Thicker than Water? Kin, Religion, and Conflict in the Balkans


© 1998 P. H. Liotta and Anna Simons

From Parameters, Winter 1998, pp. 11-27.

Listen then, to what you do not know. The three rivers of the ancient world of the dead--the Acheron, the Phlegethon, and the Cocytus--today belong to the underworlds of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity; their flow divides the three hells--Gehenna, Hades, and the icy hell of the Mohammedans--beneath the one-time Khazar lands. And there, at the junction of these three borders, are confronted the three worlds of the dead: Satan's fiery state with the nine circles of the Christian Hades, with Lucifer's throne . . . the Moslem underworld . . . kingdom of icy torment; and Geburah's territory, to the left of the Temple, where the Hebrew gods of evil, greed, and hunger sit in Gehenna . . . . In the Jewish hell, in the state of Belial, the angel of darkness and sin, it is not Jews who burn, as you think. Those like yourself, all Arabs or Christians, burn there. Similarly, there are no Christians in the Christian hell--those who reach the fires are Mohammedans or of David's faith, whereas in Iblis' Moslem torture chamber they are all Christians and Jews, not a single Turk or Arab.[1]

It has been clear since the outbreak of hostilities that no existing European security organization--not the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or the North Atlantic Cooperation Council, or the Western European Union, or the Council of Europe--could stop the slaughter. The failure to develop a "European" solution for the former Yugoslavia led to direct UN involvement. When that effort failed, the United States, albeit initially reluctantly, led the NATO alliance to halt hostilities and began the painstaking process of rebuilding social, political, economic, and military structures in the region.

US diplomatic and military leadership in the former Yugoslavia helped stop the war in Bosnia, led to the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement in December 1995, and sustained the search for regional peace. Absent US leadership, there could have been more refugees and dead and increased risk for the conflict expanding to Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania, as well as to NATO partners Greece and Turkey.

Unfortunately, only prolonged investment of significant NATO resources and placing personnel at risk are likely to prevent the return of open conflict and a resumption of genocide in the Balkans. Events in 1998 in Kosovo suggest just how volatile the region remains. NATO's ability to deter violence may now guarantee its continuing presence in the region, not unlike the decades-long involvement of UN peacekeepers in Cyprus, while stabilizing the area before exiting will require extraordinary skill. Yet in all the reports of Balkan progress and backsliding two key elements are seldom investigated in any depth: the role of kinship and the role of religion. This article suggests that any international effort to eliminate conflict and ensure regional (indeed, European) security must recognize and deal with these two potent forces.

A Framework for Analysis

Ethnic conflict in the Balkans is not well understood for two different but connected reasons. First, few analysts and decisionmakers are inclined to reflect on how they would act if they found themselves confronting the same kind of chronic insecurity that currently stalks the Balkans. Were they to do so, they might better appreciate the fractured nature of Balkan allegiances. Second, politics, religion, nationalist ideology, and social relations overlap so tightly in the region that to privilege any one of them--as does Samuel Huntington in his "clash of civilizations" paradigm--only transforms an analysis of fault line conflict into faulty, incomplete analysis.[2]

Until 1990, American policymakers could comfortably avoid thinking deeply about entrenched cultural or civilizational differences. The Cold War's bipolarity lessened the need to probe local quirkiness when developing policy. Americans have long persisted in the conviction that with the right inputs anyone can become a successful democrat and capitalist--that is, can become like us. Indeed, the promotion of democratic values and economic prosperity form two of the three "core objectives" of the current US National Security Strategy.[3] But with bipolarity displaced by new world disorder and with multiculturalism now at the center of American domestic debate, foreign policy analysts and others have found themselves suddenly having to dust off concepts like "culture," geography, and "civilizations" to explain the appearance and reappearance of particularized conflict.[4]

The problem with such terms, though, is that not even those who study cultures and civilizations can agree on what these words mean, let alone decide on their common attributes. Depending on which anthropologist you select, culture is said to be what people make, what they do, what they think, or varying combinations of the three. Essentially, "culture" explains little, and certainly nothing about how obligation and loyalty shape behavior under extreme conditions. To understand the nature and pull of group allegiances, and how these ultimately feed ethnic conflict, policy advisers would instead do better to map social relations, examine who throws in with whom, and try to understand why.

For that reason we begin this article with a broad outline of principles by which humans everywhere tend to associate. We describe the security individuals find in family and the uses made of kin before moving on to consider the security that religion provides and the ways in which religion has been used. Without examining the content of routinely used labels like "Muslim," "Catholic," "Orthodox," "Bosniac," "Croat," and "Serb" we believe it is virtually impossible to understand the complexity at the heart of the Balkan enigma. Without addressing the Balkan enigma we can almost guarantee another Balkan war.

First Principle: Kinship

The primary bond in the Balkans is kin, and kinship encodes obligation there as it does in most places. Indeed, patterned obligation is a universal human truth. Even in America, where families are more atomized than in many other parts of the world, children still expect certain things from parents, siblings hold one another to account, and husbands and wives remain bound by mutual agreement. Kinship is the bond that defines and cements our social relations. It patterns how we react, what we expect when we interact, and how we think about the world. Invariably, we treat people we believe are related to us as "like us" until they prove themselves too different to allow that relationship. Non-kin have to prove some other type of kindredness before social acceptance can occur.

Because trust centers in the family first, kinship prejudices the individual even before he or she is born. What our family members know about the broader world, how attached we remain to them and to their perception of the world, and how others' treatment of them shifts--these factors help determine how concentric our own trust becomes. Without necessarily realizing it, we constantly learn shortcuts as we grow up so that we know, without having to ask, whom we belong with. The markers we use can seem very elastic, potentially embracing everyone with whom we come into contact. Generally, we presume that if someone sounds and dresses like an American, he or she must be an American; under the right conditions, just being "American" can seem commonality enough.

Introduce a long-term, man-made threat to our individual (rather than national) security, however, and the sense that we are all equally American could easily dissipate. This is because, in reality, we are far more attached to the state than we are to one another, or to the idea of an American nation, especially if the latter is defined as "a people who share common customs, origins, history, and frequently language."[5] It is government--the state--that provides a safety net. Government safeguards our security. And it is also government that institutionalizes loyalty to the nation by promoting patriotism through national holidays, museums, commemorations, and paens to a common heritage, to cite a few examples.[6]

Should this same government begin to come unglued or government officials suddenly prove completely untrustworthy (as they have in the Balkans), we might well feel our own long-term individual security to be threatened. In this sequence, many of us would behave just as have many Yugoslavs. We would look after ourselves and those we are certain we could count on for help. Inevitably, we would protect and then come to increasingly rely on family.[7]

Family everywhere doubles as a social welfare safety net. It is ready-made and conveniently expandable or contractible. Nepotism, which exists in the best of times, represents one benign form of family-first behavior. The Sicilian Mafia may offer an even better example. Because the future of la cosa nostra is constantly being threatened by government authorities, Mafiosi rely on family, whose social welfare the Mafia secures, and whose loyalty then protects it. This is as true in the United States as in Italy. Like segmentary states, mafias loot, expand, redistribute loot, and try to expand some more. According to Lawrence Weschler, this is exactly how players on all sides have behaved in Bosnia.[8] Local crime families there have transformed themselves into international crime networks. While Brookings Institution senior fellow Susan Woodward can trace the roots for some of this as far back as reconstruction after World War II, we ought not ignore the West's more recent role.[9] In 1996 alone the United States contributed $245 million in economic aid to Bosnia.[10] Without necessarily being aware of it we thus invested in, and thereby strengthened, "family" bonds.

While conditions of uncertainty lead people to fall back on family, this regrouping is not always voluntary. The threat of conflict can also lock people into kin-based vortices in a very different sense, as wholesale scapegoating occurs and fingers are pointed at people who look alike, sound alike, and are presumed to be too unlike those who (rightly or wrongly) feel oppressed or offended by these others' presence. During moments of conflict choices about identity are invariably frozen while how one is identified becomes increasingly fixed. Ethnic cleansing is the horrific obverse to looking after family. It is no coincidence that in Rwanda, Somalia, Liberia, and Bosnia, people's parentage has been revealed by neighbors, fellow villagers, schoolmates, and employees, as well as by government papers. Long-lived local knowledge which reveals who is related to whom is integral to ethnocide. Nazi Germany offers the most urbane but irrefutable proof of this.

Second Principle: The Future, Not the Past

In most analyses of ethnocide and ethnic conflict, it is the blood shed, not the bonds shared or the ways in which blood is spilled, that receives attention. But, in circumstances such as in Bosnia, when people are killed person by person, purposefully, and at close quarters, decisions that killers make about who should die clearly require an appreciation of local knowledge. Also, wielding small arms, even just facing a victim, bespeaks a very different form of warfare than the technology-based, casualty-sensitive, and firepower-intensive American way of war.

At every level, the details of what we now routinely refer to as ethnic killing hint at some irrepressible, deep-seated motivation, such as revenge. The presumption generally is that there has been a long history of mutual hatred and bad blood (as is often described for the Balkans). But there is also a different way to view ethnic cleansing, whereby killing is proactive and future-oriented: you obliterate those you believe would kill you if they could.

Although area specialists roundly criticize journalists who describe ethnic hatreds as "ancient," academics' own explanations that these are modern animosities stirred up by megalomaniacal political leaders may be equally short-sighted. Clausewitz noted more than a century ago: "The passions that are to be kindled in war must already be inherent in the people."[11] Some deep feeling must already exist for leaders to tap into. But even as necessary as a painful past may be, this of itself is not sufficient to explain why people allow themselves to be stirred from the top-down at certain moments. Conditions at the time and, even more important, people's perceptions of their future play a crucial role.

From Somalia to Rwanda to the former Yugoslavia the same broad pattern emerges: people who can project present inequities into the future and have reason to fear that worse things might lie in store take action to protect themselves. When people live in conditions of considerable uncertainty and where it is commonly understood that the government is dysfunctional and either will not or cannot look out for everyone, citizens have little choice but to seek security from those who offer it. Either these are shadow governments which provide services (much as Hamas is striving to do for Palestinians), or opportunists who field private armies and secure as much as they can for themselves and those who pledge them their support. The extent to which this further undermines the effectiveness of a central government only ensures more uncertainty.

Without question ethnic conflict originates and results in a number of vicious cycles. The one which concerns us here begins with the trust that resides among kin and the distrust that is then projected onto anyone thought to pose a threat to relatives, no matter how far removed. In such cases, where everyone knows who is connected to whom, it will never suffice to target just a neighbor or a politician, or whoever seems to be inciting others against one's own primary group. As soon as the decision is made to rid the world of one bigot (or Serb, Croat, or Muslim), or adversary (and former neighbor), or anyone seen as different, then that person's entire group is automatically involved. Clausewitz, in this sense, was wrong. War is not a duel; it is an ever-escalating feud.

Wherever families extend and spill beyond themselves into various other community groups--as they did in the former Yugoslavia, where kin groups have never neatly contained themselves in distinct enclaves--there is no possible way, beyond massive willful killing, to successfully obliterate a competing group that, as long as it exists, will be able to broadcast competing claims. This partially explains why ethnic conflict can occur abruptly and dramatically, as recent events in Kosovo have demonstrated. More to the point, it also explains how ethnic slaughter quickly becomes a numbers game in which emotion and logic dictate that women and children not be spared. Women and children embody the future. Thus, mass rape, as unimaginable as it may seem, occurs. Rape accomplishes far more than simply cuckolding other males and robbing women of security. It serves as an insidious form of forward-looking cleansing: dilution. In planting sperm, soldiers successfully bury all sorts of booby traps.[12] By creating new life the enemy automatically divides a mother's loyalty. (Can mothers treat their own children as "the enemy"?)

What has occurred in the former Yugoslavia also has regional roots. There is a tradition known in Greek by a term that translates roughly as "the mass kidnapping of children." During the Ottoman occupation (for the purpose of creating "janizaries" for the Sultan's army) and during the Greek Civil War, children were stolen from parents to be raised as members of the enemy and were subsequently turned against their own kin.[13] So it is easy to imagine how victims, perpetrators, everyone in the former Yugoslavia is haunted by what might happen--and happen to them--next. At the same time, what must bother people most can hardly be construed as either cultural or civilizational, especially when no one can be sure whether peace will outlast the departure of NATO forces. With no sense of a secure future, no lull can be considered peace and everyone must remain consumed with their own survival. Is it any wonder, then, why so many different groups--pulled apart along kin lines--have pleaded for the creation of a long-term Bosnian protectorate?

The Role (Not Rule) of Religion

There is an added overlay of differences in the Balkans which has been missing (or far more muted) in other cases of post Cold War dissolution: religion. In 1991, during the last days of the Yugoslav republics, sociological studies suggest they contained approximately 3 million practicing Catholics, 1.5 million practicing Muslims, and 1.2 million practicing Serbian Orthodox.[14] In the decades previous, Marshal Tito recognized that these figures represented significant forces with which to contend. During his regime and in the ten years following his death, attempts were made to manipulate religion as a cultural component of revolutionary identity, to treat it as part of a central national identity, and to use it as a target of political control.

When it was intact, Yugoslavia held many more than just three major world religions within its borders. Practitioners of Judaism, various Protestant sects, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Hare Krishnas were present throughout the republics. Significantly, Yugoslav peoples also spoke as many as 26 different "regional" languages, of which Albanian was the major tongue in some areas, while Pomaks (Muslim Slavs who speak Bulgarian as their mother tongue) predominated elsewhere, and Ruthenian could be heard more often than Serbo-Croatian in other locales. The Yugoslavs, marked by different religious affiliations, were fiercely proud of their languages too.

Even within so-called "aligned" cultures of the former Yugoslavia, heterogeneity persisted. A 19th-century Serb geographer, Jovan Cvijic, noted the existence of numerous "cultural" types. His list includes differences among the disciplined "imperial" sons of the Habsburg Military Frontier, between the urban Byzantine Orthodox of Southern Serbia and the patriarchal burghers of Vojvodina and their kinsmen in the Montenegrin littoral. He also identified a Central European belt (Slovenia, northern Croatia, Vojvodina), a Mediterranean belt (the littorals of Albania, Montenegro, Slovenia, Croatia), and Muslim and Orthodox belts inseparably intertwined.[15] Certainly Tito's Yugoslavia contained an extraordinary mix of nationalities, the result of centuries of migrations, conquests, and counter-conquests.

Over the last several hundred years, outsiders have intervened in the Balkans on many occasions, leaving in their wake what Dame Rebecca West calls "the stench of empires."[16] The assertion that the Balkans lie at the crossroads of history falls short of a cliché because it stands as a truth, even if this is consistently forgotten or denied. The continental "crust" of Rome and Byzantium, East and West, do meet in a singular way here. Yet, what is perhaps most unique about the Balkans is that the Slavs--the largest ethnic majority in Europe--came to the Balkans in the sixth and seventh centuries AD and slowly separated from each other. Croats, Serbs, Bosnians, Slovenes, Montenegrins, and Macedonians--all violent denials to the contrary--comprise one ethnos.

Something else which most would choose to deny is the fact that Yugoslavia was a European nation with an identifiable geography. Various peoples did live with and tolerate each other--even in some ways embracing. In Mostar, Herzegovina, "before the warlords destroyed it, one was able not too long ago to sip Viennese coffee and read newspapers mounted on wooden frames, listening all along to a muezzin's call in the shadow of a Franciscan church (where the chant was Latinate), and then wander into a fig grove that surrounds a Byzantine-style church (where the chant was Slavonic)."[17] Nevertheless, George Kennan, Ambassador to Yugoslavia from 1961 to 1963, with clear cultural bias has asserted that Slovenes are not Yugoslavs but "really an alpine people" and Montenegrins have been "effectively subsumed by the Serbian state."[18] Slovenes would agree; Montenegrins would not.

Clearly it is possible to categorize, re-categorize, and then argue endlessly about the categories used to describe inhabitants of the former Yugoslavia. But two points are worth bearing in mind. First, these categories easily bleed into one another. At the same time, none is monolithic or undivided. Second, if we reconsider how an uncertain world (and future) feels, we can cut through some of this categorical complexity. In short, the same thing individuals seek from family in the here and now--social welfare security--families seek in religion for the hereafter: protection and assistance. Religion, by definition, promises a more just (and divine) future. Churches, mosques, and synagogues also foster family-like bonds among parishioners (who become, among other things, "brethren"). Implicit, too, in belonging to an organized religion is the notion that you can trust members of your religious community, just as you can trust members of your family, since you know, without having to be told, that you share and will abide by the same moral code; you accede to the same God.

The sense of community that religion offers cannot be overstated. But no matter how apolitical the act of worship itself may seem, the institutional infrastructure of religion is invariably politicized. In the Balkans we see not only the politicization of churches but the sanctity different religious communities have afforded nationalist politics--and politicians. Precisely because various political leaders engaged in what they claimed was a struggle to free (or save) their respective "nations," and rallied troops from within their religious communities to assist them, it has become all too easy to mistake nationalist struggle in the region for religious conflict. However, as the following three sketches should make clear, the role religious affiliation plays is not a cause for conflict, even if faith acts as its conduit.[19]

Serbian Orthodoxy

In 1995 several video tapes were submitted as evidence to the International Tribunal (in the Hague) on War Crimes in the Former Yugoslavia. The tapes contained interviews and "battle" footage from a number of Serbian paramilitary organizations operating in the ethnically Serb-dominated Krajina region of Croatia or in support of Bosnian Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Most prominent among these paramilitary groups were "The Tigers" of Zeljko Raznatovic--more popularly known as Arkan--whose militia began the "ethnic cleansing" of the Bijeljina region of Eastern Slavonia in 1992.[20] Although the Tribunal did not indict Arkan or his Tigers as a result of these tapes, some noteworthy symbolism appears in the footage.

The reverent intonations of a Serbian renaissance hymn open one video as a Serbian priest ritually blesses all of Arkan's Tigers. The image suggests Serbs as holy warriors, an iconic reference to Serbian resistance throughout centuries of Ottoman occupation. What is alluded to in the footage is the interdependence between Serbian Church and Serbian nation originating in a tale often told to explain how Serbia finds its greatest pride in its defeat by the Ottoman empire. The paradox of Orthodoxy's "victory" over Islam in the defeat at Kosovo has long fed Serb distinctiveness. During World War I (another Balkan war), journalist John Reed noted that the birth of every Serb peasant male prompted the greeting, "Hail, little avenger of Kosovo!"[21] The messianic fervor of Serb nationalism--kindled by that defeat and reborn with each new infant--still renders Kosovo a badge of honor, as well as a call-to-arms.[22]

Yet, as much as this linkage has sustained the Serbian Orthodox Church, it is also a source for criticism.

Policy analysts frequently tend to associate the Serbian Church with the "Chetnik" movement (Serbian partisans, monarchists, and nationalist guerrillas of World War II who were "eliminated" by Tito in the war's aftermath). Just as often, though, they overlook efforts by the church to protect its own interests, even when these run counter to claims made by Serb politicians.

For example, Slobodan Milosevic unabashedly manipulated the Serbian Church in 1989 when he ensured that Serbian Patriarch Pavle was at his side during the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, in which the Ottoman Empire crushed Serbia and destroyed its empire.[23] In doing so Milosevic not only used the church to gain legitimacy in the eyes of his followers, but in those of the church's followers as well. Still, despite numerous favors and privileges granted by the Milosevic regime to the Serbian Orthodox Church, both the patriarch and the ecclesiastical synod turned against this self-described patriot in 1997, when they declared the local elections of late 1996 to have been rigged. This action proved instrumental in the eventual reversal of the voting results. The reasons for this decision, meanwhile, were clear to Serbs: "The Serbian Church views itself as identical with the Serbian nation since it considers that religion is the foundation of nationality."[24] By turning against Milosevic's state, the Serbian Church set itself apart from, and ultimately above him, as it too laid claim to the Serbian nation.

Deep rifts have always existed within the Serbian Orthodox community.[25] In the Balkans, "regional differences are profound," as former Undersecretary of State Matthew Nimetz remarks, "not only between Muslims and Christians, but also between Orthodox and Catholic Christians and among the Orthodox communities themselves."[26] It would be misleading to identify, as many analysts have, Orthodoxy as the prime mover behind the forces of nationalism and violence. We could just as easily turn this around and blame the forces of nationalism and violence for involving the church. By consistently portraying itself as "the most constant defender of the Serbian people and their culture," the church has (at times) put itself in the unfortunate position of being held accountable for actions it has been unable to control.[27] We can see this clearly in these tapes. By symbolically endorsing the notion of Serbs as holy warriors, responsible for defending not only a faith but a nation, the church places itself in an indefensible position for those who consider the assertion of Serb-only nationalism to be an affront.

Croatian Catholicism

For Americans who take pride in a strong secular identity as Americans, it may be difficult to follow Balkan triangulations between nation, state, and religion. It may be equally hard to understand how residents of the former Yugoslavia tell friend from foe. But we can catch a glimmer of how this is done if we simply consider social relations: how people incorporate outsiders into their frame of reference and how outsiders insert themselves, consciously or not.

Pope John Paul II, whose heritage is Polish, was well aware of the oppressions in Central and Eastern Europe during the Cold War. Yet, once he became Pope, he lionized the late Croatian Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac for leading the fight against communist oppression. Many Croatians also revere Stepinac for his spirited defiance in the face of Nazi oppression during World War II. For numerous Serbs, however, Stepinac personifies nothing less than Croatian collaboration with the Nazis through his support for the brutal Ustasha fascist regime, which murdered as many as 700,000 Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies at the Jesenovac concentration camp during World War II.[28]

Any invocations of the Cardinal are thus charged with meaning, and like the video image of a Serbian priest ritually blessing Arkan's Tigers, the Pope's alignment with Stepinac sends all sorts of signals.[29] One way to view the Pope's refusal to set foot in Yugoslavia until he could pray at the tomb of Stepinac in Zagreb Cathedral is as a vestige of his myopic anti-communism. Perhaps he really did forget the Church's wider historical role in the Balkans. But that the Pope did not visit Yugoslavia until 1994--by then coming to a state that no longer existed--erased no memories for Orthodox Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies. When the Pope did arrive, on 10 September, he certainly seemed aware both of the symbolism of his presence and the dangers of too close an affiliation with Croatian nationalism. Speaking the next day in fluent Croatian before a crowd of one million people in Zagreb, he warned of "the risk of idolizing a nation, a race, [or] a party and justifying in their name hatred, discrimination, and violence."[30]

In one sense, and for many in his audience, Pope John Paul's visit thereby represented the triumph of faith in a region torn by nationalism and self-inflicted violence. In the Pope's own words, he sent "a kiss of peace" to the Serbian Orthodox leadership and urged Croatian Catholics to become "apostles of a new concord between peoples."[31] But his Zagreb pronouncements also produced shock waves as soon as he openly praised the late Cardinal. Cardinal Stepinac himself can hardly be blamed for strife in the 1980s, but the violence the Pope denounced can still be read back into the Cardinal's actions. By standing up to one form of repression having lent his support to another, Cardinal Stepinac prefigures a classic set of Balkan contradictions. The Pope should have known that referring to him as a great moral figure would only feed resentment on the part of some while fueling pride on the part of others.

But perhaps the Pope did realize this. Some have argued that the Vatican's "complicity" (wittingly or not) itself contributed to the clash in the Balkans: "The Vatican became a partisan in the conflict [by declaring] Croatia a rampart of [Western] Christianity."[32] Nor did it help that the Vatican diplomatically recognized Slovenia and Croatia before the European Union did, thus hardening the perception that, at least as far as the Catholic Church was concerned, religious identity should be treated as a privileged marker.[33]


Alongside the clear enmity between Serbs and Croatians, which represents a kind of East-West tension marked by differences among Christians, there exists a second East-West divide which has been used to mark off Muslims. The wedge is Islam itself, which is easy for non-Muslims to misrepresent.

In 1970, in the Yugoslav Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Alija Izetbegovic, a devout Muslim, was imprisoned by the communist regime for two reasons. The first was his alleged Islamic activism; the second was his book, The Islamic Declaration: A Programme for the Islamization of Muslims and the Muslim Peoples, which espoused "the incompatibility of Islam with non-Islamic systems." According to Izetbegovic, "There can neither be peace nor coexistence between the Islamic religion and non-Islamic social and political institutions."[34] Izetbegovic argued in his book that education, media, government authority--in effect, an Islamicized version of the Yugoslav communist model of "Self-Management"--should be "in the hands of people whose Islamic moral and intellectual authority is indisputable."[35]

A year after the 1990 elections (which Bosnian Serbs boycotted), Izetbegovic (leader of the Muslim Party of Democratic Action) became the first president of the independent and internationally recognized nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In 1996, he received a majority of votes and became the first to preside over a three-man presidency of the joint Muslim-Croat Federation and the Republika Srpska within the parastate today known as Bosnia. To date, Izetbegovic has never publicly repudiated his Islamic Declaration. Yet, no one could describe any part of Bosnia as a theocracy.

Nevertheless, the dangers thought to be inherent in Islam remain a red flag. In his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Samuel Huntington reflects a view of Islam, and Islam in the Balkans, that is particularly troubling: "Europeans . . . expressed concern that the establishment of a Muslim state in the former Yugoslavia would create a base for the spread of Muslim immigrants and Islamic fundamentalism, reinforcing what [French President] Jacques Chirac referred to as "les odeurs d'Islam in Europe."[36] Among non-Muslims the perception tends to be that Islamic "fundamentalism" and "extremism" are synonymous. Radovan Karadzic, ersatz leader of the Republika Srpska, spoke with passionate belief "about having a mission to eradicate the last traces of the Ottoman Turkish empire in Europe."[37] Within US domestic policy circles, this issue came to the forefront in 1995 when Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith and then-National Security Adviser Anthony Lake provided a means (by simply stating the United States had "no position" on the issue) for Iran to ship arms to Bosnia via a Croatian transport conduit. Iran, a target (along with Iraq) under the US National Security Strategy of a "policy of dual containment," is regularly associated with being an "extremist" state by American, though not necessarily West European, standards.

Thus, aided and abetted by Iran, and in receipt of arms supplies and Muslim "freedom fighters" from abroad, Bosnia-Herzegovina became easy to depict as a republic about to embrace a fundamentalist Islamic regime, complete with extremist elements. Huntington, for one, argues that Bosnia employed a strategy that "convincingly portray[ed] itself as the victim of genocide" while receiving "significant assistance from civilizational kin," those Muslims with whom Bosnians share cultural and religious ties.[38] Never mind that even if an avowedly Islamic government were to arise in the Balkans it would not necessarily be extremist. Rubbing lemon juice on these elisions between "Islam" and "extremism," we can detect fear.[39] Izetbegovic's desire to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state represents a form of cultural diversity that clearly creates problems for Europeans. Among other things, it raises the notion for many Westerners that Bosnia may not even be part of Europe, a conclusion that Europe itself often has done its best to affirm, sometimes with disastrous results.

The Balkan Enigma and the Yugoslav Case: Cultures in "Perpetual" Conflict?

Sadly, one might argue that it was disdain (if not distaste) for Islam and therefore Bosnian Muslims that prevented Europe from intervening quickly to stop the spread of violence in the former Yugoslavia, thereby allowing what now seems so inevitable to have occurred. Yet, what today may look as though it was a "holy war" in Yugoslavia was decidedly not. Religion is not responsible for the death of that state. Instead, religion has been used as a cover over and over again in the Balkans. Beneath the mantle of church (or mosque), far more mundane pressures have been forcing people together--and apart.

One problem with Europe's ambivalence regarding Bosnia is that it directly feeds assumptions, prominent and privately held in policy circles in the United States, that involvement in the Balkans is simply not worth the effort, that the United States runs the risk of its policy being controlled by events rather than the opposite. The specter of the Vietnam debacle in many ways lies behind this fear--perhaps rightly so. But we can hardly afford for fear bred by past failures of analysis to be the basis on which current and future policy is crafted.

This is also why Professor Huntington's civilizational paradigm, while it may be useful in describing who has historically fought whom, is far less helpful in formulating strategies to prevent new fights. Huntington's dividing lines are not nuanced enough. For instance, he comments that "Croatia's border is, in effect, Europe's," and "practically speaking, NATO membership would be open to . . . Slovenia and Croatia, but not countries that have historically been Muslim or orthodox . . . . Turkish and Greek ties to NATO will weaken and their membership could either come to an end or become meaningless . . . . Greece is becoming as much an ally of Russia as it is a member of NATO."[40] Unfortunately, he (and other influential writers, like Robert Kaplan) ignore the divides within groups which may well lead to strife. For instance, when Serb politicians and Serbian church leaders opportunistically lend one another support in the name of a Serb nation, the reality of a Serb state may yet precipitate their divorce.

If nothing else, Vietnam (and Somalia) should have taught us to pay attention to the nuances locals pay attention to, and what it is they really seek. The situation in the former Yugoslavia may not be easily solved, but unless policymakers understand why, how, when, and where specific sets of individuals distrust one another, a quagmire--of our own making--will develop. Simply broad-brushing residents of the former Yugoslavia with labels like "Muslim," "Croat," and "Serb" categorizes them, but explains nothing about their motivations. Worse, while labeling may simplify the analysis, it never simplifies the situation that still exists on the ground.

Not appreciating all the faultlines in the Balkans poses a real danger. But Arnold Toynbee's advice, that "the would-be savior of a disintegrating society is necessarily a savior with a sword," likewise suggests that entering the Balkans armed only with knowledge will not suffice either.[41] Bearing arms and being willing to enforce stability are equally critical. After all, most people in the Balkans desperately seek long-term security. Religious differences, cultural diversity, nor uneven economic development per se would have fueled the hostilities of the most recent Balkan War had people not feared for their future. A handful of political leaders took advantage of nationalist genies in the uncertain aftermath of the Cold War, and the result has been a whirlwind of destruction which has attached itself to political, religious, and social beliefs--not the reverse.

A US Commitment to the Future

Although the creation of a Bosnian protectorate may well become the only practical option for stability in the near term, the United States will have to lead this effort over the long term if the Dayton Accords and the Paris Peace Agreement are to be preserved, even if such a protectorate may not meet the expectations of the American people and the Congress. To ensure stability, NATO forces cannot leave Bosnia.

Without question the Yugoslav experiment is dead. But there is still a lesson worth considering from the days of Marshal Tito. Tito excelled at securing individual allegiance to the Yugoslav state by providing individuals with adequate social welfare security. The great challenge for post-Cold War democracies is now to do the same, while replacing the cult of personality built up around a ruler with a cult of followership built around the rule of law. This is where the United States does have expertise, and we should be in Bosnia preaching what we practice. As we do so, though, we must wield a big stick--big enough to assure sufficient security so that individuals will find no reason to regroup as kin and clash among themselves.

American national security decisionmaking generally measures available means to reach achievable ends, and commits to intervention with force most often after undertaking a rational calculus of interest, principle, resources, constraints, and net assessment of the existing and potential security environment. To that mix of considerations we had better now add the recognition that the blanket explanations we often use--culture, religion, kin, and politics--are sometimes but not always synonymous terms, especially when it comes to the Balkan enigma. If we ignore the complexities that these terms mask, and are too cavalier about the passions that bind and divide people, the return of conflict to the Balkans seems certain no matter what military presence remains in theater in the near term. Also, because people who differ by way of ethnic, linguistic, political, and religious affiliations will either learn to coexist or continue to attempt to eliminate each other, it is false to assume that partitioning a nation and stabilizing it via external military force will prevent conflict from returning. Only if mutual fear is removed from the Balkan equation will NATO's mission succeed. This will take a sustained commitment as well as a long time.

As Clausewitz warns us, "Lastly, even the ultimate outcome of a war is not always to be regarded as final. The defeated state often considers the outcome merely as a transitory evil, for which a remedy may still be found in political conditions at some later date."[42] Unresolved tensions in the former Yugoslavia may lead again to war. That truth alone should make clear how much we need to understand what was really being fought for in the last Balkan conflict in order to prevent, perhaps, the next.


1. Milorad Pavic, The Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel in 100,000 Words (Male Edition), trans. from the Serbo-Croatian by Christina Pribicevic Zoric (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), pp. 51-52.

2. Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996); for particular reference to the Balkan example, see pp. 19, 28, 37, 42, 125-38, 207-08, and 255-91.

3. William Clinton, A National Security Strategy for a New Century (Washington: GPO, May 1997), p. i.

4. Multiculturalism has become the focus of recent foreign policy journals as well. See, for example, Samuel P. Huntington's essay "The Erosion of American National Interests," in the 75th anniversary edition of Foreign Affairs, 76 (September-October 1997), 28-49. In its Fall 1997 issue, Orbis: A Journal of World Affairs, published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, announced the creation of a new Center for Studies on America and the West to produce and publish scholarship with a focus on "the meaning of the West, whether there is a common heritage that defines America in contrast to other cultures; the role of religion in shaping Western values and American international attitudes; the West as a political entity; the West as an influence on American foreign policy."

5. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin: 1992). Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation.

6. For more extensive examples of this argument, see Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso Press, 1991); Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1983); and E. J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780 (Cambridge, Eng.: Univ. of Cambridge Press, 1990).

7. For a lengthier explanation, see Anna Simons, "Democratisation and Ethnic Conflict: The Kin Connection," Nations and Nationalism, 3 (No. 2, 1997), 273-89.

8. Lawrence Weschler, "High Noon at Twin Peaks," The New Yorker, 18 August 1997, pp. 28-35.

9. Susan L. Woodward, "Bosnia after Dayton: Year Two," Current History, March 1997, p. 103.

10. Extracted from information supplied by the Open Society Institute (the foundation of billionaire and philanthropist George Soros) and the US Agency for International Development. The United States provided $245,294,000 to Bosnia versus the Soros contribution of $8,869,000; by contrast, Soros contributed $11,181,000 in economic aid to "Yugoslavia" (the states of Serbia and Montenegro), which the United States does not diplomatically recognize and contributed nothing to in 1996.

11. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1976), p. 89.

12. For a convincing description of "genocidal rape" as biological warfare, see Beverly Allen, "Rape Warfare in Bosnia-Herzegovina: The Policy and the Law," The Brown Journal of World Affairs, 3 (Winter-Spring 1996), 313-23.

13. Two of the most powerful examples of this practice can be found in Ivo Andric's novel The Bridge on the Drina (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1977) and in Nicholas Gage's Eleni (New York: Random House, 1983).

14. Various religious officials in the country, on the other hand, claimed there were 7.3 million Catholics, 3.8 million Muslims, and 10 million Orthodox. The 1981 census reported Yugoslavia's population as 22.4 million, of which Serbs were the largest group--8.1 million (Sabrina Petra Ramet, Balkan Babel: The Disintegration of Yugoslavia from the Death of Tito to Civil War [2d ed.; Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996], pp. 1-2).

15. From Ivo Banac's foreword to Ramet, pp. xiv-xv.

16. Quoted in Robert D. Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History (New York: St. Martin's, 1993), p. 5.

17. Ibid., pp. xiv-xv.

18. George Kennan, "Introduction--The Balkan Crises: 1913 and 1993," The Other Balkan Wars: A 1913 Carnegie Endowment Inquiry in Retrospect (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1993), p. 14.

19. One of the many odd significances that lie beyond the scope of this article, but one which social scientists should find fascinating, is the enmity seen among emigrants from the Balkans who have settled side-by-side abroad. The violent images projected on the walls of a Croatian Catholic Church in America may reflect only ossified beliefs about Serbs, who are the Croatians' neighbors in Pittsburgh, but they were beliefs which also surfaced during the most recent Balkan wars. In Melbourne, Australia, Slavic Macedonians and Greek Macedonians also live within the same communities; during the Greek-FYROM disputes of 1991-95, various attacks took place on cultural symbols. Macedonian Orthodox churches were bombed, windows broken, and arguments erupted over a largely political conflict taking place 10,000 miles away from Melbourne. In Gary, Indiana, one of the more radical bases of Slavic Macedonians, immigrants today speak a language more closely linked to Bulgarian than to modern Macedonian and advocate the notion of a "Greater Bulgaria." Perhaps one explanation for such hardened cultural attitudes is found in the etymology of the Greek word for "expatriate," meaning the "same race," something from which you can never escape. Huntington identifies these groups as "Diaspora communities who intensely identify with the cause of their kin and become `more Catholic than the Pope'" (Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, p. 273). Huntington overlooks, or perhaps is not aware of, the odd phenomenon that causes such Diaspora peoples of the "same race" to settle in new countries, become neighbors in an entirely new environment, and--locked into the same oppositions that existed in the "old" country--resume, on varying levels at different times, patterns of enmity against the "other race." Demographic patterns of immigration for work could partially, though not fully, explain this phenomenon. Contemporary America is, after all, largely a transitory society; families are constantly uprooted and careers change. Somehow, these cultural enmities nonetheless persist--we would say because they can always draw strength from indissoluble kin ties and the moral bonds created through shared religious faith.

20. These tapes, largely propaganda and recruiting films, were obtained through a confidential interview. A Balkan colleague has pointed out in correspondence that "Bijeljina is the first town in northeast Bosnia, called Semberija, in the corner between the Sava and the Drina, its tributary."

21. John Reed, The War in Eastern Europe (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1916), quoted in Kaplan, p. 38. Civijeto Job, "Yugoslavia's Ethnic Furies," Foreign Policy, No. 92 (Fall 1993), 65-66, draws from a rough translation of the inscription on the Gazimestan Memorial Monument, which commemorates the Battle of Kosovo on the Field of the Black Birds:

Whoever is a Serb, and of Serbian seed,
And doesn't come to fight the Battle of Kosovo,
Let him never father a child,
Neither male nor female,
Let whatever he grows never yield fruit,
Neither red wine nor white wheat,
Let him rot in evil shame till his last progeny.

22. The Byzantine Empire of Constantinople would not fall to the Ottomans until 1453.

23. Slobodan Milosevic always attempted to manipulate the Serbian Orthodox Church to his advantage. Long disgruntled by the various ways in which the Yugoslav communist regime had shunned it, the church immediately warmed to Milosevic's tactical overtures, such as his praising the church in the regime-controlled Politika newspaper or replacing Marxism with religious instruction in school curricula.

24. Ramet, p. 181.

25. The Macedonian Orthodox Church, for example, is not recognized by the Bulgarian, Serbian, or Greek patriarchs.

26. Matthew Nimetz, "Security in the Balkans," Mediterranean Quarterly, 7 (Winter 1996), 6.

27. Ramet, p. 165.

28. The figure of 700,000 is reported by Kaplan in Balkan Ghosts, pp. 5-6. This figure is controversial. I [Liotta] have seen numbers as low as 10,000 reported in Croatian sources for Serb deaths resulting from internment at Jesenovac; conversely, Serbian estimates have exceeded one million deaths. The figures should not obscure the hatreds such death camps engendered, hatreds repeated most recently in various and horrific ways in the last Balkan war. One small example rises from my experience in Yugoslavia as a Fulbright Scholar (Slobodan umjetnik) in 1988-89. In Belgrade, the capital city, one of the most prominent books sold in many stores was a horrific photographic depiction of Ustasha atrocities during World War II, a war in which one in eight Yugoslavs died and half of these Yugoslav deaths were at the hands of other Yugoslavs. More recently, while serving in a diplomatic position in the Balkans, I noticed new genealogies of horror that depicted new and particularly gruesome atrocities committed by Serbs or against Serbs in the last Balkan war.

29. Midway through the Holocaust, Stepinac turned against the Ustasha and preached for the rights of all peoples, regardless of religion; by mid-1943, of course, the fate of countless Serbs, Gypsies, and Jews had been sealed. After 1945, in the new communist Yugoslavia, Tito (ever the pragmatist) met twice with Stepinac and chose to ignore Stepinac's Ustasha collaboration, advocating instead the creation of a national Catholic Church. Stepinac refused, was eventually imprisoned, and became a political and religious, and therefore, cultural, martyr.

30. The National Catholic Reporter, 23 September 1994, p. 7. This fluency may be less impressive than it appears. Pope John Paul, whose native tongue is Polish, has the ability to draw on the affiliation all Slavic languages have. In his Christmas messages, for example, or on numerous visits he tends to address his separate flocks in their local tongues. He has sent messages to his Macedonian flock as well--in Macedonian--to which the Greek Orthodox Church has objected.

31. Ramet, p. 281.

32. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, p. 282; the comment by John Paul II that Huntington alluded to is from Misha Glenny, "Yugoslavia: The Great Fall," The New York Review of Books, 23 March 1993, p. 61.

33. Pierre Behar, "Central Europe: The New Lines of Fracture," Geopolitique (Autumn 1994), p. 44.

34. Alija Izetbegovic, The Islamic Declaration: A Programme for the Islamization of Muslims and the Muslim Peoples (Sarajevo: 1970, published 1991), p. 23.

35. Ibid., p. 33.

36. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, p. 271.

37. The New York Times, 6 December 1994, p. A3, quoted in Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, p. 271. Karadzic is a particularly odd case, and perhaps a worthy one for later study on how the influence of one personality results in the deaths of thousands of innocent people. Psychiatrist and failed poet, he remained steadfast through his proclamations during the Bosnian conflict in his professed belief that he was the last line of defense for Europe against the Islamic onslaught. There is some evidence, however, that his obsession to destroy Sarajevo was the result of a personal vendetta in which his own artistic abilities as a poet proved limited and his publishing efforts produced meager results. Thus, he sought to destroy Sarajevo--a city that thrived on cultural diversity and yet rejected him--to eliminate such a triumph of diversity. (See, for example, Misha Glenny, "Letter from Bosnia: The Age of the Parastate," The New Yorker, 8 May 1995, p. 52.) For perhaps the same reasons, Serbia may have attacked Dubrovnik--which had existed for a thousand years as the independent Republic of Ragusa and had never been conquered--out of the perception that, symbolically, at least, Dubrovnik could be conquered.

38. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, p. 268.

39. Although in many Western and other states religion is considered to play a separate and distinct role from that of secular government, this is not the case for some of this country's closest allies: Israel, for instance. Pakistan, though not necessarily among the United States' "closest allies," presents another example of a state in which God's rule governs lawmakers.

40. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, pp. 128, 271; Huntington, "The West: Unique, Not Universal," Foreign Affairs, 75 (November-December 1996), p. 45.

41. Arnold Toynbee, War and Civilization (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1950), p. 142.

42. Clausewitz, p. 80.

Lieutenant Colonel P. H. Liotta, USAF, is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College and served previously as a Fulbright Fellow in the former Yugoslavia and attaché to the Hellenic Republic. His seventh book, The Ruins of Athens: A Balkan Memoir, is forthcoming.

Dr. Anna Simons is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. In January she will join the Special Operations Academic Group at the Naval Postgraduate School as a visiting associate professor. She has written extensively about Somalia and is the author, most recently, of The Company They Keep: Life Inside the U.S. Army Special Forces.

Reviewed 6 November 1998. Please send comments or corrections to