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Lessons from Bosnia — Part 6
Whether you are religious or not, religion is something we’ve all had to discuss at some point or another. It’s just one of those worldwide topics that prevails no matter what. Some might argue that the world would be a better place if religions didn’t exist at all. I’m not so sure. Each and every prophet I’ve ever heard of came to a bad society, where people were just nasty to each other. Yet, all of those prophets left their society in a better state. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. That sounds like a pattern. However, whether I’m right or wrong is irrelevant. Religions do exist and we have to live with that and, hopefully, make the best of it.
In Bosnia, there are two main religions, Christianity and Islam. However, Catholics and Orthodox Christians are treated as two separate religions. Hence, in this article, I will also treat them as two separate religions.
While in Serbia/Croatia people are Serbs/Croats irrespective of their religion, in Bosnia it’s not so simple. Generally speaking, Serbs follow Orthodox Christianity, while Croats are Catholics. However, that is NOT to say that all Orthodox Christians in Bosnia are Serbs or that all Catholics in Bosnia are Croats. As I said previously, we do not have a definition of what is a Croat or a Serb in Bosnia. What this does show is that religion has been nationalised to some extent, and in a unique way — by neighbouring countries. There are still groups (and individuals) that have kept their religion out of nationalism and politics.
Islam is the majority religion, by a small margin, but it is. And even though there are various Islamic sects in Bosnia, they’re not treated as different religions, so I will not treat them as such in this article.
During Communism, religions were looked down on, especially Islam, but others as well. The whole idea of God and being a believer was ‘unwelcome’. Despite this, some people remained religious. I come from one such family, so I know firsthand that back then there were about 3 people in the mosque, my grandfather was one of them. Except during Ramadan. I also walked an elderly neighbour to a church a few times, so I know the churches were also practically empty, except for Christmas and Easter.
My grandfather was openly told that if he stopped going to a mosque, he could get a promotion. He refused. He argued that losing a promotion was nothing compared to the torment some people endured for their right to practice their religion. Later on, I heard that one of his ‘high school’ friends (my grandfather attended the madrasa in the village where my grandmother was born, in fact, that’s how he knew of her and fell in love with her — as lovely as that story is, it is not fit for this article) was locked into a barrel and the perpetrators teased him, “Can you do your prayers now?” to which he replied, “Of course I can,” and started doing his prayers out loud. As far as I know, my grandfather never spoke of this event that took place soon after World War II. I heard about the man (as well as a bunch of others), but this man attended the same school my grandfather attended at the same time as my grandfather, and it was a very small school.
On the other hand, there is a story of how Tito came to the local steel factory. Seeing the size and potential of the factory, he asked who the main ‘coordinator’ was. People who were with him replied, “Kemal Kapetanovic. He’s good, hardworking, very smart, but he’s a Muslim.” To which, apparently, Tito replied, “If he wants a mosque in the middle of the factory, build it for him, but keep him.”
In short, it seems the Communist Party was not in favour of religion, though Tito might have been more interested in a person’s abilities rather than their religion. How much could Tito influence what was going on in day-to-day is questionable. The fact is that the steel factory employed a large number of people from all over former Yugoslavia. The city had to be demolished to make room for apartment buildings, and there were all sorts of things going on in the process. However, I should note that no mosque or church, even the synagogue (which is now a museum) were demolished during the Communist era or during the war.
And then the war started. I can’t say people became religious overnight, but during the (almost) four years of war, many people became religious. This does NOT mean that they learned about religion. It means they started attending mosques and churches more frequently. Very few bothered to read the Bible and/or the Qur’an let alone think about them and read them over and over again.
It should, therefore, come as no surprise that we have all kinds of religious leaders and followers.
I’ll start with the most extreme, and the most horrific: we do have a religious group (in only one of the religions) that glorifies crimes against humanity, and their leaders bless those who murder, rape, torture, and such. For them, theft, corruption, lies, deceit etc. are ‘small’ sins. I have to be honest, I’ve only ever met one such leader, very briefly. I know about them from what they publish online.
Then we have what we call ‘politically suitable religious leaders’. This is a group of religious leaders who defend politicians in their sermons, directly and indirectly. These religious leaders enjoy certain privileges in terms of support and promotion. They are inclined to corruption, as well as ‘cutting corners’ wherever they can. One of the most common complaints people have about such groups is that they’ve turned funerals into a business.
When it comes to funerals, in Bosnia, it seems there is no sympathy for the poor. If a poor person dies and their family can’t afford a funeral, they don’t get one, at least not a decent one. This is odd because beggars in Bosnia can ‘make’ a lot of money just from people who give change as they pass by. But if a poor person, who was not willing to beg dies, that’s it. It’s just business. The excuse is that these religious groups also have to make money. Yet many of these ‘politically suitable religious groups’ have more money than they need, they just don’t have as much as they want.
There are many other complaints, ranging from the use of religious symbols to the moral behaviour of those who should be an example.
Then we have religious groups that we hardly ever hear about. They focus on peace, spirituality, individualism, life with others, being good, and such. They have very little money. They usually depend on donations for everything. They live a simple life, preferring to stay out of politics neither praising, defending, nor condemning. They just get on with their own work, usually too busy for anything they consider nonsense, and often they have to defend themselves from ‘intruders’ who would like to break up such groups.
So these are the groups, generally speaking. Individuals in these groups and outside of these groups are a much more complicated story, but always worth looking at.
I’ve met a number of people, from all religions, who are members of those ‘politically suitable’ groups, yet they do not agree with the way things are, and they feel that change must come from within. Besides, they feel like that is their religion and that they must stay in that community. As we all know, having a community is important. Very few people will choose to walk alone. And, perhaps, it is more noble to stay and change things, than to leave and let things go with the flow. However, there is the danger that instead of ‘you’ changing the community, the community might change you.
On the other hand, people who have chosen to ‘walk alone’ have a different set of hardships. As you might expect, the biggest of them is lack of community, but also, many have expressed disappointment, akin to betrayal, by how ‘their’ religious leaders are behaving. Almost like they are still looking for shelter in a ‘religious’ community, yet they found even more danger.
And then, of course, we have people who are non-believers, or even believers who do not follow any religion, or they declare themselves to follow a religion but not officially as a member, or maybe they are a member (like they pay for membership) but they still do what they want. They will openly criticise religious leaders and their decisions without any restraint. And this is for every religion. I could give examples like “the church has a dress code, apparently, I mean, God created me naked, so any clothes should be fine with God”, but I’ll focus on Muslims since they are the majority, and I am a Muslim, so it’s less likely to come across as me being against someone. You’ll still get the general idea.
Many Muslims in Bosnia drink alcohol, except during Ramadan. Come Eid, they will get drunk out of their skulls. No matter how many times they’re told that this is not right, they believe this is fine. However, this is their issue, so it’s just left alone, especially since their response is, “I’ll go to hell not you, so what’s it to you?”
There are other issues that some people want incorporated, like an Islamic version of Christmas. It got to the point that there was a placard telling people that Christmas is not Islamic, and Father Christmas is not part of Bosniak tradition. By the way, some ‘politically suitable’ non-Muslims saw this as a threat. Clearly, it’s just a statement of fact. However, it did not stop there. In one part of Bosnia, teachers have a day off for the birthday of Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. I come from a religious family. I’ve never heard of this being a thing. But I have heard of Bosnians who live in other European countries (including the UK) or in America, who celebrate Eid like Christmas.
And it’s not just Christmas. Muslims follow the lunar calendar so there is a ‘Muslim’ New Year. The New Year, this other one, has also become a thing.
The majority of people in Bosnia are very proud of the fact that we have equality among religions. There’s a place in my hometown, over the high street, where we put up banners wishing ‘Happy’ this and that. More than 20 years ago I saw the man putting up the banner, he was cursing and cussing under his breath. I asked him what was wrong, and he said, “It’s too cold for so many holidays; Eid, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year, Christmas, New Year, Eid, for God’s sake, we should just put up: Happy to everybody everything.” I laughed, imagining a list of things we wish to all our citizens written in brackets. But I felt a little sorry for him, it was a very cold winter and the ropes freeze, making the job hard and dangerous.
As you can see, if we introduce more holidays that could become a problem, especially as more and more people of all kinds of faiths migrate to Bosnia. If it carries on like this, we will be celebrating something every day. Combined with our memorials (and there are MANY of those), we’ll have no time to work (except for the man putting up the banners). Which for many people in Bosnia would be just fine. Healthy work ethics is not our strong side, generally speaking. There are some who are pleased to work, but most just like to chat.
Not that this is something religious leaders will bother to address. I doubt many of them ever thought that self-respect through hard work is a moral virtue. Truth be told, they don’t act like they know that. In fact, they don’t act like greed is a sin. While some individuals who are members of religious groups will resist this and still believe that greed is not a virtue, it is fascinating to see how many people who are not members of a religious group, yet complain about greed among religious leaders will practice greed to the fullest themselves.
In short, we have a handful of religious leaders who glorify crimes against humanity. They are very loud, and their followers are all in. There is no room for doubt in that environment. Then we have ‘politically suitable religious groups’ where moral values are all over the place but people are free to leave, stay, be active, not be active, criticise, or shut up. This is the majority of religious groups. Then we have a few religious groups that are all about spirituality and prefer to have a somewhat ‘closed’ system. They speak up about moral values should anyone wish to hear and apply them in their own life.
Individuals are much harder to group into any category. For example, people who are appalled by those who glorify crimes against humanity range from not religious at all to very active in religious communities. It would be reasonable to assume that these two groups would get along since they agree on this topic, and moral values are for both in a bit of a grey area. However, these two groups come together only when we talk about the victims. Otherwise, they do not see ‘eye-to-eye’.
From what I could gather, the non-believers fear the believers because they could turn any day, persuaded by their religious leaders; as if any person can become a psychotic fanatic overnight. While the believers fear the nonbelievers because they see them as communists, and our society was a much more moral place when people were religious, and communism changed that.
I hope it’s clear that the ‘religious’ situation in Bosnia is complicated enough without outsiders making it more complicated. I mean, we started by trying to remove religions. All that accomplished was people being uninformed. Then we nationalised religions. All that accomplished was to divide people. Then we politicised religions, and we got a set of groups using religion as a business. And now we also have foreigners who come to tell us ‘Bosnia is a Muslim country’.
In Bosnia, this is a very confusing sentence, but it is often followed by deeds that are against Bosnia, so many people fear this sentence even though they don’t understand it. Just recently there was an article where the author said that every time he hears that the ambassador of the US in Sarajevo went to visit a mosque, he fears what Schmidt at OHR will do.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this sentence is the main reason for the rise in Islamophobia in Bosnia. It seems insane that Muslims would fear other Muslims, but this has been noted, especially lately, and especially with women who cover their head. Let me just say that just because a woman covers herself, it does not mean she’s spiritual. There are examples of women wearing a scarf for various reasons. However, in many cases, we do not know what those reasons are. Yet we are very quick to judge the whole group by what we see some do, even if we do not see that kind of behaviour in others, we expect it, with a sense of pride, like that expectation is some kind of wisdom.
No one thought about Bosnia adopting Sharia as a national Law until the idea was brought to us during the war. Many considered it insane. Like I said in Berlin in 2016, in Bosnia, we feel that that is not what Islamic Law is for since it states clearly and repeatedly that there is no force in religion. Our Laws are there to be enforced. In fact, we have a whole complicated system of police, and courts, and lawyers to enforce the Laws. Hence, a law that states that there is no force cannot be a Law that is enforced. The topic ‘Rule of Law’ is one of the next articles. For now, all I’ll say is that we do not see that Islamic Law is created to serve countries. Besides, we are very tired of nationalising religion. We do not agree that a country should have a religion, especially Bosnia. We like being a country where there is not only freedom of religion but also equality. We see our Laws as mutually agreed contracts between us (hopefully we will have ‘us’ as in citizens of Bosnia, but as I explained in previous articles, and will cover in future articles as well, we citizens have very little say at the moment), which means that we are still within Islamic Law that clearly states that if we have contracts with others we should honour those.
Besides, there’s a story of how an American official openly asked a guy if he thinks that Sharia could become the national law in Bosnia. The guy laughed and said, “Who’d bring it? These thieves? Do you understand that they would sooner sell Bosnia than go to jail? Yet you think they would bring a law that would chop off their hand for stealing. They don’t even have enough hands to be chopped off, that’s how much they’ve already stolen.”
In short, Bosnians see religion somewhere between world (dis)order and personal decision. How an individual behaves depends on their personal beliefs whether they got those from someone or thought of them on their own. Some people are convinced anything they do will be forgiven. Others are convinced that they have to kill to please God. Others, on the other hand, believe that God is Self-Sufficient and All-Sustaining hence pleasing God is all about their fight with themselves to be as good as they can. And then there are others who believe that God’s forgiveness is not easy and that hardship in this life is the only way to ensure a good life-after-death.
While religion has inspired the latest war, it has also created a unique and exciting community, where differences have added vibrant colours to the tapestry that is Bosnia. In many places, it is normal for your friend/neighbour to bring you an Easter egg even though you do not celebrate Easter, or for them to receive baklava for Eid though they do not celebrate Eid. We like hearing mosques and churches call to prayer at the same time. We help each other fix mosques and churches because God is remembered there and we do hope for more spirituality. Nuns and ‘hijab’ girls feel they have a lot in common in this world ‘of expectations’. It is true that some have been inspired by religion to kill, however, it is also true that religion has saved many from committing suicide. I’ve heard from a large number of victims, who’ve been through hell during the war. They said that they would have killed themselves if they didn’t believe in God. Their belief in God made them choose life no matter how hard and painful it is.
Nonbelievers look at all the believers and make their own decisions. The main difference between the way believers and nonbelievers complain about religious leaders are:
Nonbelievers say: If religions were any good, those people wouldn’t behave like that.
Believers say: If those people were really religious, they wouldn’t behave like that.
It seems both groups expect more in terms of good morals from religious leaders.
In short, Lessons from Bosnia about religion are:
1. Religion should not be ignored or suppressed. There is power in it, for whatever reason, and being uninformed makes people extremely vulnerable.
2. People are very likely to turn to God when they face hardship. In Bosnia, we’ve seen hard-core communists become religious.
3. Religion should not be nationalised. It has become common, normal, can’t-do-without, but it doesn’t make it right. We should try to keep away from giving countries a religion. A person can change their religion, yet that will not make them any more or less patriotic. The two (religion and nationality) are separate. Even in countries where national Law is religious Law, people who lead that country choose that. Religion, in terms of spirituality, doesn’t need borders, or geography.
4. Religion should not be politicised.
5. Religion should not be commercialised.
6. Religion can be a source of great good, but it can also be a source of great evil. It’s not magic. Even among religious leaders, there is no guarantee that they will be morally upright individuals. It is up to us.
7. Religious knowledge is very complicated and, hence very likely to be interpreted using culture and what is commonly acceptable in a country.
8. People of different religions respect one another very easily. In Bosnia, we have far more examples of religious tolerance than religious intolerance, even though this does NOT show in the media.
9. Moderation is always the key, including in ‘freedom of religion’. At one end of the spectrum, freedom of religion should not excuse crimes against humanity and be free to promote hate. On the other end of the spectrum, too many religious holidays are just not a good idea. People who do not see spirituality in religion can abuse their right to days off work.
10. Religious differences are not the problem. The problem is ignoring religious commonalities. All religions in Bosnia have the same core moral values. The most common complaint among the people of Bosnia is disrespecting those common values. To put it bluntly, relatively few people will complain about how someone prays or how often, whether they believe that Jesus was God, son of God, or a Prophet of God, but everyone will complain about lies, greed, lack of sympathy, empathy, respect, and such.