Religion and Violence: The Bosnian War (Part 3)

Religion and Violence: The Bosnian War (Part 3)


The war in Bosnia between the years 1991-1995, that followed the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, is a slightly more complex war to describe and has both religious and nationalistic connotations to it. It is an example of an ethno-religious conflict. Religious differences were a key element in the Balkan war, however this is not to say that the religions involved directly encourage violence against others. Nationalist claims along ethno-religious lines filled a power vacuum in Bosnia and Herzegovina: most prominent were Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosniaks. Although the key players involved in this war can be distinctly categorized into three different groups, it would be inaccurate to describe this as a purely religious conflict. Bennet, in his book compares this with the case of Northern Ireland and says the issues with both Northern Ireland and Bosnia was rival nationalism. The Serbs wanted a state that was all Serb and the same goes for Croats. What is important to note is that the rest of the population, who were mostly Muslim, preferred the multi-national reality that had been Yugoslavia or a similarly constituted state. I say this is important because, this directly implies that religion was never really a central issue after the breakup of Yugoslavia, it was predominantly an “identity distinguisher,” which then came to the international forefront after the systematic killings of thousands of Muslims in Srebrenica.

One of the more important factors that contributed to the war in Bosnia was a domestic problem. A 1991 census shows ethnic relations deteriorating in the lead up to the war that was largely to do with economic pressure. Communism had failed and it no longer unified the people of Yugoslavia and political leaders used religious language and ethno nationalist sentiment to unify their communities. Religion was not the basis for these disparities and divides in society but it was used to incite one group against another so that each party could push their nationalistic agenda.

One of the problems when discussing religion from an academic perspective is that, too often religion is used too broadly and precisely; Emile Durkheim provides an alternative view and definition of religion by stating nationalism becomes the chief religion of a putatively secular, but only nontheistic modernity. Also, when speaking about conflicts in nation states or between different nation states, religion and state can’t always be separated. Depending on circumstances, religion can provide a prime source of national identity (as in the case of Serbs and Israelis).

There have been examples in recent events, which support Huntington’s “Clash of Civilization” theory. Daniel Wallace discusses the wider implications that the 7/7 bombings had in 2005. He states that this is a clear example of a clash between civilizations, a clash between Islam and Christianity. Resa Aslan on the other hand suggests a much more complex explanation saying that the young terrorists aimed their actions as much at their own community and especially at the internal battle going on there, over the idea of a pluralistic Islam as much as they were “part of the jihadist war against the West.” These rigid theories about political violence are far too simplistic and generic in nature. Both the conflicts that I briefly touched upon, had multi-causalities, the conflicts erupted due to both secular and religious motives. Religion and secular ideologies have almost become intertwined in the 20th and 21st century politics. Therefore we cannot simply state that religion is more capable of inciting violence than any other factor and neither can we say that religion does not play a part in the political sphere whatsoever. Huntington’s theory, excludes crucial factors like poverty and despotic rulers that can inflame and ignite social unrests and conflict. There is not enough empirical research for academics to boldly claim that there is a direct causal link between religion and political violence.

[symple_box color=”blue” text_align=”left” width=”100%” float=”none”]Nishaat Ismail
Nishaat Ismail is completing a MSc in Middle East in Global Politics: Islam, Conflict and Development at Birkbeck University of London. Nishaat has also a BA in History from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. Nishaat specialises in the politics of the Middle East and North Africa.