National Identity, Islam and Politics in Post-Communist Bosnia-Hercegovina (1)

Article excerpt


The national development of the Bosnian Muslims (2) has been a very controversial subject since the second half of the 19th century. The founder of Serbian literature, Vuk Karadzic, described the Bosnian Muslims as Muslim Serbs in his article "Srbi svi i svuda" (Serbs are all and everywhere) which was published in 1849. The representatives of the Serbian and Croatian national movements, which emerged towards the end of the 19th century, also rejected the existence of a distinct Bosnian Muslim nationality and considered the Bosnian Muslims either as Muslim Serbs or Muslim Croats. Through these policies, the national movements, which aimed at the annexation of Bosnia-Hercegovina to Serbia or to Croatia, tried to win over the support of the Bosnian Muslims, who had constituted an important component of the population of Bosnia-Hercegovina since the Ottoman period. These approaches to the nationality of the Bosnian Muslims were to continue up to the present day. (3)

The Islamization of one part of the South Slavs during the Ottoman era marks the beginning of the ethno-genesis of the Bosnian Muslims. Under the Ottomans, the Bosnian Muslims, who were a part of the privileged Muslim Millet, identified themselves with the Ottoman state and represented it in Bosnia-Hercegovina. The conflicts between the Ottoman state and the Bosnian Muslims on the one hand and the Christian nations on the other strengthened the "Muslim" identity of the Bosnian Muslims, while the conflicts between the Ottoman state and the Bosnian Muslims contributed to their "Bosniak" consciousness. The threats posed to the Ottoman Empire and to the Bosnian Muslims would gradually narrow the gap between the Muslim upper class and the Muslim peasants. In this process, Islam would function as a unifying political ideology and promote a common culture among the Muslims. In contrast to the other ethnic groups in Bosnia-Hercegovina, the Bosnian Muslim society under Ottoman rule was composed of different social classes, such as the landowners (sipahis (4)), higher clergy (ulema), urban dwellers with different professions and peasants (reaya). (5)

Bosnia-Hercegovina was occupied by the Austro-Hungarians in 1878 in accordance with the terms of the Berlin Treaty. The Austro-Hungarian joint finance minister Kallay, who ruled Bosnia-Hercegovina between 1882 and 1903, tried to create a territorially based "Bosnian nation" to counter the increasing Serbian and Croatian nationalisms. The Austro-Hungarian administration considered the Bosnian Muslims as the core of this new Bosnian nation. However, the Bosnian Muslims, who had lost their former privileges, now came into conflict with the social and cultural norms of the Catholic Austro-Hungarian state. In this period, the Bosnian Muslims founded the first political party in Bosnia-Hercegovina and demanded political, social, religious and cultural rights in the modern sense of the term for the first time in their history. The movement for religious autonomy constituted the core of the Muslim opposition to the Austro-Hungarian rule in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Although the attempt to create a Bosnian nation has failed, the nationality policy of the Austrian-Hungarian government contributed to the national development of the Bosnian Muslims. This period witnessed the cultural revival of the Bosnian Muslims and the foundation of many Muslim organizations and associations. (6)

In the inter-war period, the rulers of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes regarded the Bosnian Muslims as Muslim Serbs or Muslim Croats. Although the Muslim party, the Yugoslav Muslim Organisation (Jugoslavenska muslimanska organizacija, JMO) was unable to follow a clear national policy, this party contributed to the national consciousness of the Bosnian Muslims by stressing their distinctiveness. The JMO adopted the concept of "Yugoslavenstvo" (Southslavhood) to avoid the pressure on the Bosnian Muslims to declare themselves as Serbs or Croats. …