Faith and the flag

July 5, 1996

Jan Willem Honig discerns the bloody hand of the state rather than the church behind the Bosnian massacres

In a 1993 article in the prestigious American journal Foreign Affairs, American political scientistSamuel Huntington claimed that "the fault lines between civilisations will be the battle lines of the future". The major battle lines, according to Huntington, are the ones between western Christianity, Slavic Orthodoxy and Islam.

Such an idea has an immediate appeal. The three cultures have had a long history of conflict. The crusades against Islam and the heathen Slavs must rank as the best known series of military expeditions in the Middle Ages.

The war in the former Yugoslavia, where all three cultures intersect, should be a textbook example of the expression of religious hatreds and the relevance of the idea of crusading to the contemporary world. The Serbs have indeed tried to make much of their "fight for survival" against Islamic fundamentalism. The Serbian Orthodox Church supported this view. The head of the church, Patriarch Pavle, for example, said in a 1993 interview: "I believe Serbs must fight, now as never, to save not only the church but themselves."

Yet, it is surprising to what limited extent this idea caught on with any of the other parties involved in the conflict. The Bosnian government consistently and with great success tried to project an image of multiculturalism. The Croats had strong support from the Catholic church, and although their government tried to play the "Muslim fundamentalist danger" card, it was criticised for this by the Catholic church in Croatia. In the West, there was little sign of fear of Bosnian Islamic fundamentalism or any great degree of anti-Serbian Orthodox feelings.

Even in the case of the Serbs, one can doubt whether religious antagonism was the fundamental driving force in the conflict. Take the example of the fall of Srebenica last summer when thousands of Muslim men were executed by the Serbs. One could draw easy comparisons with the massacres committed by medieval crusaders against Muslims in the name of their Christian God.

But this is a mistaken analogy. In the Middle Ages the wars against the Muslims were unthinkable without the religious element. Christianity was a sine qua non for the crusades, and the promise of salvation for crusaders in the life hereafter was a powerful incentive. The Serbs' war, however, was a struggle for earthly salvation. It was about the future of their nation in this world. This served as the main justification for the policy of "ethnic cleansing". Forcing out non-Serbs would unify the Serbian nation in one territory and eliminate the threat from within.

But even this mystical, ethnic programme has a more down-to-earth side. The war in the former Yugoslavia can also be seen as part of an attempt to legitimate the power of an elite over the new Serbian state. The power of Serbian President Milosevic in large part derives from the opportunities offered by the war.

When Arkan, the notorious Serbian paramilitary leader, was asked on Serbian television in 1991 under whose orders he operated, a nervous shiver went through the Serbian ministry of defence officials watching. They expected him to give the correct answer: "the ministry of defence." When, according to one of those present, Arkan answered, "Patriarch Pavle", they all laughed, greatly relieved.

The anecdote illustrates the relative importance of religious legitimacy and state power in the war in the former Yugoslavia. There is some value to be gained from playing on religious antagonism, but without the power and support of the state the conflict would not have taken the form it did and could not have lasted as long. Massacres could occur because of certain, part ethnically, part religiously based ideas. But they could only achieve their massive scale because they were well organised - and for this state backing was indispensable.

Perhaps it is comforting that so few have seen the conflict in the former Yugoslavia in terms of a struggle for survival between Christendom and Islam. Unfortunately the few that were seduced by the idea and the few that exploited it have proved more than capable of killing many thousands of people.

Jan Willem Honig is a lecturer in war studies at King's College, London. He is writing a book on Srebenica with Norbert Both.

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