Identity Shifts

According to the CIA’s most recent study in 2000, Bosnia is 48% Bosniak, 37% Serb, and 14% Croat. All other ethnic groups, they determined, form the remaining 1% of Bosnia’s population. Nearly all Bosnians who identify as Bosniaks also identify as Muslims. Serbs are almost unanimously Orthodox Christian and Croats seldom stray from Roman Catholicism. Bosnia’s ethnic identities are essentially coterminous with religious denominations.

The current paradigm of a Bosniak-Serb-Croat Bosnia is relatively young. The following section covers how “Bosnia” came to be, and how the countries history crafted the three dominant identities that exist today.

Balkan Prehistory

The Balkans have been a hotbed for ethnic mixing ever since humans have bothered to record history. Cave paintings in Herzegovina provide some of Europe’s oldest proof of inhabitance, and subsequent artifacts hint at an ancient mixing of different ancient tribes (Malcolm, 2). At one point, the region was ruled by a tribe of Indo-Europeans known as the Illyrians. Although little is known about how well-defined the Illyrian race was, it has nonetheless served as a focal point for Balkan nationalism (Croat and Albanian in particular) (Malcolm, 3). Whatever hold the Illyrians had on the peninsula was eventually broken by invading Celts and, eventually, Romans. When the western Roman Empire began to collapse, the region fell to Huns from the east and Goths from the north. Like the Illyrians, the Goths have served as the basis for dubious racial myths in the Balkans. These “origin” stories, whether Bosniak, Croat, or Serb, are almost certainly false (Malcolm, 81). All along the way, invaders intermarried with local Balkan populations until the region’s ethnic makeup had transformed.

The Christian Byzantines, themselves ethnically diverse, eventually reclaimed their lost European holdings. This conquest came just as the Slavs of eastern Europe – the racial group today most closely associated with the Balkans – moved in to stay. Just as in all previous migrations, the Slavs mixed with the local populations until the boundary between native and invaders was gone. At this point in time, defined concepts of “Croat,” “Serb,” and “Bosniak” did not exist (Malcolm, 7). With Catholicism’s Great Schism centuries off and Islam still fighting polytheism in the Arabian Hejaz, the religious boundaries that would divide the peninsula were unknown.

The Kingdom of Bosnia

The origins of Bosnia itself are murky, but the region probably arose out of the feudal system that followed Christianity into southeastern Europe. Feudal realms naturally grew into kindgoms based on the region’s geography. A semblance of Croatia and Serbia existed at this time, but the Byzantine Empire and a growing Hungary were the region’s primary political actors. The Bosnian region was most likely formalized by Hungarian politicians, but the history of Bosnia as a state would not begin until 1377, when the independent Kingdom of Bosnia first emerged (Malcolm, 13). The state was short lived. By 1463 the Ottoman Turks had annexed the kingdom. The idea of Bosnia, however, was here to stay. Likewise, the term “Bosnian” had become a functional identity.

Today, Bosnian is a regional identity to describe the official nationality of any person born in the state. Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs may all rightfully call themselves Bosnians (CIA World Factbook). In the 15th Century the term possessed similar role. A Bosnian was someone from the Bosnian territory, and such a designation hardly denoted any uniqueness.

Ottoman Bosnia

With the Ottoman invasion, this changed for the first time. Now, Muslim Bosnia was unique among its Catholic and Orthodox neighbors (Magas, 20). There have been many theories put forward about why Islam spread so well through Bosnia, and there are equally as many contradictions. Nonetheless, scholars do agree on a few concepts. First, Muslims enjoyed enhanced status in the Ottoman Empire, especially in the civil service (Malcolm, 66). Although following Islam was not a prerequisite for being successful, it certainly did help. Secondly, the Ottoman slave system provided Bosnia with a steady stream of converted freemen. Muslim slaves had higher prospects for freedom, and the Empire’s new territories provided the most fertile environment for their employment (Malcolm, 67). Finally, the efficient administration of Gazi Husrevbeg led to a renaissance in Sarajevo that made Islam more appealing than ever.

The growth of Islam had a curious affect on the rest of the Balkans. With a centralized regional presence, Muslim Slavs from across the Balkans began immigrating to the region –  no doubt in seek of promising social capital. The modern state of Bosnia and Herzegovina would see this trend centuries later after the Dayton Agreement (1995) split the countries administration between its Bosniak-Corat and Serb regional entities (see Institutions).

Post-Ottoman Bosnia: Austrians and Independence

Even as the Ottoman Empires receded from Europe, terms like “Croat” and “Serb” were only beginning traction. Following the tide of nationalism sparked by movements elsewhere in Europe, different groups in the Balkans began weaving racial myths to explain why people of their religious denomination or region were distinct. There was almost no consensus among the different theories. Croats claimed the Muslim Bosnians (the term Bosniak was not widely adopted until the late-20th century), Serbs claimed the Croats. Various claimed the nomadic Vlachs, but there was widespread disagreement on what the term “Vlach” actually meant (Malcolm, 79). With no steadfast methodology of dividing the Balkan “races,” an individual’s identity fell, in the end, to what side he or she most sympathized with (Malcolm, 159). Thus, the modern Balkan ethnic groups came into being.

Although “Balkanization” refers to the the fragmentation of a region into smaller entities, Balkan nationalism’s entrance tot he world stage actually came from an alliance between disparate entities. Gavrilo Princip, the assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was an ethnic Serb. However, the organization at his back was on of Yugoslav (“southern Slav”), not Serb independence. Mlada Bosna drew membership from Croat, Serb, and Muslim Slavs.

The historic prevalence fo Yugoslav nationalism is important to remember when examining modern Bosnia. Although the Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks have often been at each other’s throats, the motivation has usually been ethnic competition, not ethnic superiority. Even during the Bosnian War, the Serbs’ policies of ethnic cleansing rarely resorted to all-out extermination. The ethnic rivalries in Bosnia represent a competition between different Yugoslavs. These groups’ demonstrated abilities to mobilize against non-Yugoslav influences illustrates that, while tensions undoubtedly exist between these groups, there is an acknowledgement of interrelationship that didn’t exist in other ethnic bouts (German-Slav, Hutu-Tutsi, Japanese-Chinese).

The Croat and Serb identities that emerged from the Balkans’ Catholic and Orthodox populations have stayed relatively stable since the early-20th century. The same cannot be said for the Bosniaks. When Yugoslav nationalism received its second wind against the Third Reich, anti-Fascists leaders were divided on how to deal with Muslim Slavs (Malcolm, 181). Some considered the Muslims a nation of their own, but most rejected this notion (Magas, 20). In the end, Yugoslav nationalists demarcated five national groups: the Serbs, the Croats, the Montenegrins, the Macedonians, and the Slovenes. The Bosnian Muslims fell between the cracks as an oddity and, as Bosnia itself was also settled by Croats and Serbs, there was little they could do to assert themselves. Bosnia became an ethnic no-man’s land, at the juncture of Serbi and Croatia, where Muslims had curiously planted themselves.

Throughout the war, Bosnia’s Muslims swayed between Serb and Croat identities – based on whether Zagreb or Belgrade offered a sweeter deal. It wasn’t until Josip Broz Tito’s pro-Islam foreign policies gave “Muslim Bosnian” enough of a premium to become a desirable label (Malcolm, 198). However, the religious identity, however professionally advantageous, was not recognized as a separate ethnic group by the Yugoslav government. Non-Croat or Serb Muslims could only choose “Muslim – nationality undeclared” on the Yugoslav census. Despite the fact that a vast majority of Muslims chose this designation, the policy reenforced the view that Muslim Bosnians were merely Serbs and Croats who hadn’t aligned yet.

The “Bosniaks”

Over the next forty years, Muslim Bosnians carved out a distinct, Bosniak identity. This process began in 1961 when “Muslim in an ethnic sense” first appeared on the Yugoslav census. The identity was somewhat unequal to “Serb” or “Croat.” Although Yugoslavia’s other major ethnic groups had been established on religious affiliation, their names escaped this association. Muslim Bosnians resented the equation of their identity with a religious label – it implied that an “ethnic Muslim” did not have a distinct identity before his conversion (Malcolm, 200). Although this was essentially true for Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims, the unequal treatment of the latter group meant that their struggle was unfinished. It wasn’t until the late-20th century that Bosniak became a widely-used term for the non-Serb and non-Croat ethnic group that populated Bosnia (. A group that happened to usually practice Islam.

Balkan history is full of shifts in identity. Even prior to the establishment of Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, the peninsula underwent ethnic reformations with each wave of foreign conquerers. The racial myths of Balkan nationalists are based on bloodlines that could nto have stood the test of these invasions.

In Bosnia itself, the history of ethnic identity is inseparable from Croatia and Serbia’s political interests. Bosnia’s own national identity was undermined by its own religious diversity, which doomed the territory as land to be contested by the Croats and Serbs. The nations scattered, but numerically powerful Muslim constituents fell into this ethnic tug-of-war until Titoist policies finally provided a chance for Muslim Yugoslav nationalism to take root. The next half century witnessed the emergence of a Bosniak identity which. Like Bosnia’s other ethnic groups, the Bosniaks were founded on an originally religious identity which, through the Balkans’ tumultuous history, had grown beyond a simple profession of faith. Even if a Bosniak converted to Catholicism, his families unique experience as Bosnian Muslims would likely shape his own ethnic identity even after his baptism. The evolution of Bosniak, Serb, and Croat beyond merely religious identities is evidenced by the fact that the ethnic labels no longer perfectly match their members’ faiths (CIA World Factbook).

Identity Today

Under the Dayton Accords (see Institutions), the terms Bosniak, Croat, and Serb have shifted from being expressions of ethnic identification to government-controlled racial identities (Farrand, 4). Although there is a degree of flexibility for Bosnians of mixed background, the division of government offices based on race ensured that identities become cemented early in a Bosnian’s life – certainly when he or she has developed political awareness. Even if a Bosnian has no political aspirations, political parties arrange voters based on their racial allegiance (Bose, 206). As a result, racial categories have become more salient and divisive in modern times, not less.

Identity Shifts in Bosnia and Herzegovina – A Comparative Perspective

Bosnia sets itself apart from the Dominican Republic because identity shifts are not based on immigration (Vargas, Identity Shifts) and racial differences are not founded on phenotype (Malcolm, xix). The fact that It is different from Turkey in that religion was the basis of ethnic instead of language (Baptiste, Identity Shifts). Additionally, Kurds were treated as an out-group whereas all three of Bosnia’s constituent groups were agreed to be Bosnians.

The most interesting comparisons are between Bosnia, Rwanda, and France. In both of the latter countries, government policy has moved the populace towards a singular national identity. In Rwanda this occurred in order to move the country past the old Hutu-Tutsi divide (Song, Identity Shifts). In France, it was a long standing cultural value that “Frenchness” was an expression of identity, not an inherited characteristic. Both of these trends are the exact opposite of what happened in Bosnia, which experienced a switch from the shared Yugoslav identity to politically-mandated pseudo-racial separation.

More recent French identity shifts bear less resemblance to Bosnia. These shifts have been related to immigration (Renfro, Identity Shifts), a process that Bosnia has not witnessed in significant amounts in recent years (International Organization for Migration, 13).

Leave a Reply