With God on Their Sides

by Istvan Deak | November 25, 1996

The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia
by Michael A. Sells
(University of California Press, 244 pp., $19.95)

The Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina: Their Historic Development from the Middle Ages to the Dissolution of Yugoslavia
edited by Mark Pinson.
(Harvard University Press, 207 pp., $14.95)

Was it genocide that occurred in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995? Were the Serbs and the Croats who attacked the Muslims motivated mainly by religious nationalism? Did their "crusade" form a part of the worldwide revival of religious fanaticism?

Michael Sells answers all these questions in the affirmative, and the learned contributors to The Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a compilation of historical essays arranged chronologically, support Sells's argument by pointing to historical developments that led to the recent Bosnian horrors. It is a pity that these two volumes did not appear a few years earlier, when the Serbian and Croatian rape of Bosnia and Bosnian Muslims was in full swing. Not that these books, or any books, would have affected events, of course, but at least they could have served as a clarion call against the unspeakable crimes committed by Christians against their Muslim neighbors, relatives and friends.

Over the last year or so, a few American-led NATO bombing raids have put a stop, at least temporarily, to the Serbs' anti-Muslim campaign. The chief war criminal, President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, has successfully transformed himself into an apostle of peace. The Serb forces in Bosnia and Croatia, supplied by that of Rump Yugoslavia, have suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Croatian army. And hundreds of thousands of Serbs have been driven out of their ancestral homes in Croatia. Now that Serbia is floundering in a political, moral and economic morass, in sum, it is no longer easy to recall that it was the Serbian government that started the war in Bosnia in April 1992, and that one of the worst crimes against humanity since the Holocaust took place in Europe before the eyes of hundreds of millions of irresolute Europeans.

Sells is the head of the department of religion at Haverford College and his mother is a Serbian American. The authors of The Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina are some of the leading specialists on Balkan affairs. These books are not born of partisan prejudice, but there is no denying the passion that motivates them. Sells has produced a very angry book; and some of the contributors to The Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina occasionally grow sentimental over Bosnian culture. Sells makes his thesis clear in the preface to the book: Genocide has occurred. It has occurred with the acquiescence of Western governments, in violation of the United Nations Charter and the Geneva Convention on Genocide of 1948. It has been motivated and justified in large part by religious nationalism, fueled financially and militarily from Serbia and Croatia, and grounded in religious symbols. And the primary victims have been Bosnian Muslims, selected for destruction because of their religion.

The rest of his book is devoted to proving these contentions.

Despite what many politicians and journalists would like us to believe, the recent Bosnian horrors did not originate from "age-old ethnic hatreds." As these books explain, what happened was something more concrete and contemporary: during the last few years Christians in former Yugoslavia have waged a religious war against non-Christians. Ironically, the instigators of this crusade were a group of secular former communist Croatian and Serbian party officials and academics who were motivated, in the case of the academics, by a murderous nationalism and, in the case of party officials such as Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia or Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, by a desire for power. The war was not applauded in Europe, but Europe also took no serious steps to stop it. And after considering the argument and the evidence in these books, it is no longer possible to deny that one reason for the inaction of Europe was that this was a Christian campaign against Muslims.

The histories of Bosnia that these books provide are nearly identical in their thrust, combating along the way the many preconceived notions and misjudgments that have emerged as part of the West's efforts to explain away the failure of NATO and the U.N. to act. The authors explain that Bosnia has been a territorial and administrative entity without any great political influence since the Middle Ages. Its medieval rulers and nobility were rather indifferent to religion, and this indifference allowed the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Bosnian churches to live together in relative peace. The Bosnian Church was not, as I myself had tended to believe, a refuge for a heretic sect called the Bogomils, located mainly in what is today Bulgaria. The Bogomils embraced Manichean beliefs, advocating the duality of Good and Evil. The Bosnian Church, by contrast, was but a mildly different version of Western Christianity.

But this ecclesiastical affinity did not prevent some of Bosnia's neighbors, especially the kings of Hungary, from launching a few unsuccessful crusades against the Bosnian Church, with papal blessing. Amazingly, as John Fine notes, the Catholic sector of fifteenth-century Bosnia was virtually bereft of priests, except for a few dozen Franciscans. The Franciscan order would later play an important and, during World War II, an often murderous role in Bosnia, which became the borderland between Western and Eastern Christianity.


The Ottomans conquered Bosnia late in the fifteenth century and added another religion to the colorful palette of local religious denominations. Yet it is wrong to believe, as I myself had tended to believe, that it was mainly members of the persecuted Bosnian Church or the Bogomils who had converted to Islam. Instead, Islam appeared attractive to all sorts of non- Muslims. The Ottomans built much in the region--witness their beautiful mosques, bridges and schools, now nearly all in ruins, thanks to the dynamite of Serbs and Croats--and they were more tolerant of other religions than Western Christianity. In fact, the first to destroy Sarajevo were not the Ottoman Turks but the great Habsburg commander Eugene of Savoy, who reached the city, in the course of the last Christian crusade against the Ottomans, on October 22, 1697. The Field Marshal noted in his logbook: "The city is big; it is completely open, and it contains 120 handsome mosques." Following a peremptory call for surrender, which the Sarajevans had no chance to obey, Eugene ordered the annihilation of the city: "We have burned the city as well as its environs to the ground. Our troops ... brought in booty, including women and children." The Field Marshal then ordered that no mosques be constructed in Sarajevo.

Fortunately for the inhabitants, the Ottomans soon reconquered the city, and Orthodox as well as Catholic churches were able to function there, along with mosques. In the course of centuries under Ottoman rule, many South-Slav- speaking members of the Bosnian Church, as well as many Catholics and Orthodox, embraced Islam, often out of opportunism. Although they enjoyed a somewhat privileged position, the converts remained South Slavs in language and culture. It is an outrage that Croatian and Serbian propagandists proclaim that, while Slavic Christians had been in the region for more than a thousand years, the Muslims arrived only with the Ottoman conquest in the fifteenth century, and that therefore it is time for the Muslims to go "home." In reality, the Slavic ancestors of the Bosnian Muslims, as much as those of Orthodox Serbs or Catholic Croats, have been in the Balkans since the seventh century.

The conversions (and the not-so-rare reconversions) had much to do with economic and social advantage, but they had nothing to do with nationality, which was an unknown concept in the region until the nineteenth century. Then things changed rapidly under the influence of South Slav intellectuals, who simultaneously promoted the concepts of Yugoslav unity and of separate Catholic-Croat and Orthodox-Serb identities. The impetus came from the Napoleonic armies that occupied the region early in the nineteenth century, creating a united "Illyrian" province under French rule, as well as from the teaching of Johann Gottfried Herder and other, mostly German advocates of ethnicity. Herder believed that man was a social being who could develop his individual qualities only as the member of a nation, and that the diversity of peoples was necessary for the development of humanity as a whole. Even the often subjugated "lowly" Slavs, he felt, should be encouraged to find their identity through the cultivation of tradition and language. He exhorted the Slavs:

You too, people, who have sunk to such depths from your once happy state, will finally awake from your long and lazy sleep and will, freed from your chains of slavery, enjoy as your property your lovely regions from the Adriatic Sea to the Carpathian Mountains, from the Don to the Mulda the Moldau , able to celebrate there your old feasts devoted to the glorification of peaceful diligence.

In 1878, Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia's sister province to the south) came under the rule of the Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph. The Austro- Hungarian authorities greatly modernized the two provinces, but this did not stop the growth of anti-Habsburg nationalisms in the region. Greater-Serbian agitation led to the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, which in turn led to World War I and, among other things, to the utter devastation of Serbia. In the interwar years, the tomb of the assassin Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb high-school student, became the site of official celebrations and popular pilgrimages, testifying to the growing madness of many Serbs. That madness had its counterpart, incidentally, in the madness of many Croats. When the day of the Croats came, during World War II, the Croatian nationalist Ustasha regime engaged in murderous behavior against Serbs and Jews, which was matched only by the murderousness of its German sponsors.

Ustasha atrocities, committed in the name of nationalism and Catholicism by Croatian fascist politicians, Franciscan monks and ordinary Croats, are one of the better-known horrors of World War II. But it is less well known that at least as many (if not more) Croats fought in the ranks of Tito's Partisan army, and that Tito himself was a Croat. During World War II, the multiethnic and multi-religious Yugoslav Communist army successfully combated both the pro-Nazi Ustasha and the anti-Nazi Serbian nationalist Chetnik forces. During the recent Bosnian conflict, American politicians and military commanders from General Colin Powell on down conjured up the mythical image of the " Invincible Serbian Warrior," mainly to justify their refusal to intervene militarily in Bosnia. This image conflated the far-from-invincible Serbian Chetniks with the internationalist Yugoslav Partisans, whose ranks contained many others besides Serbs. A little over a year ago, to almost everyone's surprise, the not-much-better disciplined or dedicated Croatian army utterly defeated the Serbian forces in Bosnia and Croatia.

After World War II, Bosnia-Herzegovina became one of the nominally sovereign states in the Communist Yugoslav federation. The federation was held together by the prestige and the will of Tito, the threat of a Soviet invasion, the protective nuclear umbrella of the United States and relative prosperity. All this unraveled after Tito's death in 1980, the end of the cold war and the crisis of the Yugoslav socialist economy. By 1987, Serbian public opinion had grown increasingly indignant, not completely without justification, over the growing nationalism of the Albanian majority in the still-Bosnian province of Kosovo within the Serbian republic. The indignation, fueled by leaders of the Orthodox Church and Belgrade's most prominent academics, was exploited by the Communist functionary Slobodan Milosevic.

Milosevic whipped up xenophobic sentiments in order to establish his own charismatic rule in Serbia. Increasingly ignored by the Communist bosses of the different republics, the Yugoslav federal government collapsed in 1991, when Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence. The war between Croatia and Yugoslavia, or what was left of the latter, forced the Bosnians to make a decision. Rather fearfully, they, too, opted for independence. This caused Serb nationalists in Bosnia to break away from the Sarajevo government. The Bosnian war-within-the-war began in 1992, accompanied by immediate " ethnic cleansing."

The Serbian atrocities, and to a lesser extent the Croatian atrocities, committed in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995 are graphically described by Sells. Yet an enumeration of horrors is not Sells's primary goal. Rather, he wishes to awaken the world to the religious character of the conflict. Like the scholars in The Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sells insists that far from all Bosnian Serbs have been involved in the atrocities, and that the tendency of many outsiders to see all Serbs as fanatics is completely unjustified. Both books remind us of how unwilling ordinary Serbs have been to join the army. Not all Bosnian Serbs are on the side of Radovan Karadzic, another indicted war criminal. And Sells offers numerous examples of Bosnian Serbs killed by Serbian nationalist terrorists for trying to protect Muslims or for protesting the atrocities.

In 1993, in the middle of the war, the government of Bosnia consisted of nine Muslims, six Serbs and five Croats. One third of the Bosnian Territorial Defense Forces were Serbian, as was their second-in-command. Yet, after the world media assured us countless times that the Bosnian government and army were "Muslim-dominated," and after many Bosnian Muslims have lost faith in the West, what remains of divided Bosnia is indeed becoming "Muslim-dominated." Some Bosnian Muslims have embraced fundamentalist principles, thereby serving as a belated justification for the Serbian and Croatian "preventive" crusades against all Muslims. In reality, however, many Bosnian Muslims, perhaps most Bosnian Muslims, are irreligious or lukewarm in their religious commitments. Since World War II, 30 to 40 percent of all urban marriages in Bosnia have been mixed marriages. This was once an admirable statistic. It is now a heartbreaking one.

The concept of "Muslim" as a nationality stems from Tito, who introduced this statistical category into the national census in 1971, mainly in order to weaken the increasingly aggressive Serbian and Croatian nationalisms in Bosnia. Muslims in other regions of Yugoslavia were still not allowed to declare themselves to be of Muslim nationality. Moreover, as Ivo Banac points out, in Tito's Bosnia one could very well be (and in fact many were) Jehovah's Witnesses by religion and Muslims by nationality, as well as speakers of Serbo-Croatian.


Most of Sells's fine book, again, is an attempt to prove the religious character of the Serbian and Croatian campaigns against the Bosnian Muslims. When, on November 9, 1993, the Croatian national militia, known as the Croatian Defense Council (HVO), destroyed the world-famous Turkish Old Bridge at Mostar, it did so in order to strike a blow at the multi-religious character of the region. As for the Serbs, many among their militia went to war professing to hate the Muslims for being Christ-killers. How could Muslims be Christ-killers when their religion was founded six centuries after Christ? It is a good question. The answer to it lies in the ability of some nineteenth- and twentieth-century Serbian nationalists to create popular historical myths.

As Sells makes amply clear, many nationalist and religious folktales allegedly rooted in ancient Serbian tradition are really the creations of modern-day propagandists. Alternately, these propagandists have given some ancient folktales a murderously anti-Muslim twist. The most tragic day of Serbian history, as all Serb nationalists would tell you, was June 28, 1389 (it was actually June 15, according to the old Julian calendar), or Saint Vitus's Day (Vidovdan, in South Slavic), when on the field of Kosovo (Kosovo Polje, in South Slavic) the army of Sultan Murad destroyed the Serbian army. In Serbian nationalist mythology, the great hero and martyr of the battle was Prince Lazar of Serbia; his betrayer, a Serbian Judas, was Prince Vuk Brankovic; and his avenger was the knight Milos Obilic, who was at first himself accused of being a traitor. Obilic murdered Sultan Murad and was in turn cut down by the Sultan's bodyguards.

Reality, needless to say, had little to do with the nineteenth-century legend. Prince Lazar did genuinely try to stop the Ottoman Turks at the head of a Balkan coalition, and he and Sultan Murad were killed; but the details of these events are somewhat less clear. Many Balkan Christians, including a respectable number of Serbs, participated in the battle on the Ottoman Turkish side. Moreover, great Serbian noble families, including the Lazarevici and the Brankovici, changed sides repeatedly in the fourteenth century and later. So did other European noblemen when they were confronted with Muslim armies in such places as Hungary, the Danubian Principalities and Spain. As a rule, Ottoman Turks were seen as no greater a danger to one's country and to one's personal power than neighboring Christian princes. Note that both the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the proclamation of Yugoslavia's constitution in 1921 took place on Saint Vitus's Day.

In the romantic literature of the nineteenth century, especially in the works of the Montenegrin Bishop Njegos, Prince Lazar became the martyr and the redeemer of the suffering Serbian nation, a veritable Christ-figure. In more than one figurative representation Lazar appears as though seated at the Last Supper, surrounded by twelve apostle warriors. Sells's book contains a reproduction of one of these pictures. In Njegos's epic poem, "The Mountain Wreath," generally held to be the greatest poem in the Serbian language, Serbian warriors massacre the Slavic Muslims, men, women and children; and on their return from the slaughter of these "Turks" or "Turkifiers," the warriors take communion without confession, showing clearly that the killing of such traitors to the race was not a sin. Other pieces of Serbian nationalist literature, including works by the Nobel Prize-winning writer Ivo Andric, are imbued with hatred and contempt for the Ottoman Turks and for the "Turkifiers." In recent years, members of the gangster Arkan's Serbian "Tiger Militia" carried out atrocities in Bosnia, allegedly in response to Muslim depravity and a Muslim plan to annihilate all Serbs: rather than waiting for such an eventuality, the Serbian warriors took preventive action.

Preventive action has been an important item in Serbian nationalist propaganda. Acting in accordance with the established East European tradition, the Serbian media present their country as surrounded by enemies and threatened by a declining birthrate, made all the more worrisome by an allegedly higher birthrate among Bosnian Muslims. A cartoon in the Literary Gazette, the official journal of the Association of Serbian Writers, depicts a Muslim and a Catholic cleric arguing over a Serbian baby. (It is reproduced in Sells's book.) The prelate wants to baptize the baby and the Muslim wants to circumcise him; and the second frame shows the prelate gouging out the baby's eyes while the Muslim prepares to circumcise him. The remedy for such alleged atrocities has often been the rape of Muslim women "to plant the seed" of a Christian in a Muslim womb. Serbian propagandists, paid by the government, have been using the language of extreme paranoia. True, many Serbs have resisted this insanity, but more of them from among the common people than from among Serbian intellectuals, literati, academics and Orthodox clergymen.

Sells does not doubt the genocidal (and gynocidal) character of the Serbian, and to a lesser extent Croatian, crusades against the Muslims. The book opens with a description of how, on August 25, 1992, the Serbian army began shelling the National Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina in Sarajevo from positions in the mountains directly in front of it. The shelling did not stop until a "million books, more than a hundred thousand manuscripts and rare books, and centuries of historical records of Bosnia-Herzegovina went up in flames." Next came the turn of the National Museum and other cultural institutions. (The Serb gunners apologized only when their shells accidentally hit the Holiday Inn.) What the Serb artillery missed, the Croatian nationalist militia finished off later. The fundamental ideology behind it all, writes Sells, was Christoslavism, the conviction that Slavs are Christians by nature, and that conversion to Islam was a betrayal of the Slavic race.

Sells, a half-Serb, categorically condemns the behavior of the Serbian political, military and literary elite. Yet he is even more critical, if that is possible, of the United Nations, NATO and the Western political leadership. The Geneva Convention of 1948 demanded that all signatory powers prevent genocide and punish it. Article 51 of the U.N. Charter formally recognized the right of every nation to defend itself. Yet it was the Western powers, urged on by Great Britain, who organized the arms embargo on Bosnia, thus delivering the defenseless Bosnian state to its enemies. Spurred on by a false humanitarianism, Christian leaders and organizations, including the World Council of Churches, opposed both the lifting of the embargo and the use of NATO forces. Supplying humanitarian aid under U.N. control made the U. N. peacekeepers hostages of the Serbs and Croatian forces.

Sells is particularly exasperated with U.N. commanders such as the Canadian General Lewis MacKenzie and the British General Michael Rose, who openly fraternized with the murderer General Mladic and never failed to put obstacles in the way of the Bosnian authorities. Then there is the French colonel who, on January 3, 1993, allowed the Serbian militia to execute Hakija Turaljic. The Bosnian deputy prime minister was traveling between Sarajevo airport and the city in a French armored car. While the French soldiers calmly looked on, a militiaman pointed his gun inside the French car and shot Turaljic dead. There is also the case of the Dutch major with a handlebar moustache and super-martial exterior who, as commander of the Dutch battalion at Srebrenica, an officially declared U.N. "safe haven," toasted General Mladic while the Muslim men of Srebrenica were rounded up and taken away to be murdered. As the major later testified at the trial of war criminals at the Hague, it did not occur to him to ask Mladic where and why the civilians, entrusted to his care, were being taken away. One would like to think that this was due to the Western officers' sympathy for a fellow soldier and their contempt for the amateur soldiery of the Bosnian government. There is the distinct possibility, however, that these officers were under orders not to put too many obstacles in the Serbs' way.

There is one group Sells fails to criticize and which, I think, deserves censure. It is the Serbian intellectual emigres in the United States and elsewhere who were once unrelenting in their attacks on the Tito regime but have rallied to the Serbian flag in the last few years. They have abandoned the fundamental duty of all intellectual emigration, which is sternly and loudly to remind the regime at home of its responsibilities. To the best of my knowledge, no prestigious Serb abroad ventures to remind the Belgrade government of the untold miseries it has inflicted on the Bosnian Muslims and on its own people.

Is all this an exaggeration? Have Sells and the authors of The Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina gone too far in attacking the Serbian and Croatian leadership? To be sure, one should not forget how traumatic for all Serbs was the dissolution of Yugoslavia, which had been governed from Belgrade, or the haste with which Germany and the rest of the Western world recognized the independence of Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. It would be foolish to pretend (as certainly Sells and Pinson and his colleagues know) that the Bosnian government and the Bosnian Muslims have been blameless in this conflict. The fact remains, however, that between 1992 and 1995, as a general rule, Muslims have been the victims and Serbs and Croats have been the victimizers.

If and when the tables are turned, we should hasten to rush to the aid of the Serbs and the Croats. But it is more likely that the past will no longer make much difference, as all three sections of Bosnia gradually pass into the hands of druglords, local bosses and other criminals, who are unlikely to revive a major war that might harm business. Indeed, the moral and economic collapse of Bosnia, once a model of interethnic and interreligious cooperation, is another aspect of this crushing story.

Back in 1992, Margaret Thatcher suggested that NATO airplanes smash the bridges and the railroad lines connecting Rump Yugoslavia with Serbia, thereby interdicting the flow of arms to the Bosnian Serbs. The suggestion was met with derision, mocked as a typical exercise in the Iron Lady's saber- rattling. Today it is hard to resist the thought that a few bombs dropped in 1992 might have spared the region great suffering. They might also have saved Europe and the Christian world from a degradation and a bewilderment whose consequences cannot yet be known.

Istvan Deak is Seth Low Professor of History at Columbia University.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/books-and-arts/god-their-sides