Religion and War in Yugoslavia

by David Jovanovic

August 20, 2001

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The 1990s wars in Yugoslavia have often been called, in literature and in the media, an ethnic conflict; endless newspaper articles and television broadcasts have analysed results of "ethnic" hatred in the former Yugoslav republics. However, the media sources of information on the Yugoslav conflict failed to mention that over 80% of the population of the former Yugoslav federation (20 million out of 22 million total) spoke the same language, Serbo-Croat, as their mother tongue. The ethnic sameness of these people was obvious to anyone who spent any time in the region during the wars. Still, both TV reporters and foreign policy makers failed to comment on the simple fact that the conflict in Yugoslavia was an intra-ethnic rather than an inter-ethnic one.

For instance, in his 1998 speech on Kosovo, Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan emphasized that: "...this time ethnically-driven violence must be seen for what it is." (1) Mr. Annan failed to recognize that the "Serb" party in the Kosovo conflict is mostly Christian Orthodox while "Albanians" are largely Muslim, this being a core reason for both sides' non-acceptance of other side's cultural and, consequently, political views and actions. Similarly, Richard Holbrooke, former Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for European Affairs and the architect of Bosnia's peace accord, said in respect to assumptions of European diplomats on partition of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a means for preserving peace in the region that "those people promoting partition are going to cannibalize Bosnia and risk setting off more ethnic conflict," (2) implying that the war in Bosnia was a clash between distinct ethnic parties.

People lacking basic information about Bosnia and Herzegovina's historical ethnic background are easily confused by doctored facts. The new Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina, designed by the "international community" out of the Dayton Accord, is accessible at the web site of the High Representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina - the "international community" [Annex 4 the General Framework Agreement] being fuzzily defined in order to fit the needs of different parties backing the situation - USA, EU, Russian Federation and Organization of Islamic States. This document is available in English, Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian languages. Three of these languages did not exist as such in the second half of the 20th century prior to the disintegration of Yugoslavia: Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian. Serbian and Croatian, allowing for a few dialectical differences, were merely regional names by which the parent language, Serbo-Croat, was known in particular geographic locales to suit the religious partition needs of Yugoslavia. All three "languages" are linguistically identical. (3) The language called "Bosnian" in these documents is quite simply a convenience of semantics - it has never existed, historically, as a stand-alone language of any sort and is still not internationally recognized despite being presented by the representatives of the international community in Bosnia as one of the "official languages" of the "country." A corresponding situation would be foreign diplomats recognizing "Austrian" as a language separate and distinct from "German." The Yugoslav linguistic experiment is being implemented in the country where people of different religious backgrounds not only have the same physical appearance but also the same family names and common family descent.

A look at the cultural history of Bosnia can go a long way towards explaining how different religion-derived identities were created there. The well-known and influential dynasty of the Sokolovic family was a prime example of such cultural intra-family divisions. There were others - for example, the renowned Herzegovina noble family by the name of Vukovic. In 1561 or 1562 Ferhad-bey Vukovic established an endowment in the city of Sarajevo, the mosque Ferhadia. Three of his brothers, all Orthodox Christians, were living in the city at the same time. While craftsmen were building the endowment mosque of Ferhad-bey, one of those Christian brothers, duke Ivan Vukovic, commissioned icon painter Todor Vukovic of Maina, a small town in Montenegro, to produce an icon of the Mother of God with baby Jesus, an art treasure today owned by the Art Gallery of Bosnia and Herzegovina. (4)

Due to historical influence of three cultural realms - Eastern Christianity (Byzantium), Western Christianity (Rome) and Islam - Yugoslavia developed three major religious groups within its population. Today, there are attempts to recognize these three religious groups as ethnic groups, under distinct ethnic titles. Under this classification all Catholics would be referred to as "Croats" (even when not living in Croatia), all Muslims as "Bosniaks" (even when residing outside Bosnia), all Orthodox Christians consequently remaining the only "Serbs." This culturally and politically driven attempt does not conform to the historical heritage of the Serbo-Croat speaking geographical region, which rather indicates that many people rooted in this area are (or were) ethnic Serbs living in different states (or, earlier, kingdoms, princedoms, and duchies) - Serbs who may have converted to Islam during the Turkish occupation of Bosnia. If we applied the same principles to the German-speaking peoples, we would be trying to prove that Bavarians, Austrians and German-speaking Swiss have no common ethnic German identity whatsoever. A Germany re-created along this line of thinking would never countenance the joining together of the northern Protestant and southern Catholic German-inhabited regions into any kind of a common nation. It is intriguing, incidentally, that the official rhetoric of German immigration authorities is more accurate than the diplomatic rhetoric of UN representatives when it comes to treating the contemporary ethnic issue of former Yugoslavia. Germany's immigration authorities still address the whole Serbo-Croat speaking gastarbeiter population in Germany as "Serbo-Croatisch." Similarly, in 1941, Third Reich analysis of the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina described its religious groups as "Catholische Serben, Islamische Serben and Orthodoxische Serben." This perception fits that of medieval Bosnian kings, who referred to themselves as "Kings of Serbs." We can see this in the opening part of the declaration of King Stefan Tvrtko II Kotromanic of Bosnia:

In the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit Amen. We, lord Stefan Tvrtko Tvrtkovic by mercy of God the king of Serbs, of Bosnia, the Coast and the land of Hum... (5)

A similar attempt to divide peoples of former Yugoslavia along religious lines, turning the religious identities into "ethnic" ones, can be seen in the 1905 Census of the population of Kosovo: (6) 

Number of houses Population
Orthodox Serbs 10,346 206,920
Albanized (7) Muslim Serbs 15,600 390,010
Catholic Serbs 108 1,750
Muslim Serbs from Bosnia 50 1,200
Protestant Serbs 0 1
Catholic Albanians 260 1,560
Albanians 1,000 20,000
Turks 270 3,230
Jews 50 300
Total 27,684 624,971

If one goes by this reading, the conflict in Kosovo turns out to be an intra-ethnic rather than an inter-ethnic dispute. However, former United States President Clinton, in his statement on Kosovo of 24 March 1999, can still maintain that:

With our allies, we used diplomacy and force to end the war in Bosnia. Now trouble next door in Kosovo puts the region's people at risk again. Our NATO allies unanimously support this action. The United States must stand with them, and stand against ethnic violence and atrocity. (emphasis added) (8)

This is what Paul Mojzes, theoretician of religion and author of the book "Yugoslav Inferno" has to say on Bosnian Muslims:

The Bosnian Muslims are in the unique and somewhat awkward position of being the only group of Muslim believers in the world who are considered Muslim both by religion and by nationality. (emphasis P. Mojzes) (9)

Numerous examples of linking religious identity to the asserted "ethnic" identity in the former Yugoslavia clearly indicate that one of the leading causes of the 1990s wars in Yugoslavia has been... religion. All major Yugoslav religious denominations professing the belief in one and only God have confronted each other in an attempt to politically dominate the others and expand their influence over as much of former Yugoslav territory as they could manage. This process is still ongoing in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) - encouraged by the international success of the struggle of "Bosniaks" and "Kosovars," the region's Muslim population, consisting of both Albanians per se and what the 1905 census called "Albanised Muslim Serbs," is attempting to cut off as much of the FYROM territory, largely inhabited by the Serbo-Bulgarian ethnic mixture of Christian Orthodox peoples, as they can. The ultimate goal, duly supported by the predominantly Muslim Albania, and also by Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries who provided their wholehearted support to the action of Bosnian Muslims to politically dominate the whole of Bosnia, is to expand the area of de-facto political and cultural Muslim influence in Southeastern Europe. This action would be no less than a turning back of the tide, a complete reversal of the 19th century political, cultural and economic Christianization of Southeastern Europe.

This is what Alija Izetbegovic, former President of Bosnia and Herzegovina and preeminent ideologist of Islamic Yugoslavia, prescribed as a mechanism for expanding of Muslim political influence in the region and in the world in general, in his book "The Islamic Declaration:"

Islamic order may be implemented only in countries where Muslims represent the majority of the population. Without this majority, the Islamic order is reduced to authority only (because the other element is lacking - the Islamic society)... the Islamic movement should and must start taking over the power as soon as it is morally and numerically strong enough to not only overthrow the existing non-Islamic, but also to build up a new Islamic authority. (emphasis added) (10)

He further emphasized two types of Islamic realism, in respect to the long-term Muslim goals:

...ours and that of the weak and cowardly. We think that there is nothing more natural or real than the requirement that Muslims should unite in various ways in order to solve their common problems and gradually approach the creation of certain supranational structures... (emphasis added) (11)

In many ways, Izetbegovic is a central figure of the process of Yugoslav devolution along the religious lines. Prior to the war of 1991, Bosnia and Herzegovina was considered central to Yugoslav federalism - a province where Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Islamic influences met. Izetbegovic's tireless worldwide lobbying from Sarajevo brought success to the Muslim political offensive throughout Yugoslavia and Southeastern Europe - and, not entirely unexpectedly, initiated a race by the other two religious communities, Orthodox Christian and Catholic, to pursue a similar path of religion-determined politics, in order to preserve their realm of influence.

The amalgam of religion and politics has revived the age-old battle between Christendom and Islam. It was no accident that new fronts of military conflict between the Judeo-Christian and Muslim world, in Chechnia and in Israel, have emerged or sharpened in the wake of what happened in Bosnia. In Yugoslavia itself, the conflict between Orthodox and Catholic Christians against the Muslims was further complicated by the deepening of the schism between Eastern and Western Christians. The influences at work here, strangely enough, were less the ideological ones of the Vatican and Constantinople but rather the political ideologies inherent in moribund Cold War policies where Yugoslav Orthodox Christians were traditionally identified as part of the Russian sphere of influence and the Catholics as part of the Western one. This kind of division, and the concomitant atrocities it caused among Yugoslav Christians of the same linguistic background, is perpetuating the weakening of overall Christian influence in Southeastern Europe and worsening long-term prospects for European Christianity. A tentative ecumenical dialogue between Catholic and Orthodox Churches, aimed at mending the fences between long-estranged Eastern and Western wings of Christianity, has been opened, bringing statements concerning the possible revival of one Christianity, as in a remark by Pope John Paul II of a time when "Christianity breathed with both lungs". (12)

Christian religious institutions have identified the current situation in the field and prescribed the cure to politically inflicted anomalies. Similarly, this statement of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran emphasizes the crucial involvement of religion in the war affairs of Yugoslavia (and other places):

The events that are caused by Muslims in Africa and Asia have caused the Americans and the arrogant powers of the world to be preoccupied and anxious. Therefore, they refer to Iran as dangerous and opposed to their own interests. They have found out that the Muslims in Algeria, Egypt, Palestine and Bosnia-Herzegovina are rising, motivated by the same feeling created in them by the Islamic Revolution of Iran. (13)

There is no doubt that religious identity was a driving force behind the Yugoslav conflict and a determining factor that decided which side any individual would "take" in the civil wars. This has lead to disintegration of whole communities along religious lines - marriages were ended and families have been bitterly split in an unprecedented demonstration of the destructive power of religion-based disputes. A common linguistic, ethnic and territorial heritage has failed as a potential cohesive factor among the Serbo-Croat speaking population of Yugoslavia. Religious identity became everything - the first and foremost determinant of the new Yugoslav order.

The people of Yugoslavia have not demonstrated any remarkable degree of religious piety in their reaction to the suffering of members of their religious groups and, for that sake, of other sufferers too. In the words of Raju Thomas, professor of political science at Marquette University and co-director of Marquette and Wisconsin-Milwaukee universities Center for International Studies, "one need not be religious to act violently on the basis of religion." Belonging to a religious creed in Yugoslavia primarily served group identification rather than being a natural basis for dialogue and establishing of common grounds. Instead, the country sank into economic degradation as a result of internecine hatreds driven by religious identity. In his essay, "The Rational Destruction of Yugoslavia," American political scientist Michael Parenti outlines that federal Yugoslavia had:

...one of the most vigorous growth rates: a decent standard of living, free medical care and education, a guaranteed right to a job, one-month vacation with pay, a literacy rate of over 90 percent, and a life expectancy of 72 years. Yugoslavia also offered its multi-ethnic citizenry affordable public transportation, housing, and utilities, with a not-for-profit economy that was mostly publicly owned.

It will take years, maybe decades, for the new independent statelets derived from the former Yugoslavia to reach the living and, especially, industrial standard once enjoyed by the common federation. Broken down, the tiny new republics (with the possible exception of Serbia with its population of 10 million) are hardly likely to develop a substantial domestic industry. In a world of globalizing economy their prospects will probably be limited to those of insignificant client states exporting cheap raw materials and importing expensive consumer goods they are unable to manufacture themselves. But even such obvious economic indicators have not prevented the religious groups of Yugoslavia from pursuing the path of destruction. Bosnia and Herzegovina is defined by its constitution, derived from the international community-dictated 1996 peace accord signed in Dayton, Ohio, as a community of three population groups corresponding to one of the three major religious denominations of this country - Islam, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Catholicism. Political parties of newly independent states regularly have "ethnic" prefixes corresponding to relevant religious identity (Serb = Eastern Orthodox, Bosnian = Muslim, Croat = Catholic), therefore presumably committing themselves to religious exclusivity. But this is not limited to Bosnia. Here is just a sampling:

FR Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro)

Coalition of Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS)
Socialist Party of Serbia/Yugoslav Left (SPS/JUL)
Socialist People's Party (SNP)
Serb People's Party (SNS)
Serb Radical Party (SRS)
Union of Vojvodina Hungarians (SVM)


Alliance of the Croatian Littoral and Highland Region (PGS)
Croatian Christian Democratic Union (HKDU)
Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ)
Croatian Independent Democrats (HND)
Croatian Party of Rights (HSP)
Croatian Peasant Party (HSS)
Croatian People's Party (HNS)
Croatian Social Liberal Party (HSLS)
Democratic Centre (DC)
Istrian Democratic Parliament (IDS-DDI)
Liberal Party (LS)
Serb People's Party (SNS)
Slavonia and Baranja Croatian Party (S-BHS)
Social Democratic Party of Croatia (SDP)

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Croatian Christian Democratic Union - Bosnia and Herzegovina (HKDU BiH)
Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZ BiH)
Liberal Democratic Party (LDS)
Party of Democratic Action (SDA)
Party of Independent Social-democrats of Republika Srpska (SNSD)
Serb Democratic Party (SDS)
Serb Party of Republika Srpska (SSRS)
Social Democratic Party of Bosnia and Herzegovina (SDP BiH)

This whole region has become home to not one but three new Berlin Walls - perhaps not physical ones, but just as effective, nonetheless, in carrying out their divisive role. (14)

In an environment such as this, it is difficult to expect any changes soon. According to Mark Juergensmeyer, Professor of Global Studies and Sociology at UCSB and author of the book "The New Cold War: Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State," it is the rhetoric of Cosmic War that maintains the competition and conflict between distinct institutionalized approaches to the divine. The stakes are high - the loss of soul certainly has greater weight than the loss of material goods, higher living standard, or life in this material world. Juergensmeyer quotes, reporting on the evangelist television broadcasts in the United States during the Gulf War, that "there is a war going on...the devil has invaded our minds and hearts with bad thoughts and fear of the unknown." Similarly, Christian preachers and writers such as Arthur Wallis tell us that "Christian living is war." In this war, as Wallis explains, the warfare is not "a metaphor or a figure of speech" but a "literal fact." The character of the war, however - "the sphere, the weapons, and the foe" - is spiritual rather than material. In this context, the religious identity driven war in the former Yugoslavia can be seen as an extension of a greater struggle that does not encompass only the visible realm but the invisible one as well.


Please read the Afterword, The confusion of language, ethnicity and religion, written by Alma A. Hromic. Hromic edited Mr. David Jovanovic's analysis.



1.  In G. Szamuely (2000). Kofi Annan: Drooling Visionary [online]. Available: http://www.antiwar.com/ szamuely/sz011100.html (July 2001)  (back)
2.  In J. Walsh (1996). Unhappy Together [online]. Available: http://www.time.com/time/international/1996/960408/bosnia.html (July 2001)  (back)
3.  Peco, A. (1971). Dijalektologija sa akcentologijom [Dialectology with Accentology]. Beograd: Jugoslovenska knjiga.  (back)
4.  In BosnaFolk (2001), [Serbo-Croat version]. Ferhadija [online]. Available: http://www.bosnafolk.com/dzamije/dzamije.html (July 2001)  (back)
5.  In Serb Land of Bosnia (2001). Letters of Bosnian nobles of Kotromanic dynasty [online]. Available: http://members.tripod.com/cafehome/povkotromanica/tvrdrugi.htm (July 2001)  (back)
6.  In Radovan Samardzic et al. (1989). Kosovo i Metohija u srpskoj istoriji [Kosovo and Metohija in Serb History]. Beograd: Srpska knjizevna zadruga. As cited in Milan Vuckovic and Goran Nikolic (1996). Stanovnistvo Kosova u razdoblju od 1918. do 1991. godine [Population of Kosovo in the period from 1918 to 1991]. Münich: Slavica Verlag.  (back)
7.  Albanized Muslim Serbs is a term that refers to the Islamized Serbs who sided with neighboring Albanians due to common religion. These people are not ethnic Albanians, they speak both their mother tongue, Serbian, and Albanian. Over 90% of today's "ethnic Albanians" of Kosovo, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, and Northern Albania are Albanized Muslim Serbs rather than ethnic Albanians, as this table illustrates.  (back)
8.  The White House. Office of the Press Secretary. (1999). Statement by President Clinton on Kosovo, 24 March 1999 [online]. Available: (July 2001)  (back)
9.  P. Mojzes (1994). Yugoslav Inferno. New York: Continuum.  (back)
10.  A. Izetbegovic (1970). Islamska Deklaracija [Islamic Declaration]. In SrpskaMreza [online]. Available: http://www.srpska-mreza.com/library/facts/alija.html (July 2001)  (back)
11.  In B. De Rosenet (1997). War and Peace in the Former Yugoslavia. The Hague: Kluwer Law International.  (back)
12.  In CTV News (2001). Pope John Paul II visit to Ukraine. Toronto: CTV Corporation.  (back)
13.  In Imam Khamenei (2001). Leader Terms Islamic Revolution Unique, 4 February 1995 [online]. Available: http://www.khamenei.de/news/news1995/feb1995.htm (July 2001)  (back)
14.  Only those political parties that have seats in countries' parliaments are listed.  (back)



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       David Jovanovic is a Montenegro-born journalist. His work has been published in a number of Yugoslav daily and weekly newspapers such as NIN and Politika. Mr. Jovanovic moved to Toronto, Canada, in 1997. His writings include articles on political and social affairs. He wrote extensively on ecological issues and has published the book "The Untouched Nature of Montenegro" with Obod, Cetinje.

         Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © David Jovanovic 2001. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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Published August 20, 2001
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