The Bosnian Muslims have only fairly recently become internationally identified as a national group. As a matter of fact, Bosnia and Herzegovina itself has had until lately a low recognition value to most people not living in southeastern Europe. Indeed, to many it has become a shock to discover that a fairly large group of Muslims resides in the middle of Europe, not to mention that they have become the object of ethno nationalistic violence at the end of the twentieth century. A further seeming incongruity in the international arena is the claim by many Bosnian Muslims that they should not be confused with Muslims of the Arab-speaking world, since Bosnian Muslims are indigenous Serbo-Croatian-speaking (now Bosnian speaking) Slavic people, [i] just like the Serbs or Croats who have committed the recent acts of violence against them in the name of ethnic purity. The Bosnian Muslim claim that the designation “Muslim” is more a national than a religious identification is confusing to the world at large. This article will trace the formation of the Bosnian Muslim national identification and set forth the issues faced by the Bosnian Muslims in their attempts to claim and defend it.[ii]

This article will also discuss the Sandžak Muslims. These Muslims live in the Sandžak of Novi Pazar, an area divided between Serbia and Montenegro. The area abuts Albania in the south, Kosovo in the southeast, and Bosnia to the northwest. Its people are Muslims by national identification and by religion, in the same way as the Bosnians. However, the Sandžak Muslims have been administratively separated from Bosnia by virtue of their inclusion within the Serbian and Montenegrin territories since the First Balkan War in 1912, where they have remained an ethnic minority even as their cultural and political development paralleled and was reinforced by the development of the Bosnian Muslims.[iii] The issues facing the Bosnian Muslims are also faced by the Sandžak Muslims, with the additional problem that the latter have not been able to achieve the political autonomy that the former have attained by living in and dominating a Bosnian state.

Historical Formation of the Bosnian Muslim and Sandžak Muslim National Identification


The Medieval Experience


Numerous theories exist about the origins of the Bosnian Muslims. The most intriguing of the theories is that the forebears of the Bosnian Muslims were the Bogomils, a heretical Christian group much attacked by the Roman Catholic majority of the area after the independent medieval Bosnian state fell to Hungary in the twelfth century.[iv] Some Yugoslav historians declare that the uniqueness of the Bogomil experience is the basis for the distinctiveness of the Bosnian Muslim experience, a distinctiveness that set them apart from their Serb and Croat cousins and made of them a separate national group.

Without denying the distinctiveness of the Bosnian Muslims as a national group, another explanation of the medieval Bosnian Muslim experience has been forwarded by John V. A. Fine.[v]  While agreeing with the predominant view that the ancestors of today’s Bosnian Muslims probably came originally from Iran as part of the Croat/Serb (undifferentiated Slavs at that time) migration to the Balkan Peninsula in the sixth and seventh centuries,[vi] Fine believes that the ostensibly heretical forebears of the Bosnian Muslims were in reality only straying Catholics—that is, nominal Catholics who were imperfectly instructed in their religion. Hungary attempted to assert its sovereignty over an independence-minded Bosnia by declaring it a region of heretics and by mounting crusades to save the area for Christendom, while it simultaneously attempted to root out resistance to its sovereignty over the area. One form of Bosnian resistance was to support a separate church, which Fine calls the Bosnian Church. However, this church disappeared shortly after the Ottoman conquest of the area in the  fifteenth century, with some of its members, as well as other, Catholic and Orthodox, inhabitants of Bosnia, converting to Islam. Both sides of the Bogomil/Bosnian Church controversy allow that the ancestors of the Bosnian Muslims were originally from the same gene pool as today’s Serbs and Croats. The clash lies in the emphasis placed on the medieval experience in regard to the Bosnian Muslims’ claims to history-based uniqueness.


The Ottoman Empire


Ottoman rule brought significant changes to Bosnia. The most interesting change, for the purposes of this article, was to the composition of the population. With the Ottoman Empire came Islamization, the acceptance by indigenous inhabitants of Islam. According to most accounts, Islamization was, at best, gradual and usually not achieved by force.[vii] Because Islam was the state religion, those professing that religion were more often favored in the Ottoman Empire.[viii] Land ownership in many, although not all, cases and exemption from exorbitant taxation and other levees suffered by the non-Islamic (zimmi) population were privileges widely sought, causing many families to designate one of their number to convert to Islam in order to save the family’s property. This then was the origin of the Bosnian Muslims—indigenous Catholics, Orthodox, or “strayed Christians,” who converted to Islam for economic, spiritual, or political reasons. Certainly, some Muslims who lived in Bosnia were not Serbo-Croatian-speaking indigenous people, but the vast majority were.[ix] Thus, contemporary claims that the Bosnian Muslims are “Turks” or “foreigners” are certainly not accurate. Even more important to the story of the national identification of the Bosnian and Sandžak Muslims is the fact that the Ottoman Turks did not delineate the population according to national groups. Their emphasis was on the religious identification of the people. Being content to control the Muslim parts of society through Shari’a law and declining to assimilate their non-Muslim inhabitants, the Ottoman administration created the millet system, whereby the non-Islamic religious groups (mainly Christians and Jews or “protected peoples”) were organized into separate self-governing communities. Non-Islamic religious and legal matters were handled within the various millets, and the leaders were considered agents of the Ottoman state. The consequence of this socioeconomic administration was the widespread lack of connection, even loyalty, to the Ottoman Empire of its subjects, particularly its non-Muslim subjects. The Christian populations gave their loyalty to their own religious and political leaders and rendered to the Ottoman administration only what it demanded and no more. A second result of this type of organization was that within the non-Muslim population the religious and national aspects of sociopolitical communal living coalesced, which eventually meant that the religious communalism of the Ottoman period could easily be commuted to political expressions of nationalism.

This would occur in the nineteenth century as nationalism swept the Balkans. The Bosnian Muslim relationship to the Ottoman Empire was much more complex than the non-Muslim situation. As members of the ruling religion in an empire where religious identification was a major determinant of status, Muslims within the Ottoman Empire possessed more privileges than did non-Muslims and prospered as the Empire prospered. Not surprisingly, then, the Bosnian Muslims retained a certain loyalty to the Ottoman administration and considered it a fairly benevolent regime. Nevertheless, there were also regional and local loyalties that increasingly warred with Bosnian Muslim fealty to the Ottoman Empire in the latter days of the Empire.

As Ottoman fortunes began to decline visibly in the Balkans later in the eighteenth century, Bosnian Muslims resisted the reforms promoted by the Ottoman administration which threatened their landholdings and political control of the Bosnian province. This resistance soon took an anti-Ottoman form, which meant that the Bosnian Muslims found themselves at times siding with the local non-Muslim inhabitants against the Porte. Thus, a local patriotism, not linked to religion but

rather to geography, to their local base of power, and to the language they shared with other Bosnian inhabitants, grew in some parts of the Bosnian Muslim community.

Still, the Ottoman administration was the ultimate guarantor of Bosnian Muslim landholdings and political power, so the Bosnian Muslims found themselves in an anomalous position. According to Salim Cerić, a communal identification of Bosnian inhabitants was often sacrificed in conflicts between Muslim landholders and peasants, Muslim and non-Muslim peasants, rural and urban Bosnian Muslims, Christians and the Porte, Muslim landholders and the Porte, etc.[x]

Nevertheless, some scholars have identified elements of a developing communal distinctiveness among the Islamicized Slavs of Bosnia which could have provided the basis for a twentieth-century nationalistic force. For example, Avdo Sućeska described nineteenth-century Bosnian Muslims as “a united and complete Muslim society … [a] distinct ethnic community… with distinct interests and aspirations.”[xi] The only common identity such a community could have shared that differentiated

them from their geographical and lingual compatriots was their collective religion, which gave them elevated status and privileges within the Ottoman Empire despite their differing socioeconomic situations. Nevertheless, little evidence of an aggressive, public national identification appeared within the Bosnian Muslim community during the Ottoman period. Certain cultural attitudes did exist that differentiated the Bosnian Muslims from their Christian neighbors and often from non-Slavic Muslims,

but a national consciousness such as was developing within the different nineteenth century Christian communities in the Balkans seems to have been notably absent within the Bosnian Muslim community. At the most, one can only claim that “the Ottoman period may have encouraged a consolidation of Bosnian Muslim interests and the decline of the Ottoman Empire may have fostered an understanding by Bosnian Muslim landowners that their best interests lay with local patriotism rather than with continued loyalty to the Porte.”[xii]

This local patriotism may have been evident in the terminology used by the Bosnian Muslim community to refer to themselves. They differentiated themselves from the Ottoman Turks by referring to themselves as Turci or Bošnjaci in contrast to the Turkuši. Nevertheless, this self-consciousness did not translate into any aggressiveness on behalf of a nationalized community. The lack of politicized nationalism within the Bosnian Muslim community would be a consistent factor in the subsequent periods of Bosnian Muslim history.

The Sandžak was a separate administrative-territorial unit within the Bosnian vilayet (province) of the Ottoman Empire as confirmed by the 1878 Berlin Congress. The area was split between the Serbian and Montenegrin principalities only in the early twentieth century as a result of the First Balkan War. Its inhabitants, however, continued to think of themselves as Bosnian Muslims[xiii] and absorbed similar social, cultural, and experiences as the Bosnian Muslims within Bosnia. The Sandžak Muslims were never again considered part of the Bosnian unit, a separation that was considered by the Muslim population of the Sandžak to be unnatural. Their national identity was ignored by the world at large, while they continued to serve as a crossroad between Sarajevo and Istanbul.[xiv] However, much of the Muslim population of this area eventually settled in eastern Bosnia, where, according to Mustafa Memić, they contributed a great number of literary works to Bosnian Muslim culture and aggressively promoted their own sense of Bosnianism.[xv] For example, the minor differences between the speech of the Bosnian Muslims and the Sandžak Muslims were excised, and the Sandžak Muslims fought side by side with the Bosnian Muslims in a failed attempt to defeat the Habsburg army when it entered Bosnia.[xvi]


The Austro-Hungarian Empire


When Austro-Hungarian forces entered Bosnia in 1878, they encountered a resentful Islamic community and many hopeful Christians. The Bosnian Christian peasants believed that their Austro-Hungarian/Christian champions would redistribute the landholdings of the Muslim landowners and remove their sociopolitical control over Bosnia. The latter did occur to some extent as the Bosnian Muslims, no longer part of the ruling class by dint of a common religion, did lose much of their political control within Bosnia. However, Muslim landowners were not forced to relinquish their landholdings, by and large, to the vast disappointment of the Christian peasants. Instead, after an initial challenge to the Habsburg military occupation forces, the Bosnian Muslim community began to get along surprisingly well with the new political regime. While the political influence of the Muslim community was insignificant, unlike its status under the Ottoman regime, Austro-Hungarian rule nevertheless maintained the existing pattern of agrarian relations. Therefore, Muslim landlords still controlled their lands and received income from their peasants. Of course, this situation was discouraging for the Christian peasants who had believed that Habsburg rule would bring about their independence from their feudal obligations and a reform of agrarian relations.

The Habsburg administration clearly desired to keep the Bosnian Muslim population quiescent, particularly in light of the restiveness of its Christian populations, which were responding to the clarion call of nationalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. One Austro-Hungarian solution to the Balkan Slavic question was to encourage a sort of super-Bosnianism, whereby all Bosnians, no matter what their religion, would unify into a Bosnian civil community. This was supposed to inoculate the Bosnian population against the alternative nationalistic ideologies that threatened chaos within Austro-Hungarian lands.

This Bosnian civil ideology, termed bošnjaštvo (one indigenous Bosnian people), was meant to form around the anational, increasingly secularized Bosnian Muslims and lure Christian Bosnians away from support of irredentist claims, especially by Serbia. It was expected that the Bosnian Muslims, free of national self-identification and encouraged by Habsburg permission to pursue Islamic cultural activism, would be the magnet that drew other groups of people away from the spell of nationalism.

The state-supported Bosnian Muslims, then, could become a counterweight to the aroused Serbian and Croatian nationalism by competing with them culturally and socioeconomically. This would then counter the political threat posed by the rampant nationalism of that period.[xvii]

Furthermore, there is little evidence to suggest that the Bosnian Muslims themselves ever enthusiastically embraced the concept. As a matter of fact, it is possible that Habsburg attempts to use the Bosnian Muslims to subvert Serbian and Croatian nationalism may have had the unintended effect of drawing the Bosnian Muslim community into a more conservative mode of thinking. Being lumped together by the Habsburg administration on the basis of religion may have stimulated among the Bosnian Muslims a greater feeling of distinctiveness and differentiation from the surrounding non-Muslim Bosnian inhabitants. The Bosnian Muslims, like their Christian counterparts, may have begun to sense that the identification of themselves as a community based on their religious differentiation might have significant political consequences.[xviii]

Still, the Bosnian Muslim community was slow to develop a political consciousness based on their religious identification. Their leaders continued to maintain decent relations with the Austrian authorities and thus protected the elite’s agrarian advantages. However, increased political activity was evident as Bosnian Muslim leaders attempted to protect the cultural and religious institutions of their community from Habsburg attempts to weaken them. Bosnian Muslim elites also wanted to strengthen the religious autonomy of the Islamic community and to shield the Bosnian Muslims from Christian abuses, such as forced conversions of Muslims to Christianity.

As the Croatian and Serbian nationalistic identifications grew in the late nineteenth century, side by side with a mainly Croatian pan-Slavic movement, those groups attempted to win as much political leverage within Austria-Hungary as possible. It was only natural that Serbian and Croatian leaders each attempted to enlist the Bosnian Muslims for their own side. Some Bosnian Muslims were attracted to Serb or Croat blandishments and even declared a Serbian or Croatian nationalistic identification. Nevertheless, there was little interest even among these nationalistic Bosnian Muslims in discarding their Muslim religious identification, which was demonstrated through their tight communal membership, even while Islamic ritual was not always dutifully practiced. Their response to Croatian and Serbian attempts to entangle them in the nationalistic politics of the time was to create their own institution for political representation. The Muslimanska Narodna Organizacija, a Muslim political party, was created in order to pursue more efficaciously Muslim cultural, educational, and religious autonomy within the Habsburg Empire, although the elites most assiduously attempted to protect the beneficial agrarian relations extant at the time.

The approach of World War I threw the Bosnian Muslim population into a quandary. Some leaders desired continued Habsburg governance, with Bosnia becoming an autonomous entity, while others shared the Bosnian Serb aspirations of liberation of Bosnia from Austria-Hungary. To other Bosnian Muslims, a South Slav entity was compelling. Serbs and Croats, often supporting different sides of the South Slav question, importuned the Bosnian Muslims to join their respective sides. In the end, the Bosnian Muslims were given little choice in the matter, as the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes were fashioning the independent state that would be known as the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. The Bosnian Muslim community would remain an a national minority group subsumed within the nationalistically aroused Serb and Croat-dominated Bosnia for a few decades more.


The Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes


The post-war Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (renamed Yugoslavia— “land of the South Slavs”—in 1929) was dominated politically by the Serbs. Their royal family, bureaucracy, military, and police administered the country’s business. This was not the way the Croats had pictured their liberation from Austria-Hungary, and they were most vocal about their disappointments and their demands for alteration of the Kingdom from a centralized to a more decentralized, federated government of equal national partners. Croats sought a constitutional democracy, rather than what they believed was a feudalistic “Greater Serbian” monarchy.

The Bosnian Muslims, finding themselves in an ambivalent position once again (importuned by both the Serbs and Croats for support of their respective positions) faced their problems by increased political organization. While some Muslim elites did support the Serbs or the Croats by joining their political organizations and speaking out for their respective positions, most of the Muslim elites responded to a call for an organization that would “represent all Muslims”[xix] by joining the Jugoslavenska Muslimanska Organizacija (Yugoslav Muslim Organization or JMO). The leadership of this political party was overwhelmingly middle class and urban, but it attempted to alleviate the conditions of the entire Bosnian Muslim community, many of whom, after World War I, had come under attack by bands of marauding Christian peasants. A further aim of the Muslim elites was to maintain the autonomy of Bosnia and Herzegovina within the Kingdom, as well as its geographic integrity.

The JMO was moderately successful in protecting the Bosnian Muslim population and gaining a fair amount of tolerance for their religious, educational, and cultural institutions and practices. What success there was may be due to the consistent support the JMO gave to the Karađorđević dynasty and the Serb-dominated government it supported. However, agrarian reforms instituted by the government fell heavily on many Bosnian Muslims despite the JMO’s attempts to attenuate their effect. Furthermore, the Bosnian Muslims, who were grossly underrepresented at all layers of government within Yugoslavia, were still subject to Serbian and Croatian pressures to join one or the other bloc in order to bring Bosnia and Herzegovina. Formly under one or the other nation’s control. Only with difficulty did the Bosnian Muslims maintain some independence. A consequence of this need to jockey for position within Yugoslavia was the inability of the JMO to extend its mandate to other Muslim communities outside of Bosnia. Serbs continued to consider the Muslims living in Montenegro and in Sandžak to be Serbian and, therefore, not subject to JMO activity. The Serbian populations there were simultaneously pressuring the Muslims to “Serbianize” or leave.[xx]

The situation of the Bosnian Muslims in the approach to World War II became ever more serious as the political wrangling between the centralizing Serbs and the federating Croats increased. When King Alexander declared a dictatorship in 1929 and attempted to impose the concept of Yugoslavism on his country by expunging historic geographic boundaries, Bosnia for the. First time in its modern history lost its historic borders.

In light of this Serbian betrayal of their promise to the JMO to maintain the territorial integrity of Bosnia, the Bosnian Muslim community split and, for awhile, the Serb–Croat battle for Bosnia and for the allegiance of the Bosnian Muslims produced a pro-Serb and a pro-Croat faction. Eventually, however, ensuing anti-Muslim measures seemed only to stimulate within the Bosnian Muslim community a stronger communal solidarity based on their common religious and cultural background. Nationalism had still not come to be identified with the religious component as it had in the Serb/Orthodox or Croat/Catholic cases, but there was a visible although still rather embryonic communal identity that was mainly manifested when the Serbs or Croats were attempting to pressure the Bosnian Muslims into accepting Serb or Croat national identification. An aggressive Bosnian Muslim nationalist identification was not pursued, particularly since the Muslim elites determined that the best way to protect the Bosnian Muslim population was to support the central government, not to express strong nationalistic sentiments.


World War II


The Bosnian Muslims suffered during World War II as did all other national groups within Yugoslavia.[xxi] Forcibly integrated with most of the rest of Bosnia into the fascist-dominated Independent State of Croatia, the Bosnian Muslims were courted by the Croatian nationalists and called “the purest of all Croats.”[xxii] For the Croatian nationalists, the Bosnian Muslim problem was solved by simply considering them Croats. Islam, therefore, was treated with respect as another Croatian religion.[xxiii]

Yet the Bosnian Muslim community was meant to be subsumed within the Croatian community. Some Bosnian Muslims did not support this concept, even though the Croatian fascists were prepared to grant the Bosnian Muslim community extensive educational and religious autonomy. While some Bosnian Muslims went so far as to join the SS-sponsored Handžar (Scimitar) military division that rampaged against Serbs, as well as other traditional enemies of fascism like Jews and Gypsies, most others were so repelled by the fascists’ actions that they denounced them[xxiv] and even began to participate in the anti-fascist resistance. Many Bosnian Muslims joined Tito’s multinational Partisans and earned legitimacy for their community as they aided in the liberation of Yugoslavia from the fascist invaders and from the royalist Cietniks, some of whom also mistreated the Muslim population.

The Partisans gave the Sandžak area its only contemporary, albeit short-lived, period of autonomy. The Sandžak was treated as an autonomous province from 1943 to 1945,[xxv] but after the war its autonomy disappeared.


The Second Yugoslavia


The Bosnian Muslim community may have reached its golden age under Tito’s Communist regime. While there was some animosity against the community because of the Muslim SS division during World War II, by and large, the Bosnian Muslims slowly began to play an increasingly legitimate and important role in post-1945 Yugoslavia, both on the domestic scene and internationally.

The second Yugoslavia was composed of six republics. Five of those republics were named after the majority national group within their borders. The population of the sixth, Bosnia and Herzegovina, was a mix of Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, as well as other less numerous groups. Therefore, it was the only republic whose name did not react a majority population. As a matter of fact, none of the three nations formed a majority within Bosnia. This configuration produced some interesting opportunities for coalition politics among the Serbs, Croats, and Muslims. Indeed, it appeared for a time that the politics of Bosnia would consist, as in the interwar period, of Serbs and Croats facing off against each other and attempting to woo the Bosnian Muslims into an alliance that would produce a plurality for one or the other.

This configuration was supported by the Communist Party as a way to keep Bosnia pacifed and to avert the growth of the nationalist deviations that were bedeviling both Serbia and Croatia.

This arrangement altered in 1968 when the Communist Party. First declared that the Bosnian Muslims would henceforth be recognized as a Yugoslav nation.[xxvi] The succeeding (1971) census officially reaected their new status. The significance of the new designation was that no longer would the Bosnian Muslims be considered only a powerless pawn in the Croat and Serb battle for dominance in Bosnia. When the Muslims became a recognized nation in Bosnia, it meant that they would now be considered a legitimate player in the battle for control over social, economic, and political resources within Yugoslavia and within Bosnia. This change in status was tied to the recognition of Bosnian Muslim nationalism, which was underdeveloped at the time it was first recognized but which grew throughout the 1970s and 1980s. However, the recognition of the Bosnian Muslims as a nation did not seem to alter drastically the overwhelmingly secular nature of the Bosnian Muslim community. The spate of mosque and Muslim school building permitted in the 1970s and 1980s belied the stubbornly secular perspective of the majority of the urban Bosnian Muslims. Even today, as it was one or two decades ago, one can observe that some of the mosques are for all intents and purposes only lightly used.

The religious aspect of the Bosnian Muslim community was brought into play by Tito’s foreign policy aspirations. As a founder of the non-aligned bloc in the early 1960s, Tito was eager to court the good opinion of non-aligned countries worldwide. A number of non-aligned countries were located in the Middle East or, like Indonesia, contained Muslim majorities. Therefore, Tito was never reluctant to utilize the Bosnian Muslim community’s increasing stature within Yugoslavia to tout the open-mindedness of his regime to other non-aligned leaders.

At this point, the religious and national aspects of the Bosnian Muslim situation began to converge. This was probably little different than the earlier convergence of these two elements in the Croat and Serb communities. For the Bosnian Muslims, however, it happened a good bit later and was a source of concern to both the Croats and Serbs, who found themselves losing control not only of the Bosnian Muslims as potential coalition partners but of the political and social resources of Bosnia and Herzegovina itself.

Censuses throughout the post-1945 period reacted a growing Bosnian Muslim national consciousness. Early postwar censuses had given the Bosnian Muslims limited choices for self-identification – “Yugoslav undetermined,” for example.[xxvii] However, little by little the censuses began to allow the Bosnian Muslims to acknowledge their growing nationalistic tendencies, until in the 1981 census almost two million people within Bosnia identified themselves as Muslims—in the national, not merely the religious sense. While Tito was alive, this phenomenon was positive in that it meant that Bosnia and Herzegovina was removed from the Serb–Croat conflict as a bone of contention. Now that the Muslims were players, there was no longer any question of the Serbs or the Croats dominating that territory. Bosnian Muslim representation in various governmental and party bodies increased, as did Bosnian Muslim influence within the country and the number of religious institutions to support the Bosnian Muslim community’s spiritual needs.

However, upon the death of Tito, the institutions he had created and the ambience of multinational acceptance in the land of “Brotherhood and Unity” also died. The death of the second Yugoslavia in light of the fall of Communism spelled the death also of tolerance for the various different national and religious groups and their South Slav cohesion in the face of the always looming danger from Soviet invasion.

The Communist Party died, and the government was paralyzed by the inability of the various national groups to think beyond their own parochial affairs. Most damaging of all, however, was the decline of the Yugoslav military from a protector of Yugoslavia’s “Brotherhood and Unity” to a Serb-dominated invading and occupation force.

When the first post-Communist elections brought into office representatives of the various nationalistically oriented parties, the death knell of Yugoslavia’s multinational cooperation sounded. Tolerance of the various religions and national units disappeared. Much of Yugoslavia became a battle field.


The Yugoslav Wars of Dissolution and the Aftermath


The Bosnian Muslims were the major, although not the only, victims of the Yugoslav wars of dissolution. Anecdotal evidence and testimony at The Hague War Crimes Tribunal lend credence to the fact that the Bosnian Muslims were victimized by both the Serbs and the Croats and that their religion was the excuse. Forty-five years of close coexistence in the multinational state of Yugoslavia had obviously put only a thin veneer on some of the animosities carried over from World War II, an era when national/religious hatreds had blossomed into full-blown physical acts of mass violence. Historical memories of World War II atrocities were trotted out by the nationalist-controlled media to bring to the fore old fears in a significant portion of the Serb and Croat population. For example, the epithet “Turk” was suddenly being used against the Bosnian Muslims, despite the fact that the Bosnian Muslims and the Serbs and the Croats, among others, were all ancestors of the same peoples who had first settled in Yugoslavia around the sixth century.

How do we explain the bloodletting among people who share similar genetic make-up, language, and much common history? Some have attempted to dredge up “ancient ethnic hatreds,” a belief that the South Slavs never really did get along well and have been poised for decades, if not centuries, for the right moment to rid themselves of noxious neighbors. Others suggest that cynical politicians cunningly maneuvered frightened people into believing that their own lives and property were in imminent danger should they not strike first against their putative enemies.

Raju G. C. Thomas[xxviii] has advanced a set of general propositions about history, religion, and national identity which seem to describe the situation within Yugoslavia as Communism fell. While assuredly not the definitive answer to the issues raised by the Yugoslav wars, perhaps a framework such as presented in brief below is a starting point for an understanding of why the Balkans exploded into ethnic con ict at the end of the twentieth century and why the Bosnian Muslim assumption of Islam as national identity was anathema to other South Slavs, particularly some Serbs.

(1) Nationalist interpretations of history influence contemporary domestic and regional politics, which then leads to violent conflict.

Historical memories were being manipulated to alter the heretofore fairly tolerant atmosphere of Yugoslavia. The World War II atrocities perpetrated by all against all at various times were revisited by the media to frighten the survivors and their offspring that the same conditions were imminent. The propaganda machines of all the nationalist parties were adept at manufacturing ethnic and religious reasons for the disastrous economic problems and dislocations that struck Yugoslavia during the 1980s. These machines were able to redefine domestic problems as assaults on their own national groups and to defect the incapability of their leaders to solve the problems or to leave power when Communism was discredited. Communist Party functionaries, especially Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević, were anxious to remain in power no matter the cost to their neighbors or their own constituents. In light of the discrediting of Communism, with which they were so closely identified, a new ideology had to be found. Nationalism was the chosen instrument, it appears, and the Muslims were among the chosen victims.

(2) Under conditions of nationalist fervor, religious identity tends to override language and cultural identities in determining a person’s loyalty.”

The Serbs and the Croats were determined to demonize the mostly secular Muslim community of Bosnia as a “fundamentalist” or radical branch of mobilized worldwide Islam. With the clarion call of saving Europe from the resurgent Turks, the Serbs—and the Croats to possibly a lesser but still vicious extent—altered the perception of the Bosnian Muslims by the Serb and Croat populations. Those Muslims who just yesterday were neighbors and friends were now to be seen as bloodthirsty Muslims—the vanguard of Islam advancing into the heart of Europe.

(3) Under conditions of nationalism, minor differences in language and culture among peoples are expanded out of proportion with reality in order to accentuate differences among different ethnic groups.

The “purity” of the Serbian, Croatian, and latterly Bosnian languages (previously just one language with regional differences) were defended by their respective groups as the con ict deepened. Cultural and ritual differences among the groups which only yesterday were celebrated among the various populations became sources of division. Forgotten were the communal celebrations of Christmas, Ramadan, etc., among various populations within a village. Now they became exclusive holidays and “the other” were tainted and demonized because they did not celebrate the same holiday. Anecdotal evidence gathered by random interviews in Sarajevo in the late 1990s suggests that this forgetfulness of communal closeness unmarred by difference in religious identity was one of the most painful consequences of the Yugoslav wars.

The “ethnic cleansing” and cultural devastation that decimated Bosnia during the recent Yugoslav wars was not, however, a modern solution to the contemporary Serbian desire to dominate their political environment. Instead, as Ivo Banac pointed out, the barbarity of the Serbian assaults on Bosnia “represents a cultural reversion to pre-Enlightenment ideational modes.”[xxix] Cultural and physical extermination of national/religious groups was a feature of Balkan history before the dawn of the eighteenth century, but religious and geographic purity were thereafter not a goal to

be engineered through force. That the Bosnian Muslims had come to think of themselves as Islamized Bosnians with a strong tie to their land, not to Arab or Turkish lands, was inconsequential to those who would attempt to attain geographical purity in the Bosnian lands.

The Sandžak Muslims have suffered a fate somewhat similar to that of their Bosnian coreligionists, only they call their situation “soft” ethnic cleansing.[xxx] Before the recent war, the Muslims comprised more than 60% of the population of the Sandžak.[xxxi] However, during the war, Serbian forces used various violent and nonviolent tactics to clear all Muslims from a 20 mile zone on the Serbian border with Bosnia. When the war ended, the Serbian population dealt with its Sandžak Muslims by repressing them politically, economically, and culturally. With all politics being defined by the nationalist parties, little opportunity for political opposition remains for the Muslims still remaining in the region. More than a quarter of the Muslims have fed the area.[xxxii] The number of Muslim inhabitants continues to fall as the Sandžak Muslims increasingly look for their future in Bosnia, not Serbia.[xxxiii]




It is obvious that the Bosnian Muslim situation would not have been so perilous had they not claimed Islam as an identity. The fact that their national self-identification as Muslim also has religious overtones to their opponents has meant that their national identity has been given a religious cast. The fact that many of the other, Christian inhabitants of Bosnia think of the Bosnian Muslims as “Turks,” not as Bosnian or Slavic brothers based on a common gene pool, means that the area will likely not see peace for generations. Both polls and numerous anecdotal data indicate

that the Muslim religion does not dominate the Islamic population of Bosnia and Herzegovina.[xxxiv] This makes for a peculiar definition of nationhood in Bosnia. In the Balkans, religion, still a defining feature, has been melded into an important part of national identification. But the Bosnian Muslim community remains bewilderingly secular, by and large, refusing to comply with the attempts by nationalists to force them into a religious pigeonhole. Decades of secular education under the Communists, intermarriage, and effects of Bosnian urbanization ensured a largely nonecclesiastical population. The most bothersome part of the whole equation, of course, is that this majority of people does not have a voice in their self-determination. The ability of the religion-based parties to dominate the political sphere and to capture the decision-making and resource distribution roles within society precludes the expression of the non-religious inhabitants’ true desires in regard to self-determination.

Thus, the link between Islam and the identity of the Bosnian and Sandžak Muslims is mainly one of national identification, not religious ritual. The minds of their nationalistically driven compatriots in the Serb and Croat communities, however, do not seem to accept that fact. Numerous commentators have warned that this merely tenuous link between religious Islam and Islam as a national identification is capable of being strengthened by repeated assaults on the secular Muslim community by nationalist Serbs and Croats. Whether it is possible to galvanize the secular Muslim population into a religiously driven aggressive population is difficult to say. It is also difficult to envision. But the threat of genocide in the name of religion has throughout history made many secular people religious. Thus, it is not impossible to conceive of a situation where the identity of the hitherto secular Bosnian Muslims might someday come to be driven by religious not secular Islam, to the detriment of even today’s guarded peace in the Balkans.

Finally, while the Bosnian Muslims have been able—finally—to create an admittedly weak international consensus about their contemporary survival in a state in which they have at least a modicum of control over their lives, the Sandžak Muslims are still at risk. Forced to live as a minority population surrounded by those who despise their existence, the future of those who remain within the Sandžak area is questionable.




[i] One of the peculiar manifestations of the recent upsurge in the various South Slav nationalisms has been the attempt by the Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims to claim that their common language, Serbo-Croatian, can be differentiated into Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian. To that end, the philologists and literary elites of each national group have attempted to purge their variant of Serbo-Croatian of those words that seem to evoke memories of the other two national groups. It appears that the Croats in particular are attempting to introduce many of the older words that modern Serbo-Croatian had forsaken, and the Bosnian Muslims may be relying on more “Turkishisms” than previously in the Bosnian variant. Conversation with Bogdan Rakić, Indiana University, 8 July 1998.

[ii] Acknowledging that Western scholarship has dif. culty in differentiating, particularly in the Balkan context, between the concepts of nation and ethnic group, I have chosen to utilize in this article the Yugoslav versions of these terms. That is, a “nation” (narod) was considered a group that lived mostly within the former Yugoslavia and possessed a titular republic (e.g., Serbs in Serbia, Croats in Croatia, etc.). A “nationality” (narodnost) was a large population within Yugoslavia but with majority of its group living in countries bordering Yugoslavia (i.e., Hungarians and Albanians). Finally, “ethnic minority” (etničke manjine) designated all other groups living in Yugoslavia. The uniqueness of the position of the Bosnian Muslims in this scheme is detailed in the remainder of the article.

[iii] . E. Pelidija, M. Maglajlic´ and R. Mahmutćehajić, “Bosnia and the Bosnian Muslims: Muslims

in Sanjak” (Sarajevo: 1991), p. 5.

[iv] A number of Yugoslav historians have championed the Bogomil theory, such as V. Ćorović, Historija Bosne (Belgrade: Srpska akademija nauka i umetnosti, 1940) and Sima Ćirković, Istorija srednjovekovne bosanske države (Belgrade: Srpska knjizÏ evna zadruga, 1964).

[v] For a brief statement of Fine’s thesis, consult “The Medieval and Ottoman Roots of Modern Bosnian Society,” in Mark Pinson, ed., The Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina: Their Historic Development from the Middle Ages to the Dissolution of Yugoslavia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), pp. 1–21.

[vi] . It would be well to remember that in the medieval era and even up through the nineteenth century, the terms “Serbs” and “Croats” had no intrinsic meaning. People were inclined to identify themselves according to their local or regional environs, such as Bosnia. Under the Ottoman Empire, only religious identi. cation was relevant. Only in the nineteenth century with the rise of nationalism did people begin widely to identify themselves as Serbs or Croats.

[vii] See, for example, Colin Heywood, “Bosnia under Ottoman Rule, 1463–1800,” in Mark Pinson, ed., The Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina: Their Historic Development from the Middle Ages to the Dissolution of Yugoslavia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), pp. 22–53.

[viii] This is not to say that there were no disadvantaged Muslims under Ottoman rule. For example, the 1910 Austrian census numbers more than 9,500 Muslim landholders with peasants (kmets) in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also lists 3,000 landholders without peasants, more than 77,000 free Muslim peasants, and more than 3,600 Muslim peasants. The census also records more than 900 Christian landholders with peasants. Robert J. Donia and John V. A. Fine, Jr, Bosnia and Hercegovina: A Tradition Betrayed (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 78.

[ix] See, for example, Noel Malcolm, Bosnia: A Short History (New York: New York University Press, 1994), p. 54.

[x] Salim Ceric, Muslimani srpskohrvatskog jezika (Sarajevo: Svjetlost, 1968), p. 41.

[xi] Avdo Suceska, “Istorijske osnove nacionalne posebnosti bosansko-hercegovačkih Muslimana,” Jugoslovenski istorijski časopis, Vol. 4, 1969, p. 50.

[xii] Francine Friedman, The Bosnian Muslims: Denial of a Nation (Boulder: Westview Press,

1996), p. 46.

[xiii] Mustafa Memić, “Bošnjaci Sandžaka i Bošnjaci kao nacionalno biće,” paper presented at the conference “Bosnian Paradigm,” Sarajevo, November 1998, p. 1.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid., p. 3.

[xvi] Ibid., p. 4.

[xvii] Friedman, The Bosnian Muslims, p. 64.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Statement by publicist Sulejman el Syrre Abdagic´, cited in Atif Purivatra, Jugoslavenska muslimanska organizacija u političkom životu Kraljevine Srba, Hrvata i Slovenaca (Sarajevo: Svjetlost, 1974), p. 74.

[xx] Friedman, The Bosnian Muslims, p. 100.

[xxi] Ivo Banac suggested that of the more than one million people killed in Yugoslavia during World War II, the Serbs lost 6.9% of their population, Croats 5.4%, Bosnian Muslims 6.8%, and Jews 77.9%. “Yugoslavia,” in Joel Kruegler, ed., The Oxford Companion to World Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 999.

[xxii] Jozo Tomasevich, War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941–1945: The Chetniks (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1975), p. 105.

[xxiii] “Krv nije zatajila,” UstasÏ a, 9 November 1941, cited in Fikreta Jelić-Butić, “Bosna i Hercegovina u koncepciji stvaranja Nezavisne Države Hrvatske,” Pregled, Vol. 12, 1971, p. 670 (note).

[xxiv] See Fikreta Jelić-Butić, Ustaše i Nezavisna država Hrvatska 1941–1945 (Zagreb: Liber, 1977), and the Summer 1982 (pp. 31–33) and Autumn 1983 (pp. 37–39) issues of South Slav Journal for more on the Muslim pronouncements against UstasÏ e anti-Serbian violence.

[xxv] “The Sanjak Region,” Balkan Institute Background Brief, No. 4, 1996, http://

[xxvi] Friedman, The Bosnian Muslims, p. 159.

[xxvii] . For more on the importance of the census as a reflection of Bosnian Muslim national identification, see Friedman, The Bosnian Muslims, pp. 149–168.

[xxviii] The remarks in quotes that follow are from Thomas’ “History, Religion, and National Identity,” in Raju G. C. Thomas and H. Richard Friman, eds, The South Slav Confflict: History, Religion, Ethnicity, and Nationalism (New York: Garland, 1996), p. 16.

[xxix] Ivo Banac, “Bosnian Muslims: From Religious Community to Socialist Nationhood and Postcommunist Statehood, 1918–1992,” in Mark Pinson, ed., The Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina: Their Historic Development from the Middle Ages to the Dissolution of Yugoslavia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 133.

[xxx] Lucian Kim, “Muslims Exit Serbia in ‘Soft’ Ethnic Cleansing,” Christian Science Monitor, 15 October 1997, p. 6.

[xxxi] “The Sanjak Region,” Balkan Institute Background Brief.

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Kim, “Muslims Exit Serbia in ‘Soft’ Ethnic Cleansing,” p. 6.

[xxxiv] For example, Noel Malcolm has characterized the Bosnian Muslims as “among the most secularized Muslim population in the world… the absolute majority of whom did not think of themselves as religious believers and only followed some of the practices of Islam as a matter of culture and tradition.” Bosnia: A Short History, pp. 221–222.

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