Visit the blog
announces a new imprint

Search Articles

Search Authors

Advanced Search

Join our Mailing List
Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Book Reviews

The Unity of Tradition

Sarajevo Essays: Politics, Ideology, and Tradition by Rusmir Mahmutçehajiç. State University of New York Press, Albany, 2003, 285 pages, $24.95.

Rusmir Mahmutçehajiç has become one of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s leading and most prolific authors in the aftermath of the 1992-1995 war. His career has been rich and diverse. Trained in physics and engineering at the University of Zagreb, from which he received a doctorate in 1980, Mahmutçehajiç made his academic career in natural and applied sciences in Trieste (Italy), Leuven (Belgium), and finally Osijek (Croatia), where he was professor and dean of the faculty of electrical engineering between 1985 and 1991. In addition to his academic research, Mahmutçehajiç published work in the areas of culture and politics, some of which gave him the reputation of a dissident under communist rule. With the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia in 1991, Mahmutçehajiç turned to politics: having joined Alija Izetbegoviç’s Party for Democratic Action (SDA), he became vice-president of the Bosnian government in 1991, as well as its minister of energy, mining, and industry. Fully committed to the unity of Bosnia-Herzegovina, however, Mahmutçehajiç resigned from his government posts at the end of 1993 when he decided that many members of the government, including from his own party, had given in to internal and external pressures to partition Bosnia-Herzegovina along ethnic lines. Mahmutçehajiç saw this as a blow, not just to his political ideals, but also to the cultural history of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In response, Mahmutçehajiç founded the “International Forum Bosnia,” a non-governmental organization that gathers together local and foreign intellectuals interested in sustaining and strengthening civil society in Bosnia-Herzegovina based on dialogue, human rights, and democratic change. The ideas and goals of the forum are well-reflected in Mahmutçehajiç’s writings. Author of numerous books and articles, Mahmutçehajiç courageously and tirelessly raises questions of Bosnian ethnonational and religious diversity and ponders their implication for the increasingly polarized world. Sarajevo Essays, a collection that brings together twelve essays written and published over the past decade, is a good example of his efforts, and reveals both the challenges and dilemmas facing postwar Bosnian society.

Mahmutçehajiç’s book preserves the autonomy of each essay and makes no implicit or explicit transition between them. That the essays are conceived as independent units is also apparent from the recurrence of certain themes in different segments of the volume. Overall, however, the lack of narrative progression or formal cohesion does not negatively affect the integrity of the book; rather, there is a sense that a number of pressing issues raised by Mahmutçehajiç — especially those of coexistence, democracy, cultural unity, and religious plurality — are hardly answerable in one try. Helpfully, the preface identifies the basic themes addressed by all the essays: postwar Bosnian society and its expectations at the turn of the millennium; the revival of human dignity and mutual trust after the cataclysmic events of the war; and the necessity of individual responsibility in replacing ethical and historical relativism by a more stable and enduring paradigm for peace.

In addressing these themes, Mahmutçehajiç’s arguments open up to a broad philosophical and theological framework that allows him to consider the universality of such questions and rescue them from the particularity of Bosnia’s political and historical context. After all, the suffering of Bosnia’s people during the war, including that of Sarajevo’s residents, was both a local and international issue, and later developments show that the slowness of the international response to that suffering only made things worse. President Bill Clinton acknowledged the consequences of that political inaction when NATO was preparing to launch attacks on Serbia in the spring of 1999: international inertia toward Bosnia had only increased Slobodan Miloseviç’s, and other ethnic nationalists’, appetite. It had only exacerbated human suffering and created a more tragic and unmanageable refugee and humanitarian crisis for neighboring countries. The world could not afford another wave of “ethnic cleansing,” hence NATO’s strikes on Miloseviç’s Serbia.

Ironically and sadly, Bosnia had been deemed unworthy of political protection because of its presumed “ancient ethnic hatreds.” This crude justification of political inaction directly contradicted the UN’s earlier acceptance of Bosnia as an independent and sovereign multiethnic nation. After all, as Mahmutçehajiç reminds us, “[Bosnia] is the only European country that has been based throughout its existence upon a unity of religious diversity — a diversity that was vital for the peace and stability of the world of the past” (p. 5). Yet that very diversity, on which many Western nations try to pride themselves, was readily sacrificed for the narrow political interests of the world’s major powers, which were sure that the calamity would not spill over the mountainous borders of Bosnia. But Kosovo was proof that it could, and did. So Bosnia did matter. So did Rwanda, Kosovo, and Chechnya. This is why Mahmutçehajiç prudently moves away from the particularity of the Bosnian experience to evoke more general philosophical, and to an extent theological, issues about truth in human relations, modernity and tradition, democracy and nationalism, war and peace.

To be sure, Mahmutçehajiç’s collection should not be read as a philosophical or theological treatise. The issues of truth that he raises, contemplative as they are, have been tackled in a more interdisciplinary fashion, and Mahmutçehajiç often resorts to literary analysis, history, political science, religious studies, and critical theory to address their nuances. Although not always consistent, the different models and criteria sought by Mahmutçehajiç to determine where truth lies in a multireligious environment safeguard him from identifying the philosophical and theological debates on “truth” with political truth(s) of a war-torn society seeking to establish a lasting peace. However, he does identify the locus of truth in “tradition,” by which he means a set of providentially given ideas and precepts that are shaped through history but ontologically never divorceable from their divine source. Tradition objectifies the cosmological unity of creation. The monotheistic intent of such a definition is hard to overlook, and, in fact, should not be overlooked, as it constitutes the backbone of Mahmutçehajiç’s discussion. It is here, then, that Mahmutçehajiç’s philosophical propositions meet theology. He identifies the malaise of the contemporary world in its inability to reconcile modernity with tradition, specifically, in the displacement of authority onto a more autonomous and corruptible locus of power. As he suggests, “whenever a tradition is divorced from this unity, it becomes an ideology disguised by language, learning, and the forms that were borrowed from the original connection with unity” (p. 35). The definition of tradition thus shifts from being descriptive to being prescriptive: “Humans come into the world in a full relationship with their environment. If humans want to return to their original nature, they must re-establish themselves within unity” (p. 36). In other words, to live in peace, human beings must submit to the primordial truth and safeguard it from the corruption of history and the aspects of modernity, such as secularism or nationalism, which disrupt the essential unity on which peace and harmony are divinely envisioned: “The world of ‘tradition’ is, therefore, that very fullness of diversity and multiplicity which reveals from hour to hour and everywhere the same, unalterable truth” (p. 8).

The terminology operative in Mahmutçehajiç’s argument is directly influenced by the sacred scriptures, especially the Qur’an, and, even more specifically, the Qur’an’s Sufi interpreters. This leap into the language of mysticism has a twofold function: on the one hand, it grounds Mahmutçehajiç in an inter-religious dialogue in which, often, mysticism is seen as a natural bridge between different sacred traditions because of its esoteric inclusiveness. On the other hand, mystical traditions, including Sufism, often challenge the more rigid discourse of religious institutions that give priority to the outward expression of divine truth. Distancing himself from the language of religious establishment allows Mahmutçehajiç to offer an alternative route for inter-religious reconciliation by evoking the transcendental value of the religious message, rather than its institutional requirements. In this transcendental value, he sees the path to a genuine reconciliation and coexistence. This, in Mahmutçehajiç’s view, is qualitatively different from the path to tolerance that nowadays runs through Realpolitik, whereby “others are tolerated because there is no way to eliminate them” (p.37). This kind of tolerance is both false and undesirable because it rests on the formal requirements of liberal democracy rather than on the essential unity of the divine message as objectified through “tradition.”

Expectedly, then, other concepts, orders, and ideologies are compared and contrasted to this understanding of “tradition.” Modernity, nationalism, secularism, conservatism, liberalism, and other concepts are criticized for subverting the primordial unity of creation in their peculiar ways. For example, Mahmutçehajiç sees nationalism as rationally desacralizing but rhetorically maintaining the traditional system. Adopting the traditional bonds of kinship, cultural sensibilities, and communal customs, nationalism ignores their initial purpose and replaces it with a narrow political cause (p.183). In a similarly critical tone, liberalism is charged with the tendency to subordinate the world — the universe — to the idea of the free, individual self through which human beings occupy the highest place in the cosmological hierarchy (pp. 150-157). Socialism is also so charged, and seen as creating an order of priorities that are structured as an evolutionary paradigm to which every society strives, and which dismisses tradition in favor of civilizational progress (p.181).

In his long and often dense reflections on such issues, Mahmutçehajiç intersperses examples from early and modern Bosnian history, arguing that the very fabric of Bosnian society possesses all the qualities of traditional order. Mahmutçehajiç defines Bosnian society as pluriform rather than multicultural. The difference, in his view, is substantial: pluriformity reflects the richness of traditional world order, in which diversity derives from transcendental unity rather than multiplicity. He argues that Bosnian culture is not an agglomeration of different cultures (pp.190-191), as implied in the term “multiculturalism.” Any attempt to disentangle the historically and culturally intertwined religious communities in Bosnia, therefore, is bound to fail, although this strategy may appease the sensibilities of the Western world, which tries to acknowledge growing immigrant cultures in its own midst. As long as the observers of and participants in the rehabilitation of Bosnia fall short of recognizing that “Bosnia’s complex pluralistic matrix refutes the concept of the ‘nation-state’ as an historical goal” (p. 192), there can be no lasting peace and reconciliation among its religious communities.

Noble and important as they are, however, Mahmutcehajic’s arguments for the Bosnian tradition of cultural (monotheistic?) unity over the presumably political and ideological disunities that follow in the steps of modernity, nationalism, and secularism are not free of problems. To start with, tradition, as cultural anthropology teaches us, is not just a source of meaning and stability, but often a regressive force resistant to the change and transformation necessary for the survival of any society. Moreover, it is thanks to the challenge of integration into the world of modernity and democracy that postwar Bosnians must now coin a new language of reconciliation and make serious adjustments in their political and cultural discourse. That is the only way they can participate in the changing world as active agents rather than as isolated and passive observers. After all, Bosnia may be a rare example in Europe, but it is certainly not unique when perceived from a global perspective: there are many religiously diverse but culturally closely knit societies that bravely struggle with the challenges of modernity in their own ways, and with varying degrees of success. I fear that Mahmutcehajic’s arguments will not resonate all that well with many scholars on such issues because they seem to sway too quickly and imprecisely between the particularity of the Bosnian experience and its transcendental implications and meaning. Moreover, Mahmutçehajiç’s definitions of some vigorously debated terms and phenomena — such as modernity, nationalism, liberalism, self — often appear loose and convoluted, and not particularly helpful for more general conclusions. This is especially so as Mahmutçehajiç, while at no point advocating theocracy, does not really offer an alternative political framework that in his view would effectively safeguard the tradition of Bosnian pluriformity. Therefore, when approaching Mahmutçehajiç’s book from the specific disciplinary perspectives of, say, political science, anthropology, social science, or history, the reader can easily grow impatient with the often opaque and too sweeping style of his analyses.

To avoid such consequences, it seems more appropriate to read Mahmutçehajiç’s book as an attempt at inter-religious dialogue, which is acutely absent from the postwar discourse in and around Bosnia. When it does occur, such dialogue usually takes one of two routes (as most inter-religious dialogues do): it either appeals to the transcendental value of the religious message that a community of believers can uphold in overcoming conflict; or it concentrates on the specific problems in individual and institutional behavior of a religious group. The first paradigm is often denounced for its decontextualizing tendencies, which unhelpfully efface important differences among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The second one, on the other hand, is criticized for ignoring the similarities in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by validating instead the religious behavior of a particular group. By appealing to the tradition that ties the Muslims, Jews, and Christians of Bosnia into a similar value system and by reminding them of their shared historical experience, Mahmutçehajiç tries to overcome the shortcomings of each approach and to explore a paradigm in which transcendence and transience are closely intertwined. His inter-religious outreach is a welcome addition to the array of post-Dayton attempts at reconciliation in Bosnia, many of which have been anything but successful. Here, I believe, lies the book’s main merit.

Amila Buturovicis associate professor of humanities and Noor fellow of Islamic studies at York University in Toronto. She is the author of Stone Speaker: Medieval Tombstones, Landscape, and Bosnian Identity in the Poetry of Mak Dizdar and is currently coediting a volume on women in the Ottoman Balkans.
Page 1 of 1 pages