Bosnia Without Bosnians: The Only Desirable Solution?

Pseudo-scientific pamphlets by itself would not deserve any attention or reaction: they are usually worthless mixtures of poor ignorance, anti-logical constructions, unargued insinuations, and raw lies and slander. However, the fact that the Academy of Sciences and Arts of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ANUBiH) directly engaged in the promotion of one of them, that it provided the pamphlet’s reviewers from among its own members, including even its vice-president and head of the Department of Social Sciences, indicates that the ANUBiH actively stood behind such an extremely dilettante, but at the same time extremely dishonorable work.[1]

In that context, and bearing in mind the former reputation of this institution and its assumed position in the intellectual life of this country, there is a moral obligation to react. For, it is high time that the public be warned that this institution under the current leadership has fallen to such a low level that any distance from science itself, or even from the truth itself, does not represent an ethical or academic problem if it serves a certain political program – in this case, the program of ethnic partition of Bosnia and Herzegovina as the only desirable constitutional and political solution, as this pamphlet unskillfully propagates.

So, let’s see, what does this piece of paper offer? First of all, it should be said that the author has not read the basic works from the scientific field that deals with nations and nationalism, which is usually called nationalism studies, although he quotes some of their titles in the bibliography. Yet, whenever he refers to these works, he does it in a completely wrong context, so that one can hardly believe that he has actually read them. Let’s take two of the most famous names in this field, Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson, whose status could be compared, say, to that of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in rock music.

The author has never read Anderson’s works, which can be seen in the index and the bibliography. If he had ever seen at least the title of the most famous among them, the book Imagined Communities, he could have learned that in Anderson’s opinion nations are not organic creations, derived from ethnic identities, but artificial, imagined communities, created in the modern era, with the birth of mass communication tools.

Gellner is listed in the bibliography, but the only place where Gellner appears is the statement, According to Ernest Gellner, for example, the political and national unit should be identical.” The author believes that this is Gellner’s own thesis. This quotation, by the way, refers to the first sentence of Gellner’s most famous work, Nations and Nationalism. Its exact version is: “Nationalism is primarily a political principle, which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent.” Here Gellner actually tries to say that nationalism as such starts from the principle that the political and national units should be congruent. So, Gellner tries to explain the logic of nationalism in general, and the author claims that it is Gellner’s own logic. Absurd, to say the least.

One of those who is among the most popular students of nationalism, Anthony D. Smith, is the one whom the pamphlet’s author likes to quote. Smith’s key and by far the most famous work is called The Ethnic Origin of Nations. As the title suggests, for Smith nations are necessarily founded on ethnic identities. This, in itself, implies that nations arise from ethnic communities; that is, ethnic groups at some point ‘mature’ and become nations. Therefore, in order for nations to arise from ethnic communities, it is necessary that nations and ethnic communities are to be understood as two distinct notions.

We will not bother with the analysis of Smith’s theory and its historical (un)groundedness – suffice it to say that the pamphlet explicitly puts the sign of equality between ethnic group and the nation in several places, using the wording “ethnic group or the nation”. Yet, if a sign of equality could really be placed between ethnic group and the nation – let’s ask ourselves why numerous ethnic groups would seek to be recognized as nations during the last 200 years, as Smith explains in detail in the book? At the same time, why do they understand the qualification of themselves as ethnic groups as – disqualification?

Yet another popular author whose name is referred to in this pamplet is Will Kymlicka. However, Kymlicka is by no means an authority in nationalism studies. For, Kymlicka seeks to affirm a “multi-national” rather than the “mono-national” state, and he takes Switzerland as the ideal of a “multi-national” state. Yet, is Switzerland really a “multi-national” state? Why should we call the Swiss by one and only name, if the Swiss are not a nation, but some sort of a multi-nation? Why should the Swiss themselves insist that they are all Swiss, regardless of their different ethnic identities? Can Kymlicka convince the Swiss not to be the Swiss – but, say, Germans, Italians, French – and then reassemble into some kind of a mechanical sum, some kind of a multi-nation, without a common name and identity? Can he convince Germany, Italy and France to see the Swiss as part of their nations, so that they go to war over which Swiss canton they should occupy and cede it to themselves? Or, will the Swiss be left to their will to be the Swiss and live in peace, as the one and only Swiss nation? Despite the confusion made with such terminology, Kymlicka would probably leave the Swiss alone, and admit to them the right to be the Swiss. Yet, why would the Swiss be allowed to be the Swiss – and not Germans, Italians, French – and the same freedom of expression should not be allowed to Bosnians? On the contrary, Bosnians are permanently forced to be Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, or whatever – only not Bosnians! According to this pamphlet, a peaceful Bosnia can only be a Bosnia in which there will be no Bosnians, in which Bosnians will not be allowed to be Bosnians, but will be forced into Serbian, Croatian and Bosniak identities, and then pushed into the three separate territories.

But, before we return to the question of why the very idea of ​​the Bosnian nation represents such a problem for ANUBiH, let us first clarify – what is ethnic group and what is the nation? And why can these two concepts not be equated in any scientific discourse? How can we define ethnic group in the most concise form? And, how can the nation be defined in a similar way? Let’s try:

  1. Ethnic groups are based on, and united by, a myth of common descent.
  2. Nations are based on, and united by, a myth of the right to sovereignty.

In both cases, the key word is “myth”. This word means that both social formations are united and held together by a socially constructed persuasion, which does not necessarily correspond to historical or social facts. In one case, the persuasion about a common descent develops in the historical process and is usually transmitted through common symbols and rituals (Smith’s “myth-symbol complex”), which over time form a common culture. In the second case, the persuasion about the right to one’s own nation-state is articulated as a voluntary act of organized political elites, and as a political process it is transmitted primarily through an organized system of education, so that any group that develops this persuasion evolves into a nation. In practice, a group that possesses an articulated myth of common descent can also articulate a myth of the right to sovereignty, so that in this way it evolves from an ethnic group into a nation. Conversely, a group that has articulated a myth of the right to sovereignty, and which is on the way to creating or has already created its own nation-state, may in time also articulate a myth of its own common origin, and thus develop an identity reminiscent of the ethnic one. All in all, it is the will to articulate both myths that decides, and no pamphlet can stand it in the way.

It should also be emphasized that in the modern age, characterized by the capitalist system, the nation-state has become the exclusive form of the state. This is especially visible in the case of former complex, multi-national, socialist states, such as the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia: the penetration of capitalism into their political and economic space also meant their disintegration and the creation of nation-states from their former constituent parts (with the exception of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has not defined itself as a nation-state, and is therefore constantly exposed to attempts at ethnic partition). I wrote more about nation-states as the only way of political existence within the capitalist system, and also about the distinction between ethnic groups and nations, in the book Nations and Capital: The Missing Link in Global Expansion (Abingdon-New York: Routledge 2022).

Consequently, it follows that the very classification of a group as the nation implicitly recognizes the designated group’s right to sovereignty and its own nation-state. Conversely, the very classification of a group as ethnic group implicitly denies the right to sovereignty and its own nation-state to the designated group. Precisely because of this right, implicitly recognized or implicitly unrecognized, even authors who are not even aware of the distinction that exists between the notions like ethnic group and nation, insist that a group to which they want to assign the right to be called a nation has the right to form its own nation-state. In Bosnia, these are the three major ethno-religious groups – the Catholic Croats, the Orthodox Serbs and the Muslim Bosniaks – who are thereby implicitly granted the right to sovereignty and creation of their own nation-states (and, eventually, unification with Serbia and Croatia, for the Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats), along with the dissolution of the existing state, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

At the same time, by insisting on the ‘impossibility’ of the Bosnian nation, the pamphlet is explicitly denying the right to sovereignty and the right to exist within the single state of Bosnia and Herzegovina to all Bosnians, that is, to all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina who do not want its ethnic partition. This thesis, paradoxically, enjoys the undisguised support of the Academy of Sciences and Arts of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In this context, let’s recall the words of Dobrica Ćosić, the founding father of the 20th-century Serbian nationalism, former president of the rump Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro), and a leading member of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (SANU): “Serbs have nothing more to ask for in Bosnia if the Bosnian nation, Bosnians, is adopted and proclaimed. Our main priority is to prevent the official recognition of that Bosnian nation at all costs.” Judging by this pamphlet, that priority of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts has meanwhile also become a priority of the Academy of Sciences and Arts of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

I have written several texts in which I claim that Bosnia and Herzegovina – in order to survive in a world consisting exclusively of nation-states, given that the capitalist system recognizes them as the only legitimate form of states – must unite its own society into a single Bosnian nation and thereby transform itself into a nation-state. I also wrote two books in which I explain the context in which nation-states became the norm. In addition to the mentioned book, there is also the book Forced to be Free: The Paradoxes of Liberalism and Nationalism (Baden-Baden: Deutscher Wissenschafts-Verlag 2012), in which I explain the role of the ideology that calls itself liberalism in the creation of yet another ideology, that of nationalism.

As emphasized in these two books, I see every nation, including the Bosnian one, as a necessary evil, which, as the only form of survival in a world of nation-states, is dictated by the capitalist system and promoted by mutually interpenetrating ideologies of liberalism and nationalism. Also, I did not hide that I think that nominating the future nation-state as Bosnia is also a necessary political evil – because there cannot be a single nation made up of two parts, of Bosnians and of Herzegovinians. Theoretically, this nation-state could also be called Herzegovina, and in it all citizens would be Herzegovinians, regardless of their ethno-religious identities. Nevertheless, the historical name of this country throughout the centuries was Bosnia, so again, political pragmatism would recommend us to prefer to use the name that is already well-established and to derive from it the name of one and single nation, Bosnians. After all, for centuries, Herzegovina – just like Krajina, or Posavina, or Podrinje – was always just one region within Bosnia.

Yet, according to this pamphlet, any advocacy for the Bosnian nation represents a hidden “Bosniak greater-state project”. That construction itself is extremely illogical: what kind of a greater state is it, if the bearers of that alleged project are advocating for the survival of Bosnia and Herzegovina within its current borders? Does this mean that any Bosnia and Herzegovina is just too big? And once again, if it truly is a concealed Bosniak nationalist project, wouldn’t that project, as with any nationalist endeavor, inherently strive for the creation of an exclusively Bosniak nation-state? This could involve a strong Islamist ideology that excludes other ethno-religious components that constitute Bosnia and Herzegovina. Consequently, it might advocate for a final ethno-religious partition of the state—a stance fundamentally at odds with the idea of a unified, multi-ethnic Bosnian nation. This unified vision promotes the restoration of sovereignty to all citizens of the country, regardless of their ethno-religious or other identities.

On top of everything, this pamplet seeks to identify the origin of this hidden “Bosniak nationalism” in yet another pamphlet, Alija Izetbegović’s Islamic Declaration, which openly advocates pan-Islamist views. A nationalism that would emerge from pan-Islamism is an oxymoron, to say the least. Pan-Islamism is by definition trans-national, and advocates for an Islamic state spreading “from Morocco to Indonesia”, as Izetbegović wrote. The claim that a nationalism, any nationalism, can be inspired by pan-Islamist ideas is as absurd as the claim that the anti-Jewish ideology of German Nazism was inspired by the proletarian internationalism of Karl Marx, who was himself a German and a Jew.

Of course, Izetbegović’s claims in the Islamic Declaration that Islam cannot coexist with other religions are also absurd. If he had thoroughly studied the Qur’an and the Hadith, he would have encountered entirely opposite messages – encouraging Islam to coexist harmoniously with all monotheistic religions. Additionaly, a cursory examination of the Ottoman Empire’s history would reveal to him that Ottoman sultans, acting as caliphs, aimed to establish coexistence with other monotheistic religions. Otherwise, it is unlikely that Christians and Jews would have survived hundreds of years of Ottoman rule. Of course, that is a separate topic. But, the absurdity of Izetbegović’s pamphlet, which is supposed to be the alleged inspiration for the alleged secret “Bosniak greater-state project”, further underlines the absurdity of the given pamphlet.

At the very end, in response to the claims that some Bosnian intellectuals have recently invented the narrative that the Bosniak identity was also applied to Bosnian Catholics and Orthodox Christians until the middle of the 19th century, and that this is also part of the “Bosniak greater-state project”, I will quote two or three sentences that the Minister of Internal Affairs of the Principality of Serbia, Ilija Garašanin, wrote in 1844 in his notorious Greater-Serbian programme, Načertanije: “It will not be a difficult task for Serbia to have greater influence on the Bosniaks of Eastern Christian creed. More caution and attention to this is required in order to win over the Catholic Bosniaks. For, Franciscan friars are at the head of these.” Etc. Would the academics who participated in the writing and pomotion of this pamphlet also place Garašanin among the conspirators who tried to impose the “Bosniak greater-state project”? And, would they also be supported in this by the entire Academy of Sciences and Arts of Bosnia and Herzegovina?

[1] The title of the pamphlet is Narod i nacija. The author is Slavo Kukić.

prof. Zlatko Hadzidedic
prof. Zlatko Hadzidedic
Dr. Zlatko Hadžidedić is the founder and director of the Center for Nationalism Studies, in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina (