The importance of being Bosniak

Many Bosniak political and media opinion makers are discovering that their best option involves using a traditional and, in the context of current borders, transnational ethnic movement to improve their leverage with their neighbours and the EU.

By David B. Kanin

Ongoing debates in the Bosniak community reflect in part the failure of efforts to force civic identities on the shards of former Yugoslavia.  Ethnic entrepreneurs are considering how to neutralize Serb and Croat ability so far to block Bosniak efforts to translate larger numbers into greater influence inside Bosnia’s current borders.  Some Bosniaks also are considering whether to expand their work to embrace co-nationals in Serbia and Montenegro, and, perhaps, natural allies farther south.

The origins and authenticity of the term “Bosniak” are less important than its development into a marker of a community co-equal to the ethnic labels of its adversaries.  The meanings of “Bosniak” in late Ottoman times and during the very short period in which Western occupiers tried – and failed – to give the word a civic flavor (something like “American”) matter now only as historical artifacts.  Bosniak political and media opinion makers are fashioning a classically ethnic communal identity that encompasses more than the idea that Muslim Slavs are the titular people of Bosnia.  Bosniaks are doing something like what Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes did when Yugoslav dissolution evolved into competitive communal reconstruction.

Bosniaks have five problems.   First, as a staatsvolk, they only are a plurality or a bare majority, and therefore lack the overwhelming demographic/ethnic dominance that still marks national construction in the more successful European states.  (Devolution in Spain and the UK and persistence of ethnic issues in Romania indicate the “success” of these states still is in question – note the current inter-communal squabble over Bucharest’s effort to redraw the administrative line in Transylvania).

Second, Bosniaks face two significant communal adversaries, not – like Macedonians and some other communal majorities – one.  The smaller Serb and Croat communities have the option of combining to obstruct Bosniak interests.  Serbia and Croatia might no longer egg on their co-nationals inside Bosnia, but they have little incentive to spend resources and political capital to assist the stumbling Bosnian state.  This bleeds into the third problem, the fact that the artificial state Bosniaks are stuck with remains an impossible jumble of legal and practical tangles, and shows no sign of becoming anything else.

Fourth, the Bosniaks’ one international protector, the United States, increasingly is pursuing priorities elsewhere.  The Balkan-weary Europeans are becoming less interested in forcing Bosnia to adopt a civic culture and, in any case, lack the means to do it.

Finally, as Muslims, Bosniak identity construction is a sub-set of the wider question of how Muslims everywhere are adapting to their emerging freedom from the Western domination of the past couple of centuries.  This is the sort of “problem” that has a strong positive element.  Bosniaks have the option of learning from Arab, Iranian, Indonesian and even South Asian debates over the best means of managing and – when necessary – confronting Western counterparts.  The gradually diminishing stature of the West presents Muslims with the difficult responsibility of figuring out how to benefit from a condition of expanding options.

The fact that so many Bosniaks voted for the supposedly civic Social Democratic Party in the last elections underscores the failure of civic politics.  Zlatko Lagumdzija and the SDP had taken power once before, and then lost it after they proved as ineffective and – perhaps – corrupt as ethnically-based opponents.  This time, Lagumdzija’s effort to overwhelm Croat claims to consociational status for the sake of electoral success has ensured that even if he finally does manage to form a central Bosnian government it will be even less functional than his last one.  At the same time, Lagumdzia’s post-election effort to accommodate at least some Croats has angered many in the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action (SDA), his irreplaceable coalition partner.  SDA factions are using the current impasse as a club in their constant internal leadership squabbles.  Whether “civic” or “ethnic,” traditional politicians and parties inside the moribund Bosniak-Croat Federation are as discredited, venal and ineffective as leaders and structures became in the notional democracies in the eastern Europe of the 1920s.

The recent release of a report on “Islamophobia” by Mustafa Ceric, the spiritual leader of Bosnia’s Muslim Community, should be considered in this context.   This document has sparked much criticism of Ceric and of the notion that Bosnia’s supposedly civic politics reflect so many things that are “insulting to the Islamic Community.”  Whatever its specific merits, this report reflects a real disenchantment among many Bosniaks with the dysfunctional state they are stuck with. It also represents a growing Islamic component to politically active elements of Bosniak society.

This is far from a majority view – so far – but could signal an attempt to borrow from the Turkish model to link a self-confident flavor of Islam to an identity mixing traditional values with an embrace of modernity.  Turkey’s growing prestige in the Muslim world definitely is a factor in the former Ottoman Balkan space.  The contrast between Ankara’s successful diplomacy and Western uncertainty in the Balkans and the Middle East (no matter current European pride in NATO’s air war over Libya) is not lost on observant Bosniak opinion leaders.

Some Bosniaks outside Bosnia are beginning to exploit the failure of the current set-up inside Bosnia to seek regional influence.  Bosnia, or rather its Bosniak plurality, is becoming a sort of motherland in Sandzak, the largely Muslim region partitioned in 2006 between Serbia and the newly independent Montenegro.

Muamer Zukorlic is a cagey religious and political organizer of a movement reflecting more than local concerns.  Belgrade and the traditional Sandzak politicians, having blocked his victory in the last election, will do whatever it takes to prevent him from translating his popularity into provincial power. In that context, Zukorlic’s stated interest in becoming the next head of the region’s Muslim community is more than a play for personal authority – although that  definitely is part of the equation.  If successful, Zukorlic will have organized a movement capable of giving Bosniaks leverage with which to counter efforts of any future nationalist government in Belgrade to re-centralize Serbia and widen the already considerable separation of Bosnia’s Serb Republic from the comatose Bosnian state.  If Milorad Dodik actually does try to have his entity secede from Bosnia, Bosniaks will have the opportunity to demand the same right for co-nationals in Sandzak.  (No matter what some Western pundits say, it is far too soon to declare the time has ended for partition or other border changes in the Balkans.)

Of course, there is no guarantee Zukorlic’s popularity in Sandzak will carry over into Bosnia.   He could find that local loyalties trump appeals to confessional or regional clout.   Nevertheless, his candidacy has made his regional Bosniak constituency aware that it – like its Serb and, at times, Croat counterparts – need not take seriously the current borders of the former Yugoslav space.   The same is true farther south; Bosniak and ethnic Albanian communities share Serbs as adversaries and will pay attention to each other‘s experiences.

Zukorlic can play on opportunities to widen ties to Muslim notables in the Middle East and elsewhere.  He likely will choose his counterparts carefully, but the strong interest Arabs and other Muslims have expressed in Bosnia since the wars of the 1990s presents Zukorlic with an important international tool.  He and other Bosniaks can become conduits through which ideas and politics emerging as Arabs debate their post-autocratic future influence future Bosniak identity and strategies.  In a sense, a presence in global Muslim organizations and conclaves will bring to Bosniaks something like the benefits participation in the Cold War-era Non-Aligned Movement brought to Tito.

Zukorlic’s organization is not the only manifestation of the burgeoning transnational Bosniak presence.  On July 9 I received an e-mail announcing the establishment of the Bosniak Academy of Arts and Sciences.  This is a highly charged development that should be seen as a latter-day version of 19th century intellectual constructions that re-crafted languages, rewrote histories and otherwise shaped the assertive nationalisms that competed for space and hegemony in Europe before 1945.

In Yugoslavia, of course, this phenomenon did not end with World War II.  Matica Hrvatska kept one national flame alive and the IMRO memory did the same for Macedonians.  Serbia’s Academy of Arts and Sciences played a particularly critical role in inciting nationalism with its famous “Memorandum” of 1986.  It would not be surprising if those who have created the Bosniak Academy of Arts and Sciences consciously intend to turn the Serbian nationalist model against the Serbs for the sake of transnational Bosniak communal coherence.

The keepers of the flame of “Europe” will continue to insist they have moved on from old, destructive patterns of nationalism and ethnocentrism, especially as the EU’s downward financial spiral and social stresses suggest this is not necessarily the case.  At least some Bosniaks have learned to ignore EU lectures and are discovering that their best option involves using a traditional and, in the context of current borders, transnational ethnic movement to improve their leverage with their neighbors and the EU.  At the same time, the religious component of this development marks the relevance increasing global Agency among Muslims holds for Bosniak identity.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

To keep up-to-date with the work of TransConflict, please click here. If you are interested in supporting TransConflict, please click here.

Email