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The Bosnian nation: The past and the prospect

By Taner Alicehic

There is a multitude of definitions for nation and people (ethnic group). But these terms cannot be universally defined. They depend on the historical context in which a community of people developed. Experts agree that a nation is a political concept of association through citizenship,[i] unrelated to any kinship or origin. Today, it cannot be defined exclusively based on ethnic (language and culture), racial or religious belonging. Europe has a deeply rooted ethnic diversity, but national ideologies are the product of the 20th century. Each nation is today a multi-ethnic composite. Relevant literature recognises three main ways of nation-building in Europe.[ii] In the first, the nation was built through wars, within the limits of continuous linguistic and cultural communities, until it took the shape of today’s states (England, France, Spain, Sweden). In the second, it was built by bringing together principalities and other feudal units that recognised cultural, linguistic and historical similarities and united into a single state (Germany and Italy). And in the third, the nation was built through a cultural-national awakening within an empire (Eastern European and Balkan nations). With respect to the latter, the nations of the Western Balkans present a particular case because their national awakening was led by religious leaders and not by a civic or intellectual elite.

Initially, nations arose in places where there were medieval communities with the same or very similar speech and the right cultural and religious preconditions. This was the case with, for example, England or France. In the relevant literature, such communities are called nation-states, or rather, national states. In Anglo-Saxon sources, other modes of creation of states are rarely mentioned. Instead, researchers limit themselves to the simplified notion of a nation, i.e. to civic states.[iii]

The process of developing national awarness was completely different for communities and peoples that had been part of empires such as the Ottoman or Habsburg Empire. The discussion here is more focused on this “second” category of nations that arose in the midst of rising nationalism in communities whose language, culture or religion were in some way subordinate in the respective empire. Europe has a deeply rooted ethnic diversity, but national ideologies are the product of the 19th century. Each nation is a multi-ethnic composite. The basis of ethnic diversity, i.e. distinguishing between peoples, has always been the language of the community. In the 19th century, language was one of the main drivers of constructing national identity, especially in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Why did the process of creating nation state in the Western Balkans require so much sacrifice and pain? Why is the issue of national identity in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia tied to the individual’s choice of religion and not his origin, language or culture? The answers to these questions are to be found in the historical circumstances that shaped this part of Europe. In the same processes within the Ottoman Empire, language was not at all crucial, because this feudal society was divided into classes and more profoundly along religious lines. Thus, in the case of the Serb identity, the Christian Orthodox Church exerted crucial influence on the process of national awakening and imposed on the civic and intellectual elite its own understanding of national ideology. With the dominance of an ethno-religious national ideology among the Serb people, all its ideologues and politicians viewed as quite natural any and all claims to territories where the same or similar language was spoken and where there was a Christian Orthodox population. Instead of Serbs, Croats, Albanian national ideology has followed a path similar to the rest of the European nations. The language and the common cultural heritage have been the main driver of the nation-building process.

Having resisted the construction of a spiritually plural community, this choice of Serb national ideology affected the history of the entire region. Later, in response to such actions, the same process took place within the Croat national movement, where the Catholic Church took a leading role and ended up with the same consequences for the population that did not accept the Croat-Catholic identity. Unfortunately, this created the preconditions for future ethnic cleansing and ultimately genocide against the population that refused to accept the requested identity.

The Bosnian Identity and the Tradition of Religious Diversity as Obstacles to Ethno-religious National Ideology

Although at the start of the 19th century, the Bosnian people had many preconditions to develop as a political people (nation), such as language, culture, ethnic homogeneity, national space and historical rootedness, this did not happen. Following the suppression of the Bosnian Autonomy Movement in 1831, another current strong enough to unite all strata of society did not arise in any of them. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, religious identity trumped (ethnic) belonging to a people and split the Bosnian people among a number of “national identities”. Namely, the lack of a collective consciousness about belonging to the same people was strategically and politically, among other things, in the interest of the development of both neighbouring national ideologies that already at that time laid claims to the Bosnian population (and by extension, its territory). Their anti-Bosnian policies culminated in the recent aggression against Bosnia (and Herzegovina) and the partial occupation of its territory.[iv]

We often come across the view that the level of education influenced the process of nation-building. What else was crucial to the construction of national identity? If we look at the example of Serb national ideology, we can say that in the territory of today’s Serbia (at that time part of the Ottoman Empire), the process of “nationalisation” was rather rapid, despite the fact that its population in the 19th century was largely illiterate. In this case, and later also in the case of the Croat people, religion served as the basis for community,[v] with religious communities and institutions leading the creation of national ideology.[vi]

The main postulate of ideologies of exclusivity in the Balkans was to ingrain into the consciousness of the population an idea of the need to remove Muslims as remnants of the Turkish occupation. Hatred was not incited only through medieval mythology (e.g. about the Battle of Kosovo), but also through the unenviable position of a large segment of society that suffered under the injustices of the feudal order of the Ottoman Empire. The catalyst of the process to develop Serb national awareness, which ran in parallel with expelling the so-called Turkish, or rather, Muslim population, was a usurpation of estates and the looting of Muslim property in Serbia. The estates were mostly distributed among the (Christian Orthodox) serfs who became the “backbone” of the Serb people. Thus, the feeling of belonging to Serbhood was equated with freedom from serfdom, but also with a sudden change in wealth among a large number of inhabitants of what is today Serbia. Dehumanisation mechanisms used in the extermination of Jews in Central and Eastern Europe were identical to those used by national ideologies to destroy Muslims in the Balkans.

Modelled after national movements in Italy and Germany, many South Slavic nationalists in Bosnia and in the area of today’s Croatia, whatever their religious belonging, believed that only Serbia, which had been independent since 1830, could bring together the “same people” within a new South Slavic nation. They didn’t consider that the ethno-religious character of the Serb national ideology was a very heavy burden of the South Slavic region in the modern era, especially when it comes to Serbia. Turning religious identification into national identity prevented the creation of a nation of citizens, which is the basis of all modern democracies. Besides, given the linguistic and cultural similarities, using religious feeling as the foundation for building national identity created the preconditions to arrogate areas outside the original borders of the Kingdom of Serbia and thus create conflicts. Serbian religious and political representatives did not hesitate to use Christian Orthodox populations outside their country to justify claims to territories on the other side of the Drina. As advocates of South Slavic unity, they were all ultimately working to create Greater Serbia. “Serbia does not want to assimilate into Yugoslavia, it wants Yugoslavia to assimilate into it,” said Nikola Pašić, a leading Serbian politician at the time of the founding of the Kingdom of SCS.[vii] Later, Croatian representatives acted in exactly the same way when it came to usurping territories, especially Bosnian territories.

When nationalist movement grew into nation states, their ideologues were able to govern these states and develop them further. Soon, the question was asked: what are the next steps for a successful and secure state? This brought about processes concerned with creating a literary language, defining the national space and the symbol of the nation, searching for its historical foundations and roots that would elicit a feeling of belonging and pride among the greatest number of inhabitants.

Disputes over notions of the state, i.e. the national space on the one hand and the ethnic group on the other, are the sources of ideologies that have caused (and continue to cause) the greatest crimes in history. The fact that numerous Germans partially lived outside their own “state” (national) framework was for a long time a problem for the whole of Europe. For Serb (and Croat) nationalists, this was the problem of the Balkans, where official borders did not live up to the expectations of these two ethno-religious nationalisms. And given that such nationalisms were based on religion, drawing the borders meant destroying Bosnia and all who were unwilling to accept one of these two options.

Of course, by using the state apparatus of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and, to a certain extent, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in order to further dismantle Bosnian statehood, “Muslimhood” was consciously and deliberately portrayed as the essence of Bosnian (Bosniak) identity. At the same time, the Muslim population was systematically represented trough racist and orientalist interpretations in order to be imposed as foreign to European space, as a remnant of the “Turkish occupier”. Previously, making declaration (in terms of national belonging and belonging to a people) impossible for a large portion of Bosnia’s inhabitants, who had remained loyal to the Bosnian idea, ensured the advancement of the anti-Bosnian policy: Muslimhood, Serbhood and Croathood were imposed as the only options for generations of Bosnians. The renewal of Bosnianhood as the identity of a people was prevented for many inhabitants of Bosnia (and Herzegovina).[viii] Despite political Bosnianhood being banned in Yugoslavia, it reached its peak as a powerful cultural identity in the 1980s. The question is whether the advocates of ethno-religious nationalism feared then, and do they still fear that Bosnianhood may again become politically attractive for all inhabitants of Bosnia and Herzegovina?

The world is increasingly reserved towards the religion which is shared by the majority of Bosniaks. In certain international circles, Islam is interpreted as a serious threat to the West, because, on the one hand, it is being linked with terrorism, and, on the other, especially as a threat to the foundations of Western ideology: democracy and human rights. In addition, presenting Bosnian Muslims as the result of Ottoman presence leaves room for manipulation with historical claims to the territory of Bosnia. Allegedly, the lack of continuity of Bosnianhood in the region had always been “proven” by Muslimhood. The use of terms such as “Islam” and “Muslim nation” further justified hatred and ultimately genocide in the occupied parts of Bosnia during the past wars, as well as the negation of the country as a whole. Opponents of the Bosnian national identity are also opponents of Bosnia’s statehood. All those who contest this state base their views primarily on negating the Bosnian identity in cultural and historical terms. And they were particularly successful in instituting the name of the state as Bosnia and Herzegovina, despite its historical name of Bosnia.


From 1918 until the aggression of 1992, generations of Bosnian politicians that protected Bosnia’s sovereignty by and large loyally followed the ruling structures and saw it as their duty to balance between Serb and Croat interests in order to maintain peace and forge a common future, even though neither of these two nationalisms ever abandoned their occupation projects with respect to Bosnia. Bosnian communists relied on the utopia that Yugoslavia could be modelled after Bosnia. They did not take into account the second-nature, centuries-in-the-making philosophy of togetherness in diversity among the inhabitants of Bosnia, which was not the case with other parts of Yugoslavia. On the other hand, the notion of a Yugoslav nation was fundamentally and ideologically completely at odds with the ethno-religious ideologies of both Serbhood and Croathood, which is why it was doomed to fail from the start.

A presentation by Atif Purivatra, one of the key participants in defining the “Muslim” nation, indicates these well-intentioned delusions that shaped Bosnian policy from 1918 to 1992. Within the project of formulating the “Position of Bosnian Muslims with respect to National Declaration”, he presented a thesis on “JMO and the Nationality of Bosnian Muslims”. In his view, the ideology of the Yugoslav Muslim Organisation was based on the concept of Yugoslavhood that signified “the most appropriate way for bringing together and uniting” all Yugoslavs.

In line with the national-political views of this organisation, each Muslim was nationally declared, and his declaration relied on Yugoslavhood as a synthesis of Serbhood and Croathood. According to this view, Muslims had the necessary preconditions to become the “core of real and complete Yugoslavhood (...) the best foundation of the Yugoslav idea.” That is why the Yugoslav Muslim Organisation was a principal and decisive opponent of imposing any “tribal designation” (Serb or Croat). And the Muslims as a people belonged, therefore, to the “Yugoslav people” as its “Muslim part”.

During the period of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Muslims as a constituent people saw themselves as the only community with no need of nationalism as a mechanism to protect national interests. In all likelihood, there was a desire or a delusion that the Bosnian philosophy of life, that Bosnian religious diversity, which developed naturally over centuries, could be raised to a higher level, i.e. transposed to the whole of Yugoslavia. In such circumstances, at least two generations of Bosniaks were left without the possibility to develop the foundations of a state-building national ideology, which would have required institutes, terminology, language, culture and a clearly defined national space.

In the absence of institutions that would handle essential national processes on behalf of Bosnia and Bosniaks, the Islamic Community was deliberately given the role of carrying out a national awakening. Thus, a religion (Islam) was allowed to become the core identity of the remaining (undeclared) Bosniaks as a people. As a result, it was almost exclusively those who were loyal to the idea of Bosnia and a unique national identity that were reduced to the national term Bosniak, which includes exclusively Muslims. That was precisely the goal of Serb (and partially also Croat) nationalists, working in concealment within the institutions of the former Yugoslavia. That is why the break-up of Yugoslavia was used to try to destroy everything with a Bosnian and/or Muslim identity.

During the war, in conditions of a struggle for survival, the emotional chaos caused the the disappearance of “Yugoslavhood” and the need to close ranks did not lead to a state-building strategy that would bring together as many citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina as possible. When in September 1993, the ruling structure decided that the national identity of “Bosniaks” should apply exclusively to Muslims of Slavic origin from what was already then the former Yugoslavia, its political strategy also had to resemble those of the two neighbouring national movements: define a national space and accept the division of Bosnia and Herzegovina into mono-national (ethno-religious) spaces.

Such an approach meant accepting the resettlement of populations similar to other such instances in history (Germans vs. Poles, Turks vs. Greeks, Pakistan vs. India). And this decision lent legitimacy to anti-Bosnian forces, which was later confirmed by the Dayton Peace Agreement. Even the term “constitutive people”, introduced by the Dayton Agreement, played into the hands of advocates of ethno-religious ideologies. And all the inhabitants of Bosnia and Herzegovina who identified as Bosnian were left to the mercy of those very ideologies.

The most important condition for successful state-building is that individuals are willing to belong to it and that they foster this by maintaining the borders and sovereignty of the state. It is a political “product” that connects people, families, tribes and/or peoples based on common needs and visions of the future. When, over time, a community develops into a democratic (single) nation state based on respect for the basic human rights of individuals and the rule of law, this is, by and large, considered the most perfected and meaningful result of development of a human society. However, given the lack of state-building awareness among the great majority of those who nurtured the Bosnian identity at the time, which is necessary for reinforcing the state, we must concede that even so, a great step forward was made. The long-term stability of a state is conditional upon the willingness of all its inhabitants to accept a national identity based on citizenship.



See: Hroch 2015, 3.

Ibid, 29.

Many political scientists educated in Anglo-Saxon states have a simplified view of the terms “nation” and “people”: for them, Bosniaks are a people, the nation is Bosnian or Bosnian-Herzegovinian. However, history has shown that in the greater portion of Europe, the terms “nation” and “people” are not so easily equated or distinguished.

It should be pointed out that at the time of the break-up of Yugoslavia, many politicians and public figures in Serbia were not adherents of Greater Serbia and that the ideologues of ethno-religious Serbhood still have many opponents among the Serbs themselves. However, in seeking out a new ideological basis to remain in power, Slobodan Milošević, acting in concert with the leadership of the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), accepted the ethno-religious idea of Serbhood propagated by the Serbian Orthodox Church for his political programme. Without a second thought, he delved into redrawing the borders in the Balkans. (See: Popović-Obradović 2009.)

With the exception of Ireland and Northern Ireland, religion was rarely used in nation-building, which was usually the province of intellectual elites.

See: Popović-Obradović 2009.

Ivo Banac, The National Question in Yugoslavia, p. 132.

In these circumstances, we should note the intervention of Josip Smodlaka who stood up to the negation of Bosnianhood in his article “Srpstvo i Hrvatstvo u Federativnoj Jugoslaviji” [Serbhood and Croathood in Federal Yugoslavia], published in issue 11869 of Politika on 9 January 1945.

See: Redžić 2000.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Balkan Studies Center (BSC).


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