Nonka Bogomilova


The ethnically aggressive instrumentalisation of Religion in South-Eastern Europe


I. Introduction

      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.


II. 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.


III. 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 domination.

            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 interrelations" (19).

            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 background.


IV. 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 Paul's words:

            "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." (28)



1. Bible: To the Galathians. 3:26-28

2. Christianity. New Religious Movements. In: The Penguin Dictionary of Religion, 1984.

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4. V. Cornev. The Role of Religious Tradition in the Middle East. In: Middle East. Religious Tradition and Contemporaneity. Moscow, 1983, pp. 36-43 (in Russian)

5. Y. Atasoy. Islamic Revivalism and the Nation-State Project: competing Claims for Modernity. In: Social Compass, vol. 44, No.1, 1997, pp. 83-101.

6. P. Merkl. Introduction. In: Religion and Politics in the Modern World, N.Y., 1985, pp. 6-8.

7. E. Nowicka. Roman Catholicism and the content of "Polishness". In: New Religious Phenomena in Central and Eastern Europe, ed. by I. Borowik, G. Babinski, Krakow, 1997, pp. 81-93.

8. M. Mitrovic. Serbian Faith. Church and Nation, Nis, 1996, pp. 222-230 (in Serbian).

9. N. Bogomilova. Longing for the Absolute, Sofia, 1994, pp. 201-202 (in Bulgarian).

10. I. Borowik. Institutional and Private Religion in Poland 1990-1994. In: New Religious Phenomena in Central and Eastern Europe, pp. 244-248.

11. D. Biale. Mysticism and Politics in Modern Israel. In: Religion and Politics..., pp.191-193.

12. A. Dialmy. Féminisme et islamisme dans le monde arabe: essai de synthèse. In: Social Compass, vol.43, No.4, 1996, pp. 481-503.

13. N. Smart. Religion, Myth and Nationalism. In: Religion and Politics..., pp.15-25.

14. I. Cvitkovic. Nation and Religion in the Time of War (1911-1995). In: Ethno-Religious Relations in the Balkans, Nis, 1997, pp. 45-57 (in Serbian).

15. Interview with Dr. Jeftis. In: Unity, November 8., 1992 (in Serbian).

16. P. Mitev. Relations of Compatibility and Incompatibility in the Everyday Life of Christians and Muslims in Bulgaria. In: Relations of Compatibility and Incompatibility between Christians and Muslims in Bulgaria, Sofia, 1994, pp. 180-189.

17. Schoepflin. Post-communism as a Political System. Ethnicity and Power, Longo Editore Ravenna, 1998, pp. 9-11.

18. T. Bonazzi. Civic Nation and Ethnic Nation. In: Societies and Identities, ed. Anna Krasteva, Sofia, 1998, pp. 76-83.

19. J. Krejci. What Is a Nation. In: Religion and politics..., p. 41.

20. M. Carey. Catholicism and Irish National Identity. In: Religion and politics..., pp. 104-121.

21. G. Savov. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sofia, 1993, p. 29 (in Bulgarian).

22. B. Cosutic. Kosovo and Metohija Status in the 1990 Serbian Constitution. In: Kosovo Dossier, Belgrade, 1996, p. 11.

23. Ibid.

24. Religion, Church, Nation. Nis, 1996; Ethno-Religious Relations in the Balkans, Nis, 1997.

25. Kosovo Dossier, p. 28.

26. Interview with Dr. M. Jeftis. In: Unity...

27. T. Emmert. Kosovo: Development and Impact of a National Ethics. In: Nation and Ideology, N.Y., 1981, pp. 65-83.

28. Bible. The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, 13:1, 2, 3, 8.