Balkan Idols: Religion and Nationalism in Yugoslav State

A brutal indictment of the three established religions of the former Yugoslavia, Vjekoslav Perica’s monograph holds the activist clergy of the Orthodox, Catholic, and Islamic faiths responsible for both inspiring and legitimating much of the nationalist violence that devastated the Balkan peninsula at the end of the twentieth century. While admitting to the beneficial activities of these churches in trying to create interfaith dialogue and provide humanitarian aid, Perica argues that the results of those efforts were often dubious and cannot compensate for the damage caused by the three religious hierarchies in establishing themselves as “hallmarks of nationhood” (p. 165). As examples of ethnoclericalism, Perica claims, the Serbian Orthodox, Croatian Catholic, and Islamic religious organizations within the territory of the former Yugoslavia are not so much religions as “ideologies or nationalistic (i.e. political) organizations” (p. 242) that compete for influence and resources. Hence, the Balkan wars of the 1990s were not about religious faith per se but were nationalist conflicts in which the three traditional religions of the region participated, seeking to reestablish their privileged positions following the collapse of communism.

Perica provides a vast array of evidence concerning the activities of the three religions in mobilizing nationalist sentiments during the 1980s. He describes how Catholic and Orthodox clergy in particular used religious symbols, ceremonies, holy sites, and commemorations to connect the fate of their church to that of the nation and to create a sense of national and religious exclusivity. For example, he delineates the steps taken to reestablish the Serbian Orthodox Church as the key feature of Serbian nationalism, including the construction of the Church of St. Sava, the national tour of the holy relics of Prince Lazar, and the innumerable pilgrimages, jubilees, and festivals organized for the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. Similarly, in dealing with the Croatian Catholic Church, he provides a fascinating description of the political and national significance of the Marian apparitions of Medjugorje and of the Catholic Church’s decision to beatify the controversial Archbishop Alojziji Stepinac. Finally, Perica explains the link between the Islamic faith and national identity of Bosnian Muslims, clarifying distinctions between the pro-Yugoslav Islamic community and radical anticommunist fundamentalists.

Perica’s material on the role of the three religions at the outbreak and during the wars of the 1990s is less complete but does offer several intriguing theses, including the Serbian Orthodox Church’s designation of the World War II Ustasha concentration camp at Jasenovac as a Serbian holy site and the role of the Catholic Church in securing the victory of the right-wing Croatian Democratic Community in the 1990 and 1997 elections. Finally, Perica comments on the three established religions since the wars’ end, anticipating that, in their ongoing attempt to increase political and social influence, each will continue to promote nationalist exclusivity and will oppose the reform efforts of liberal and secular regimes.

Perica accessed an impressive array of sources, including Communist Party archives on the Commission for Religious Affairs, interviews, newspapers and periodicals, and secondary works. Perica is strongest in his work on Croatia and then Serbia, while his sections on Islam and Bosnia are less detailed. Nonetheless, Perica is to be commended for his balanced portrayal of the respective roles of the three religions. While the Islamic faith was initially less inclined toward nationalist exclusivity, none of the three emerges unscathed.

Indeed, the strength of the book is its overwhelming evidence that Serbian Orthodox, Croatian Catholic, and to a lesser degree, Bosnian Muslim clerics consciously contributed to the processes of nationalist mobilization. In so doing, they facilitated and legitimized expressions of hatred and demands for revenge and must bear some responsibility for the resulting violence. Regrettably, Perica may have weakened his position by his own overtly leftist and pro-Yugoslav attitudes. The chapter on the Titoist “civil religion of brotherhood and unity” (p. 89) not only detracts from Perica’s primary focus but seems intended only to show that Yugoslav communist society, however flawed, was better than anything that either preceded or followed it. Perica may well be correct here, but the point is out of place and may damage his credibility among certain readers.

That credibility may also be damaged by his bias against established religion. Perica argues that the apparent religious revival after the fall of communism in Yugoslavia did not represent real spirituality and that “the only genuine revival in Yugoslavia would have been a rise of the influence of minority faiths” (p. 221). Perica seems to be suggesting that membership in an established religion is inconsistent with true spirituality, a position that I suspect many would challenge. Moreover, Perica’s position raises an important question about his argument. For if there was no real religious revival in the former Yugoslavia, how can one explain the extraordinary successes of the three established religions in using their symbols, celebrations, and rites to support nationalist mobilization? This is the same question that has confounded many who attribute the rise in nationalism solely to the manipulative policies of corrupt politicians. Why did it work? Here again, while Perica has convincingly shown that the activist clergy carefully promoted the identity of religion and nation to support their institutional power, the question remains.




By Vjekoslav Perica