Sunday, August 27, 2006

"Fool's Crusade," Diana Johnstone, and ethnic nationalism, Part 3

"The term narod as understood in the Balkans is extremely hard to grasp elsewhere and is a source of endless confusion and misunderstanding. Narod means a people with the cultural attributes of a nation--notably a common language. In Yugoslavia, the narodi were the peoples whose principal political home was in Yugoslavia: Serbs, Croats, Slovenians, Montenegrins, Macedonians, and, after 1970, a new "nationality" called "Muslims." In addition, a second term, narodnost (plural narodnosti) designated nationalities whose main political home was in another state: Albanians, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Turks, Slovaks, and so on. All enjoyed cultural rights, centering on the use of their mother tongue in schools, lawcourts, cultural establishments, and so on. Yugoslavia defined itself as a "multinational" country, not as "multi-ethnic" or "multicultural."

In the above-quoted paragraph, approvingly explaining the old Yugoslav distinction between 'narod' and 'narodnost,' Johnstone casually drops this line:

"...and, after 1970, a new "nationality" called "Muslims." "

In this seemingly throwaway line lies the key to understanding both how flawed the Yugoslav 'narod/narodnost' variant of collective identity was, and how intellectually dishonest and incurious Johnstone's approach to the problem is. The development of national identity by various Slavic groups in the Balkans is a relatively recent development, a process that was hampered by the political control and division of the area by the Ottomans, later the Austro-Hungarians, and intermittent Great Power interference.

The infamous border between the Catholic West and the Orthodox East, and then the overlapping division between the Christian West and the Muslim East, can best be understood not as absolute boundries between alien worlds, but rather as a tragic wound through a land inhabited by a hodge-podge of related peoples who might, under more fortuitous historcial circumstances, have developed a singular ethnic identity. It is possible to imagine a world in which the modern heirs Medieval Kingdoms of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria coexist with no more unbreachable cultural differences and deep-seated hostilites than currently exist between The Netherlands and the Flemish of Belgium.

Johnstone--in a discussion where she is otherwise painfully slavish about adhering to the logica and wording of the Yugoslav designations--reverts to the (allegedly less nuanced) English word "nationality," and puts it in quotes to boot. The implication is clear; "Muslim" was an artificial designation, and therefore they were not a 'true' nationality.

In this case, she has a point; but not for the reasons she is implying. "Muslim" is an artificial designation, but given the logic of the ideology that Johnstone herself is defending, it is not a false designation.

By identifying the "narod" and "narodnost" as the consituent pieces of the republic, Yugoslavia pushed the limits of immature Balkan nationalism to its limits. Medieval states had come, and mostly gone, in the region. Nations kingdoms and ethnic groups and tribes had been torn between Rome and Constantinople, and then Mecca for centuries. Centuries of rule by neighboring empires shifted groups of people across old boundries, yet the suppression of ethnic and cultural identity in both the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires, along with the difference in status awarded to Muslim Slavs compared to their Orthodox and Catholic brethren, tended to undermine any sense of pan-Slavic feeling which might have transcended tribal and religious differences.

So the national identities which began to take shape in the late 18th and early 19th centuries tended to focus on religion, and on emotional and historical connections to long-vanquished Medieval states; a connection that was self-consciously cultivated, although these were histories steeped in myth and selective remembrence. The nationalism that began to rise in the region after Serbia's independence in 1804 looked to the distant past in order to discover a golden age, and a homeland, to reclaim.

At the same time, the specific period that each national group looked were not the same; the boundries of different states at their height overlapped greatly, as did the religious identity of the inhabitants of different areas. It is true that the Slavic Muslims of 17th Century Bosnia most certainly did not call themselves "Muslims," at least not exclusively. It is also most likely true, however, that the Roman Catholics of Bosnia did not uniformly, or even in large numbers, consider themselves "Croats." Nor would a 17th Century Orthodox Bosnian automatically consider himself a "Serb."

The long process by which Catholic Bosnians 'became Croat' and Orthodox Bosnians 'became Serb' is anything but clearcut or absolute. And over the centuries, the issue has become confused by continued demographic movement (people moved around a lot throughout Balkan history; this element of frequent, large-scale movements of peoples is frequently underestimated when the history of the region is casually studied). Serbs from Serbia moved to Bosnia, living among the Orthodox and strengthening the link between 'Serbness' and Orthodoxy. And among Muslims, there has long been migration between Bosnia and the Sandzak; whereby Muslims from Serbia moved to Bosnia, where it was their 'Muslimness' which gave them entrance to local culture.

As Bosnian Catholics became Bosnian Croats, and Bosnian Orthodox Christians becamse Bosnian Serbs, even as Croat came to equal Catholic and Serb came to be synomous with Orthodox, what of the Slavic Muslims of Bosnia and Serbia? What were they?

The answer, in the second half of the 20th Century, was to codify what was already a de facto designation.

Yugoslavia was made up of national groups; those national groups were presumed to have firmly delineated characteristics; and religious homogeny (with the exception of Albanians) was a necessary characteristic of a of these nationalisties. By insisting that fluid, porous boundries between closely-related groups defined by overlapping ethnic and relgious differences become impermeable and rigid, nationalism as it developed in the Balkans did not provide conditions for the kind of inclusive, secular nationalism that the demographic balance of Bosnia required. The explicit use of "Muslim" as an ethnic, rather than merely religious, designation was simply an official recognition of demographic realities. There were a few million Slavic Muslims who were simply 'not Serb' or 'not Croatian' or whatever.

For those of us who embrace individual rights and civic nationalism, it does seem like a bad compromise. But given the cultural and legal constraints, there were worse options. One of which was for a few million Slavic Muslims to simply not 'be' anything. Or, optionally, that they were 'really' something else. Croats or Serbs who had been led astray by the Ottoman masters.

Neither of those options is very palatable; however, the devil's bargain was made. "Muslim" was a nationality. And there had been no medieval Muslim state in the area of Yugoslavia. Where was their homeland?

Nowhere, of course. Which was, with little exagerration, where Tudjman and Milosevic conspired to leave these non-peoples; these traitorous Croats and Serbs.


Srebrenica Genocide said...

All inhabittants of Bosnia (Muslims, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox) identified as Bosniaks up until the middle of the 19th century. Then, they started acquiring Serbian and Croatian identities based on a factor of same religion or religious culture. The term "Muslim" was invented by Yugoslav government to demote Bosniaks to "religious group" + they used extensive propaganda historiography teaching Bosniaks that they are Serbs and/or Croats, etc. It was a slow, but steady (politial) genocide of Bosniaks in communist Yugoslavia.

Kirk Johnson said...

A much more concise summary than I managed in this rather over-long post. Thanks.