Of Peace and the Sword: Religion in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Serb war memorial, Bratunac, near Srebrenica

Fed up with religion: graffiti on the Roman Catholic Cathedral, Sarajevo

One of the ubiquitous public fountains in Bosnia (here Tuzla), offering cold spring water to anyone who passes by

Shoes at my hosts’ doorway in Mostar. A friend in Bihac, speaking as an insider, quipped: “It’s not about being Muslim. It’s about being clean.”

The beautiful “Bey’s Mosque,” 16th century, Sarajevo.

19th-century Serbian Orthodox Cathedral, in close proximity to both Bey’s Mosque and the Roman Catholic Cathedral

Roman Catholic Cathedral of Jesus’ Heart, 19th century, Sarajevo.

A compassionate Muslim prayer engraved at the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial.

The drive from Tuzla to Srebrenica has become a pilgrimage. Winding along the river Drina, through “cleansed” Republika Srpska, the journey induces sadness and reflection, rage and terror. It is a descent into the darkness of the 20th century.

In Bratunac, a small town about fifteen minutes north of Srebrenica, comes a test. Here stands a monstrous, barrel-chested cross, memorializing Serb “heroes” who died during the war, raising a thick middle finger to mourning passersby. Never have I felt such a deep, unruly desire to desecrate the central symbol of my own faith.

The memorial in Bratunac is not unique. In shattered Mostar, an enormous cross now stands on a mountaintop, posturing, leering grotesquely. A badge of Croat ethnic supremacy. Religion as aggression, religion as domination.

Bosnian Muslims can play similar games. All over Bosnia-Herzegovina, as political rivalries fester, and a once thriving economy lies in ruins, scarce resources are being siphoned for the construction of imposing, lavish mosques, memorials, and churches, offering no real employment, or sanctuary, to much of anyone.

It’s misleading to say that the violence in Bosnia was “about” religion, as if ancient religious feuds somehow inevitably reached a boiling point at the end of the 20th century, after the fall of Communism. It’s more helpful, analytically, to think in terms of a sudden wave of mafia-style, ultranationalist insanity. Imagine a whole army of Anders Behring Breiviks, fully loaded, totally unimpeded, deciding that Norway must die. This was Bosnia, twenty years ago….

But even if religion was not the engine of the conflict, it did matter. First and foremost: tens of thousands of people died for no other reason than that they were Muslim or simply had “Muslim” names. And far too many religious leaders gave the violence their blessing, their imprimatur, fanning the flames of nationalism, greed, and genocide.

It’s enough to make me imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion.

This puts someone who teaches and practices religion in an awkward position. I felt the tension acutely when I sat in the office of Haris Pasovic, the brilliant Sarajevan theater director. During the siege, he staged Waiting for Godot with Susan Sontag. Last April, he staged the stunning Sarajevo Red Line, a memorial for the more than 11,000 Sarajevans who died during the siege. I told him that I teach religion. He said, let’s talk Daniel Dennett, let’s talk Marx….

I nodded. I tried to articulate something about my approach to religion, my conviction that students need to understand its power, its beauty and brutality, if they are going to understand their world. Religion is like…live current, I said. Martin Luther King, Jr., can plug in and light up the world; Breivik can plug in and destroy it.

But too much of Bosnian religion has chosen to destroy. Forget Marx — ultranationalist religion is no opiate of the people. It is a cocktail of Viagra and Red Bull, the religion of the Serb Chetniks, the Croat neo-fascists, and the invasive Wahhabi, chests inflated, elbows flared, jaws wired shut.

It has not always been this way. And it does not always have to be this way. A visitor to Bosnia can still see the signs, everywhere, of a religion that bathes in cool spring waters, breathes deeply, and leaves its shoes at the door. A religion that strides like the young women and men of Sarajevo on a summer night, strong, proud, playful, open. And a religion that stands calm and sheltering in the storm, like a tree planted by the waters.

In his extraordinary short book, Sarajevo, Exodus of a City, Dzevad Karahasan describes the destruction, early in the siege, of the historic Magribiya mosque. Neighbors soon gathered to see if they might claim some of the large stones, to shield their ground-level windows from deadly bullets and shrapnel. They asked the imam for his permission. Of course, he replied: the very purpose, the very sacredness, of the stones lies in their power to liberate people from fear. If they can still somehow do that, they will still be sacred.

Religion will always be with us. And Bosnia’s redemption — our redemption — is not in religion’s mass resurgence or demise. It is there, in the risk of embrace, among the ruins of Magribiya.

All photographs by the author.

About Tom Simpson

Tom Simpson teaches religion, ethics, philosophy, and human rights at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, NH. He is the author of *American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867-1940* (University of North Carolina Press, 2016) and nonfiction essays about Bosnia for the Canadian literary magazine *Numero Cinq*. Born in 1975 in Olean, NY, he earned the Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia, where he specialized in American religious history. He writes, teaches, and lectures about religion in America, popular culture, Mormonism, and Bosnia. He lives in Exeter with his partner, Alexis Simpson, and their two children.
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9 Responses to Of Peace and the Sword: Religion in Bosnia-Herzegovina

  1. Rick Simpson says:

    Bulletins from your physical and imaginative encounters with what is and has been at once unthinkable and entirely real, Tom. For this reader an intense, magnificent essay.

  2. “It’s more helpful, analytically, to think in terms of a sudden wave of mafia-style, ultranationalist insanity”. Absolutely. Bosnian truly religious people always respected their neighbors next door, who were of other religion and enjoyed this multiculturalism. For centuries.

    • Tom Simpson says:

      Thank you so much for this comment, your support, and your own thought-provoking posts about Bosnia…i look forward to reading more of your work…all the best…

    • talkinglanguages says:

      I couldn’t agree more. In Bosnia, politics is being confused with religion (which, in my opinion, happens in other parts of the world too).

      • Tom Simpson says:

        Thanks (hvala), my friend! 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing your view from Bosnia, and thanks for visiting the blog! I look forward to reading more of your posts…ciao!

  3. Touch2Touch says:

    What a beautiful essay, and how hopeful, when I truly was losing hope that anyone could couple religion and sanity in the same universe. It’s almost that I’ve forgotten the shining, beautiful and true things of true religion. (And that’s how we tell the “true” religion from the false: the false ones preach hate.)
    Thank you for coming by my blog, so I could discover yours.

  4. Tom Simpson says:

    Thank you so much for your kind words and your support! I am so glad to have found your blog too. I’ll be looking forward to your posts–all the best!

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