Separating religion and state in Bosnia

With the role of religion having remained largely ignored in post-Dayton Bosnia-Herzegovina, there is a need to promote a process of secularization by upholding the separation of religion and state.

By Dusan Babic

Bosnia and Herzegovina (henceforth, ‘Bosnia’) is now more than ever burdened by the legacy of war and the contradictions of the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA). Post-Dayton Bosnia is a unique country in many respects, particularly its complex, irrational and inefficient administrative structure. This can, in part, be attributed to the ethnic concept of governance which is – by all relevant parameters – a failed concept; yet one which is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Whilst many obstructive elements – including the paternalism and hegemonism of neighbouring Croatia and Serbia – have been identified, the role of religion has remained entirely ignored.

By means of historical context, Bosnia – and indeed the entire region – has endured a confessional feud lasting for centuries. In spite of, or possibly because of, this, the international community has tended to turn a blind eye; regularly ignoring, and even tolerating, the often damaging role of religious authorities. Whilst this in part derives from a widespread stereotype that the former regime repressed religion – and indeed it was marginalized in the former Yugoslavia – this does not excuse such an attitude and approach. It is extremely indicative that no high representative has ever uttered a single critical word about the role of religious leaders, let alone employed the so-called Bonn powers in order to ban their political activities.

Aggressive political clericalism

The term ‘clericalism’ was coined by Belgian journalists in about 1885 to suggest abuse of the clergy’s original functions; which was well manifested by encroachments into the sphere of politics. Post-Dayton Bosnia has been defined by an aggressive political clericalism. Priests and mufties from their pulpits deliver political speeches par excellence. They visit public schools – almost always decorated with religious symbols – universities and other educational and cultural institutions, hospitals, army units and prisons, where they openly agitate for nationalist politicians.  Clergymen are also involved in the media, influencing even editorial policy.

This is an outcome of the symbiosis of state and religion. The Dayton constitution did not specifically prescribe the secular nature of the country. Instead, it was taken for granted. Post-Dayton Bosnia, however, is more like a theocratic state. Consider just a few examples – the banning of the pride parade in Sarajevo, or religious holidays. In parts of the country with a Christian majority, Christmas and Easter are public holidays. The same is true with respect to Bajram in Bosniak parts. And what to say about proselytism post-mortem. All graveyards settings – with talk of collective burials and accompanying religious ceremonies – indicate that all buried persons were believers.

Secularism should not be confused with any official atheism or the like. Secularization is a process which aims to create an anti-clerical society and the spirit of tolerance. Clericalism is the antithesis to this, particularly the strain of Bosnian clericalism which endeavours to gain power and ensure the impact of the clergy on political and secular affairs.

Fostering an anti-clerical culture is of crucial importance for Bosnia. As such, a strict separation between the church and state must be on the agenda. The secular democratic state is the most reliable guardian of all segments of social, cultural and political life. Nothing is more misleading or harmful to religious liberty than the seductive notion that the state should favour religion or even act as its protege. History testifies to how such an approach inevitably results in favouring one religion or ethnic group over others. Such malpractices are clearly detrimental to the development of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious society.

A sobering moment

Some two weeks ago, a man armed with a Kalashnikov opened fire on the US Embassy in Sarajevo. Witnesses told reporters that the man urged pedestrians to move away, saying he was targeting only the Embassy. And they promptly did. This terrorist, Mevlid Jasarevic, wore an odd beard and was dressed in an outfit with short pants, typical for followers of the Wahhabi-branch of Islam, rooted in Saudi Arabia. This one-man-show lasted more than forty minutes.

Whilst watching this peculiar event – which ended with a single shot – my first thought was whether I could imagine a man armed with a Kalashnikov and dressed in a Chetnik-like uniform with a cockade (kokarda) on his hat, parading in the centre of Sarajevo in broad daylight? The possibility of his shooting randomly is excluded, since I am quite sure that he would be disarmed by pedestrians within a matter of minutes. Even lynching could not be excluded.

In cases such as that of Jasarevic, however, a religiously-inspired and indoctrinated reflexive factor proves decisive. Namely, a great majority of pedestrians would ponder, disregard how insane this terrorist might be, but somehow determine that he is one of ours – namely, a brother in faith. Unfortunately, that’s Sarajevo in 2011.

Indeed, consider the famous Pogorelica terrorist training camp case. Pogorelica is located near Fojnica, some fifty kilometres northwest of Sarajevo. At the time, this camp was officially described as a police training center, but was sponsored by the Islamic Republic of Iran and run by Iranian intelligence staff, who also trained Hezbollah in Lebanon. On February 16th 1996, a US-led raid took place. Shortly afterwards, Grand Mufti Cerić voiced his opposition to the action, despite it being admitted that Pogorelica training camp was formed illegaly and without the consent of the country’s official bodies.

Meanwhile, the Wahabbi movement was expanding and reis Cerić, Head of the Islamic Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Islamska zajednica BiH), was trying to diminish its impact. Reis Cerić is currently the most influential and powerful person among Bosniaks. It indeed matters what he says. Jasarevic’s actions, however, provide for a sobering moment. Any evil for some good. The recent terrorist attack in Sarajevo finally forced reis Cerić to denounce the Wahabbi movement in Bosnia and terrorism, in general. It might help. It might be a light at the end of the Bosnian tunnel. Even an omen that religion is going to play a positive role.

Dusan Babic is a Sarajevo-based media and political analyst.

This article is published as part of TransConflict’s newly-launched initiative, Confronting Extremism, further information about which is available by clicking here.

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