Bosnian Triumphs and Palestinian Tragedies

This article discusses the topic of Bosnian nationalism at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, juxtaposing it with Palestinian nationalism during the same period.

The article shows that while a uniquely Bosnian style of nationalism in a uniquely Bosnian set of circumstances was a good thing, the Palestinian counterpart was a misadventure. Weakening Palestine as a nation and diminishing its future prospects. Palestinian nationalism might yet have, unwittingly, expedited the creation of Israel.

The reason was simple: the universal and heaven-dictated character of Palestine was not compatible with such narrow outlooks as nationalism.

Pan-Slavism as a nationalist political ideology

The idea of nationalism originated in Europe in the late 18 th century, firmly establishing itself as a coveted political ideology in the next century. Partly a corollary of this ideology and partly concurrent with it was a pan-Slavism movement which, among other things, sought first to liberate the Slavic nations from the yoke of antagonistic monarchies, and then to work on advancing the integrity, unity and power of those nations.

Like the rest of similar socio-political and cultural movements and ideologies of the day in the West, pan-Slavism, too, denoted a radical form of nationalism.

According to Rok Stergar in his article “Panslavism”, “Panslavism was a movement based on the conviction that all speakers of Slavic languages belong to a single nation. This was a starting point for the activities that aimed to bring Slav cultures and languages closer and for the development of Panslav nationalism, a movement that wanted to establish a unified Slav state or a Slav federation.”

It is believed that in 1911, there were about 150,000,000 Slavs in Europe, of whom over 100,000,000 were in Russia, 25,000,000 in Austria-Hungary - part of which were Bosnia and Bosniaks - and the rest in the Balkan states. “The French Revolution set into motion forces pent up in the hearts and minds of the people. A wave of nationalist feeling swept Europe, reaching the Slavic countries as it rolled on. Its effect was magic.

Peoples whose names had almost vanished from history suddenly arose to life. In the Slavic world, their awakening was particularly dramatic. Serbs, Bulgarians, Czechs, Croatians, Slovenians, Slovaks, who had been lost for centuries in the masses of Turkey and Austria-Hungary, now loudly asserted their individuality and clamoured for recognition” (Louis Levine, Pan-Slavism and European Politics).

Pan-Slavism was one of the most powerful and most enduring political ideologies. Though having its ups and downs, it never disappeared from the scene. Inspired and conjured by what Louis Levine called “the Frankensteins of the 19 th century diplomacy”, millions of Slavs continue to cherish the idea of race solidarity, so much so that more than once in the course of the past hundred years have the root causes of an international crisis been laid at the door of pan-Slavism. One such crisis was the 1992-1995 Serb genocidal aggression against the sovereign and internationally recognized state of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bosniaks in the midst of the pan-Slavic storm

Being initially a part of the Slavic community, Bosniaks quickly found themselves caught in the midst of the pan-Slavic storm. However, the proponents of the frenzy underestimated the power of religion and religion-inspired traditions as well as identities. They were blinded by the overstated roles and impacts of mere ethnicity, language, geography and, to some extent, politics.

They failed to understand that the exclusivist and obsessive pan-Slavism – if truth be told, like all other forms of fanatical nationalism - was detrimental, in that it suppressed freedom, open-mindedness, acceptance, resourcefulness and strength of will. Like so, religion and nationalism were at odds, being polar opposites. While nationalism was the working of man, religion was of heaven.

People are supposed to use what they are as a launchpad to become who they want to be. They cannot be trapped in the relative world of accidents or contingencies, bartering it for the absolute or quintessential world of substances. Indeed, biological determinism should not prevail over the existential positivity, self-determination and free will.

That being said, recognizing that Islam is founded upon the ideals of freedom, justice and equality, it stands firmly against all types of chauvinism, coercion and bigotry. Racism, prejudice and discrimination top the list of aberrations in Islam.

As soon as they reverted to Islam – as a manifestation of their freedom, similar to what the rest of the pagan Slavs had done when they became Christians – Bosniaks became a target. They were perceived as traitors of their Slavism and later, whenever the Balkan section of pan-Slavism, led especially by Serbs, Montenegrins and Croats, managed to rare its ugly head, Bosniaks were faced with the orchestrated attempts of either eviction or annihilation.

As the irrational madness of pan-Slavism raged, Serbs and Croats both laid claim to the Slavs of Bosnia and Herzegovina. All of a sudden nothing else apart from often stage-managed religious affiliations mattered. Religion, along with other cultural and civilizational determinants, were relativized, whereas the sheer idea of nationalism, which is inherently vague and susceptible, was glorified.

Nationalism grew into the raison d’etre (reason for being) and, worse yet, into the absolute creed on whose altar the other causes and justifications had to be sacrificed. The early fathers of pan-Slavism in the Balkan region were cognizant of the power of religion. Specifically Islam was a cause for concern, for unlike the nature of the distorted Christianity which allowed it to be manipulated, Islam was infallible and so, untouchable. It was the Criterion and the ultimate measure of all things.

In view of that, for example, when establishing the Serbian Orthodox Church, one of the primary goals was not to purely Christianize the Serbian nation, but rather to Serbianize that particular branch of Christianity. It then comes as no surprise that the ostracization of Islam and Bosniak Muslims remained unabated.

One of the earliest fathers of pan-Slavism is reported to have said: “Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina will be able to shake off the Turks, but the people must also shake off the impious hatreds caused by difference of religion; otherwise, the people will become its own Turk and torturer” (Hans Kohn, Pan-Slavism, Its History and Ideology).

The role of Petar II Petrović Njegoš

By way of illustration, Bosniaks were accused and sentenced to extinction by Petar II Petrović Njegoš (d. 1851), who was a poet, prince and the Bishop of Montenegro, and who operated as a pan-Serbism representative on the Montenegrin territory (pan-Serbism being an offshoot of pan-Slavism).

In his literary work “The Mountain Wreath”, which stands for a holy scripture in pan-Serbism, Njegoš regarded Bosniaks as national traitors and apostates, whose sins were unforgivable, not as much because they walked out on the religious beliefs of their forefathers, as because they betrayed Serbism and the Serbian ethnocentrism so painstakingly built and cherished by the giants of earlier generations. Indeed, to Serbs, the religious nationalism was a gateway to the Serbian nationalism, and the Serbian Orthodox Church a tool of Serbism.

Njegoš furthermore called Bosniaks “poturice”, which entailed two meanings, both pejorative. First, “poturice” meant “those who have been turkicized” and like so, have sold their identities to the Ottoman adversary and their souls to the devil; and second, “hose who have been grafted, implanted, deceived and foisted”, thus rendering themselves aliens in their own lands and strangers among their own people. “Poturice” became a growth or a malignancy that necessitated a quick and complete removal, so as not to spread and affect others.

“They were delegitimized as a group and dehumanized as individuals” (Petar II Petrović Njegoš, The Mountain Wreath; Michael Sells, The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia).

The rise of a uniquely Bosnian type of nationalism

In this uncertain and unforgiving milieu, in order to survive Bosniaks had to toughen themselves and reinforce their position, both religiously and socio-politically. Ascertaining the Bosnian national identity and preserving it by all means necessary was the priority.

Left alone, if Bosniaks every so often were unable to engage in physical battles with their enemies, ideological confrontations within subtle philosophical frameworks were the preferable option.

One of the means adopted by Bosniaks first to survive then to thrive was a unique type of inclusive and tolerant Bosnian nationalism, championing the principles of belonging and unity within the Bosnian ethnocultural diversity. Despite the surge of pan-Slavism, a tit for tat strategy was not called upon. The purpose of Bosnian nationalism was not for its own sake. Extending beyond itself, the intention was to emit constructive messages and promote a sense of positivity, in an effort to counterbalance the increasing negativities of pan-Slavism.

An epitome of this approach was a poem composed by “the father of Bosnian (post-Ottoman) Renaissance”, Safvet-beg Bašagić, and published in 1891 - thirteen years after the withdrawal of the Ottomans from Bosnia. The gist of the poem is as follows: “Remember, O Bosniak, it was not long ago / I solemnly declare, it hasn't even been fifteen years / When in Bosnia, our proud nation / And in the heroic country of Herceg / From Trebinje to Brod’s gateways / Neither Serbs nor Croats were present / And today through their capricious nature / Both strangers outspread as if in their own / Both guests are prepared to destroy us / To steal what is held most dear by us / Our name (identity), honourable and beloved” (Mustafa Imamović, Historija Bošnjaka).

Similarly, in contemporary times the same Bosnian spirit is embodied in the following two quotes of the first Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegović: “That which we call Bosnia is not merely a slip of land in the Balkans; for many of us, Bosnia is an idea, it is the belief that people of different religions, ethnicities and cultural traditions can live together.”

“I believe that the measure of freedom is the attitude towards minorities, and that the freedom of thought is first and foremost the right to think differently.”

The philosophy of the Bosnian national identity

Upholding their national identity was a priority for Bosniaks and their community. However, before the educational and implementational phases, a pure philosophical phase, whereby the meaning, significance, parameters and other variations of Bošnjaštvo in its capacity as a national identity and interconfessional-qua-intercultural consciousness, was necessary. How serious and profound discourses among the Bosnian intelligentsia unfolded is truly remarkable.

The first and most prominent newspaper of Bosniaks under the Austro-Hungarian occupation was “Bošnjak”. Its primary goal was to intellectually confront the distorted nationalistic tendencies of Serbs and Croats and, in the process, objectively assert the case of Bošnjaštvo.
In one of the newspaper’s issues, the gist of Bošnjaštvo was presented as follows. Elements of national identification common to each of Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks were language and their East Slavic origin. But the factors that set them apart were climate, local traditions and customs, and religion.

Following the arrival of the East Slavs on the Balkans, the subsequent communities known as Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks commenced to distinguish themselves from each other as a result of the varying climatic conditions and distinct local traditions and practices.

Next was the cementing of those dissimilarities by providing different names for different groups. Thus, those residing beyond the Sava River were called Croats, those beyond the Drina River Serbs, and those who remained inside Bosnia with the Bosnia River as their focal point were called Bosniaks. Differences in names then led to different nationalities.

Though differences caused by climate and local traditions were important, the role of religion was paramount. In order to put the last touches on affirming themselves religiously and nationally, Bosniaks embraced neither Catholicism nor Eastern Orthodoxy, but Bogomilism as a Christian neo-Gnostic, dualist sect, resulting in the creation of the Bosnian Church.

Consequently, Bosniaks were called, instead of the Bogomils as it is often mistakenly assumed, “Krstjani” (christened ones), “good Bosniaks” and “good people”, reflecting the distinctive teachings of their Church.

These ever-developing differences eventually led to the genesis of diverse writing systems as well: “bosančica” for Bosniaks, “ćirilica” for Serbs and “latinica” for Croats. And when Bosniaks - who were constantly under attack from both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox creeds and people - accepted Islam, the well-defined nationality and national character of Bosniaks were finally completed. At long last, Bosniaks found their true identity and felt at home (Mustafa Imamović, Historija Bošnjaka).

An advanced thinking style

This truly is a highly advanced way of thinking about one of the most intricate topics. As others were overwhelmed by blinding prejudices and stifling nationalism, the thinking model was almost ahead of its time.

The model appears as though inspired by the Qur’anic messages in which the metaphysical dimension of the identity creation processes has been encapsulated. An example of those messages of the Qur’an is the following verse: “And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs for those possessing sound knowledge” (al-Rum 22).

In this verse, the creation of the heavens and the earth – denoting climate, topography and the totality of natural surroundings – has preceded the diversity of languages and colors (and the rest of the components of ethnicity, traditions and culture) – implying that the way the earth has been created and operates is bound to lead to the development of the latter.

This way, a sense of national belonging and identity is almost completed, which nevertheless is achieved only by the power of a religious (ideological) affiliation. Such is indicated in the above verse through the words “those possessing sound knowledge.”

In Islam – parenthetically – authentic faith and bona fide knowledge are twins, calling for and supporting each other. Accordingly, it is incumbent upon a person of faith to possess a profound understanding and a great deal of knowledge, and a knowledgeable person is expected to be most conscious of God. Thus, it goes without saying, an amalgam of knowledge and religion serves as the capstone in the procedure of identity formation.

Nationalism in the Arab world

On the other hand, the concept of Western nationalism was not introduced to the Arab world until the latter half of the 19th century and started gaining momentum in the early 20th century. The focal points of the new vogue were Syria and Egypt. However, since the Turkish mindset was deeply entrenched in nationalist ideals long before the Arab world, the latter was then influenced by Turkey as much as by the West.

But nationalism in the Muslim world, modelled after the West, was what Islam neither approved nor what Muslims needed as a remedy. Standing against the backdrop of such Islamic principles as the unity, brotherhood and cooperation of the Muslim ummah (nation or community), nationalism was an anomalous course of action and was bound to lead but to anomalous outcomes.

The rapidly declining Muslim world was divided over the issue. As a counteractive measure, the idea of pan-Islamism (the alliance, federation and collaboration of all Muslims) was introduced both by the Ottoman government headed by Sultan Abdul Hamid II (reigned from 1876 to 1909) and a segment of Islamically enlightened and progressive scholars such as Jamaluddin al-Afghani (d. 1897), Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905) and Shaykh Rashid Rida (d.1935). In the end, though, it was nationalism that prevailed and the voices calling for universal Islamic unity and brotherhood became barely audible.

Palestine was unsuited for nationalism

With the dramatic disintegration and the subsequent rather artificial dissection of the Middle East, which was accompanied by the rise of Arab nationalism, the case of Palestine became ever precarious. Under the existing circumstances, the inherently universal religious status and the politically centralized or federal character of Palestine worked against it and the interests of its people.

The only viable alternative for Palestine was pan-Islamism. Nothing else was good enough. For that purpose was the second World Islamic Congress convened in Jerusalem in 1931, after the inaugural one in Makkah in 1926. Organizing the second Congress was at the behest of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Amin al-Husayni. Both the venue and timing of the Congress were perfect.

While the explicit agenda of the meeting of 130 delegates from 22 Muslim countries revolved around promoting Islamic education and culture, condemning plus boycotting Zionism and its unholy schemes, preservation of the Muslim holy places, and Muslim unity, the implicit objective was to affirm Jerusalem and, by extension, Palestine as the most sacred land to Muslims after Makkah and Madinah, that they belong to all Muslims, and that fighting for them is incumbent upon each and every Muslim. Just as the Jerusalem session of the Congress was “second”, the significance of Jerusalem as a city and Palestine as a nation, too, was second only to Makkah (and Madinah).

Philip Mattar thus observed that the goal of the Jerusalem Congress was “to unite the Arabs and Muslims against the Zionists and to make London aware that British interests lay in the Muslim and Arab worlds, not with the Zionists” (Philip Mattar, The Mufti of Jerusalem and the Politics of Palestine).

In the same vein, in his article titled “Making Jerusalem the Centre of the Muslim World: Pan-Islam and the World Islamic Congress of 1931” Nicholas Roberts wrote that the second Congress aimed to promote the Palestinian cause to the wider Muslim world and to demonstrate Jerusalem’s serious attempts to integrate itself into interwar pan-Islamic political networks.

Certainly, Palestine did not need nationalists and their narrow philosophies. Rather, it was them who needed Palestine if they were to secure any sort or degree of legitimacy. Palestine resided at a level higher than all the levels any nationalists or ideologists could ever concoct and elevate themselves to.

Nationalism increased Palestine’s vulnerability

It was not hard to see that nationalism spelled additional vulnerability and isolation for Palestine. It likewise meant, even though indirectly, endorsing the British occupation and facilitating the forthcoming creation of Israel. The weakness of Palestine was emboldening, upping the ante of its enemies. Without a doubt, Palestine was not encoded to be and operate on its own, nor to forge some localized identities at the expense of its divinely endowed Islamic and global identities.

To Palestine, nationalism was an affront and downgrade. It meant impoverishment and detachment from the source of all value and purpose. With that in mind, in contrast to the rest of the Middle East, Palestine had a slower progression towards nationalism. And when it did arrive, secluded and unaided, Palestinian nationalism was hampered and virtually consumed by the British and Zionist scourges. It made little, or no progress whatsoever, against such sophisticatedly advanced apparatus as Britain and its cunning engendering of the Zionist Israel.

The British strategy of 'divide and rule' where each separate geopolitical entity was engrossed in offsetting its vulnerability and compensating for its growing weaknesses, worked perfectly. Palestine was affected the most. If the future of the country was already dim, with a growing sense of nationalism, it appeared even more dismal. Fighting for Palestine as a single and isolated socio-political unit will never be on a par with fighting for it as a spiritually blessed ground, as the land of prophets and hence the cradle of the truth.

As a nucleus of the ontological purpose, and finally as a pivot of Islam, its history and its people’s civilizational consciousness. The former option will never possess the same allure as the latter, nor will it serve as a serious source of motivation for Palestinians themselves, let alone the whole of Islamdom.

The incompetence of Palestinian – yet Arab – nationalism

In his book “British Policy Towards Syria & Palestine, 1906-1914”, Rashid Khalidi described the Arab nationalist movement in Syria and Palestine in general - which at first targeted the Ottomans - as weak, fragile, unsophisticated and overly dependent upon Europe. There was a gulf between leaders and led, and the leaders were few, “drawn from a highly restricted class base and many were self-seeking or had been publicly discredited.”

Echoing the same spirit, Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of the greatest proponents of Arab nationalism, once said that Palestine had been lost because of the neighbouring Arab countries’ both incompetence and unwillingness. He said: “We ourselves are responsible for the loss of Palestine, and our leaders were the principal agents in losing it. We did nothing but make speeches and hold meetings. We used to say that we would throw the Jews into the sea, but we didn’t do it” (John Philby, Sa’udi Arabia).

Gamal Abdel Nasser was right. It was not just Palestinians who lost Palestine, but as well its numerous stakeholders outside it.

The passive attitude of the Arab brethren towards Palestine, though claiming sympathies on behalf of their nations, is to a certain degree epitomized by the position of King Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi Arabia and its first king. John Philby - a British scholar, Arabist and explorer who converted to Islam in 1930 and became an adviser to the first Saudi king – commented that “however single-minded the whole (Arabian) population may have been in its hostility to the Jews and in its devotion to Palestine as part of the Arab heritage, the attitude of the (Saudi) government can only be described as somewhat platonic.

While the king himself often criticised the policy and the leadership of the Arab movement both during the mandatory period and in the short interlude which resulted in the creation of the state of Israel, he yielded to none in his devotion to Palestine; but he would never budge from his considered policy of keeping clear of all entanglements with the mandatory powers which emerged from the first world war” (John Philby, Sa’udi Arabia).

It is worth mentioning that the above statement John Philby made after highlighting, in his capacity as an accomplished contemporary and perceptive eyewitness, that the main reasons for losing Palestine were disunity, ineptitude and corruption. These certainly were engendered by the interplay of nationalism, varied national agendas, and overall institutionalized and otherwise apathy.

In another brilliant book of his titled “Palestinian Identity”, Rashid Khalidi, a renowned expert on Palestine, admitted that Palestinian nationalism was at once a delayed and sluggish phenomenon, due to which it was not as effective as it should have been. In addition to the external factors, such as the West-Zionism axis, the internal factors, too, such as the nature and functioning of the socio-religious structure of Palestine in the 19 th and 20 th centuries, “have also contributed to maintaining the Palestinians in a state of dependence until the present day.”

Therefore, if the Zionists were winning their physical battles against Palestinians inside Palestine, they were winning many ideological battles as well. This was the case especially at the outset of the Zionism-Palestine conflict.

“With few exceptions, early Zionist leaders, and Israeli politicians since the founding of the state, have tended to see their conflict with Palestinian nationalism as a zero-sum game. Beyond winning most of the early rounds of this game on the ground in Palestine, they were able to carry their battle back to the international ‘metropolises,’ of the era, whether London and Paris before World War II or Washington and New York since then.

In doing so, they succeeded in gaining world support for their own national aspirations, while at the same time they delegitimized those of their Palestinian opponents before key segments of international public opinion” (Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian Identity).

Conclusion: Muslims do not need, nor can afford, new Bosnias or Palestines

At any rate, if Bosnia had no choice but to be and fight alone, Palestine did not have to undergo such a dreadful experience. Nobody took Palestine away from Arabs (all Muslims); they lost it. As per a more scathing assessment, they gave it away. Moreover, if nationalism was good for Bosnia in its fight for survival, the same proposition not only was not good for Palestine amid a cluster of Arab-Muslim nations, but was also responsible for destroying it – and later the rest of the Muslim ummah.

Nowadays as both Bosnia and Palestine stand at their existential crossroads, contemplating their future and facing difficult choices, the only way forward is Islam: its worldview, teachings and values, translated into sustainable systems of life and civilization-making.

History is a constant source of valuable lessons and reminders that cannot be ignored. Muslims do not need, nor can afford, new Bosnias or Palestines.

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