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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0 Response

  1. Christopher Bragdon

    OK article, but the author loses credibility when he makes the foolish or at least ignorant statement “no high representative has ever uttered a single critical word about the role of religious leaders that the OHR.”

    The author obviously does not know what he is talking about.

    Reis Cerić requests apology from Inzko
    Oslobođenje, pg 3, Dnevni Avaz, front page and pg 9 – Commenting on the recent statement made by Reis-ul-Ulema Mustafa Cerić about Canton Sarajevo Minister of Education and Science Emir Suljagić, High Representative in BiH Valentin Inzko said yesterday that Cerić’s statement “must be strongly repudiated”. Reis Cerić publically condemned Suljagić for his decision that grades from religious study classes are not taken into consideration in the overall grade-point average.
    “It has always been my hope that the generosity, solidarity, compassion and tolerance that have been part of BiH society for centuries will prevail over despair,” said Inzko. “I am personally disappointed to hear such a statement from someone who has made a commitment to promote peace and understanding. Such rhetoric can only have a negative effect on peace in BiH. If this country cannot find the humanity to put aside hate and mistrust, it cannot have a future for its children.” The High Representative added that “the people of BiH have God-given strength and wisdom that transcend statements against human decency”.
    The Cabinet of the Reis-ul-Ulema issued a press release yesterday about “an alleged statement by HR Inzko”.
    “If it is true that the HR/EUSR has issued a statement condemning the Reis-ul-Ulema’s speech, but failing to specify where, when and what in Dr Cerić’s speech was “against human decency”, then we are not surprised as that is only the continuation of the activity connected with the OHR schematic list of Bosniak spiritual, political and business representatives, which follows the old recipe according to which none of the Bosnian Muslims can defend their human rights, including the right to hold public protests,” reads the press release, stressing that “HR Valentin Inzko has no right to attack the dignity of Reis-ul-Ulema and Grand Mufti of the Bosnian Muslims based on the rhetoric of anti-Islamists and Islamophobes to whom nothing is sacred, not even the rights of parents and schoolchildren to have religious classes in schools, which is guaranteed by the law and international agreement with the Holy See”.

  2. Greg

    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? <—- that is gold! lmaooo Dusan you are the man!!

  3. Nikola

    It is still the people who are making these religious institutions a credible institution. This is more nonsense that Bosnia must be a centralized country where the people there HAVE to love each other and act like a brutal war never happened. That will only prolong the healing process but not like the West even cares about this kinda thing.

    Serbs & Croats making up a majority of the country do not want to be in Bosnia. That is the simplest way to explain what is going on in Bosnia. The sides have all had enough with war so no one is going to fight against to be legally and officially separate from each other, but it will be impossible to centralize this country that is perhaps the most polarized in the world.

    ..and this is simply because Bosnia was never a country before 95, it never had consensus of all the people to be one united nation and therefore is unsustainable.

  4. I take the point about the Chetnik, but what is the suggestion here–residents of Sarajevo should be lynching Wahabbis? The fact is Sarajevo and handful of other larger cities in the Federation are the only places that have been electing non-ethno-nationalist parties. When we look at the political establishment in the RS, what we see is essentially a whole sale fusion between religion, state and ethnicity. When we take that together with the rampant corruption under the Dodik regime, in particular, we are basically dealing with a one-party entity under the supervision of the international community.

    The OHR can preach about tolerance, democracy, secularism etc but they have done very little actually support the forces fighting for these concepts in Bosnia, and much more to embolden its enemies.

    Finally, Nikola–as far as I know, Bosnia has a political history dating back to the 9th century and despite several attempts during the 20th century by various fascist and nationalist forces to deny and destroy this fact, it has still continued on as a political space. Might I suggest that rather than engaging in tired nationalist mythological rhetoric you take a more constructive stance towards the Balkans, in general? Perhaps by focusing on improving people’s day to day lives, rather than encouraging more sectarian divisions and sub-divisions.

  5. Nikola

    Jasmin, Bosnia has never been an independent nation before 95. It has existed as a colony under the Ottoman and Auso-Hungarian empires but never as its own country.

    But it is almost irrelevant to talk about history because that’s not what’s most important. The key issue in Bosnia is the majority of people living there do not want to live in a country called Bosnia. These are just the facts in BiH. You say to move on to other matters in order to improve life and I agree with you. There’s just no evidence that Serbs & Croats staying in Bosnia is the way to do that. In fact there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.

    Finally, I would like to point out that it was your people and the Croats that opted for sectarian division and sub division. Your people left Yugoslavia, not Serbs. What you want is to divide to your liking and then when you feel it’s convenient to say no more separation. You cannot just take and then say no more.

  6. Pingback : Separating religion and state in Bosnia | TransConflict | The Roman Gate

  7. Harry

    Nikola, you are just another ethno-nationalist idiot. Your ‘facts’ come from Seselj et al ‘books’. You shoudn’t contaminate this space with your idiotic statements.

    Well done Dusan Babic.

    Thanks for your comments Jasmin.

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