In September 1993, the world first heard of Fikret Abdic, a renegade Muslim leader who broke away from Bosnian government control in encircled Bihac to establish his own statelet, a pocket within the pocket, so to speak. He was instantly hailed by separatist Serbs, and by some westerners, as a secular moderate Muslim, a man they could do business with in contrast to the "Islamic fundamentalism'' of President Izetbegovic and his government in Sarajevo. But Fikret Abdic was a man with a past. In the 1980s, he had been at the centre of the notorious "Agrokomerc'' scandal involving allegations of corruption at his meat processing business. At that time, the Serb and Yugoslav establishments condemned him as an Islamic fundamentalist.
Fikret Abdic hardly features in Michael Sells's interesting new work on the religious dimension to Serb aggression and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Sells, a recognised expert in the field and himself of Serbian descent, traces the development of "Christoslavic religious nationalism'' in Serbia. This ideology, a bizarre blend of Christ's passion on the cross and the national trauma at Kosovo against the Turks in 1389, identified Slav Muslims, not merely as apostates, but as "Christ killers''. Sells argues, persuasively, that Christo-Slavic nationalism underlay the programme of ethnic annihilation and displacement launched from the summer of 1991, first against Croatia and then against the Croats and Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The repeated targeting of Catholic and Muslim religious monuments, the constant references to Islamic fundamentalism and the Vatican by Serb propagandists, the characteristic Serb three-fingered salute representing the Trinity; and the highly problematic role of the Serb orthodox church in promoting exclusivist nationalist programmes; all this adds substance to Sells's argument.
Similarly, if belatedly, Catholic Croat Christo-Slavic nationalists began their own assault on the Muslims in 1993. Here Sells makes good use of the destruction of the bridge of Mostar, one of the many "betrayed'' bridges of the title, by Croat extremists in November 1993. He focuses on President Franjo Tudjman's obsession with Croatia's self-appointed "civilising mission'' among the Bosnian Muslims. To make matters worse, the anti-Muslim Christian consensus in Bosnia found an echo in a Christian West preoccupied by Muslim immigrants and Islamic terrorism. Religious prejudice, Sells argues, lay behind the refusal to lift the arms embargo against the legitimate government of Bosnia.
All this is entirely persuasive, within limits. On the other hand, we should not exaggerate the religious dimension. As the infinitely mutable Fikret Abdic shows, religion could have a merely rhetorical function in what was essentially a political struggle. After all, it was the Americans, who are notoriously obsessive about the international Islamic terrorist threat, who consistently opposed the arms embargo. Similarly, it was politics that finally led Tudjman out of his disastrous crusading cul-de-sac in central Bosnia: American mediation and common sense led to the Washington Agreement of 1994, without which the later victories over Serb separatists would have been impossible. Ironically, for Tudjman, the road to Europe led, and leads, over Muslim Mostar and Sarajevo. No sooner had he betrayed the bridge, than he had to restore it.
Brendan Simms is director of studies in history, Peterhouse, Cambridge.
The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia
Author - Michael A. Sells
ISBN - 0 520 20690 8
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £15.95
Pages - 244