Events

Roundtable: Overcoming Religious Nationalism in the Balkans

December 05, 2003 // 8:00am1:00pm

This roundtable was convened through the direct support of the Niarchos Foundation. It was conceived as a forum at which we could shed some fresh light on an old, nagging problem: the need to overcome religious-based nationalism in the Balkans as a way of securing sustainable and lasting peace and security in this troubled region.

EES convened a group of experts on religious issues in the Balkans including: Vjekoslav Perica, an expert on the century-long problem between Roman Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs within Croatia; Nicole Lindstrom, an expert on civil society and religious development in Croatia; two noted experts on the Slavic Muslim people of Bosnia (who since the wars in the 1990s have been known as ‘Bosniaks') Robert Donia and Michael Sells; Elizabeth Prodromou, an expert on Orthodox–Muslim tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean; and Tim Byrnes, an expert on religion and politics.

A few overarching themes emerged from the discussion, most notably, the general agreement that, while the role of religion in the region cannot be neglected, in fact, religious differences and even religious leaders have been the source of problems in the Balkans rather than solutions. Indeed, religion and religious leaders have been exacerbating existing ethnic tensions rather than ameliorating them. Another basic theme that emerged was that the best and most hopeful way of overcoming the negative effects of religious division in the region would be the pressure on these countries to integrate with European institutions. Conditionality exercised by the EU and NATO gives rival groups a point of agreement and a common goal towards which to work together. In this respect, Professor Lindstrom emphasized that the pressures of EU accession for Croatia, now slated for 2009, has already played a large role in overcoming the religious divide in that country.

Vjekoslav Perica commented that the problem in the Balkans has been that religion has been coopted for political ends, and this empty shell of religion is devoid of the peace-building qualities that are fundamental to the doctrines of those religions. He noted that although the religious/nationalist right continues to hold power in the region, there exist pockets of resistance, representing civic, moral, genuinely religious, liberal and enlightened people who are attempting to take back their countries. These are the groups that international actors must support. Similarly, Elizabeth Prodromou's example of the Greek-Turkish cooperation offers a model for the Balkans to follow.

Professor Robert Donia, speaking primarily on Bosnia agreed, adding that the priority in the still-divided young state of Bosnia-Herzegovina is the need to continue the difficult process of state building based on the rule of law. This entails, he stressed, more than merely a vague notion of democratization, but the actual building of institutions to overcome existing differences. He emphasized that what the international community needed most in Bosnia was to focus more on a ‘success strategy' than an ‘exit strategy.' He insisted that state building and democratization as means of overcoming the ethnic and religious divide continued to be long-term and difficult goals, which would continue to necessitate an international presence on the ground for years to come. Long-term involvement is necessary because "nationalist kleptocratic elites" unfortunately continue to play a central role in all three communities in Bosnia and have in all three instances Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic attempted to gain legitimacy and thereby hold on to power through the cooption of religious symbolism.

Professor Sells also pointed to the dangers of the inroads made by strains of Islam foreign to both Bosnia and Kosovo, which until recently were dominated by more liberal and secular oriented Islam inherited during the years of Turkish and Ottoman domination. In both Bosnia and Kosovo, the Saudi based fundamentalist sect of Islam, Wahabiism, has had a significant influence, particularly in rural areas of both regions. This has been done through donations of many millions of dollars to rebuild destroyed mosques in the monumentalist Wahabi style, as well as the religious institutions that come with these mosques, all of which have been resented by Bosniaks and Kosovars. Both Sells and Donia emphasized that the influence of the Wahabi sect was in part understandable, given the lack of support during the war and after from other sources.

Professor Byrnes addressed the discomfort many feel about bringing together the seemingly incompatible topics of religion and politics. Indeed, the secularist academic movements have attempted to resolve thorny religious issues by extracting them from politics. Particularly in the US, where the separation of church and state is a founding principle, we resist bringing these two topics together. Nevertheless, as the Balkan example shows us, religion is an inextricable part of society. Therefore to ignore the relationship between religion and politics leads to dangerous oversights and an inability to accurately predict events or find solutions for conflicts.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant

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