Prior to arriving in Sarajevo I had considered Bosnia to be a Muslim country and as such was excited to be able to visit its Mosques and hear the call prayer surrounding me. I had spent so much of my life in countries that were Christian dominated that I wanted a change. Essentially, I needed to be surrounded by others that shared the same religion as me and to learn other ways of being a Muslim as for the past three years since starting college I had been engulfed in a phase of re-discovery.
Bosnia is in actuality not a Muslim country. It is also not a Christian country. The best way to describe Bosnia is as a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic country. I will attempt to explain this but bear with me, spending four weeks in Sarajevo has unfortunately not made me an expert and the situation in Bosnia is much too complex to simplify in a single blog post. In Bosnia, there are three dominant ethnic groups which are determined by an individual’s familial religious affiliation. These three groups are Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholic Christians and Muslims. Being affiliated with one of these three groups also serves to determine an individual’s national identity. What I mean by this is that even if a person is born within the geographical confines of Bosnia-Herzegovina, they do not necessarily identify as Bosnian. Whereas in the U.S. if you are born in the U.S. or are a citizen of the U.S. you identify as American, the same cannot be said for people from Bosnia. Instead, it is religious affiliation that gives way to the national identity that one subscribes to. So in Bosnia-Herzegovina, if a person subscribes to the Christian Orthodoxy, then they nationally identify as Serbian. If they were to subscribe to the Roman Catholic church, they would nationally identify as Croatian and lastly if they consider themselves to be Muslim, then they would nationally identify as Bosnian. Thus, of the three ethnic groups that exist within the confines of Bosnia, only one of the groups nationally identifies as being Bosnian. It’s completely ok if you’re confused. I still am, but this is the reality of the situation in Bosnia, and even though in the present day most people originating from and living in Bosnia are secular by nature, these historic divisions still exist and are used as political, economic and social tools by various religious leaders. Furthermore, the recent war that happened in the region following the collapse of the Socialist Federalist Republic of Yugoslavia only served to further cement the divide between the three groups.
If you’re also wondering why religious affiliation is considered to be an ethnic identifier, it is because religious affiliation is determined by familial relations. Before a child is even born, the religion that his/her father subscribed to would be inherited by the child and would therefore determine to which of the three nations the child belonged to. Ultimately, the best way to understand the divide that exists among the different groups in Bosnia is to see it as a result of human nature. Human nature is such that in the same way that we seek social interactions and engage in the formation of groups, so to do we prioritize differentiation and the establishment of an “other.” Were it not for distinguishing the “other,” the groups that we cherish and find ourselves in would have no meaning. Thus, when you really think about it, the divisions amongst the groups of Bosnia was inevitable. In Western Europe, nations are distinguished on the basis of language while in Bosnia national identity is shaped by religious affiliation. This is because in Bosnia everyone looks the same. On the ground level, they deal with the same issues, speak the same language, wear the same clothes and have the same conditions of life. So what is different between them? Religion. And so, religion was used to differentiate the three groups, and continues to be used by political leaders with agendas to ensure separation between Bosnia’s three ethnic groups.
I hope now you will see why we can’t say that Bosnia is a Muslim country. To say so invalidates the roles that both Serbs and Croats have played in shaping the history of Bosnia. Yes, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats may not want to nationally identify as being Bosnian, still these two groups had a hand in shaping Bosnia into the country that it is presently.
Another dilemma that I found particularly fascinating is the position that Bosnia is in as the bridge between the east and the west and how this position further complicates the identity of Bosnians. While doing research for an essay for the Bosnian portion of our Slavic Civilization class (yes, you do get assignments while study abroad, it’s not just all fun and games!) I came upon the following statement: “Bosnians are not regarded as Europeans that happen to be Muslims, but rather as Muslims that happen to be living in Europe.” These are often the view points of Western Europeans towards Bosnians and reflects the notion that Western Europeans see their eastern neighbors not as Europeans like themselves but rather as invaders that happen to exist within the same continent. In fact, Western Europeans often see the countries of Eastern Europe such as Bosnia as lesser and more inferior, preferring to regard them as primitive societies that are in need of western influences. What further adds to the confusion of what it means to be Bosnian and why we cannot simply see Bosnia as a Muslim country is that individuals from other Muslim countries see Bosnians as not being “Muslim enough”. That is to say that, they regard Bosnian Muslims as being “ignorant of the true faith and thus in need of instruction and proselytizing.”
So now do you see how complicated identity can really be? Bosnian Muslims are stuck in between the influences of the east and the west. Their identity and the validity of their identity is often challenged. To the west they are seen as invaders that must be brought up to speed while to the east they are regarded as lost children that need to be brought back into the folds of their religious ancestry. In trying to understand the complicated reality of identity in Bosnia, I realized the need to take people at their word. The identities that an individual subscribes to is of their own choosing and must be respected. Yes, most of our identities are socially constructed, but it is in them that we find comfort and an ability to define for ourselves who we are. I have barely scratched the surface of the complexity that exists in Bosnia, but I hope that this blog did justice to one of the topics that will forever stick with me from my experience in Sarajevo.