The historical construction of a Muslim threat underpinning the betrayal of Bosnia

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Indraneel Sircar

Jumada' al-Akhirah 23, 1423 2002-09-01

Book Review

by Indraneel Sircar (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 13, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1423)

The Denial of Bosnia by Rusmir Mahmutcehajic. Pub: Penn State University Press, University Park, PA, 2001. Pp: 156. $24.95.

In this book, Mahmutcehajic examines the geopolitical and symbolic meanings of Bosnia. His basic thesis is that there are two opposing paradigms for Bosnia: Bosnian and anti-Bosnian. The former is the appreciation of ‘unity through diversity.’ The latter posits that the history of the area is one of antagonisms between different incompatible world views.

According to Mahmutcehajic, the success of the destruction of Bosnia rests on the historical construction of a Muslim threat. Islam is the ‘Them’ that impedes the unified ‘Us’ in Europe, an incompatible world that is detrimental to Christendom (p. 6). Moreover, Muslims in Bosnia were converted to Islam while under Turkish rule, so that the Muslims become the remnants of some ‘outside’ invasion, while Croatia and Serbia could be constructed back to "Tomislav’s Kingdom" in 924 and "Dusan’s Tsardom" from the thirteenth century respectively (pp. 2-3). Serb and Croat leaders from outside Bosnia were thus able to construct a history of two ‘peoples’, while constructing the threat of the Islamic ‘outsider’ in the region, not only legitimating a three-way division of Bosnia, but also the "ethnic cleansing" of Bosniak Muslims. By accepting this three-way division, Bosnian leaders, including Bosniaks, confirmed the anti-Bosnian thesis. For Mahmutcehajic, the actions from outside and inside Bosnia resulted in division and the denial of a thousand-year history of "unity in diversity". This is the denial of Bosnia.

Mahmutcehajic’s critique of the anti-Bosnian thesis rests on the assertion that it is possiblbe to build up "a viable state on the basis of goodwill and trust between all of its members" (p. 88). The author posits that the organisational and intellectual framework for such a dialogue between different religious outlooks has been made difficult by the institutions set up by the peace agreements. The destruction of Bosnian unity has gone "hand in hand" with three ethnic ‘nuclei’ unwilling to engage with others. However, by appreciating all of the individual elements within Bosnia and developing interaction within a multiethnic matrix, it is possible to construct a transcendental guiding principle of "our God and your God are one in the same" (p. 91). Mahmutcehajic suggests that this can be achieved by intellectual reunification through the establishment of networks, especially culture and art, which would counter ethnic politics (p. 93). This, in turn, rebuilds broken ties between communities, and paves the way for long-term economic recovery, since economic behaviour cannot be separated from social life. Thus, for Mahmutcehajic, "the renewal of Bosnia must be based on the indivisibility of economic and cultural reconstruction" (p. 102).

Mahmutcehajic’s essay cites the importance of historic construction, much like David Campbell’s National Deconstruction or Gearoid O. Tuathail’s chapter on Bosnia in Critical Geopolitics. However, Mahmutcehajic covers some new ground. Instead of downplaying the existence of different religious traditions within Bosnia, the work incorporates religion into his analysis, asserting that any peace plan needs to include "a clear and acceptable relationship towards Bosnia’s religious traditions" (p. 90). The author cites passages from the Qur’an and Bible to show that appreciating Bosnia’s multiple religious traditions offers several paths to the same God, and can serve to transcend impermeable ethno-religious ‘nuclei’. Moreover, far from being an ‘outside’ academic writing about a ‘foreign’ conflict, Stolac, Mahmutcehajic’s birthplace, was the scene of atrocities against the Bosniak population (p. x). Still, Mahmutcehajic remains committed to his Bosnian thesis of ‘unity in diversity.’ Mahmutcehajic fell out with Izetbegovic and left the SDA (Party of Democratic Action) when Izetbegovic accepted a peace plan that effectively partitioned Bosnia. This was a betrayal of Bosnia, and Mahmutcehajic depicts Bosniak leaders (and by extension Izetbegovic) unfavourably: "Abandoning the idea of Bosnian-Herzegovinan unity, the Bosniaks thus became the ‘third party of the conflict’, blindly obedient to the infallible authority of their leadership" (p. 62).

Although Mahmutcehajic is an ‘insider’ who sat at the negotiating table in Bosnia, one critique of the work is that it may not be realistic. It may be true that Bosnia enjoyed a thousand years of peaceful diversity, but times change. It is difficult to advocate mutual understanding from either end of a gun. For Bosniaks, definition as ‘the third party’ was not self-imposed, but rather imposed by outside forces. During the war in Bosnia, wishing away ethnic cleansing and other atrocities by citing ‘unity in diversity’ would not protect individuals, but solidarity with other ‘Others’ would. Moreover, Mahmutcehajic chooses his citations carefully in asserting the transcendental messages in the Qur’an and the Bible, but exclusivist readings of these texts can also corroborate the opposite perspective. At times, it seems Mahmutcehajic’s optimism does not engage with the deep wounds inflicted during the war that have divided the communities in Bosnia. The general election in 2000 confirmed that ethnic fault lines are difficult to transcend. Still, Mahmutcehajic’s work is compelling and provides insight into an alternative route to the reconstruction of Bosnia.

[Indraneel Sircar is a postgrduate student at the London School of Economics, London, UK.]

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