On my first trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 2004, a university professor from Sarajevo — a survivor of the Serbs’ relentless siege — asked a devastating question: What other European capital would have been left besieged for so long? As in the 1990s, the question was met with silence. The professor offered his hunch: the perception of Sarajevo as “Muslim” weakened the western powers’ sense of obligation, fueling the mischaracterization of the violence as a classic, inevitable Balkan civil war.
After returning to Bosnia this summer, I have been forced again to wrestle with such haunting questions. How could some of the best minds of “the West” so badly misunderstand and misrepresent the situation — the genocide — in Bosnia?
In the depth of my struggles, I remembered Sarajevan theatre director Haris Pašović telling me to read Peter Maass’s Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War. I finally got my hands on a copy this week, and it is spellbinding. It has tremendous, but unnerving, explanatory power. Maass, a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post during the conflict, carefully reproduces the alchemy of western politics, prejudice, paralysis, and self-deception that allowed ultranationalist thugs to have their way with Bosnia for nearly four years.
In all of this, religion played too strong a role. Many of the killers called themselves Christian, sanctifying the most satanic crimes against humanity: murder, rape, forced impregnation, starvation, torture, and death camps, all in the name of “purifying” and “cleansing” the former Yugoslavia of its Muslim heritage. In the West, existing religious and moral categories simply failed — what to do when murderous “Christians” are slaughtering even the nominally Muslim?
Here is an excerpt from Love Thy Neighbor, pages 66-67, which captures some of the complexity of Muslim and ethnic identity in Bosnia:
“The media and politicians referred to Bosnia’s government as ‘Muslim-led,’ which was technically correct, or simply as ‘Muslim,’ which was wrong. For journalists, it was a result of sloppy shorthand. We are always trying to simplify things, even at the expense of distorting them. We didn’t have the time or space to explain in every story that Bosnia’s government included a large minority of Serbs, Croats, and ‘mixed’ people who refused to support nationalist rebels on the other side of the front lines. We rarely mentioned that Bosnia’s Muslims were secular and westernized, that they believed in the same things Americans believed in, such as the goodness of diversity, the importance of freedom….
“Particularly at the start of the war, it would have been more relevant, and more revealing, to call Bosnia’s government ‘pluralistic’ instead of ‘Muslim-led’ or ‘Muslim.’ Perhaps, in journalistic fairness, we should have noted the dominance of Christians in the American government (which was very relevant to its reaction the war) and referred to it as ‘Christian-led.'”
The frustrations, and the questions, will not go away. May the 21st century bring more light and deeper understanding — of Islam and the inviolable dignity of us all.
Photograph by the author.