Novi Pazar’s shared cultural heritage

Celebrating and instrumentalising shared cultural heritage in Novi Pazar carries enormous potential for creating a positive platform for dialogue between its two main communities.

By Teddy Noel-Hill

Novi Pazar is a town much maligned and much misunderstood. My first visit there came in in 2008 and I was struck by its distinctive and captivating cultural heritage. Since then I have been convinced that using and promoting the shared cultural history of Novi Pazar, both within the town and in Serbia more widely, could have positive transformative effects pertaining to intercommunity relations and its position within Serbia. I was privileged enough to return to Novi Pazar with TransConflict. Whilst on the trip, I gained a small insight into the problem the town faces and what needs to be done to tackle them.

Novi Pazar is home to a vibrant, well educated and numerically significant population of young people. Given that most of the rest of Serbia, along with high profile cases in Western Europe, not to mention Russia, are going through demographic crises, this is an important advantage when looking to the town’s future. It was with a selection of these young people that TransConflict – in collaboration with Kulturni Centar DamaD – engaged in a debate on life and interethnic relations in Novi Pazar.

The discussion was primarily based around the question of coexisting in a multicultural society and the role that culture plays in that existence. Central to the debate was the idea of shared cultural heritage and how this is represented in Novi Pazar. Novi Pazar has a rich and compelling cultural heritage that in theory is shared between the town’s Bosniak and Serb populations. Unfortunately, cultural exclusivism is pervasive within public life in Novi Pazar.

One member of the group gave an example that illuminated the problem in a telling way. They recounted the case of a programme on local television dealing with the shared history of Novi Pazar and Sandžak more generally. The only problem was the content was actually split into two programmes; one focussing on Serbian cultural heritage, the other on Bosniak cultural heritage.

The group was unanimous in establishing that culture represents an important pillar of society and is therefore crucial to the betterment of interethnic relations. Celebrating and instrumentalising shared cultural heritage in Novi Pazar carries enormous promise for creating a positive platform for dialogue between its two main communities. The economic benefits for doing so were also discussed, in the context of attracting tourists and outside investment.

There was no denial of the multi-dimensional rewards and holistic transformations that shared cultural consciousness and promotion could bring to Novi Pazar. However, various members of the group pointed out that the idea of shared cultural heritage remains a major area of disagreement between the two communities. One member of the group stated that discussions concerning shared culture too often run the risk of offending people from the other community. The fear of causing offence, or saying things that could be open to distortion, were highlighted by those at the debate as restrictive forces on improving intercommunity relations.

Insidious promotion of cultural exclusivity by those in positions of authority in Novi Pazar is sadly strangling any potential efforts towards the realisation of a shared cultural heritage, be it in the past or looking towards the future.

There was then a clear message from this part of the discussion – Novi Pazar needs tangible projects that promote the shared cultural heritage of the town that explicitly draw attention to the fact that the project would be undertaken by members of both the Bosniak and Serb communities.  It would be a tragedy not to use Novi Pazar’s unique and richly endowed cultural landscape to improve interethnic relations within the town and to improve its poltical, economic and social position within Serbia and the region. The transformative power of culture can be harnessed in interesting and constructive ways in Novi Pazar, with many members of the discussion group putting forward tangible ideas to this effect. The production of a weekly television programmed highlighting the shared history if the Sandžak region and the making of an interactive cultural map of Novi Pazar were two potential projects that were mentioned.

As I left Novi Pazar there was a pertinent reminder of the challenges facing the town in regards to its situation within Serbia as a whole. It was a Saturday and Novi Pazar football club were hosting a team from Belgrade. The Belgrade side have a fan base notorious for their extreme-right wing orientation, which alas, seems to be a common trait of football hooligans across Europe. Football stadia all too often represent a stage for all forms of bilious hate-filled sentiments that encompass racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia etc.  In the instance of this Saturday in Novi Pazar, the chanting was of a highly unsavoury politico-religious nature. As someone who watches football regularly in England, I am no stranger to the highly-charged atmosphere of football matches and the heavy police presence that accompanies them. The police presence in Novi Pazar however was more akin to a military operation and it felt as if the potential for violence and was very real.  Hateful chanting takes on an altogether more serious dimension in places such as Novi Pazar where there are heightened interethnic sensitivities and divisions. Whilst important steps can be taken within the town to improve relations between Bosniaks and Serbs, influxes of this nature reflect some of the perceptions and treatment of Novi Pazar throughout the rest of Serbia that need to be tackled. They could also potentially act as dangerous tipping points for strained community relations. Serious measures must be taken by the state authorities to address this, both on a macro and micro level.

Although cause for concern, these events did not overshadow the positivity that I took away from my time in Novi Pazar. Despite the difficulties and divisions that exist in Novi Pazar, the dedication and talents of my warm and welcoming hosts are having and will continue to make a constructive impact. Novi Pazar is fortunate that it possess such an asset as its cultural diversity, which can and should be celebrated. It must be hoped that the foresight, understanding and determination of those young people who wish to determine the town’s future will be allowed to shine through.

Teddy Noel-Hillis currently studying for a masters in Politics, Security and Integration at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London (UCL). He is currently researching the nexus between nationalism, politics and culture in South-Eastern Europe.

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  3. PEN

    Good for you Mustafa. You’re not ashamed of where you were born, or your religious beliefs. You were born in Serbia not Bosnia, and therefore logically you’re not a ‘Bosniak.’ The fear of offending that the author mentions is a Western fixation, that I’m afraid he himself has succumbed to.
    Furthermore the problem with overly intellectualizing an issue is that it becomes so much psychobabble, that ordinary readers simply don’t comprehend. The Sandzak or Raska region does have its problems with unemployment, poor infrastructure, and a minority of religious zealots trying to stir things up. But overall the population get on with each other, and are young and eager to improve their lives if given the opportunity. By the way I’m a SSEES old boy myself, circa 1993. Thoroughly enjoyed my time there. Does anybody remember Mark Wheeler?

  4. Arhangel Mihajlo

    This would be a good starting point, if author did not miss the core of the issue: one side is Christian Orthodox while other is Muslim.

    Historically, Muslims originate from domestic Christians being converted to Islam. Both Orthodox and Muslim religions don’t tolerate mixing with other religions. There can’t therefore be any “shared cultural heritage”.

    That does not mean there can’t be common living, if above fact is recognized.

  5. Teddy Noel-Hill

    Mustafa- thank you for raising an important point that is not bereft of controversy but fell beyond the scope of this article.

    To be clear however, I used the the term “Bosniak” and not “Bosnian” as you purport. As of course you will know, there is a lexical framework that places Bosniak ( Bošnjak) as a term denoting a South-Slavic Muslim not necessarily from the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina as opposed to Bosnian (Bosanac) , a term for an individual from the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina regardless of religious affliation or further subnational affiliation, or any other type of identity marker.

    Undoubtedly all these terms can be somewhat totalising and essentialising and do not capture the complex, multilayered, and fluid nature of identity. As such, my choosing of the term Bosniak was in no way meant to demean the status of being, or identifying yourself as, a Serbian Muslim. I apologise if this appears to have been the case.

    Rather, I wanted the focus of the article to be on the important work carried out during my stay in Novi Pazar rather than an etymological and political debate surounding the term Bosniak. Bosniak seemed to me the term most frequently used in common parlence in Novi Pazar by members of the Muslim community when describing themselves ,as well as being the term most frequently used in legal, political , and other terminology.

    PEN- you have rightly pointed out that the fear of causing offence is indeed keenly felt, particularly among the English (so much as we can generalise about these things). However, I have not “succumbed” to it as you claim nor am I in any other way fixated by it. Rather I am of the conviction that deliberately causing offence for its own sake or otherwise is not necessary, nor particularly useful .

    You are also correct in your assertion that the vast majority of young peole in the Sandzak/Raska region are just trying to improve their lives given the right opportunities.

    I haven’t heard the name Mark Wheeler ever mentioned at SSEES unfortunately.

    Mihaljo- I find your comments highly problematic. Leaving your take on history and the nature of Orthodox Christianity and Islam very much aside, I would say that of course there can be shared cultural heritage. Cultures are not monolithic, homogenous blocs. Culture and cultural space (particularly in urban space) is inherently hybridised and based around interaction, dialogue, exchange etc. One enters a very dangerous and unpleasant area if they talk of national-monistic cultures. You are of course, needless to say, entitled to your opinion.

  6. David Kanin

    This article presents arguments similar to the those often presented in celebration of the multicultural traditions of Sarajevo, the existence of which led some to blame a few “ethnic entrepreneurs” for creating the tragedy of the 1990s. Unfortunately, by itself, the more or less peaceful proximity of different communities consisting of many individuals who reject–or even resist–nationalizing narratives is not sufficient to prevent conflict when existing legal and security systems break down. In the unsettled, fluid context of the Balkans, the relationship between residual Serbian nationalism and the burgeoning of Bosniak identity in Bosnia and Sandzak bears watching.

  7. Carlo Abrucci

    As usual, the British writer fails to understand, from his ethnocentric perch, the deep divide confronting Balkan peoples. Comparing UK and Serbian football fans does nothing but display the obviously British anti-Serb passion so usually seen in daily news broadcasts. Good Grief! Who are the worst football fans in Europe? The British, of course. There isn’t much doubt of that. Thus talking from a viewpoint that views 800 years of conflict as equal to a British football game is little more than silly. Muslim Bosniaks and Christian Serbs can live side-by-side in peace but the “shared cultural heritage” is a myth for there is nothing in history but violence between the two groups.

  8. It seems right and proper to me to talk about shared heritage and also about what makes people feel different. But certainly, it advances nothing to minimize the strength with which many in the Balkans experience the differences.

    It is noteworthy that people from different communities can live next to each other within the various democratic and lawful political structures in the Balkans. (Only Kosovo remains unsettled in this way.) More than this may take some time given the hundreds of years of history of submerged differences under the Ottomans. It took generations for the Irish and English to be able to live next to each other in peace and in northern Ireland, they still do not mix much. Some Scots still want independence. Multiculturalism of the sort we have in the US – where ethnic differences are primarily a matter of foods – may be possible only where there is not much history.

    But to repeat, living alongside each other peacefully within a just, tolerant and democratic society is clearly achievable.

  9. Zlatan

    Wow. I have no idea how this article has been so misunderstood and controversial. It seems to me like a simple retelling of the authors time in Novi Pazar.

    I personally like what he has to say and what he is trying to do. @Carlo Abrucci i think it is ridiculous to call him ethnocentric and alos very hypocritcal as it would seem that you are the ethnocentrist.Your claim that “there is nothing in history but violence between the two groups” is not only insulting but also incorrect. I can’t believe that people out there such as yourself still seem to think that all us Balkan people have is a history of violence and hatred. It seems as if you and others want us to prisoners of history, unable to escape or better our situation.

    I think the author understands the details of life in the Balkans. We share the Balkans, both the land and the history and therefoere we share heritage.

  10. Ali

    PEN, the same can be said about the christian inhabitants of Bosnia, am I right? if they’re born in Bosnia, then logically they cannot call themselves Serbs or Croats either.

  11. Milovan

    Multi-culturalism is a failure. It has never worked and never will work. We can’t all just get along, the world is not perfect and never will be. People are not perfect and never will be. The reality of multi-culturalism (balkanization) is far from the utopian dream you always hear about. Differences cause division, plain and simple.
    How much ethnic strife is in Poland or the now ethnically pure Croatia? None, because they are homogenous. Take a good look at America, Canada, UK, France, Germany etc. Have you ever noticed the voting patterns of ethnic groups? Have you ever noticed that minorities are always a source of constant problems within a shared community? People are tribal the world over, they always have been and always will be. The only shining examples of different tribes ever getting along is when ruled by iron fisted dictators like Stalin and Tito. How many people disappeared or were thrown in the gulags for that? Shortly after Tito was gone it all fell apart. Why? It is the natural order of things. That is how people are in reality.
    Prove me wrong if you can, show me your glorious example of a utopian multi-culturalist society without division. Every multi-culturalist country has all these problems with racism, intolerance etc. Just google racism or intolerance, you’ll see almost all the articles come from the multi-cultural west.

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