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We know the story of ancient Balkan ethnic hatred is largely false: before the late 19th century, conflict in the Balkan peninsula generally ran between South Slavs and their imperial neighbors, not among the South Slavs themselves. That said, there was one genuinely ancient conflict in the region involving the Ottoman Empire. From the 13th to the 18th century, the Ottoman armies were a permanent threat to the South Slavs. Since many (but by no means all) of the Ottoman armed forces were of Slavic origin, kin to their enemies, this period of Ottoman wars can plausibly be seen as the sole example of "ancient" hatred in the Balkans.

Of course, this bare fact has no more determined recent conflicts than the persecution of Huguenots, say, determined the Second World War. If proof is needed, Croatia today enjoys better relations with Turkey than with Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Ottoman period is important for another reason: it includes the high-water mark of South Slavic literature and culture (Croats, Serbs, and Slovenes alike), a literature strongly marked by fear of and hatred for the ever-present Ottoman threat. This legacy meant that even after Croatian politics turned in explicitly Islamophilic directions in the mid 19th century (most notably, Ante Starcevic and the Party of Right), the older Islamophobic tradition was always close at hand in the nearest library or museum. And it was revived by Croat nationalists, especially those of Yugoslav orientation, in the early 20th century.

To this Islamophobic revival, the Balkan Wars (1912-13) added a wholly new element: explicitly racial hatred of (largely but not exclusively Islamic) Albanians. This animus, dependent on misreadings of Darwin and on other sources in European positivist thought, was shared by Serbs and Croats. And incidentally, the Balkan Wars taught the South Slavs another political technique used again in the 1990s: the tarring of European Great-Power perfidy, in this case the establishment of an Albanian state in 1912.

Even at the high point of Serbo-Croat amity, roughly from 1905 to just after the First World War, the issue of Bosnia remained profoundly divisive as both national communities claimed it as their own. (It is ironic that they could do this even while insisting that Serbs and Croats were identical parts of a single national community.) In this struggle over Bosnia, the preferences of Bosnian Muslims (not yet perceiving themselves in national or ethnic terms) were significant. For Croat nationalists, the general pattern was this: Islamic faith was not at all problematic as long as its holders acknowledged Croatian ethnicity, but insofar as it became the basis for political (and later, national) identification, Islam also became profoundly repellent and threatening. In fact, many Croat nationalists were more comfortable with the notion of Bosnian Muslims being Serbs, than with the idea that they might form a nation all their own.

After the Second World War, in which Bosnian Muslims suffered proportionally higher losses than any other group save the Jews, Bosnia's Muslims began to redefine themselves as a nation and to achieve recognition of this status from the communist authorities. (Of course, the primacy of confessional identity persisted among Bosnian Christians until well into the 20th century.) This process, which took place most intensively during the 1960s and was complete by 1970, was accepted by many Serbian and Croatian nationalists, but not by all. Franjo Tudjman, for example, seems never to have acknowledged the legitimacy of Bosnian-Muslim nationhood; for him, the Bosnian Muslims are not truly a nation and Bosnia-Herzegovina an artificial and illegitimate state (although part is now accepted as a Muslim-Croat federation).

This brings us to the core of Croatian fear of Islam today, most of which stems from the enormous influence of Tudjman himself. His thinking here involves two basic points, both appearing in fairly early writings. First, the key to solving Yugoslavia's national conflicts was a settling of Serbo-Croat accounts in mutually satisfactory fashion. This has always implied the division of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Second, the fundamental principle of state legitimacy and vitality was national. (In this respect, Tudjman is committed to nationalism as a universally valid philosophical idea, unlike Serbia's Slobodan MiloŠevic, who seems to be driven by political self-interest.) A stable international order depends, for him, on the reorganization of Europe into a community of homogenous nation-states, with all the "corrections" of demographic and geopolitical reality that would involve. And since Tudjman does not recognize the validity of Bosnian Muslim nationhood, he has also argued against their right to a state.

It should be emphasized that Tudjman's thinking here is neither racial nor confessional in nature; it is purely national. Still, he has tried to generate support--at home and abroad--for war in Bosnia by appealing to the (nonexistent) threat of Bosnian Islamic fundamentalism. The key to understanding this is that Tudjman has also criticized Catholicism as an internationalist faith which has allied itself with Central European imperialism against the small nations of Eastern Europe. Islam, of course, has the same problem and Tudjman has focused, without convincing evidence, on the threat of Libyan and Iranian influence "in the heart of Europe." The Bosnian Muslims are by implication offensive because they are presumed to identify themselves with the (international) Islamic umma rather than with their Slavic kin.

There is also a pragmatic appeal to the confessional argument: it has allowed Tudjman to co-opt a significant part of the Catholic secular clergy in Croatia proper (much more at the parish level than in the hierarchical leadership), as well as the majority of the Franciscan order in Herzegovina (but not at all in Bosnia). These groups, especially the Herzegovinian Franciscans, form a second focus of Islamophobia in Croatian politics. Herzegovinians also play major roles in Croatian politics, business, and in the armed forces and internal security agencies.

Finally, a few words on recent history. The partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina at the expense of the Bosnian Muslims and involving their relocation from Croat areas has been unofficial Croatian state policy since Tudjman came into office in 1990, but it has been a tactically flexible policy. In the spring of 1991, for example, Tudjman was negotiating the division of Bosnia with MiloŠevic while Ivan Aralica, his favorite writer, advisor, and eventually his ideologue of Islamophobia, wrote articles supporting an independent, Muslim-led Bosnian state. And in 1992, Croatia backed Bosnian independence politically (by organizing Bosnian Croat support for the independence referendum in April 1992) as well as militarily. This was tactically necessary, in order to block the possibility that MiloŠeviƒ=s Serbia would be able to retain control of Yugoslavia as a whole. As soon as this threat receded, Croatia began a public-relations assault on Bosnia in late 1992 and a military assault through Bosnian-Croat clients (and, eventually, regular Croatian troops) in early 1993. All the familiar horror--massacres, concentration camps, mass expulsions, destruction of mosquesCfollowed. This assault, which aimed at creating ethnically homogenous areas adjacent to Croatia and then annexing them, was only abandoned in 1994 under pressure of military failure and fierce international condemnation.

Today Islamophobia in Croatian politics has receded, along with the personal popularity and influence of Tudjman himself, to isolated pools: some leaders of the ruling party; numerous intellectuals (including Aralica, more strident than ever) who have hitched themselves to Tudjman's star; some Herzegovinian emigres and of course the Franciscans. The presence of SFOR has mooted the raison d'etre of Islamophobia, which was the prospect of territorial aggrandizement. Croatian politics is currently dominated by domestic matters. An Islamophobe revival, while unlikely, cannot be ruled out. Meanwhile, a full accounting of crimes committed in Bosnia remains to be done.

Marko Prelec spoke at an EES Noon Discussion on November 10, 1998.


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Marko Prelec

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The Global Europe Program is focused on Europe’s capabilities, and how it engages on critical global issues.  We investigate European approaches to critical global issues. We examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our initiatives include “Ukraine in Europe” – an examination of what it will take to make Ukraine’s European future a reality.  But we also examine the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE, Europe’s energy security, transatlantic trade disputes, and challenges to democracy. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media.  Read more