Inter-ethnic peace remains a tricky formula in Bosnia / News / News agency Inforos
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Inter-ethnic peace remains a tricky formula in Bosnia

While the re-opening of the Aladza mosque is welcome, we should be wary of its politicization

Inter-ethnic peace remains a tricky formula in Bosnia

May 4th saw the reopening of the rebuilt Aladza Mosque in the eastern Bosnian town of Foca, in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska. The original mosque was built in a classic Ottoman style in 1550, but was destroyed by Bosnian Serb forces in 1992, during the Bosnian war. Seen as a masterpiece of Ottoman architecture, it was known as the “painted mosque” because of its engraved painted geometric decorations. The Yugoslav government placed the mosque under state protection in 1950.

After it was demolished, the stones of the mosque were hidden, and later found buried at two separate locations. Reconstruction began in 2014, funded by the Turkish and United States governments. In total, 614 mosques were destroyed by Croat or Serb forces in Bosnia during the 1992-1995 war.

The town of Foca also saw very significant levels of ethnic cleansing. In the last census conducted before the war, Foca was home to 40,153 residents, of which 20,790 were Bosniaks. The 2013 census in Bosnia and Herzegovina estimated the population of Foca at 18,288, of which only 1,270 were Bosniaks.

During the war, the town was also renamed Srbinje, but in 2004 Bosnia's highest court ordered the restoration of the original name.

Saturday’s re-opening was attended by Turkey’s minister for Culture, Nuri Ersoy, and by Bosniak Member of the Presidency Sefik Dzaferovic, Bosnia and Herzegovina Peoples House head Bakir Izetbegovic, Council of Ministers Chairman Denis Zvizdic, and Bosnia Grand Mufti Husein Kavazovic.

Velimir Kostovic, the chief of Foca’s police department, said that the reopening ceremony was important for all the people of Foca, regardless of their religious affiliation. He also stated that, during the build-up to the mosque’s re-opening, no incidents had been reported.

The US ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Eric Nelson, said that “Aladza should serve as a monument to resilience, reconciliation and diversity.”

While all interested parties have welcomed the mosque’s reopening, seeing it as an important milestone for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s task of rebuilding fundamentally necessary civic values, we need to bear in mind that the task of maintaining long-term inter-ethnic peace in Bosnia, let alone gradually building inter-ethnic trust, remains an extremely tricky formula.

We also need to be wary of Ambassador Nelson’s platitudes concerning “reconciliation and diversity,” bearing in mind that it was US-financed entities which were most active in deliberately provoking ethnic and religious tensions in Yugoslavia in the years before the war.

Furthermore, we should consider the argument that the 1992 demolition of the Aladza mosque was not essentially a religiously motivated crime, insofar as its Ottoman architectural style was probably seen as more significant than simply that fact that it was an Islamic place of worship. As such, the mosque represented an appalling history of Ottoman imperial oppression to many Serbs, far more than it represented Islam.

In addition, we should note that even to describe the 1992-1995 Bosnian war as an “inter-ethnic” conflict is not entirely accurate, insofar as most Bosniaks were ethnically indistinguishable from most Orthodox Christian Serbs. The Bosniaks’ ethnogenesis as a distinct cultural group stems from the brutally repressive methods used by the Turks to Islamicize the Balkans – people who resisted conversion were often impaled using methods devised to keep them alive for as long as possible. The essential difference between Orthodox Christian “Serbs” and “Bosniaks,” then, was that “Bosniaks” were Slavs who acquiesced to forced conversion, whereas “Serbs” did not.

With all of that historical context established, however, no reasonable person would deny that the ethnic cleansing which took place in Bosnia, and the destruction of over 600 Bosnian mosques, were appalling crimes. Clearly, a very deliberate attempt was made to erase a distinct cultural group.

As a person living in Crimea, where Orthodox Christianity and Islam coexist quite harmoniously, all of this seems strange to me. Crimea is a model of inter-ethnic and inter-religious peace. Being 13% Muslim, Simferopol is full of mosques. They all have loudspeakers to amplify the Imams’ calls to prayer, which reverberate across the city. Nobody minds.

But then again, the Russian Empire, by virtue of its geography and demographics, had to be built on a foundation of multi-confessional cosmopolitanism. In Russia, nobody really talks about a “clash of civilizations” between Christianity and Islam, apart from a small lunatic-fringe (many of whom, as it happens, are foreigners who have converted to Russian Orthodoxy).

At the same time, we need to be wary of the point that, when it comes to Christian-Islamic relations, gradually more and more people are using the “clash of civilizations” terminology which was first used by the late American political scientist (and notorious pseudo-scientist) Samuel Huntington. Some of these people are self-romanticizing pan-Slavists. Quite justifiably, they hate everything which supremacist ideologues such as Samuel Huntington stand for.

But this point is still extremely worrying – even very many anti-Huntingtonians, in their use of this “clash of civilizations” terminology, still seem to be Huntingtonians. Those who postulate Orthodox Christianity as a totem and who speak in the language of a “clash of civilizations” do not seem to realize that this “clash of civilizations” is, in itself, a transplanted western discourse, a form of cultural imperialism in itself.

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