Islam and Nationhood in Bosnia-Herzegovina: Surviving Empires

  • Book Title:
 Islam And Nationhood In Bosnia Herzegovina
  • Book Author:
Frank Peter, Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, Xavier Bougarel
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 On December 21, 2002, the Islamic Community of Bosnia-Herzegovina held an event in Sarajevo to celebrate the 120th anniversary of the office of the Reis- ul-ulema (the head of the ‘ulama’ ), a religious institution created in 1882 following a decision by the authorities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which occupied the country at that time.

Mustafa Cerić, the Reis- ul-ulema in offi ce in 2002, reminded his audience how his distant predecessor, Džemaludin Čaušević, had written a prayer for the Emperor of Austria-Hungary Franz Josef, to be read in mosques on the Emperor’s birthday. In this prayer, Čaušević praised this Christian emperor who was favorably disposed to the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Cerić went on to say that since then, many emperors and kings had come and gone, more or less favorably disposed to Bosnian Muslims, yet this community had survived and defended its Islamic identity. Then he turned to Paddy Ashdown, the High Representative of the International Community in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and he said:

 I do not believe that Lord Paddy Ashdown expects the current Reis- ul-ulema to write a prayer or for the imams to read it for his birthday, because we no longer live in the era of emperors, this is no longer the age of subjects and masters, but rather the age of democracy and human rights in Europe, and so I hope, in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Today we pray to God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, asking Him to protect Europe and Bosnia-Herzegovina from war, misery and poverty, and so that each individual, each people and each faith can find its place in a European Community of nations and religions with equal rights. 1

Cerić then turned the fl oor over to Paddy Ashdown, who held considerable powers to enforce the peace agreement signed in 1995. Lord Ashdown reminded the audience that the creation of the office of Reis- ul-ulema in 1882 had initially sparked strong opposition within the Bosnian Muslim elites, adding wittily that “it’s good to know that even so long ago, impositions were not universally welcomed!” 2

Then he described how Bosnian Muslims gradually came to accept the existence of a Reis- ul-ulema, who was eventually chosen on a more democratic basis, and who contributed to the coexistence of religious communities. Ashdown then praised the return of religious freedoms aft er a half- century of communism, and pleaded for separation between religion and politics.

 This exchange between the Reisul-ulema and the High Representative illustrates why we must take account of the longue durée if we are to understand the current situation of the Muslims/Bosniaks. 3 It also casts light on certain historical continuities. Admittedly, the High Representative is neither Emperor Franz Josef, nor an avatar of the British Raj,4 and the European Union may not be an empire.

Nevertheless, the positioning of the Bosniak political and religious elites vis-à- vis the international players currently present in Bosnia-Herzegovina can also be explained by certain expectations and political strategies that appeared in the Austro-Hungarian context and were used throughout the twentieth century, with greater or lesser degrees of success.

 As for the Reis- ul-ulema, this offi ce continues to the present day, even though the Islamic religious institutions and religious life in general underwent profound, sometimes brutal, transformations over the twentieth century.

 In the present book, I intend to return to the issue of the political and religious transformations aff ecting the Bosnian Muslim community in the post-Ottoman period—i.e. from 1878 to the present day—with particular emphasis on the 1990–5 war period, which saw particularly rapid and dramatic transformations. Th e first four chapters of this book deal respectively with the Austro-Hungarian occupation (1878–1918), the fi rst Yugoslavia (1918–41), the Second World War (1941–5) and communist Yugoslavia (1945–90). Th e following three chapters focus on the 1990–5 period from three standpoints: the attitude of the Muslim/Bosniak elites during the breakup of Yugoslavia; the reshaping of Muslim/Bosniak national identity during the war years; and the international context underlying these two processes. Chapter 8 resumes the standard chronology by focusing on the political and religious transformations of the post- war period (1995–2013).

 Th roughout these various chapters, I aim to reconsider the commonly accepted idea of a linear shift from an imperial order to a nation- state order, by showing that in the case of the Muslims/Bosniaks, the transition from a non- sovereign religious minority to a sovereign political nation was a particularly belated and paradoxical process that remains uncertain even today.

Against this backdrop, I endeavor to better understand the causes and actual forms of the “national indetermination” that characterized the Muslim community until the 1960s, which can be attributed not only to a certain nostalgia for the Ottoman imperial order, but also to the enduring allegiance of the traditional Muslim elites to the central power, until these elites were sidelined by the communist regime.

In this approach, I have been inspired by the research of Nathalie Clayer, Mary Neuburger, and Burcu Akan-Ellis on other Balkan Muslim populations, 5 by approaches to imperial and nation- state building in the Balkans in terms of loyalty or political allegiance, 6 and by the notion of “national indiff erence” put forth by Tara Zahra, a historian of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 7

 I am also interested in the actual forms of Muslim/Bosniak nationalization, given that, until the mid- twentieth century, Muslim intellectuals tended to identify with the Serb or Croat nations. Th en, beginning in the 1960s, the promotion of a new Muslim nation went hand in hand with cultural and political paradoxes that Muslim intellectuals and politicians attempted to resolve by reasserting their allegiance to communist Yugoslavia.

The breakup of the Yugoslav federation in the 1990s placed the Muslim political and intellectual elites in an almost inextricable situation, given the impossibility of building a Muslim nation- state in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Th us, the past half- century should be regarded as the period when Muslim/Bosniak elites attempted alternately to find their place in a political order dominated by the nation- state principle, or to escape its most dreadful consequences.

To date, these attempts have not been successful. While I consider my approach to be similar to the interpretations of nationalism elaborated by Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson, and Rogers Brubaker, 8 I attempt to cast light on the haphazard, uncertain nature of the Muslim/Bosniak nation building.

 Against this backdrop, I return to the main cultural markers of Muslim/Bosniak national identity. Indeed, while there is some degree of continuity between the cultural markers produced in the late nineteenth century, the 1960s, and the 1990s, there are also many points of divergence. In particular, the intellectuals of the 1960s sought to minimize the importance of Islam to Muslim national identity. Th irty years later, as the national name “Bosniak” was adopted, Islam’s place in the new Bosniak identity was, paradoxically, gaining greater importance.

Unless this reversal is taken into account, we cannot grasp the political and religious transformations aff ecting the Muslim/Bosniak nation over the past few decades. Th is observation is similar to Vjekoslav Perica and Klaus Buchenau’s analyses of the place of religion in the Serb and Croat national identity, 9 and echoes Danièle Hervieu-Léger, Patrick Michel and Antonela Capelle-Pogacean’s investigations of the ties between religious identity and national identity in Europe as a whole. 10

I slam’s place in the Muslim/Bosniak national identity explains the enduring centrality of Islamic religious institutions for the Muslim/Bosniak community. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, this community withdrew into its status as a religious minority, structuring itself around its traditional religious institutions: madrasa s (religious schools), waqf s (religious endowments) and Shari‘a courts.

The communist regime dismantled all these institutions in the 1940s, contributing to the Muslim population’s rapid secularization. However, this did not prevent the Islamic Community from becoming a proxy national institution two decades later—a position that it still holds today, albeit in a diff erent context.

Thus, the political and religious changes within the Muslim/Bosniak community are closely connected, despite the secularization process that began in the interwar period, gathered pace as part of communist modernization, and has not been fundamentally challenged by the religious revival of the last two decades. So we fi nd in Bosnia-Herzegovina the same religious trends that Patrick Michel and Detlef Pollack have already analyzed in other Eastern European countries, 11 and that Danièle Hervieu-Léger and Grace Davie have already described at the level of Europe as a whole. 12

 Lastly, these political and religious changes cannot be understood unless we take account of the pan-Islamist current, which fi rst appeared during the dramatic events of the Second World War, was repressed by communist Yugoslavia, but successfully positioned itself at the heart of the Muslim/Bosniak nationalist mobilization in the 1990s.

Between 1990 and 1995, the establishment of a new one- party state and the use of Islam as a new discriminating political ideology shaped the political and religious realities of the territories controlled by the Bosnian army, even though the post- war period has seen the pan-Islamist current return to the same marginal position it held before 1990.

The ties binding Islam and politics have grown looser and more complex given the growing pluralization of both political life and religious life. My thinking on political Islam has been enriched by Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel’s research on the “failure of political Islam,” the “decline of Islamism,” and “post-Islamism,” 13 and Bosnia-Herzegovina may be one of the places where these concepts remain the most relevant. Th is is all the more true since most research published about Bosnia-Herzegovina has failed to take account of political Islam.

 Th is failure is attributable sometimes to simple ignorance, and sometimes to a well- intentioned form of self- censorship that is no longer necessary today, as the war ended two decades ago and the pan-Islamist current has been considerably weakened by the death of its main representative, Alija Izetbegović, in 2003.

 While the present book intends to contribute to the debates about the political and religious history of the Muslims/Bosniaks, it makes no claim to answer all the questions raised by this particular case. It adopts a “top- down” perspective, focused on the political, intellectual and religious elites of the Muslim/Bosniak community. Th is approach grew out of my initial interest in the Bosnian pan-Islamist current, a small minority that a largely secularized Muslim population brought to power in 1990.

Even regarding these elites, a more detailed analysis would be possible, for example with a prosopography of Muslim members of parliament from the Austro-Hungarian and interwar periods, or of Party of Democratic Action ( SDA ) cadres in the 1990s. Likewise, this book is based mainly on existing academic literature, press archives, and less directly, fieldwork carried out in the 1990s and 2000s. My focus on written sources can be attributed to the unique conditions of the war period, when studying the local press was the best means to grasp the debates unfolding within the Muslim/Bosniak community. 14

This approach has its limitations, however; it cannot replace an anthropological analysis of the forms that national identities and interethnic relations take on a daily basis, the clientelistic and corporatist practices underlying Bosnian political life, or the transformations of everyday religious practice.

Nevertheless, this approach enables me to illustrate certain political and religious realities with examples that cannot simply be dismissed as “imaginary” or “marginal.”

 Before presenting the findings of my research, I must clarify the usage of a few terms. Firstly, I use Frederick Cooper and Jane Burbank’s definition of “empire” to refer to a political entity that is generally (but not always!) large, characterized by the religious and ethnic diversity of its populations that it aims to leverage rather than suppress; it thus prefers to exercise power in indirect, decentralized ways. 15

By “search for empire”—a term I borrow from Ghassan Salamé 16 —I mean the process whereby a political group aspires to place itself under the protection of an imperial power (or any power perceived to be an empire).

Partly (and only partly) inspired by Rogers Brubaker’s research on nationalism and ethnicity, I distinguish between national identity, i.e. the whole set of myths, symbols, and other cultural markers that delineate the variable contours of a nation, and national identification, namely the equally fluid way in which individuals recognize themselves in a particular national construction.

In this context, nationalization is the always reversible process whereby one national identification becomes predominant in a given population, whereas “national indetermination”—a term I prefer to “national indiff erence”—refers to the situations in which a given population remains far removed from national categories, whether or not this distance is deliberate.

 In present- day Bosnia-Herzegovina, these terms bear a negative connotation: “nationalization” ( nacionaliziranje ) refers to Serb and Croat attempts to assimilate Bosnian Muslims, and the latter’s “national indetermination”

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