Religion and Violence   /   Spring 2004   /    Articles

Religion, Collective Identity, and Violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Slavica Jakelić

IT IS COMMONPLACE TO USE “RELIGIOUS NATIONALISM” To explain how religion incites, perpetuates, or justifies violence in recent world conflicts. This is particularly true in studies of the former Yugoslavia and of the ways religion legitimated the Bosnian and Croatian wars. Those who analyze the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina typically argue that religions in this society reinforced the nationalists’ calls to arms or weakly resisted them because they were collectivistic and embedded in specific cultural and historical contexts—they were not a matter of one’s individual choice, or of one’s belonging to a uni- versal community of salvation, but rather of one’s membership in a spe- cific group. In these analyses, religious collectivism is considered synonymous with nationalism: Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Islam, and Roman Catholicism are viewed as the axis of group identification for the Serbs, Bosniacs, and Croats respectively, and as a dividing fence in the war against the religious, hence national, “others.”

The problem with this analytic framework is that it concentrates on the political aspect of religious phenomena and on the history of nationalisms at the expense of complex institutional and symbolic histories of religions in different societies. As a result, it addresses neither the structural differences among religions, nor the structural differences within the same religions and religious institutions, in their relation to the problem of violence in specific socio-historical contexts.

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