The current conflicts in the Balkan peninsula, which NATO airstrikes in Serbia and Kosovo have recently inflamed, are a hot topic of conversation around the world right now. So why has so little time been spent discussing the religious aspects? Reading the reports in traditional news media, one might come to the conclusion that religious identities are totally irrelevant in this ethnic conflict. But as anti-NATO sentiment in countries like Greece and Russia build to a fevered pitch, the element of religion cannot honestly be ignored
A great help in understanding conflicts here as well as elsewhere is Samuel P. Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, and I'll be leaning upon his analyses for much of this article. For Huntingon, a "civilization" is something defined by blood, language, religion, and a common way of life - but most fundamentally by religion. This is how they define who they are and, perhaps more importantly, who they are not. Clashes within a civilization, like we saw in Somalia, have little chance of expanding outward, But clashes between civilizations as are currently happening in the Balkans could draw in more and more civilization members, creating a world-wide conflagration.
The future of conflict will be less economic and more cultural. People are not killing each other for the sake of economic needs or political ideology, but because of cultural kinship. Cultural kinship, in turn, rests primarily upon religious identity. Psychologically speaking, religion provides the most reassuring, comforting and supportive justification for killing the "godless" enemies. Religion offers rewards for the faithful and punishment for enemies which no other ideology can compete with. On a practical level, the religious community is the largest and broadest source of support to which any beleaguered group can appeal. Except in rare instances of spectacular public relations, the only significant support will come from religious and civilizational kin.
It is true that the battles in the Balkans have appeared to be primarily ethnic in nature, but we must be aware that traditional media sources have not done enough to relate all of the religious aspects. The Balkan peninsula is what Huntington might call a series of interconnected "fault lines" between several civilizations which he labels Western Christian, Eastern Orthodox and Islam. All three are pushed together in a smaller area than anywhere else on the planet and all three lay claim to the same territory, guaranteeing armed conflict.
And such conflicts are nothing new. The battle over Kosovo began about 600 years ago on a plain called Kosovo Polje, the Field of Blackbirds, just outside the capital of Pristina. On June 28, 1389, the Ottoman Turks crushed a Serbian army led by Prince Lazar. Perhaps more significantly, it was defeat of a Christian nation by a Muslim army. On a hill above the plain, a huge slab of red stone commemorates the defeat:
Whoever is a Serb and of Serbian birth,
And who does not come to Kosovo Polje
To do battle against the Turks,
Let him have neither a male nor a female offspring,
Let him have no crop.
More recently, on June 28, 1989, Slobodan Milosevic made a pilgrimage to Kosovo Polje to mark the 600th anniversary of that battle. Speaking before more than a million cheering ethnic Serbs, Milosevic ignited the nationalistic fires that would soon destroy Yugoslavia, which then also included of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina andMacedonia. The leader of Serbia proclaimed:
Six centuries ago, Serbia defended itself on Kosovo, but it also defended Europe. She found herself on the ramparts for the defense of European culture, religion and European society as a whole. They'll never do this to you again. Never again will anyone defeat you.
This obsession with defeat, this myth of the defense of Christian Europe, this imagined obligation of the present to avenge the past are key to understanding the tragedy in the Balkans. And the divisions all rest upon religious identities. Serbian warlord named Kosta Novakovic declared in an interview just five years ago:
We fight because we are Serbs. This may seem unreal to you but, by us, nothing is unreal.
It could thus be said that the Balkans is more a state of mind than a region. But whether here or elsewhere, when two countries ally themselves against others, it is helpful to ask just whether or not they share any strong cultural ties and, more importantly, whether or not their populations share common religious ties. With such questions answered, a lot more will make sense.
Past & Current Tense
To better understand where the current conflict in Kosovo may be going and what is driving it, we should pay close attention to what has been happening in Bosnia over the past decade. Since World War II, religio-ethnic tensions have been weak, held in check primary through the force of will and repression by Yugoslavian dictator Tito. But after his death, latent identities began to ferment and were taken advantage of by opportunistic political leaders. Multi-ethnic peace evaporated as each group increasingly identified not with their long-time neighbors, but instead with a broader cultural community which was defined primarily along religious lines. Roman Catholic Croatia aligned itself with neighboring Italy and Germany. Eastern Orthodox Serbia aligned itself with neighboring Greece and distant Russia.
But the shift in religio-ethnic consciousness, which Huntington calls "civilizational consciousness," was strongest among Muslims in predominantly Muslim Bosnia. At the beginning of the war, Bosnian Muslims were mostly secular in their worldview and regarded themselves as Europeans first and foremost. But as Yugoslavia began to break up all of that changed and even they rejected multi-ethnic political parties which were pursuing a course of moderation. Even Bosnian Muslim leader Izetbegovic, who was greatly admired in the West, argued for "the incompatibility of Islam with non-Islamic systems. There can be neither peace nor coexistence between the Islamic religion and non-Islamic social and political institutions."
The "fault line wars" which resulted from similar attitudes on all sides are among the most complex in the world. On the primary level we have incidents like ethnic Croatians attacking ethnic Serbs living in Croatia and vice-versa in Serbia. On the secondary level we find the Serbian government promoting a "Greater Serbia" by aiding ethnic Serbian guerillas in Bosnia and Croatia. On the tertiary level we saw massive "civilization rallying:" Germany, Austria, the Vatican and other Catholic European countries aiding Croatia; Greece, Russia, and other Eastern Orthodox countries aiding Serbia; Iran, Saudia Arabia, Turkey, Libya and other Muslim nations aiding the Bosnian Muslims.
If anyone questions whether or not these religious alliances have significant consequences for the future of Europe, they should perhaps wonder why Catholic countries like Poland gain such quick entry to NATO, but long-time NATO ally Turkey is still denied entry to the European Union. Turkey first applied back in 1987, but a great many countries have been accepted since then and Turkey always disappointed. During the Gulf War against Iraq, Turkey's traditional friend and supporter Germany opposed viewing any Iraqi missile attack upon Turkey as an attack on NATO, clearing showing Turkey just where they really stand. European officials have not denied that the Union is a "Christian club" and that "Turkey is too poor, too populous, too Muslim, too harsh, too culturally different, too everything."