Owen Ellerkamp: Yugoslav War: Ethnoreligious Conflict

Culture has a lot to do with identity. How do we define ourselves? From phenotypical identifiers to the shared practice of particular customs, there is a wide array of ways one can form an identity. To what scale do we conceptualize ourselves– within a nation, a family, a religious community, an ethnic group? The varying scales warrant different answers and often compound on top of one another. Identity is often defined collectively (i.e in the form of a group). What group does one identify with the most, or does an identity straddle multiple groups? Through a religious categorization, the United States may be divided into Christians, Unaffiliated/Atheists, Jews, Muslims, Hinduism, Buddhism and further parsed out into ever smaller groups like Sunni Muslim, or Pentecostal Christians. At a larger scale, the people that call the U.S their home fall under one national collective group called “Americans.” The scale at which one defines oneself is contextual and relevant to an identity.

Articulating identities becomes particularly important in times of strife. In war times, allegiance to a particular side is often picked by one’s identity. Civil wars turn neighbors against neighbors who previously shared the identity of being of the same nation, but have exacerbated differences due to the political manipulation of identity.  In the case of the Yugoslav Civil War, the national collective identity of Yugoslavia crumbled in concert with the downfall of the communist regime. Yugoslavia (1918-2006), a country that lasted fewer than 100 years, was composed of varying ethnic, religious, cultural, identities, but existed peacefully under the communist nation-state of Yugoslavia. In the mid 1980’s as communism deteriorated, the primordial ethnic tensions between the various groups within the country began to surface. Another force that exacerbated the ethnic tensions in Yugoslavia was the mounting tensions from the raise of Serbian nationalist representation in the government. Minority groups, such as the Bosniak Muslims, Croats, Albanians, and Kosovo Muslims were ostracized and the Serbian-centric state propagated media against these ethnic minorities. In turn, they lost political power and the state become further defined along ethnic lines, in which a multi-ethnic nation gave priority to a single ethnic group. The historical timeline leading up to the dissolution of Yugoslavia is convoluted, complex, and beyond the scope of the this paper which aims to focus on religious divisions between Muslims and Christians acts of forgiveness for the war. What is important here is that a population that lived in relative peace for 80 years or so rapidly turned against each other along ethnic and religious lines. A collective culture shattered into collections of smaller identities with the fall of the communist regime and rise of an exclusive national identity.

Ethnic and religious identity are deeply intertwined in many landscapes as religion is most often passed down through lineage– the people of the former Yugoslavia were no exception to this. As Rosemont College religion scholar Paul Mojzes defines the issue,


[The conflicts in Yugoslavia] have distinct ethnoreligious characteristics because ethnicity and religion have become so enmeshed that they cannot be separated….The fusion or overlapping of ethnicity and religion is a well-known phenomenon in much of Eastern Europe, especially in the Balkans.  For centuries the church was the people and the people were the church….[In 1989,] the coalescence of ethnic and religious identification returned with such a vengeance that it is mandatory to use the single word “ethnoreligious.”[xxxvii]

The main ethnoreligious groups were: the Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and ethnic Albanian and Bosnian Muslims. While few scholars attribute religion as a leading factor in the collapse of Yugoslavia, its relevance is worthwhile. The leader’s who promoted violence between groups, Franjo Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic, were both unaffiliated with religious faiths, or their faith was a miniscule part of the identity they projected. Religious groups acted as safe havens for adherents during war time as a place of comfort, introspection, and peace, but the religious institutions did little to promote peace making on a large scale.

In the Bash reading for this week there is a personal narrative from a lady who was robbed and experiences angry towards the robber, but immediately forgives the robber for their action. The lady recognizes that given her position it was nearly inevitable that she was going to be robbed. The robbers were seen as political pawns of a larger scheme. Similarly, in the war in Yugoslavia, the soldiers fighting on the Serbian side were political pawns of the larger scheme of dividing the state. The nationalist leaders took advantage of the economic vulnerability of the population by providing unemployed men with money, food, and intoxicating substances in turn for their allegiance and comradeship to the Serbian army. The Serb militants were estimated to have carried out 90% of the atrocities in the Yugoslav wars. Therefore, many of the deaths were perpetrated by actors that were acting as pawns of the Serbian nationalists.

A concept that Bash engages with in his chapter on Justice and Forgiveness is the concept of “unknown wrongdoers” and its relation to unconditional forgiveness. In cases of war, the singular actor, or the person, physically perpetrating the violence is almost always unknown to the victim. Very seldom does a victim in a war personally know their enemy, therefore they are not humanized but seen more as a pawn of a larger force. Often times the animosity is placed on the power structure, often a government, that the troops represent and the animosity is held abstractly towards the government. This animosity is intangible in that it can’t be attributed to a single person. Due to the lack of humanity  seen in an enemy and lack of ability to associate the action with a singular human it is understandable that forgiveness could never be granted as forgiveness often comes in seeing potential or goodness in another. However, unconditional forgiveness in the case of an unknown wrongdoer warrants forgiveness because there can be no possibility of engaging with the wrongdoer or of justice. Unconditional forgiveness can be seen as a way to rid of any animosity a party holds towards another. While it does promote peace instead of revenge, it can be harmful by allowing the wrongdoer to think they are free to do wrong again and will suffering no consequences for their actions.




Bash, Anthony. Forgiveness and Christian Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. Print.
Powers, Gerard F, “Religion, Conflict, and Prospects for Peace in Bosnia, Croatia, and Yugoslavia,” in Mojzes, Religion and the War in Bosnia, p. 240.