Dr Mitja Velikonja
Assistant Professor
Faculty of Social Sciences
University of Ljubljana, Slovenia

See now, how men lay blame upon us Gods
for what is after all nothing but their own folly.
Homer, The Odyssey, 1st Book


Some of the most common explanations for the Balkan wars of the 1990s have been that they were, in the final instance, religious wars, or the consequence of national incompatibilities and cultural differences, or a return of old myths, or a thirst for revenge for historical injustices, or the logical result of the bloodthirsty »national character« of the Balkan peoples, etc. Deliberately or not, both local and foreign commentators perceived these developments as being rationally inexplicable, spontaneous, completely unreasonable, contrary to any sense. In sharp contrast to – for example – the Gulf war, the Balkan wars were comprehended and portrayed as obscure, dirty, mean, uncivilised, cruel, etc.
Needless to say, every social action – in our case war - has parallel »rational« and »irrational« dimensions which must be studied carefully. Belligerent groups were very often from different religious and ideological backgrounds. If we limit ourselves to the »profanized« 20th century, we find mythic constructs, religious rhetoric and archaic iconography at different times and in different parts of the world. Many nations perceived themselves as the Most Ancient, even Holy, Sacred, Heavenly, as the Christ among nations, as the Elected, or on a God-given mission to fulfil; others are self-declared warrants of democracy or cultured nations; military campaigns were labelled Crusades; various dictators were glorified as being sent (or chosen) by God Himself, or as the incorporation of the Will of the Nation; politicians often refer to religious tradition and values and swear before God at their inauguration; the struggle of the proletariat against the ruling classes was interpreted in terms of a cosmic struggle between Good and Evil; Holy Wars were fought in different parts of the world by different religious fundamentalists; the cleansing of their different enemies was constitutive for many new states and régimes; an “Eternal Allies versus Eternal Enemies” opposition could be found on many of the warring sides, as could the notion of the Last Bastion of the religion or civilization in question; borders were perceived as sacred, historic, untouchable; enemies were often demonized, animalised, bestialised etc.
It is, of course, not my intention to exonerate belligerent South Slav religious nationalists – I disapprove of them as much as I do of any other militants or fundamentalists. I simply wish to emphasise that the battle cry In hoc signo vinces was heard across the world throughout the »age of the extremes«, to borrow a phrase from Eric Hobsbawm. In other words, the catastrophic Hobbesian war of all against all is certainly not some kind of Balkan peculiarity, nor is the significance of the role of religion, its rhetoric and its symbols. Therefore, the same questions must be asked anytime such phenomena appear anywhere in the world. Other than the hasty and overly simplistic explanations mentioned above, I view and treat the use – or misuse - of religious iconography, symbols and discourse, and mythological rhetoric in the last Balkan wars in the following context: as a very specific version or and regional manifestation of the broader phenomena of the religionization of politics, the nation, place, time, neighbouring groups, etc.
In my opinion, the »irrationalization« of the Balkan wars in first half of the nineties (un)intentionally hides their main motives and causes which, in chronological order, are as follows: firstly, the plan to reunite Yugoslavia under the leadership of the non-reformist segments of the League of Communists and Army hard-liners; secondly, prompted also by the ineffective policies of the international community, the great-national policies and aggressions towards Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. All these goals - reunitarization and territorial conquests - and the methods in which they were realised were undoubtedly strategically well organized, »rational« and pre-planned.
The obvious attempts to irrationalize recent Balkan history – i.e., to reduce the conflict to a matter of nationalist madness and religious zeal, to a spontaneous and somewhat naïve barbarity, a revival of age-old hatreds, etc. - combine two particular aspects. Firstly, the theoretical, is the discourse of Orientalism and the thesis - one of the most popularised in the 1990s - of unavoidable cultural conflicts in the contemporary world (in place of the political and ideological conflicts of bygone eras). The second is political: the deliberate avoidance of responsibility and feigned ignorance by the main culprits for the war.


If we limit ourselves to the religious aspects of the wars, we are faced with a fundamental dilemma. Were religions and religious communities and symbols used by nationalist politics/policies in their grand nationalist schemes? Or, conversely, did they exploit nationalist euphoria and policies in achieving their own religious goals? Were they instrumentalized or did they instrumentalize? In short, did they play an active or passive role in the most recent Balkan history?
I think both. My answer to these question might seem paradoxical only initially. To certain religious integrists, political developments in the late 1980s and early 1990s presented an excellent opportunity for the long-awaited re-Christianization and re-Islamization of the national, political and cultural identity of »their« nations, and the reaffirmation of their dominant position in society. The already belated modernist differentiation and pluralization of these societies seemed to have lost to radical pre-modernist de-differentiation. Religious institutions rapidly became an important part of the dominant national / political / religious / cultural meta-platform and strategy.
This total – and totalitarian - alliance between nationalist policies and religious communities and institutions was one of mutual benefit: national, political and, ultimately, military mobilization could not be achieved without religious legitimation, whilst, on the other hand, religious communities were unable to achieve their goals without the active support of nationalist parties and politics in general. Religious elements became an important part of the process of »the ethnification of politics and the politicization of ethnicity« (as described by Vrcan, 2001).
In other words: in this integristic process of religio-national re-traditionalization , the one needed and strengthened the other: religious institutions lent legitimacy to and opened perspectives for chauvinist politics, and vice versa. Or, in the words of Radovan Karadžić, not a single important decision was made without the Church (Mojzes, 1998, 89; for a similar quotation, see Radić, 1998, 176, 177). Likewise, Bosnian ex-Franciscan Provincial Petar Anđelović admits that the Church initially supported the major Croatian political party, but later reversed its policies and became critical of it (Anđelović, 2000, 207, 208). The major Muslim/Bosniak party was also influenced by Panislamic traditionalist groupings and currents within the Bosnian Islamic religious community (see Bougarel, 1999; L. Cohen, 1998, 58; Zulfikarpašić, 1995).
The long Balkan tradition of pluralism dates to the Middle Ages: the Balkans have been a place of meeting, symbiosis, conflict, collaboration, syncretism, etc., for several religions (and different sects within them): Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim, Bosnian Church, Jewish, Uniate (Greek Catholic), and some others. In clear contrast to their self-declared universalistic character , religions in the Balkans (as elsewhere!) feigned specific regional, national, local characteristics: they were/are all »ethnicized« or »nationalized« in a similar way. This becomes particularly obvious in the religio-national mythologies of these nations. The Christoslavic religio-national mythology – in our case that of the Serbs and Croats – consists of two basic beliefs: that Slavs are Christian by nature and that any conversion from Christianity is a betrayal of the Slavic race (Sells 1996, 36, 47, 51). In short, Christoslavism represents radical Orthodox Pan-Serbian or Catholic Pan-Croatian mythology , whose ultimate goal is a mono-confessional, nationally (and preferably politically) homogenized state.
But almost identical mytho-logic can be observed also on the third side: according to the advocates of the Bosniak religio-national integrist mythology, all Bosniaks are inevitably Muslims. One-and-a-half years before the outbreak of war, Izetbegović characterized the Muslims/Bosniaks as a religious nation (L. Cohen, 1998, 60). Although the role and influence of religious communities and hierarchies before and during the last wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina were quite different, all the warring parties also employed religious symbols in their nationalist/political mobilization and military efforts. As a rule, dominant religious communities sided with the major political parties of »their« nations. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the result of such collective politics on a largely secularized population soon became evident.
Opinions about the nationalist and militaristic role of religious communities in the Balkans from the late 1980s differ considerably from author to author. However, the majority claim that the role of the Serbian Orthodox Church was »the most harmful« (Mojzes, 1998, 84), in comparison to the other two major religious communities. Sells even points out that in Bosnia, the Serbian Orthodox Church became a servant of religious nationalist militancy (Sells, 1996, 79), and - at the beginning - supported Slobodan Milošević's politics (Markotich, 1996, 30). According to L. Cohen, the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina was inclined towards the largest Croatian political party, which was openly pro-Christian, but also wished to preserve its hard-won autonomy (L. Cohen, 1998, 63). In Bosnia-Herzegovina, there were considerable differences in this regard between the stands of Catholic clergy and the Franciscans in Herzegovina and in Bosnia. For Bougarel, the role of the Islamic Community in the nationalist mobilization of the Bosniaks was particularly blatant (Bougarel, 1996, 96).


Only if we recognise the similarities between the broader phenomena can we emphasise the specific characteristics of a certain process or area. My presentation will concentrate only on one aspect of the recent Balkan wars, namely, the spectrum of use of religious symbolism by the three warring sides: Orthodox on the Serbian, Roman Catholic on the Croatian and Islamic on the Bosniak side. These examples must be treated and understood in a broader context of the above-mentioned integrist, religio-national mythologies, Christoslavic or Muslim/Bosniak. A comparative and socio-historical analytical approach can, to some degree, elucidate how traditional religious symbols were renewed and how new religious symbols were »traditionalized« during that period; how they were »nationalized« and »politicized«; what elements of religious heritage were most often applied; and how these symbols were exploited for military operations and the politics of ethnic/religious cleansing. Due to restrictions on space, I shall only present the basis for a further, more profound analysis.

1. Use of traditional religious symbols
Universal religious symbols (the cross for the Orthodox and Catholic; the Crescent, the colour green, and Qur’anic inscriptions), or religious symbols that had already been »nationalized« (e.g., the Serbian Orthodox symbol /four S-es surrounding a cross/, or the combination of the cross and the Croatian coat-of-arms /the so-called chessboard/ ), were used regularly by the warring sides, either individually or as part of broader political or military symbolism. They were worn on uniforms, as personal military decor (e.g., badges bearing religious symbols, green bands tied around the forehead with(out) Qur’anic inscriptions, rosaries), and on military equipment and weapons, flags etc. Uniforms and appearance were sometimes inspired by religious or religio-national tradition, e.g., beards and Islamic outfits on the Bosniak side, and Chetnik-like attire on the Serbian side. Some Bosniak military units assumed names that were inspired by their religion, and in which rigorous religious customs were practised (e.g., the Green Berets, El Mujahidin, the Green Legion, Muslim Brigades). Among their number were volunteers from various Islamic states.

2. Use of traditional religious slogans and salutation
Some of the most common traditional religious slogans and synthagmas used in military and nationalist rhetoric over the last ten years have been God and the Croats; God protects the Serbs; A Serb is protected by St. Sava and God; God is most Great , etc. Salutations included So help you God, Heroes! , the three-finger Serbian Orthodox salute, benediction under the sign of the cross, the use of the expressions brothers and sisters, and many more. Army chaplains – Christian and Muslim - were to be found in almost every military unit; religious practices, customs and symbols were introduced to military life, barracks and units. Religious services and rituals – including the blessing of units and weapons - were often conducted by local religious dignitaries; the most important services and rituals were conducted by senior clergymen, such as bishops. They regularly visited their troops in the liberated territories. On such occasions, the images of (erstwhile) political leaders and military commanders were displayed alongside icons, images of important religious personalities and symbols.
The sites of dramatic historic and religious events became the destinations and sites of religio-national pilgrimages and rituals (Medjugorje for the Croats, Ajvatovica for the Bosniaks, the tombs of second-world-war Ustasha victims for the Serbs); religious feasts were turned into national holidays (Easter, Assumption, Christmas, St. Vitus’ Day, the Bajram, commemoration of the battle of Badr, and the night of the Might ) and were celebrated in public buildings. Marching songs and political hymns declared religio-national unity and unanimity.
On the eve of war, the skeletal remains of fallen and tortured compatriots from were exhumed and ritually reburied; the ceremonial procession carrying the remains of Prince Lazar through Serbia proper, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1988 was of a similar nature. A number of high-ranking religious dignitaries - victims of the second world war or post-war violence, who were tortured and killed for religious and national causes - were canonized: Orthodox Metropolite Dositelj Vasić and bishops Petar Zimonjić, Sava Trljajić and Platon Jovanović in June 1998, and Catholic Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac in October of the same year. In some of the more militant Croatian Roman Catholic circles, similar homage was conferred on a number of important personalities from the wartime Ustasha régime , and on the Serbian side, to Chetnik commanders.
Contemporary political and military leaders received a flattering religious reputation as well: Karadžić and Ratko Mladić were said to be following the thorny path of Christ. The first received a decoration from the Greek Orthodox Church, which declared him one of the most prominent sons of our Lord Jesus Christ working for peace (Sells, 1996, 85). Similar courtesies, exaltation and consecration were afforded by high-ranking Orthodox dignitaries to another controversial protagonist of the Balkan wars – Željko Ražnatović Arkan. For some Islamic believers, Izetbegović became a fighter for Islam, sent by God to lead the Muslims along the true path (Zulfikarpašić, 1995, 144, 172), the first person after Muhammad to reveal and fulfil the ultimate truth (Miroslav Jančić in Mojzes, 1998, 94). Saudi King Fahd awarded Izetbegović with a medal for his contribution to the spread of Islam.

3. Interpretation of political developments in religious terms
As Hastings points out (1997, 18), »the Bible, moreover, presented in Israel itself a developed model of what it means to be a nation – a unity of people, language, religion, territory and government«. In the Balkans, historical and contemporary developments were interpreted in religious terms: analogies were made between contemporaries and episodes and personalities from the Scriptures or the religious history of their own nation. In some Orthodox circles, for example, the Serbs were referred to as Christ's Nation, the Holy or Suffering Nation, the Bearers of the Truth and Divine Justice, the avant-garde of the Slav world and Orthodoxy. Serbia was again referred to as Heavenly, etc. Similar constructs were also to be found on the Croatian side (Eternal or Holy Croatia; protected by the Virgin Mary). The triumphant Croatian military operation »Tempest« in August 1995 was seen as testimony that this nation (Croatia, remark by MV) is at certain times touched by God (Vrcan, 2001, footnote 11 on page 207).
In both cases, tragic episodes from the past and present of both nations have been variously interpreted as Golgotha, the Crucifixion, Calvary or the Way of the Cross, their land has been declared Sacred, as our Jerusalem or our Palestine, etc. The self-victimizing discourse – such as »only our nation/religion suffers« – exculpated political action and military operations. In Karadžić's words, our deaths, suffering and endurance, we accept as God's grace (Powers, 1998, 236). Bosnian Muslims were said to be making sacrifices to safeguard Islam by identifying its enemies (Zulfikarpašić, 1995, 172).
As a rule, political decisions and military operations received religious argumentation and legitimation, and were openly supported by some religious media and in public statements made by religious dignitaries. Thus, they were exalted as actions - for example - in the name of God, Manifestations of the Faith, Struggle for Christ and Europe, Sacred Duty, self-defence, war of liberation, fight for the Holy Cross, etc. Fallen soldiers became martyrs or Knights of the Faith (and the Nation) who made voluntary sacrifices for their religion and nation in the struggle against the infidels. Their tombs and monuments were designed as religious objects (in form and with religious inscriptions and symbols, etc.). All sides searched for the help of their co-religionists, who suddenly became Ancient if not Eternal Allies: there were initiatives to create a so-called Orthodox Circle (an association of all countries with an Orthodox majority), or a narrower Balkan Orthodox Union ; the Bosniaks »discovered« a long-lasting friendship with Muslim (Arabic) countries; whilst the Croats found the same in Western (Catholic) countries and the Vatican.

4. Demonization of the enemy
In religio-national policies and military operations, the first step towards the destruction of the enemy is their symbolic inferiorization and dehumanization. In the racist discourse, they becomes inferior, animal-like creatures; in the religio-national discourse, they are cursed by God. This infernalizaton and demonization of adversaries was characteristic to all three sides: as though entrapped in some kind of “laboratory of hatred”, the enemy was condemned as genocidal, diabolical, etc. Myths about religious conspiracies emerged: for Serbian religious nationalists, these were about the Vatican (and German) plot, and the Pope's servants - Italy, Austria and Germany; the conspiracy of Western Powers ; the Green Transversal (Ankara-Tirana-Sarajevo) and the conspiracies by Islamic fundamentalists (and Ustasha butchers).
If we limit ourselves only to insults related to religious identities, the Serbian extremists (and the Croatian during Croatian-Bosniak clashes) labelled the Bosniaks as jihad fighters, mujahidins, janissaries, brothers in fez, whose final ambition was to turn Bosnia into a state modelled on the Qur'an, an Islamic fundamentalist state, or a Libya-style Jamahiriyah, in which non-Muslims would become slaves, etc. In the chauvinistic media, Izetbegović became the world’s foremost soldier of the jihad or the leader of the Muslim terrorists. Croat religious nationalists feared Orthodox conspiracies or alleged plans to create an Islamic state in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Alarmist discourse also appeared in some Bosniak circles, which identified evil-minded plots, the Crusades launched by both enemies sides and by a Christian Europe. Thus, religio-nationalist extremists from all sides justified their policies not only as a defence of their own nation, but also as shields, last bastions or fortresses of – respectively – the Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim world. An obsessive paranoia of being surrounded by the enemies (of the faith) triumphed. As Hobsbawm wrote, “there is no more effective way of bonding together the disparate sections of restless peoples than to unite them against outsiders” (Hobsbawm, 1995, 91).
If our faith is the only right and righteous one, then that of the enemy (or of religious minorities within their own nations) is scorned as being false, foreign, heretical, superstitious, and even sacrilegious. According to this logic of symbolic diades, the elimination of other faiths – religious and ethnic cleansing - became a religious duty; killing is no longer considered as “homicide”, but as a “malicide”, the liquidation of the evil. Many clerics were killed or injured during the clashes and ethnic cleansing campaigns. However, political adversaries and critics within a nation were also demonized by militant religious nationalists: for example, after abandoning his Greater Serbian policy, Milošević was characterized as the Antichrist from Dedinje, his ideology as sombre and his régime as alien to Orthodox tradition and the essence of the Serbian nation (whereas those in Knin and Pale were exemplary). According to Panislamist Latić, secularized Bosniak intellectuals are more dangerous to us than the Chetniks (Bougarel, 2000, 90).
Non-integrist ideas, political parties and individuals were also many times condemned by religious nationalists on all three sides as atheistic, nihilistic, a(nti)-national, foreign, modernist, pro-Western, liberal, left-oriented, etc. Similarly, the Socialist régime was perceived as being (in)directly responsible for the outbreak of hatred and violence because of its desertion of the Bible/Qur’an and because of its immorality and Godless, soulless, secularist and anti-Serb/Croat/Muslim orientation. The false and dangerous logic that there exists only one type of conflict, namely, between faith and nihilism, and that Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, reappeared.

5. Destruction of the enemy’s sacral objects
In militarist logic, victory is complete when it is accompanied with the symbolic triumph over the enemy. The buildings that were most often systematically destroyed throughout the wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina - either in military operations or following conquest - were religious objects: mosques, churches, chapels, monasteries etc. According to some estimates, 1,000 to 1,100 mosques were ruined, in addition to approximately 340 Orthodox and 450 Roman Catholic churches and monasteries (Powers, 1998, footnote 68 on page 240; Velikonja, 1998, 309). As has been the case throughout history, the religious symbols of the conquerors were built over the ruins of the sanctuaries of the vanquished. Territory must be symbolically appropriated and the sign of victory “engraved in stone”: e.g., Croatian forces erected a huge concrete cross in place of a destroyed mosque in Počitelj (Vrcan, 2001, 22).
First to raze, first to erect: it is also very symptomatic that sacral building (churches, mosques, etc.) were among the first objects to be restored or rebuilt after the war. Reconstruction was often sponsored by foreign countries or their religious communities (Greek Orthodox Church, Islamic Community /often from from Saudi Arabia/, Roman Catholic Church etc.). The first synagogue to be built in Bosnia-Herzegovina after 1945 is expected to be completed in Mostar by the end of 2002; the foundation stone was laid in early May 2001. Such reconstruction is practically impossible on territory conquered by the adversary: the recent events in Trebinje on May 5 and Banja Luka on May 7, 2001 - when Serbian extremists held violent protests against the ceremonies at which foundations were to be laid for new mosques intended to replace the destroyed ones - are sad and not uncommon examples. These (and other less obvious) examples clearly show that in post-Dayton Bosnia-Herzegovina - here I invert Clausewitz - peace is just the continuation of the war »with other means«.

6. Eloquent silence
In such situations, that which is not uttered is as important as that which is: silence can be more eloquent than words. Not only explicit, but also another – indirect – symbolic act of religious institutions must be pointed out here: namely, their sinister silence regarding the obvious and systematic persecution and liquidation of believers of other faiths, and the destruction of their (religious) infrastructure. In other words, significant was not only »hate-speech« but also »hate-silence«. Only rarely have the moderate representatives of the religious hierarchies reacted and condemned the act committed by their compatriots/co-religionists, distanced themselves from the blatant manipulation of religious justification, rhetoric and symbols, and explicitly rejected religious nationalists of »their own« faith/nation.


Religions, their traditional symbols and rhetoric remain important and extremely persuasive elements of contemporary national and political mythologies and their iconography. Although latently present all the time, they are particularly exposed during the critical periods in a nation's history. As such, they must not be treated as something that is neither a priori tolerant nor militant; neither in advance conciliative nor destructive; neither necessarily oriented toward friendship nor toward enmity; neither a priori zealot nor well-intentioned. In short, they are neither hateful nor peaceful in advance: their current interpretations and practical activities make them become such. The cross and the crescent are easily transformed into the sword, and the brilliance of faith, as comprehend by believers, into the glare of the blade. The step from mythomaniac theory to bloodthirsty terror is a small one; any creed can be transformed into a ruthless beast.
This short introductory presentation illustrates how nationalized, politicized and militarized religious symbolism (and religious communities in general) was not only the consequence of the recent catastrophic events in the Balkans, but also one of the sources; not only the conclusion but also one of the origins. The hidden hypothesis of this outstanding attention to the religious dimensions and iconography of Balkan warfare – promoted by local religious nationalists and some foreign or local simplistic or malevolent interpreters - is that the problems between these nations are irrational and cannot be solved in a rational way. In such a narrow-minded or malicious and destructive discourse, the differences - between Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks and other nations; Orthodox, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, other believers and atheists - seem too large to be bridged and, as such, the predominant source of the recent hatred and warfare and an instant explanation for it.
Such inciting and irrationalizing discourse can be successfully rejected, firstly, by carefully studying the whole complexity of the causes of the tragedies, i.e. the parallelism between the well-planned, »rational« causes (i.e. Realpolitik) and the »irrational«, mythical and symbolic causes; secondly, by a profound analysis of this particular aspect, namely, the statements, behaviour and actions of religious institutions, the clergy and, indeed, the believers themselves; and thirdly, by recollecting the rich multinational, multireligious and multicultural tradition of the Balkans. Only after doing this can all the involved parties and institutions – including religious – indeed reflect on their attitudes and activities during this period.


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