Sunday, December 16, 2007

"The Bridge Betrayed" by Michael Sells [5]


Bosnia in Myth and History

As before, I will assume that readers of this blog do not require a tutorial on the fundamentals of Bosnian history. Sells does an adequate job summarizing the relevant facts for the uninitiated, beginning with the migration of various Slav-speaking tribes into the Balkans, and the conversion to Christianity a few centuries later. He also explains how the division between the Roman Catholic sphere and the Eastern Orthodox sphere bisected the region, the rise of Serbia as a medieval power, and touches on the paucity of written evidence from medieval Bosnia. In Bosnia, he explains that Orthodoxy and Catholicism vied for influence, even as there was the indigenous Bosnian Church. Interestingly, he repeats the now-discredited theory that the Bosnian Church was Bogomil, only to concede that this conventional wisdom has been refuted a couple of pages later.

He then briefly introduces the Ottoman conquest, which leads to the key question--How and why did so many Bosnians convert to Islam? This is a problematic question, of course, but first Sells confronts the way in which this question has played out in western Balkan nationalism:

"For Croat and Serb nationalists, only the weak and the cowardly converted to Islam; conversions to Islam must have been the product of force or opportunism Such a a mythology is just as distorted as its implied counterpart mythology, that the Slavs who converted to Christianity in the ninth century did so without any economic or political pressures or enticements>"

I would argue that the issue is even more complicated than this, for a reason which is usually ignored by Balkan nationalists of all stripes and their supporters--the frequent movement of individuals and groups of peoples around the region throughout history. Nailing down who lived where when is very difficult in the Balkans, which only compounds the difficulty of determining who the "Bosnians" of the Middle Ages actually were. The same goes for the Serbs, the Croats, etc. Still, we do know that the Slavs of Bosnia converted to Islam in higher numbers than elsewhere in the region. What is important for our purposes here is to note that Serbian and Croatian nationalism both ascribe sinister and contemptible motives to these conversions.

While Sells does not touch on the issue of migration, I must admit that this conditional would be covered by the larger and more fundamental point he makes next.

"...[E]xposed as historically untenable are the national myths that ethnic groups are or ever were stable entities that remain fixed down through the centuries, or that the Ottoman Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Muslims of Bosnia today are direct descendants through stable ethnoreligious communities of ancient Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim ancestors."

If this simple, but profound, insight were to gain traction both among the people of the Balkans and among outside observers, the entire superstructures of the various nationalisms of the region would come crashing down. One can only take the ridiculous claims of Radovan Karadzic and his ilk even slightly seriously if the obvious truth of Sells' concisely-worded analysis is ignored.

He goes on to note that:

"The various loyalties in Bosnia were complex and shifting, and conversions followed many patterns. Orthodox Christians converted to Catholicism, Catholics converted to Orthodox Christianity, Orthodox Christians and Catholics converted to Islam. Some Muslims converted to different forms of Christianity."

The world is a complex place, and human nature being what it is people do things for various reasons and motives. This should be obvious, but nationalists are the most toxic and base of collectivists, and accepting the reality of life's complexities and nuances is simply unacceptable to the ultra-nationalist mindset.

Sells wraps up this section by noting that

"The final mythic figure of Croatian and Serbian religious nationalism is the evil Ottoman. No occupied nation thinks kindly of its colonizer and the Ottomans were no doubt capable of cruelty and oppression. Yet the stories of Ottoman depravity at the heart of nationalist mythology cannot match the evidence."

He goes on to detail some of said evidence, but again I will assume my readers do not need a refresher course in basic Bosnian/Balkan history. I will add that the resentment of being "colonized" in most cases was most likely post de facto, by a few centuries in fact, as there was no "national identity" among most of the peoples conquered by the Ottomans at the time.

He concludes:

"In the nineteenth century, the three myths--conversion to Islam based only upon cowardice and greed, stable ethnogreligious groups down through the centuries, and complete depravity of Ottoman rule--became the foundation for a new religious ideology, Christoslavism, the belief that Slavs are Christian by nature and that any conversion from Christianity is a betrayal of the Slavic race."


petrija said...

You said:
"the resentment of being "colonized" in most cases was most likely post de facto, by a few centuries in fact, as there was no "national identity" among most of the peoples conquered by the Ottomans at the time."

1) The Serbians were invaded, not "colonized" (they didn't need colonising, thank you very much).
2)Post de facto? Resentment at Ottoman conquest did not rely on national identity as you claim, but on religious identity, given that the local Slavs were discriminated against by the Ottomans on grounds of their Christian religion. Hence the resentment against the Ottomans was alive at the time, and based on the second-class, downtrodden servitude Serbs and others 'enjoyed' at the hands of the Ottomans.
Hence also the willingness of some Slavs to convert to Islam (in the same way as Slavs 'converted' to communism after WW2 to progress away from otherwise inevitable poverty under the new regime)

Kirk Johnson said...

Two things, Petrija:

1) I was quoting from the text--the word "colonized" is from the book. And it seems your objection to the term has less to do with accuracy than with some perceived slight. Do you believe that "colonization" is something which only happens to "uncivilized" peoples? I'm not sure why you YOU are so sure that this characterization is wrong.

2) You're sort of proving my point with the religious identity comment--there wasn't the strong NATIONAL identity among the conquered Christians of the Balkans at the time of the conquest, despite nationalist mythology to the contrary.