Karadzic argued, there is Serbia. Language determines culture. Though remarkably influential, Karadzic failed to politicize his ideas of linguistic hegemony. The cartography of a contemporary of his, Ilija Grasanin, filled in the gap: wherever Serbian is spoken, there is Serbia, ruled by the Serbian monarch.

Increasingly, religion began to play a more salient role in the Serbian national awakening. Gaining autonomy from the Ottomans in the early 19th century had been repeatedly thematized in Serbian popular narratives as a symbolic victory of Christianity over Islam. More moderate articulations of such victorious sentiments looked for a tacit acceptance of the Muslim community with the hope that through adequate educational policies the Muslims would reconvert.

In 1848, Montengrin bishop Petar Petrovic Njegos composed a historical play, The Mountain Wreath, that has since been considered the greatest piece of Serbian literature ever, because, as Vasa Mihailovic puts it, "it epitomizes the spirit of Serbian people held for centuries." The play is plotted around the Serbian extermination of all "Turks." It is to be noted that "Turks" here are not people of Turkish origin but South Slavic converts to Islam who, as the argument goes, betrayed the Serbian race. (In the present war, the religious hatred propagated by The Mountain Wreath has been the main ideological fuel for Serbian nationalists. The term "ethnic cleansing" is derived from the play's term "religious cleansing." In both cases, Muslim converts are posited as pollutants of Serbian-ethnic or religious - space.) This extremist attitude was occasionally accepted by the Serbian government itself, deepening the tension between Serbia and Bosnian Muslims (to the extent that a prominent Bosnian Serb, Nikola Sumonja, criticized Serb politicians for their "anti-Turkish" aggressiveness and suggested that they emulate the Croatian attitude, which was in his eyes far more sensible).

Regarding the Croatian stance, it should be noted that Croat nationalism sprouted out of a completely different political framework. Unlike the Serbian awakening that came as a result of the Ottoman retreat, Croatian national sentiments reflected opposition to both the ongoing subordination to the Austro-Hungarian rule and, more specifically, the Hungarian assimilationist tendencies. By the mid-19th century, several Croatian intellectuals voiced their loyalty to Croat-ness. The cultural heterogeneity of Croatia gave rise to a more flexible search for identity. Ljudevit Gaj (d. 1872) expressed best this need for ideological syncretism: in the 1830s, he founded the so-called Illyrian movement that rooted itself in a linguistic and racial unity of all Balkan Slavs. More specifically, its attempt was to revive the assumed unity of the Balkan peoples before the 9th century arrival of Catholicism and Orthodoxy that caused religious and political split in the region. Though ineffective in the larger context and exclusive of the autochthonous though non-Slavic Balkan peoples (e.g. Albanians), this movement must be recognized as perhaps the most syncretic of all early movements, as it sought to bridge the gap between Croat and Serbian national sentiments. In certain respects, it was a supra-regional national movement, somewhat similar to Yugoslavism that would be advocated by Tito in post-World War II Yugoslavia.

For the spirit of the times, however, Illyrianism was too vague and inclusive. The subsequent national articulations in Croatia were much more exclusive of Serbia, though not of Bosnia. Antun Starcevic, a vehement opponent of Vuk Karadzic, promoted Croat identity that geopolitically included Bosnia. After all, he argued, Bosnia is Croatia's heartland.

The Croats are Catholics, and their nationalist ideology carefully wove the Church into its fabric. The Bosnian Catholic population readily embraced this element in Croatian nationalism, as it was the most powerful common denominator that rendered them real Croats. The key figure in this process was Josef Stadler, who, after having been appointed archbishop for Bosnia, extended the religious component even further by insisting on the conversion of Bosnian Muslims to Catholicism. In other words, the only demarcation line between the "true" Croats and the "untrue" Croats of Bosnia was religion. The effect was twofold: one, it ensured a safe haven for Bosnian Catholics in the Croatian national space, and two, it posited religion as the crucial factor in the definition of that space. The Muslims were excluded. The two communities that had for centuries shared the actual space were now separated by the imagined space, primarily by virtue of their confession. Although they continued living side by side, the formation of their identity took separate turns, forecasting political and ideological tensions.

How Nationalism Enveloped Bosnian Muslims

The confusing signals from Croat and Serb nationalisms were particularly accentuated as the Serbian fears of the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia were realized in 1978. In an attempt to stem the flow of Serbian ideology into Bosnia, Austro-Hungarians sought to promote a distinct Bosnian identity and targeted Bosnian Muslims as the most liable party. The identity crisis of Bosnian Muslims, already dichotomized through Serbo-Croatian national aspirations, acquired yet a third, more local dimension: Bosnian-ness (Boshnak-ness). A triangle of contending forces, each pulling in a different direction, was formed around Bosnia, exerting more and more pressure on Bosnian Muslims to make up their national mind. In line with these cross-currents, Bosnian Muslims found themselves split in three different, though overlapping, national identities: some espoused Serb-ness, some Croat-ness, and others Bosnian-ness.

Paradoxically, all three categories were transnational. Bosnian-ness, as envisioned by Austro-Hungarian exclusivism, targeted only the Muslims, with the intention of directing them ideologically away from Serbia towards their Ottoman past. Pro-Ottoman sentiments were still a unifying factor for Bosnian Muslim masses, and they were mainly articulated in religion-political and socio-economic terms. On the one hand, the head of the Muslim community argued that Islam does not allow for national sentiments, as prime loyalty should be paid to the Sultan as Caliph. On the other hand, in Ottoman times, arable land had been distributed along confessional lines. For example, the Austro-Hungarian census of 1910 showed that Muslims held 91% of all agricultural land, while around 73% of the peasants working on that land were Orthodox. The agrarian reforms envisioned by Austro-Hungarians threatened to jeopardize Muslim landownership and deepen the ideologically motivated split between the Muslim and Christian populations of Bosnia. Therefore, they abandoned these reforms, realizing that the political consequences would be against their interest in preserving the unity of Bosnia.

With the establishment of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes after World War I in 1918, the new Yugoslav government went ahead with implementing the agrarian reforms. By that time, the split in national ideologies had assumed more extreme proportions, primarily under the leadership of Nikola Pasic and his Serbian National Radical Party. Towards the end of World War I in 1918, he had issued the following statement: "As soon as our troops cross the Drina River, we will give the Turks 24, perhaps 48 hours to convert to the religion of their forefathers, and those who resist we shall slay as we have done in the past."

In 1919, the Muslim resistance to both socio-economic and ideological actions of the Yugoslav government was objectified in the establishment of the Yugoslav Muslim Organization (YMO). The main agenda was to defend the existing patterns of land distribution, perpetuating in consequence societal cleavages along confessional lines. It is under these circumstances that the political consciousness of Bosnian Muslims began to emerge. It was a reactive consciousness, embedded mainly in an apophatic discourse. Sakib Korkut, the YMO spokesman, articulates its as follows:

What did the unification of Yugoslavia bring us? Fraternal forgiveness, or savage retribution? I shall not recount all the murders, robberies, and persecution of Muslims. Even children known about those. I shall only note who committed these things: Orthodox Serbs. Some object, nothing that Catholic Croats were also persecuted. That is true. But that only proves that the persecution of Muslims was not a result of our non-national circumstances. We were the victims of organized religious fanaticism, and were therefore forced to group ourselves on a religious basis too.

Under the pressure of both Muslim intellectuals and masses, who did not necessarily share the same views of their future, the Yugoslav governments responded with a new Constitution in 1921. It guaranteed the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, even though it did not end the divisionist plans of Serbia and Croatia for ideological domination over Bosnia. With YMO uncommitted to either, Croatia and Serbia easily incorporated Catholic and Orthodox Bosnians into their national discourses. A strong tri-confessional Bosnian identity was not part of anyone's political agenda. A similar policy was continued by Tito in post-World War II Yugoslavia: the Constitution of 1971 gave Muslims a legitimate national status, essentializing thus the tri-partition of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The result was the crystallization of Yugoslavia as the federation of six Republics (Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina) in which only one of them-Bosnia-Herzegovina - was not a national construct. The Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina were thus deprived of any territorial claim, much like the Jews or the Gypsies: a community in time, but not in space. Bosnian Muslims, who are the most indigenous population of Bosnia-Herzegovina, lost possession over it by being essentialized as a Muslim nation.

Residually identified as a separate national identity, the Muslims began their own search for self-definition. Three avenues of its articulation can be identified. The first is the rejection of nationalism in favor of the supra-national Islamic community. In 1925, Osman Nuri Bey Firdus wrote: "It is impossible to be at the same time a Muslim and have national sentiments. Islam is more important than nationality." Interestingly, this statement foresaw much of the spirit of Alija Izetbegovic's "Islamic Declaration" of 1970: "Pan-Islamism has always come from the very heart of the Muslim peoples, nationalism has always been imported. Consequently, the Muslim peoples have never had `aptitude' for nationalism. Should one be distressed by that?"

The second avenue is the contextualization of Islamic sentiments in time and space, i.e., acknowledging the Islamic heritage as the basis for Bosnia's national heritage. The raw model was not the Ottoman Sultanate but the Turkish Republic, where the Islamic identity did not preempt nationalization, but, on the contrary, was a part of it.

Finally, the third articulation was the historical leap back into pre-Ottoman Bosnia whereby the link was established with Bogomil ancestors. This neo-Bogomil direction, however, was to gain momentum only in Communist Yugoslavia, particularly in the poetry of Mak Dizdar, Skender Kulenovic, and others. All three currents have enjoyed a resurgence as a consequence of the current war.


In sum, the ideological and political appropriation of Bosnia by Croatian and Serbian nationalism, which also implied the eradication of Islam, resulted in the Bosnian Muslims' defensiveness and particularization of identity through selective historiography. The founding of the Yugoslav Muslim Organization was but a spontaneous response to the crisscrossing nationalist pressure from Serbia and Croatia, reinforced by the Austro-Hungarian interests of diminishing Serbian influence in Bosnian affairs. As Noel Malcolm aptly points out, it is questionable whether Bosnia would have ever adopted what is described here as "internal nationalization" had it not been for its neighbors. In that sense, a search for "national" identity among Bosnians of different confessional denominations was inspired and moved by the forces from without. Bosnian Catholic and Orthodox population were readily absorbed by the expansionist nationalist tendencies of Croatia and Serbia, respectively. Bosnian Muslims who found no similar external support, were pushed to crystallize their national position within specific historical circumstances.

In this light, the case of Bosnian Muslims can be easily seen through Wallerstein's proposition that nationalism is not a thing in itself but a "relation" manifested as a response to external forces. The nationalization of Bosnian Muslims was not formulated as a mythological discourse that could ensure them geographical integrity and grant them territorial claims over the land to which they historically belong. Today, however, after three years of being subjected to genocide, for the Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina the question of self-definition is urgently linked to the very question of survival. As Ignatieff put it, "Before the experience of genocide, a people may not believe they belong to a nation. Before genocide, they may believe it is a matter of personal choice whether they belong or believe. After genocide, it becomes their faith."

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.