In Bosnia, the ‘Eastern Question’ Is Rising Again

Three decades after war ravaged the Balkans, Bosnia’s future again seems uncertain, and an Islamophobic narrative is once more rearing its ugly head

In Bosnia, the ‘Eastern Question’ Is Rising Again
A Bosnian worker digs one of the 600 graves at Potocari cemetary for Srebrenica victims on Jul. 8, 2005 / Joe Klamar / AFP via Getty Images

“When you’re born and living in Bosnia, you can’t help wondering how many iterations will the Eastern Question actually have?” Emir Suljagić, the director of the Srebrenica Memorial Center, recently wrote on his social media account.

He was referring to the painful history of indigenous Muslims living as minorities in the post-Ottoman Balkans — a history of discrimination, violent expulsion or worse, including mass extermination. He was also referencing the euphemism that some Europeans invented in the 19th century to define this long-term genocide: the “Eastern Question.”

This “question” is a historical theme but also a very urgent one, as Bosnia and Herzegovina, my home country, is going through the most serious political and security crisis since the 1995 signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the three-year international armed conflict that resulted in Bosnian genocide.

In the last few months, Milorad Dodik, Bosnian Serb member of the tripartite presidency and the leader of secessionist efforts of the Republika Srpska entity, announced — and indeed already took — some explicit steps toward the breakup of the country. Just like his political predecessors aimed to destroy the Bosnian state, Dodik continues using the same anti-Muslim narratives and hateful, essentialist speech against Bosniaks, in line with the war criminals who orchestrated and executed the latest genocide in the early ’90s. (Bosnian refers to the nationality, while Bosniak usually refers to citizens of Muslim heritage.)

Dodik’s renewed, purposeful and increased usage of the term “Muslim” aims to reduce the entire Bosniak people to a religious group only, to portray them yet again as foreigners in Europe. At the same time, he hopes to tap into the vision some Western European leaders have of the continent as well as their embrace of Islamophobic narratives about Muslims. But this narrative goes beyond Dodik. He finds open support from Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary, and Janez Janša of Slovenia, two of the most xenophobic and openly vocal anti-Muslim leaders in Europe. They seem united in what they call the “defense of Europe,” a familiar line from the ’90s.

“We are Christians and that is my experience. And from experience I can say that Muslims do not abandon their values,” stated Dodik at the Demographic Summit in Budapest last September. By pointing to “migrants coming from countries with different cultures,” he also asked “whether Europeans will live in Europe in a few decades.” Such a racist vision that he proposes for preserving “demographic stability” in Europe also echoes the horrors of the so-called “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, by which Muslims are on a mission to outbreed white, Christian Europeans. Since 2015, the Hungarian government has organized this annual international gathering, convening some of the most right-wing, nationalist, anti-immigration, populist, “pro-family” politicians, church officials and other conservative figures. This year Dodik was reviving the same Islamophobic tropes that Serb intellectual and political elites had used to otherize Muslims to prepare the terrain for the latest genocide in the 1990s. Dodik’s deliberate linguistic choices, his eliding of how Muslims have lived in the region for centuries, and the sympathy and support that he finds among the highest echelons of political leaders in some EU countries ring the same alarming bells from the past. They also reaffirm the persistence of the “Eastern Question” in the minds of these elites for dealing with Muslims in the Balkans.

So what exactly is the “Eastern Question”? It was the term Christian statesmen began to use in the 19th century for the goal of destroying the Ottoman Empire and expelling all “Turks” — meaning Ottoman Muslims — “back” to Asia. Its origin is usually traced to the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca in 1774, after which Czarist Russia took upon itself the protection of Orthodox Christians of the Ottoman Empire while also gaining physical access to Ottoman heartlands and the Balkans via the Black Sea coast. The incremental minimizing of the Ottoman Empire, then already dubbed the “Sick Man of Europe,” continued in the 19th century. But this was not merely a retreat of the empire; it was also the mass expulsion and destruction of Muslims who used to live in former Ottoman lands in Southeastern Europe.

One of the most prominent scholars of Islam in the Western Balkans, Fikret Karčić, tells this painful story in his book “Muslims of the Balkans: the ‘Eastern Question’ in the 20th Century.” He shows that whenever a Christian majority nation-state was born in the Balkans, time and time again, mass pogroms, massacres and new diasporas ensued. Similar expulsions of Muslims in Europe happened a few centuries back in Spain and Sicily, and Jews often faced the same fate as Muslims. According to Karčić, “the survival of the Eastern Question mentality” among the Balkan Christian nationalist elites toward the Muslim population even after 1923, when the Lausanne Treaty marked the end of the Ottoman State, continued all the way to the genocide against the Bosniaks from 1992 to 1995.

Moreover, in the aftermath of this latest genocide, survivors had to deal not just with the genocide denial but also a constant triumphalism and glorification of war criminals. With its weak economy and plenty of corruption, alongside an inefficient government system created by the Dayton Peace Agreement, Bosnia has remained wounded and blocked from moving forward. Large swaths of the population have continued to suffer in poverty, while the entrenched ethno-nationalist elites profited, contributing to incessant waves of youth emigration. Those realities are valid across the entity lines. But, besides all sorts of daily challenges, the ongoing existential threat for Bosniaks remains the most serious part of their reality.

Names change, but the same chauvinist thinking that Serb (Orthodox) and Croat (Catholic) ethnonationalist leaders — currently Milorad Dodik and Dragan Čović within Bosnia, and Aleksandar Vučić and Zoran Milanović in the region — perpetuate about Bosniaks, and their Muslim-ness primarily, has not changed for more than a century and a half. In 19th-century Balkan nationalisms, ethno-religious lines were the main marker of inclusion and exclusion, particularly because of the conflation of religion and ethnicity. Though many heterogeneous Muslim communities in the region lived among and with heterogeneous Christian communities, they were politically considered as primarily Muslim. They all became equal targets to destroy. So, it is not unusual that the “Eastern Question” paradigm comes back to the minds of those who must constantly think of self-preservation and fear the repetition of past slaughters.

That is why Karčić’s scholarship on the topic remains one valid prism through which to discuss events from both past and present. He points to leitmotifs in political discourse that presaged massacres at the end of the 20th century and their similarity to those from the end of the 19th. These include Serbian politicians and the intellectual elite’s propagandist preparation for aggression through the portrayal of Islam as a foreign religion on European soil; vocabulary intended to frame Muslims as foreigners and Ottoman remnants; and “converts” to be “cleansed” from the soil of the country, alongside the search for allies from the time of wars for Ottoman heritage, most notably Russia.

Moreover, Karčić dissected the “Eastern Question mentality” through the familiar thesis that stopping the “Muslim danger” in the Balkans means defending Europe. In this vision, Europe equates with Christendom. He mentions another related reference frame, Antemurale christianitatis (“the bulwark of Christianity”), used by some Croatian authors, to describe Croatia on the frontline of Christian or Catholic Europe’s defense against Islam. It served as a justification for Croatian attacks during the Bosnian conflict in the early ’90s.

It is because of such bloody history that today, when news from Bosnia fills the international media space again — this time with the alarms of possible renewed violence due to Dodik’s explicit secessionist steps — many worry both about the breakup of the country and the prospects of another genocidal wave.

Russia and China openly support Dodik, who has threatened to call his “friends” for help in the case of Western intervention. So the Bosnian crisis has been developing in an atmosphere of the West’s appeasement of Dodik’s policies but also in the time of Russia’s serious threats of military assault on Europe through Ukraine, with clear ambitions for reasserting its sphere of influence and preventing further NATO expansion. Many in Bosnia seem keen to join it.

There have been calls for the U.K. to impose sanctions targeting Dodik’s secessionist SNSD party and deploying troops to buttress Bosnia’s territorial integrity. Turkey remains diplomatically engaged in the region, but in early November Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated that his country “will certainly not allow Bosnia and Herzegovina to experience the suffering it did in the 1990s again.” On Jan. 5, the United States announced fresh sanctions against Dodik, accusing him of corruption and threatening the stability of Bosnia and the broader region. Still, when U.S. and EU officials met with Bosnian political parties and civil society representatives to discuss electoral and constitutional reform, they did not prioritize the ongoing secessionist crisis. Instead, they even tried to pressure the anti-secessionist group of Bosnian parties into agreeing to Čović’s segregationist demands.

Consequently, many questions arose. If the EU is against the undermining of Bosnia’s state sovereignty, why is the European Commission financially rewarding Dodik by allegedly preparing subsidies and loans worth over 600 million euros to Republika Srpska? Additionally, there is no consensus on the EU level for sanctions as a tool to curb Dodik’s push to break up Bosnia, because of member states like Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia. This is only one part of the “deterrence failure” by the EU that analysts like Kurt Bassuener have been warning about for years.

This lack of deterrence emboldens politicians to use openly Islamophobic language. So, when Hungary’s secretary of state for public diplomacy and relations, Zoltán Kovács, publicly tweets: “The challenge with Bosnia is how to integrate a country with 2 million Muslims,” one mustn’t be surprised that many Bosniaks acknowledge such anti-Muslim statements as “just what other European leaders say in private.”

And if there are no quick, real-life consequences or strong reactions against such racist statements, it doesn’t even matter how much or how many EU leaders really share this view. Whether out of their indifference or complicity, the targets of such bigoted remarks are again the same and the outcome can only be harmful for them. All this incoherence and inaction is a distressing déjà vu from the ’90s.

The language has been heard before. In July 1992, a politician spoke at the Assembly of the Serb People in Bosnia and Herzegovina. “Europe does not want and must not allow for an Islamic state to be created here; that is our great problem, that is our greatest problem,” he said. That was Radovan Karadžić, the convicted war criminal and orchestrator of the genocide as the former Bosnian Serb leader.

Nor were his views uncommon, even after the horrors of the Bosnian Serb regime became known. As per the book “The Clinton Tapes,” some European leaders also referred to the events in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992 as the “painful but realistic restoration of Christian Europe” or said that Bosnia “does not belong” (to Europe).

Unfortunately, the most recent revelations lead to recognizing that too many continue their intransigence, believing in an unchanging unacceptability of existence of a political Muslim-majority state in Europe, regardless of the wide religious spectrum of individual citizens living in it.

Bosniaks remain as the “other,” both as Muslim “Turks” and eternal enemies in constructions of Serbian nationhood as well as in a particular cultural and religious vision of Europe that relies on its (Christian) opposition to Muslims and hostility to Islam and Ottoman Empire, from medieval times to today.

The point is that the contemporary threat to Bosniaks is rooted in a deep and dark history. Too many harbor the same 19th-century dreams to fulfill aspirations toward ethnically homogeneous nation states, based along religious lines, like “Greater Serbia” or “Greater Croatia.” And the same denial of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the existence of its people and Bosniaks in particular has also continued in different legal frameworks into the 21st century.

But will this ancient chauvinism win by rewarding past genocides and contributing to new ones? If Western powers join their forces with anti-secessionist currents from within Bosnia to stop Dodik, Bosnia can remain a united country. The “Eastern Question” with all the death and murder that it brought to the region could maybe be put to rest forever.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy