Rusmir Mahmutćehajić and Bosnia’s cultural heritage

East European Politics and Societies has published a long essay, “On Ruins and the Place of Memory: A Bosnian Post-Script to Communism”, by Rusmir Mahmutćehajić, the most profound and consistent literary interpreter of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s cultural and historic particularity. Mahmutćehajić produced the single most important analysis of the intellectual and political foundations of the attempt of the Serbian and Croat national chauvinists—led by Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudman—to destroy Bosnia and divide it between them, The Denial of Bosnia (2000). He was a member of the Bosnian government during the early days of the war, but broke with Alija Izetbegović over the latter’s increasingly narrow view of the nature of the conflict. He now teaches at the University of Sarajevo and leads the International Forum Bosnia.

As is evident in the excerpt below, Mahmutćehajić is primarily a religious thinker. His extremely universalistic monotheism, however, contains a philosophic richness that calls for a dialogue with humanism and, especially because he is a devastating critic of Communism as it existed in the former Yugoslavia, Marxist-Humanism. (For an account of the participation of some—not all—members of the Praxis group in the breakup of Yugoslavia, see Laura Secor’s essay “Testaments Betrayed” in Quick Studies: The Best of Lingua Franca).

Mahmutćehajić has been widely translated into English. Along with The Denial of Bosnia, I recommend his essay “The Road to War” in The War in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovia, 1991-1995, edited by Branka Magas and Ivo Zanic.

Among his other more political works are Bosnia the Good: Tolerance and Tradition (2000) and Sarajevo Essays: Politics, Ideology, and Tradition (2003). He has at least two books coming out this year: Across the River: On the Poetry of Mak Dizdar and On the Other: A Muslim View.

Mahmutćehajić here expounds upon the planned destruction of the traditional architecture and graveyards of Bosnia long before the violence of the 1990s. I have not included Mahmutćehajić’s detailed footnotes in this excerpt. Stolac, in southern Bosnia-Herzegovina, is Mahmutćehajić’s home town. A Čaršija is a traditional Ottoman Balkan town square.

• • •

from “On Ruins and the Place of Memory: A Bosnian Post-Script to Communism” by Rusmir Mahmutćehajić

Excerpted from East European Politics and Studies, February 2011 (Vol 25, issue 1)

(Part 5)

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Stolac Čaršija was a crystalline whole, each facet connected to all the others. No change in heaven lacked reflection in these earthly facets. Each change in heaven found its response in the whole. The characters of its inhabitants were in such harmony with the whole as to be coextensive, albeit in a constant and fluid quest after that always-and-everywhere intimated Unity.

The form of the Čaršija derives from understanding our place in existence as a whole. a single and unchanging essence is revealed to the world, split between the visible and invisible. The visible side includes the heavens and the earth and everything between them. Everything dispersed within the visible and invisible worlds, as revelation of Unity, is focused within us. Consequently, the world and we are two sides of one and the same revelation of the Creator. When we build, we bear witness to Unity within the manifold of existence, an image that began to be undermined both from without and within during the nineteenth century.

The destruction of the Čaršija lasted from the end of the nineteenth to the end of the twentieth century. People viewed the Čaršija from various perspectives as a messy remnant of a previous time. Parts were destroyed in ways presented as “repairs,” “progress,” and “development.” Individuals were sought out and supported who might demonstrate, whether directly or indirectly, in thought, word, or deed, that this was not a sacred heritage to be preserved inviolate and that the only contribution it could make to the building of the new world was as material to be extracted by the destruction and crumbling of whatever had been built before. They were expected to affirm their fitness for the new age by readiness to deny and destroy. Their humanity could no longer afford to recognise anything as forbidden to profane action or any form of irreducible openness towards eternity. Everything could be denied, except the authorities established by the revolutionary movement.

This culminated after 1948, when the destruction of the Old and the great Harems began. Behind the movement lay the ideology encapsulated in the slogan “Death to fascism, freedom to the people!” The apparatus encompassed everything from the chief officers of state to the municipal secretary. There was nothing left capable of standing against this ideological movement, directed by the national leadership through its various organs.

The perpetrators of the act of destruction itself were sought amongst the children of the dead. They were required to confirm their “progressiveness,” which cut them off, in full consciousness and willingly, from any beginning other than that contained within the ideological picture of the world. With a burning desire to prove themselves, they toppled and shattered their ancestors’ headstones.

This violence against the graves was interpreted as a precondition for liberation from poverty and injustice. The vulnerability of the dead in their graves had to be demonstrated, while any sense of responsibility towards them was simply proof of insufficient distance from the past, which was to be despised. Faith in god and another world was, according to them, a folly of the ignorant. The knockers were promised liberation from their second-class position as guilty, helpless, and contemptible in comparison to the builders of the new order. They hoped through this denial of their own selves to ensure their rights to survive and be happy, the requirement for which was that they join the builders of the New World.

Looking today for answers regarding the condition of the individual and of society that caused and provided a context for this destruction, one finds them in communism as the name for the overall structure, including the leadership, the ideology, the apparatus, and the perpetrators. The extent to which this destruction targeted Muslim heritage must not be overlooked. Communism provided a framework within which the action of territorial nationalisms was facilitated. For all these nationalisms, whether Serb, Croat, Albanian, or whatever, Muslims served as fundamental Other and, as such, a hindrance to attaining the goals incorporated and set out in the ideological image of the world as it unfolded towards the end of history. The modernity of communism and nationalism had at its disposal any number of reasons for despising and eradicating the sacred forms of Muslim heritage. These forms were ancient, while the participants in the various revolutionary movements had introduced a new beginning and a ceaseless production of “the new” to the heart of existence.

(Part 9)

This approach to the Muslim as other and attempts to destroy their culture received a new historical framework in Yugoslavia in 1948. In order to buttress his position in his conflict with Stalin, Tito persecuted the Serb Communists, whose feelings for Russia were very strong—given both their loyalty to Russian communism and their old affections as a result of the Serbian connection with Russia. To avoid the possibility of conflict with the Serb people as a whole, in 1948, Tito opened the doors for Serb nationalists to express their feelings regarding Muslims. The Serb nationalists had, moreover, a well-developed sense of grievance against the Russians of the day, the Communists and Stalin, because they had destroyed the Imperial heritage that had formed the basis for the long-standing Serbian love affair with Russia.

It was therefore in 1948 that the most savage destruction began of the Muslim contribution to the Bosnian community of differences. This was a resumption of the project that had been so important an element of the old crusading assaults on Bosnia, from the north and the west, as well as of the “Serbian revolution” at the beginning of the nineteenth century. They had considered it part of their religious and national obligation to “clean the land” of the “Turks.” This project referred to Muslims and anything that belonged to them, taking the following pattern: Slaughter a third, expel a third, convert a third. There was a simple denial that the Muslim population have enjoyed any form of unbroken presence in these areas, as individuals who had, along with their acceptance of the confession of the praised, continued to bear witness to Jesus and his mother, and so preserved the full burden of their ancient heritage in the lands of their ancestors.

There is another particularly important factor in this destructive project that must be noted. None of the Muslims to whom these graveyards belonged could deny their sense of self, shaped as it had been by the language and heritage of their forefathers, which brought together in witness of the praised the full burden of belief from the beginning of the world until their own time. But there was a justification for the ideo- logical project to destroy the graveyards that came from the holy places of Mecca and Medina. There, the graves of all those who had seen the praised and whom he had seen had been destroyed, and this had happened during the period when the views and positions of the fathers of the individuals responsible for destroying Stolac had been formed. The justification for this lay in the ideology that presented itself as the heir and guardian of sacred tradition.

Is not this destruction of Muslim graveyards, carried out in turn by the european Christian Nationalists, european Communists, Saudi fundamentalists, and Turkish secularists, clear evidence of the nature of ideology? That the essential content is one and the same, regardless of what material has been used in constructing this picture of the world—science, culture, religion, the nation, or something else? Which of them has not made display and gloried in its power over the weak and the dead?

When god is excluded from the centre of existence, and that means from the human heart, then a host of gods is established that engage in ceaseless conflict for primacy and predominance. Ideology is the attempt to establish an order to determine which god is the greatest to whom the others will be subordinate. These gods have various names—Science, Progress, the government of the People, the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, the State, the Just Society, and so on. Such projects cannot accept the god of all, Who is entirely incomparable and entirely alike, extremely far and immediately near, the god revealed by both the visible and the invisible aspects of the world, of man, and of the books sent down to His prophets. This is unacceptable because it allows every individual to be open to the infinite and the eternal. Such openness prevents one from being confined within a closed world of the type posited by the forms of science that believe only in what can be measured. In itself, human being can never be reduced to mere quantity or equated with the soulless material order that is all that rational science allows.

For the “scientific” view of the world to be proven, human openness towards god as the absolute that embraces both the visible and invisible world must be done away with. Death and the world beyond the boundary of the finite must be denied. Those who cannot accept this denial cannot accept a government or authority that pro- claims a revolution in the world order on the basis of scientistic promises.

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