ethnically aggressive instrumentalisation
of Religion in South-Eastern Europe
Religion is a powerful cultural instrument for the construction and
reproduction of personal and group identity. Its significance and intensity
vary according to the social type of the group in the cultural reproduction
of which it takes part. Its cultural presence, although in a specific way,
may be discovered in the self-consciousness of several community formations
- feminist, ecological, politic, economic, national, ethnic, etc. Two
millennia ago Christianity started its cultural biography with the idea and
enthusiasm of overcoming frontiers and contradictions of all kinds - those
of consanguinity or gender, territorial, state, ethnic, economic ones, etc.
Remember Apostle Paul's words: "For you are all sons of God through
faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptised
into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is
neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all
one in Christ Jesus." (1) Today the hundreds of Christianity's
ramifications, churches, schools, currents are part of the identificational
accessories of several associations counting from a couple of heads to many
millions of people (2). By the end of the past century it seemed that
religion had exhausted its potential as justification and instrument for
bloody civilisation clashes or imperial and cultural hegemony. The
historical future seemed to appertain to rational control - economics,
politics, state organisation. The 20-th century proved the unreliability of
rational forecasts. Even cultural-political theory (as represented by
Huntington's well-known and strongly controversial thesis about the clash of
civilisations on religious ground) acknowledged the triumphal return of
religion to the social scene (3).
But contrary to the ideas of early Christianity it is often included
into defensive or offensive practices of the group with respect to the
environment by means of which practices the group accomplishes its cultural
reproduction. Moreover, within the boundaries of civilisation areas
belonging to one and the same historical religion complicated internal
relationships of integration and disintegration arise. As a part of these
processes, often taking a painful course in the way of a military collision,
religion is one of the important motivational mechanisms. As a rule national
liberation struggles in the past and present century as well as the
formation of the new national states after the fall of communism in Central
and Eastern Europe are accompanied by activation of religion's functions
with respect to community identification. In this process the clash of
civilisation, as Huntington called it, on the basis of the main historical
religions has, to my mind, less real manifestations and cultural-political
consequences than community differentiation within single civilisation
areas. E.g. conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in North Ireland,
between Catholics and Orthodox believers (Croats and Serbs) in former
Yugoslavia, among Orthodox believers themselves (Greece and Macedonia), even
within the Orthodox Church (the conflict between multiplying synods in
Bulgaria, Ukraine, et al.) are much more real and socially significant than
the traditional abstract opposition Christianity - Islam. Moreover, a
similar application, instrumentalisation of religion in the process of
community differentiation and reproduction is also wide-spread in the so
called Islamic World: 1) Islam's role as a national-political doctrine
differs with corresponding countries (from strong in Egypt to insignificant
in Syria); 2) Islam is often used by the larger and stronger Islamic
countries as a cultural-historical justification for their hegemony over
other Islamic countries (Egypt, Iran) (4); 3) The several trends and
historical forms of Islam are used as an instrument of community
identification often loaded with aggressive energies: land against city, the
people against the economic and politic elite, parties aiming at modernisation
against conservative ones, etc. (5).
Putting some particular community conflict (ethnic, international,
economic, etc.) in terms of religious civilisation
clash has usually unfavorable impact on its development and outcome in
several respects: 1) the conflict and the incompatibility of groups are
sacralised on the basis of a powerful historical tradition burdened with
strong cultural inertia; 2) thus consensus formation is impeded and
different forms of separated and hostile coexistence of the groups are
implied - separation of state, territory, etc.; 3) a favorable political
background is created for the intervention of a third party into the
conflict, and under a plausible cultural pretext - the defense not of a
particular state interest, but of the respective civilization as a whole.
Striking examples in this respect are: the internationalisation of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its reformation as a conflict between the
common Arabic, i.e. Islamic and the Christian, Western i.e. of the Great
Powers cause; the attempts to interpret in a similar way the ethnic
conflicts in the countries of former Yugoslavia, et al.
In fact through the instrumentalisation of religion in these particular ethnic and international conflicts often-acceptable cultural background is created for the redistribution of spheres of influence among the developed countries.
Who is imposing this instrumentalisation of religion in those conflict
situations? What are its mechanisms? And, above all, why are we speaking of
instrumentalisation, usage of religion?
Religion becomes a vital element of a national, ethnic, in general,
group, community ideology only when it becomes immediately tied and
subordinated to the cultural, political, etc. reproduction of the respective
community. When it is absorbed into group mythology. One of its essential
functions in the process of its instrumentalisation is to provide the basis
for the ontological status of the group, for its right on autonomous
existence on the one hand, and, on the other hand, for its superiority, its
authority over and above other communities of its kind (6). This usage of
religion is particularly intensive when the group inhabits an environment
with a different religious affiliation. When, due to whatever historical
circumstances, this environment has been for a long time or has become
hostile to the existence and preservation of the group the religious
differences of the conflicting parties become a durable element of their
aggressive and defensive strategies. Thus Polish and Croatian Catholicism
(7), Russian and Serbian Orthodoxy have had, in different historical
periods, a strong national-patriotic potential (8).
Depending on the particular situation and the strategies of the group
towards the environment instrumentalisation of religion has been
accomplished in different ways. Thus e.g. till the end of the 19-th century
Orthodoxy has been one of the fundaments of Russian imperial doctrine and
today it serves as motivation and reason for the quest for a different,
autonomous way of development as contrasted with the Western one (9). Polish
Catholicism has had national liberation as well as anti-Communist uses and
it is no accident that now, devoid of a hostile environment to oppose, it is
losing its national, macro-social significance (10). Some extreme forms of
Jewish nationalist doctrine (e.g., currents within Cyonism) instrumentalise
Judaism turning it into a sign of hegemony and exclusiveness of the Jewish
nation and state (11). Similarly Islam is instrumentalised by aggressive
militarised groups or state-politic elites (e.g. in Iraq, during different
periods in Libya, in Egypt) (12).
Mechanisms of instrumentalisation are usually connected with:
1) A doctrinal reductionism with respect to the particular religion.
Group mythology eliminates the universalist, general human appeal of
religion (each historical religion contains such an appeal) and ties it
above all to its own origin and heroic past; it sacralises its own territory
and temporal continuity drawing from it energies for its future. The ideas
of a nation, people, ethnos, state, civilisation, community elected by God
have been a source of vital community energies in the past as well as
nowadays, although in limited situations and cultures (13). Today they are
usually exploited by communities more weakly developed in socio-economic
respect. Instead of grounding their hegemony on ideological resources the
developed countries rely on economic and military ones, on real action
instead of mythology. Therefore religion is an essential element of group
mythology where the respective community has developed self-preserving and
aggressive strategies in a hostile environment - the struggle for rights,
liberation, etc. And so after the fulfilment of those ends religion's role
as a source of group identity diminishes. Similar is the faith of Orthodoxy
after Bulgaria's liberation from Turkish Yoke, of Catholicism in Croatia
after its separation as an autonomous state, etc.
2) A second characteristic mechanism for the instrumentalisation of
religion as a foundation of group identity is the shift of accent from its
moral and spiritual value for the individual to its group-symbolic
functions. Therefore group instrumentalisation of religion is usually a sign
either of an undeveloped individual principle (in a patriarchal medium) or
of a psychological limit of endurance reached by the development of the
individual principle. If ethnic instrumentalisation of religion falls into
the first type, its instrumentalisation in some contemporary forms - new
religious, feminist movements, etc. - I would subsume under the second type.
3) A third main mechanism of group instrumentalisation of religion is
activist mobilisation, transformation of religious doctrine. Aggressive
strategy of the group is often connected with it. In historical religions
patience, non-resistance, spiritual surpassing of suffering is in the focus
of attention. Privatised by an ethnos, a nation or other kind of group,
religion is grounding an activist manifestation of the group.
Instrumentalisation of religion in the Balkan conflicts
Not only the crusades of the past, contemporary Balkan conflicts too
are permeated by similar religiously motivated aggressive and defensive
strategies. In this respect Serbian nationalised Orthodoxy and Croatian
nationalised Catholicism rivalled in intensity during the war (14).
Religious affiliation was among the arguments for ethnic cleansing on both
sides. Each side attacked the church of the opposite side. The Catholic
affiliation of Croatia is exploited today by certain political and
intellectual circles to substantiate its belonging to Western Europe, not to
the Balkans. Serbians' Orthodox affiliation is an important accent in
justifying military aggression in Islamic Kosovo (15). In atheicised
Bulgaria violent renaming of the Turks has been justified, particularly in
the 90-s, with the alleged irreconcilability of Orthodoxy and Islam (16).
These mechanisms and forms of instrumentalisation of religion usually
stamp self-consciousness and behaviour of the group that applies them
(ethnos, nation, other type of formation) with irrationality, manichaean
dualism, i.e. thinking of the exclusive, non-consensus type, with a quest
for hegemony or separated existence with respect to the other side, not for
the exchange of compromises and rights. This type of thinking and behaviour
is strikingly illustrated also by the war between Orthodox Serbians and
Islamic Albanians who are prevailing in Kosovo. Religious identification of
the community is a sign of lack or immaturity of other types of
identification - national and state, socio-economic, civil identification.
In other cases as in ethnic revitalisation it may be a symptom of exhaustion
and dissolution of the symbolic field and neutral transcendence of the state
principle (17), of state's inability to maintain a balance and an exchange
of energies (of cultural, economic nature) between the ethnic groups the
state consists of. A process of this kind took place in USSR's and former
Yugoslavia's disintegration. Soviet statehood had gradually turned into a
tool of Russian hegemony and Yugoslavian state had been losing its
federative character and becoming instead a disguise for Serbian political
Without entering into the broad academic discussions on the
definition of an ethnos and the legitimacy of claims for ethnic
independence, extensive rights (18), etc., I would like to remark at least
the following. As is pointed by other authors too, Western researchers put a
positive value on cultural-economic and political claims and struggles for
rights in the West but when this happens in the Balkans the predicate "Balkanisation"
is applied which is to mean chaos, separatism, unprincipled collision. These
evaluations provide a plausible cultural background to enable and make
natural the position of an external arbiter - some of the developed
countries or all of them together. In fact, here too, natural processes are
going on, processes that have been accomplished in Europe during the 20-th
century. Some authors point to the fact that whereas by 1820 hardly half of
the population belonged to ethnic nations the rest lacking an autonomous
territorial and political status, in the 20-s of our century the latter
amounted still to 7% and after World War II they remained 3%. This process
is called by the researcher J. Krejci "harmonisation of ethno-politic
Contemporary Balkan conflicts that arose during the disintegration of
former Yugoslavia and as a consequence of it are a rather repulsive and
uncivilised form of realisation of this kind of process. But war, aggressive
passions, non-consensus thinking that accompany it are to a great extent an
inescapable consequence of tensions and mistrust accumulated for centuries
and particularly in the 20-th century, of military collisions in the past, a
consequence also of the hard historical fate of the countries in this
region. Instrumentalisation of religion in the conflicts that take place
here is not only an evidence for social immaturity. It is also a factor for
their aggravation or else for their solution in the context of partition and
incompatibility on religious basis. Of course one of the reasons lies in the
nature of religion itself which, as Paul Tillich put it, gives absolute
definitions and dimensions. This provides each community with the
possibility to sacralise its being as an absolute, exclusive, incompatible
(in terms of territory, politics, gender, economics, etc.) with respect to
another community. But in fact this peculiarity of religion becomes revived
and is activated only in connection with a certain type of thinking and
socio-psychological set of the group springing from complex features of its
biography (20). It is the role of religion in that case to sacralise, to put
the respectable stamp of tradition, culture, the sacred on some particular
type of thinking and mental set. Incompatibility of poverty and wealth, of
the powerful and the powerless, of female and male, of Serbians and Croats
or Albanians stated as a consequence of fundamental religious differences
becomes usually insoluble with rational, consensus creating means acceptable
to both sides. The conflict is put in either-or form. Each side strives for
a status (territorial, cultural, political) corresponding to its religiously
grounded absoluteness, exclusivity, hegemonism. No wonder that any rational
and bureaucratic procedures for reconciling interests, allowing coexistence,
granting rights, etc. become hard to realise on such psycho-ideological
The case of Kosovo. Ethno-religious controversies
Of course here exactly a specific instrumentalisation is concerned.
In this case differences are interpreted which, in other historical periods,
have been interpreted in terms of compatibility, coexistence, mutual
acceptance. Thus the formation after World War I of the Yugoslavian
federation uniting Serbians, Croats, Slovenians came as a result of many
years of craving by some intellectual and political circles from those
countries for the consolidation of Southern Slavs into a single state
despite of differences in religious affiliation. Surrounded by powerful and
hostile Western states those elites raised the Slavic ethnic element as
consolidating the heterogeneous ethnic and political communities populating
the Balkan Peninsula. But the period ending with World War II has shown the
practical inapplicability of romantic intellectual ideals for equality and
coexistence of different peoples and religions in one federation. The
Yugoslavian state turned gradually to a tool and concealment used by Serbian
national hegemonism. Mutual aggression and bloodshed during World War II
opened a profound abyss (psychological and ideological) between the several
peoples here. Put together as an artificial state creation after World War
II J.B. Tito's Socialist Federative Republic Yugoslavia has been maintained
also by communist state bureaucracy through the combination of political
flexibility and terror. For a certain historical period peaceful coexistence
has been realised on the basis of political and religious autonomy of the
separate historically received national-political communities here. But
during this period also enough internal religious and ethnic tensions arose
which led naturally to the murderous dissociation of the artificial state
creation. The universalist inspiration of the communist idea had become a
means for suppression of cultural, ethnic and religious differences of
peoples here and for deliberately playing with them. Thus Moslems in Bosnia
and Herzegovina have been declared a separate nation (21), and in Kosovo
having received according to the constitution of 1974 extensive political
and territorial autonomy the influx of Albanian population has been
encouraged at the expense of migration of Serbian population (22). Today
more than 80% of Kosovo's population is Albanian with Islamic religion. The
aim of the communist party and state apparatus denying all national
differences has been to weaken the vital force of Serbian nationalism and
hegemonism, its main rival in the struggle for power over the federation.
But immediately after the creation of the new Republic Yugoslavia,
consisting of Serbia, Monte Negro and the autonomous regions Kosovo and
Voivodina, the new Serbian constitution of 1990 limited the political rights
of Kosovo autonomous region as compared to the Yugoslavian constitution of
1974 (23). Adding to this the ethno-religious specificity of the prevailing
part of the population here, we see that its legal-political status has been
degraded to that of a national minority. And this in the context of a kind
of statehood that does not transcend the Serbian national idea, on the
contrary identifying itself with it.
Of course there are among the intellectual and political elites of
the two sides of conflict different tendencies and strategies. Some strongly
emphasise the religiously founded nature of the conflict. It is no accident
that Serbian socio-political thought has strengthened its attention to the
theoretical and political aspects of Orthodoxy, to the historical
connections between Church, religion, nation, etc. (24). This is only one of
the trends along with others looking for other foundations for Serbian
national identity, but it is augmenting its relative weight in the context
of the Kosovo crisis. The Islamic religion of the main part of Kosovo's
population is employed by both sides to present the conflict as a regional
form of a global civilisation clash between orthodoxy and Islam. This
ideologem treats Kosovo as a link in the Islamic fundamentalism's chain or
as a part of the Islamic "Green Transversion" which begins in
Turkey, passes through Southern Bulgaria, Macedonia and Kosovo to Albania,
Monte Negro and Bosnia-Herzegovina (25). According to those ideological
visions (e.g. of the politologist Dr L. Jevtic) the autonomy of Kosovo will
support its annexing by Albania together with other parts of former
Yugoslavia thus strengthening the influence of Islam in the European
Christian area (26) (since Albania is a member of the Islamic Conference).
Surely certain politicians and elites may have this sort of ideas, but their
presentation in the framework of a religious civilisation clash opens the
conflict to a broad external intervention and to a non-constructive outcome;
it creates a field of conflict of the kind in the Near East. The events from
the middle of this October prove the legitimacy of apprehensions like these.
The interpretation of the conflict and the use of religion in it
point partially to immaturity of the civil society and the elites of the
respective countries, partially to the pursuit of certain aims and interests
by those subjects and other interested ones. In fact paying full tribute to
the responsibility of the researcher's interpretation which is able not only
to analyse and rationalise but also to create conflict situations I would
like to point shortly to the following. There are enough current and
historical reasons to interpret Balkan conflicts as limited, regional, as
more or less naturally associated with the ethno-politic harmonisation of
relations in the 20-th century. The quest for autonomy in Kosovo is also a
manifestation of all the cultural specificity of its population. It is
characterised by still strong patriarchal traditions, a high grade of
reproductivity, it yields reluctantly to modernisation processes in
economics, politics, the spiritual sphere. Striving is natural for a
separation into an autonomous state and political community which is to
express and to support this peculiar style of life. To this striving which
is capable of being fomulated in economic, cultural and political categories
is opposed the irrational (or rationally-manipulative) background of a
national or religious-globalising mythology. From the Serbian side this role
is plaid by the mythology of Kosovo. It started its biography still in the
14-th century and is reincarnated under different guises in periods critical
for Serbian statehood. Kosovo is now a symbol of the battle between Serbians
and Turks, now of the struggle between Islam and Christianity, now of
communism's victory over fascism, of the Great Serbian idea as opposed to
the Great Albanian idea, etc. (27). From the Albanian side ideologems with
the opposite sign are introduced: Islam against Christianity, Albania
against Serbia, etc. Certainly this mythologisation and globalisation of a
partial, local conflict issues from a lack of rationally-pragmatic group
consciousness. Instead of raising the dignity and legitimacy of community's
peculiar way of life within the framework of generally accepted civil norms
a mechanical separation from or association with the dominating centre is
striven to. In this case, as in many others, instrumentalisation of religion
strengthens the irrational background on which pragmatism and negotiations
for rights are supplanted by the sanguinary enthusiasm of historical and
cultural reminiscences, sometimes a vital energy, but more often - obsessive
nightmares of the community. Their revival in such a case paralyses efforts
for the consolidation of its actual self bringing instead the bitter triumph
of the past.
Beautifully but helplessly are sounding on this background Apostle
"Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have
not love, I have become sounding brass or a clinging cymbal; And though I
have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge,
and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not
love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and
though I give my body to be burned but I have not love, it profits me
nothing. Love never fails." "But whether there are prophecies,
they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is
knowledge, it will vanish away. Because the greatest of these is love."
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