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Don't Concede a Divided Bosnia

By Michael Sells / November 8, 1996



Three years ago this weekend, after repeated shelling by Croatian religious nationalists, the Old Bridge at Mostar, the 16th century masterpiece that symbolized the multireligious Bosnia, collapsed into the Neretva River.

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Now former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and others propose further splintering of Bosnia through religious partition. Bosnia would be divided into a pure Catholic Croat state that would merge with Croatia, a pure Serb Orthodox state to merge with Serbia, and a central enclave for Bosnian Muslims. The proposed partition would betray Western pledges to respect the territorial integrity of Bosnia made at the London Conference of 1992 and at Dayton in 1995. It would also impose a religious apartheid in Europe after decades of efforts to overthrow racial apartheid in South Africa.

The argument for partition is based on a misleading stereotype: that the people of the Balkans are so consumed with ancient animosities they are incapable of living with one another. This stereotype is both dehumanizing and historically shallow.

But Croat and Serb religious nationalists - a group that has been identified by the international tribunal as perpetrators of genocide and crimes against humanity in Bosnia - both propound and profit from the "ancient hatreds" stereotype. They have rewritten history so as to make their brutal actions seem natural. And they are legitimizing the stereotype by systematically destroying the bridges, churches, mosques, libraries, manuscripts, and museums that testified to centuries of interreligious coexistence in Bosnia.

Western policymakers need to understand that this "ancient hatreds" mythology was the product of relatively recent Croat and Serb religious nationalism and that it bears a striking resemblance to the myth that perpetuated the persecution of Jews. The mythology is based on the ancient battle of Kosovo in 1389 when the Serb Prince Lazar was killed by the Ottoman Turks. In the 19th century, religious nationalists reportrayed Lazar as a Christ-figure, and Turks and Slavic Muslims were abruptly symbolized as "Christ-killers."

These religious nationalists maintained that the Christian Slav nation died with Lazar and would not be resurrected until the descendants of the "race traitors" - Slavic Muslims who converted to Islam - were exterminated. In 1989, at the 600th anniversary of the death of Lazar, the 19th century version of the myth resurfaced in speeches, books, and memorials - and helped motivate and justify the persecution of Muslims in Bosnia.

The partition of Bosnia, based on the false stereotype of ancient hatreds, would be the final victory of the aggressors. It would reward and legitimize both the aggression of the radical religious nationalists and the ideology on which that aggression was based. It would also ensure future conflict. Hundreds of thousands of refugees would be left homeless. And like East European Jewish ghettoes in the middle of this century and before, or the UN "safe haven" of Srebrenica last year, a Muslim enclave in central Bosnia would be the target of continued assaults and possible genocide.

NATO leaders should stop repeating the persecutor's ideology about ancient hatreds, fulfill the obligations of the Geneva Convention of 1948, enforce all of the Dayton accords, support the international tribunal on war crimes, and isolate any party that refuses full compliance with Dayton. The weight of the NATO alliance should help those who wish to rebuild a multireligious, civic society and restore the Bosnia symbolized by the great Old Bridge of Mostar.

Michael Sells is professor of comparative religions at Haverford College in Haverford, Pa., and author of "The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia" (University of California Press).