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.