The Harsh Constant

Many years ago, Nobel Prize-winning author Ivo Andric wrote about a peculiarity of Sarajevo; none of the bell towers in the Old City tolled at the same time. However slight, there would always be a lag between the chimes of the Catholic cathedral, the Orthodox basilica, and the Turkish clock tower that rises alongside the grand mosque. Andric saw that as a metaphor for Bosnia, in which differing communities lived not together, but alongside each other, and uneasily. Hatred, he wrote, was the only constant in this turbulent land.

This is a far cry from the myth forged in the West during the brutal 1992-95 civil war that ravaged Bosnia, that of a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, harmonious paradise destroyed by outside aggression. Some places, like Sarajevo, were mini-oases of tolerance that lasted long enough – four decades of Communist rule – for a generation to grow up believing that "brotherhood and unity" was the normal state of affairs. For the vast majority of Bosnia’s inhabitants, however, Andric’s prophetic analysis remained true.

Private Policy

It has been five years since the death of Alija Izetbegovic, Islamic revolutionary and wartime leader of Bosnian Muslims. No one man managed to inherit the mantle of Izetbegovic’s power. His son Bakir is an influential faction leader within the Party of Democratic Action, but the party itself is run by Sulejman Tihic. Religious authority is in the hands of Mustafa-effendi Ceric, top Islamic cleric in the country, who routinely meddles in politics. And the Muslim seat in the country’s three-member Presidency is in the hands of Haris Silajdzic, Izetbegovic’s wartime Foreign Minister.

The perpetually scowling Silajdzic has always had a one-track mind. This went a long way in making him popular in the West, where the strength of one’s convictions is more important than the actual facts presented. Given that Silajdzic’s speeches are usually fact-free, this has suited him just fine.

Silajdzic is currently the presiding member of the three-man Presidency. Twice this past month, he has used the position to make incendiary speeches, first at the UN General Assembly, then at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. On both occasions, the Serb member of the Presidency sent a note to the international institutions that, while Silajdzic was the official representative of the country, his words were in no way official policy but rather private rants. Embarrassing? Certainly. But less so for Bosnia as it should be for Silajdzic, who pleaded for the abolition of the Serb Republic and wallowed in the most preposterous, debunked wartime propaganda such as "200,000 killed and 50,000 raped." Shame, however, is a foreign concept to Silajdzic, and apparently to his followers as well.

The Argument of Force

Last week, Wahhabi fanatics rioted in front of the Arts Academy in Sarajevo, where an exhibit of photographs was part of a low-key "Queer Festival." Photographing the people entering and leaving the building, the Wahhabis then ambushed them in the surrounding streets, beating up several visitors, organizers and journalists. The festival was called off.

In a statement, Silajdzic’s party excused the Wahhabi fanatics, calling the festival a "provocation" and pointing out it was scheduled during Ramadan. They were not alone: at a prayer celebrating the end of Ramadan, one Sarajevo imam told the 5,000 faithful that the festival was an insult and an "attack on the Muslim family."

And yet, the festival organizers did their best not to provoke. What they tried to do was not a pride parade down the main street, but rather an exhibit of photographs and a showing of short films. None of that mattered, and neither did the scheduling; in the eyes of the Wahhabis, and apparently Muslim clerics and politicians in general, there is never a good time for such a festival, and no good place. By attacking the festival, the Wahhabis were asserting the right to physically put down anyone they disagree with. Today it was the homosexuals, tomorrow it will be Christians, and after that the Muslims that aren’t "pious" enough. As one Muslim journalist put it in a TV appearance following the Wahhabi attack, "This isn’t reminiscent of Kristallnacht – it’s exactly the same."

Biting the Friendly Hand

Having demonstrated what they mean by "tolerance," Silajdzic’s followers decided to prove their stupidity as well. On September 27, newspapers carried a statement from the party condemning Daniel Serwer of the U.S. Institute of Peace as a "Greater Serbian propagandist."

Serwer’s "crime" was giving an interview to a Bosnian Serb daily, in which he allegedly said that the Muslims opposed the census because it would show they were no longer the majority. This latter part could be speculation, but it’s absolutely true that the Muslims have opposed a new census for years (there hasn’t been one since 1991).

Criticizing Serwer’s statement is one thing, but Silajdzic’s party did not do that. Instead, they attacked Serwer himself, as a "peddler of Greater Serbian propaganda since 1992" and "mercenary of Karadzic." Yet it is hard to find an American official who has more consistently championed the cause of Bosnian Muslims, or Montenegrin and Albanian separatists, over the past decade.

Serwer isn’t the first foreign official to be denounced by Muslims even though he’s been their steadfast supporter; anyone who ever questioned the Official Truth in any way has faced such hyperbolic vitriol, without regard to their contributions to the Muslim cause. Even so, many American policymakers continue to believe that helping the Balkans Muslims would ingratiate them with the Islamic world, so perhaps the Muslim nationalists aren’t the real fools here…

For Whom the Bells Toll

September this year coincided with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when the faithful are supposed to show their piety by abstaining from any food or water during the day. September 30, 2008 was also 30 Ramadan 1429 by Muslim reckoning, and the feast of Eid-al-Fitr, known in Bosnia by its Turkish name, Bayram.

Though there are no official figures, Sarajevo is now thought to be more than 90% Muslim. Except early morning and after sunset, when tens of thousands of the faithful flocked to the city’s numerous mosques, the city was empty and silent. Traffic was sparse, and most businesses, shops and eateries were shut.

The evening prior was Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the year 5769 by Hebrew reckoning. A handful of Sarajevo’s remaining Jews gathered in the Sephardic synagogue to mark the occasion. Were it not reported on public television, hardly anyone would have noticed.

Once upon a time, the Jews – who had settled in Bosnia following their expulsion from Spain – numbered in the tens of thousands, and owned more than half the shops and buildings in old Sarajevo. They were almost wiped out in WW2, when Bosnia was part of the Nazi-allied state of Croatia. Most of the remaining Jews left for Israel in 1992, and less than a thousand altogether remain in Bosnia now.

Celebrity journalists, agitators and professional victims can talk about their multi-ethnic myths all they want. Sarajevo is simply not the city it once was. Serbs, Croats, Jews – there aren’t enough of them to fill a single church or synagogue, while even the host of mosques built after the war in every neighborhood aren’t enough to hold the Muslim faithful on a major holiday.

When Andric wrote about the dissonant chimes in the dead of Sarajevo night, they tolled for different people that could not get along but at least tried to. Now there is hardly anyone left for whom the bells of the cathedral and the basilica have any meaning.

What Future Holds

Only the hatred has endured. The guns of Bosnia fell silent almost 13 years ago, but the war has continued to this day. Muslims still insist on a centralized state, just as Serbs and Croats doggedly pursue autonomy, while the Empire plays them off against each other from the position of ultimate authority. What happens when the Empire falters, as events everywhere portend it will? Bosnia is living under a shadow of the very realistic possibility that the tenuous Dayton peace could shatter at any time, plunging the country back into the maelstrom of destruction. And this time, there would be no history of coexistence, no memory of tolerance, to hold it back.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.