Thursday, December 07, 2006

"Fools' Crusade" Chapter Three [6]



(It's been a busy week. I haven't been able to attend to the review as I would have liked. Hopefully I'm back on track now.)

Johnstone's history of Serbian nationalism is suspiciously devoid of the clinical, bloodless tone that marked her earlier forays into such topics as ethnic cleansing and mass rape. Suddenly, it is just fine to throw around unqualified, subjective adjectives.

"The Serbian national movement emerged in the early years of the nineteenth century as the liberation struggle of an oppressed people. In the Ottoman Empire, political and economic privileges were reserved for Muslims. While the mosques called the Islamic faithful to prayer several times a day, the Sultan's law banned Orthodox Christan Serbs from marking their celebrations by ringing church bells."

This is not history as written by an unbiased, contemporary academic using original sources. This borders on propaganda, and there is a faint whiff of Islamophobia as well. The entire era of Ottoman rule is telescoped into a single, temporal moment of sinister Islamic persecution. There is no mention, for example, that the system by which Christian boys were taken away to be raised as janissaries had already become defunct by the early 19th Century. The church bells prohibition is presented as if it were uniformly enforced everywhere, at all times.

This is not to say that life for non-Muslims under Ottoman rule was just or fair; it was not. But in this section, Johnstone indulges in the paranoid hyperbole of Serbian nationalism rather than giving anything resembling a reasoned, informed description of life under Ottoman rule. Which, in itself, is perhaps not such a sin--although it is clear that she wants to justify the paranoia and defensive violence of modern-day Serbian nationalism by evoking the ghosts of the sinister Turkish overlords. More disturbing is her implicit condemnation of upper-class Muslims in the area (she has previously damned Izetbegovic for being descended from one of the ruling families of the Ottoman period; her advocacy for collective guilt necessitates that she accept and promote the concept of generational guilt as well).

Her lack of perspective, and her unquestioning acceptance of a biased, and emotional, version of this history is clear in this passage:

""Retrospective condemnation of Western Europe's own record of religious intolerance and persecution has shed a misleading if flattering light on the supposed "religious tolerance" of Ottoman rule. Ottoman "tolerance" of Christian peasants in the Balkans was a matter of economic self-interest. Laborious inferiors were a necessary source of income. The Rayah system, like black slavery and medieval serfdom, was ultimately intolerable. The Serbs were the first in the Balkans to rise up and defeat this unjust system.

I don't think Dobrica Cosic would object to the wording or the sentiments. There are some who might quibble with her comparison between the status of Christian peasants in early 18th Century Ottoman territory to plantation slaves in the American South, but such a lack of perspective and balance on her part should surprise no one.

Note that Johnstone is dismissive of Ottoman "religious tolerance" (again with the quotes--she is quoting nobody; nor is she using the phrase in an unconventional manner) not because it didn't exist, but because it was allegedly solely for exploitive reasons. One wants to point out that religious tolerance is still religious tolerance even if the motives are less than perfectly altruistic. Jews fled the Christian West for the Ottoman East, not the other way around. And while Christians were second-class citizens in late 15th Century Ottoman territory, Muslims who found themselves on reconquered land in Spain at the same time fared much worse.

To point out such inconsistencies is not to defend or exaggerate the virtues of the Ottoman period. But to magnify the real injustices of the period into a grotesque parody of real history is to commit a crime greater than simply oversimplifying or excusing past injustices. Johnstone is regurgitating the hyperbolic, xenophobic, and crudely mythic past in order to justify the present. The ethnic cleansing project was built on a foundation of bad history and masochistic bathos.


Johnstone has--briefly, and with little substance (the footnote at the end of this last paragraph quotes a history of Serbia written in the 1850's; I doubt there's been a non-Serbian history of the period since then sufficiently mawkish and Wagnerian for her purposes)--described the supposed plight of Balkan Christians under what some Bulgarian historians still refer to as "the Turkish yoke." How did they get out of it? We will look at her sycophantic telling in the next post.

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