Religious Separation and Political Intolerance in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Religious Separation and Political Intolerance in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Religious Separation and Political Intolerance in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Religious Separation and Political Intolerance in Bosnia-Herzegovina


Mitja Velikonja has written a comprehensive survey that examines how religion has interacted with other aspects of Bosnia-Herzegovina's history. Velikonja sees the former Ottoman borderland as a distinct cultural and religious entity where three major faiths -- Islam, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy -- managed to coexist in relative peace. It is only during the past century that competing nationalisms have led to persecution, ethnic cleansing, and mass murder.

Emphasizing the importance of religion to nationalism as a symbol of collective identity that strengthens national identity, Velikonja notes that religious groups have a tendency to become isolated from one another. He believes Bosnia-Herzegovina was unique in its sarlikost, or diversity, because while religion defined ethnic communities there and kept them separate, it did not create a culture of intolerance. Rather than suppressing one another, the region's ethno-religious groups learned to cooperate and mediate their differences -- useful behavior in an area that served as buffer between East and West for most of its history.

Velikonja believes that Bosnians went beyond tolerance to embrace synthetic, eclectic religious norms, with each religious group often borrowing customs and rituals from its rivals. Rather than the extreme orthodoxy evident elsewhere in Europe, Bosnia became the home of heterodoxy. Sadly, nationalism changed all that, and the area became the scene of systematic persecution, forced conversion, and mass slaughter.

Velikonja considers the misfortunes suffered by the Bosnians during the 1990s as largely the result of actions by their neighbors and local militants and inaction by the international community.But he also sees the tragedy that unfolded as the result of the exploitation of ethno-religious differences and myths by Serbian chauvinists and Croatian nationalists.

Despite the tragedy that overwhelmed Bosnia-Herzegovina


Weak and fragile is the kingdom where a
single language is spoken and a single
tradition prevails

HUNGARY (CA. 975–1038), CA. 1030

The ominous calm that rests upon Bosnia-Herzegovma, a ravaged land strewn with the embers of war, otters its inhabitants little more than a life of spiritual and material desolation at best, and a resumption of the carnage at worst. A nostalgia born of bewilderment for that which has been lost is passed on with bitter self-irony and enhanced by a dark premonition of what tomorrow might bring. When, why, and under whose leadership did it all come crumbling down? How fateful is the implication of epic and religious figures, national mythologies, and monotheistic doctrines, and what is the share of their guilt or innocence? Are the answers from the past also a harbinger of the future? These are some of the questions to which I sought answers during my research on the religious and mythological past and present of Bosnia-Herzegovina and South Slavs in general.

Indeed, researchers of the narrative and contemporary dynamics of the religious and national mythology of South Slavs have been shocked by the tragic events taking place in our close vicinity and in the midst of people we have known, by the scenario of their sanguine premiere several decades ago and again, only recently, by “the diabolical synchronization of the pen and the rifle butt, their bloodstained and functional symbiosis,” to borrow a poignant expression from Sarajevo historian Dubravko Lovrenović. To me, the incredible expansion of literature on the Balkans, the former Yugoslavia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina over the last few years . . .

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