Of Bogomils, Race, and Ivo Andric

by Michael Sells, 7/3/96

“Betrayal” is a key theme of The Mountain Wreath and the strand of Serbian literature it represents. By converting to Islam, Njegos had insisted, Slavic Muslims 3Turkified.2 To “Turkify” was not simply to adopt the religion and mores of the Turk, but to transform oneself from a Slav into a Turk. It was to become one of the Christ-Killers who slew the Christ Prince Lazar.[see my posting on Christ-Killers and Christoslavism, above].

This religious ideology, originally set forth in the 19th century, found a new and powerful form in the work of Andric (1892-1975). Even more explicitly than Njegos, Andric’s 1924 dissertation. Andric’s disseration was composed in German and presented to the Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy at Karl Franz University in Graz, Austria on May 14, 1924 under the title Die Entwicklung des geistigen Lebens in Bosnien unter der Einwirkung der tŸrkischen Herrschaft. It has been recently published in English under the title The Development of Spiritual Life in Bosnia under the Influence of Turkish Rule (Chapel Hill, Duke University Press, 1990).

In his doctoral dissertation of 1924, Andric makes the following statement about Njegos and “the people.” Andric writes:

“Njegos, who can always be counted on for the truest expression of the people’s mode of thinking and apprehending . . .the process of conversion thus: ‘The lions [those who remained Christian] turned into tillers of the soil, the cowardly and covetous turned into Turks (isturciti).'” [p. 20].

Andric ascribes to “the people” Njegos’s judgment that Slavic Muslims who converted to Islam were the “cowardly and covetous” who “turned into Turks.” Bosnian Slavic Muslims are thus doubly excluded from “the people”: first, they became an alien race by converting to Islam; and second, it is the judgment of “the people”–not of one nationalist writer–that they have changed race along with religion. Given that “the people” are making such a judgment, Bosnian Muslims are not part of “the people,” excluded presumably by their religion.

The verse quoted by Andric (“the cowardly and covetous turned into Turks”) is followed immediately in Njegos ‘s Mountain Wreath by the curse: “May their Serb milk be tainted with the plague.” Few Serb readers of Andric would be unfamiliar with the famous line about “Serb milk.”

Njegos had applied the curse of Kosovo, leveled against those who refused to fight at the battle, to all Slavic Muslims. Andric revived this curse and reinstated Njegos ‘s chorus as the “voice of the people.” This voice of the people excludes all Slavic Muslims from the people, and curses them to disappear through a lack of progeneration.

Of Bogomils, Race, and Conversion

Andric finds a historical rationale for such exclusion in the belief that the Slavs who converted to Islam were primarily Bogomil heretics from the Bosnian Church. For Andric, the ancient Bosnian Church showed a “young Slavic race” still torn between “heathen concepts with dualistic coloring and unclear Christian dogmas.” Andric portrays the Bosnian Slavs who converted to Islam not only as cowardly and covetous and the “heathen element of a young race,” but finally as the corrupted “Orient” that cut off the Slavic race from the ‘civilizing currents’ of the West.” [pp. 16 ff.]

The notion that the Bosnian Slavs who embraced Islam in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries did so out of cowardly and covetous reasons is based upon a particular ideology of conversion held by Christian nationalists in the Balkans.

A Slav who converted from Christianity to Islam must have done out of greed or cowardice. Yet such terms are never applied to the conversion of the Slavs to Christianity believed to have occurred around the eighth century. It is a premise, so basic that its authors do not even bother to argue it, that conversion to Christianity is based upon genuine religious sentiments. Of course, at the time of Slavic conversion to Christianity, there were no doubt a similar combination of economic, political, military, and personal incentives as there were under the Ottomans.

The notion that the Slavic Muslims are descended from the Bogomils is one that is held by many Bosnian Muslims. By holding it, they try to counter the notion, advanced in Christslavic polemic, that they are alien to the area and do not belong. By showing the are descendents from Bosnian Church Bogomils, they reaffirm the connection of their pre-Islamic ancestors to the region, a reaffirmation they need given the constant implication in the polemic of Religious Nationalists that Serb Orthodoxy was in Bosnia before Islam (which is largely true), and therefore (a false implication, but a deadly one and one that is often used) the ancestors of Serbs were in Bosnia before the ancestors of Muslims. [See my earlier postings of comments by Serb prelates on this issue]

The notion that the Bosnian Church, which was persecuted by both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox rulers, was Bogomil has been challenged by the groundbreaking historical work of John Fine. In his book on The Bosnian Church, Fine shows there is almost no evidence showing Bogomil “Manichean” beliefs among the Bosnian Church.

More importantly for this discussion, Fine dismantles national mythologies that portray Slavic Muslims, Croats, and Serbs as unchanging entities. See John Fine, “The Medieval and Ottoman Roots of Modern Bosnian Society,” in the volume The Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina: Their Historic Development from the Middle Ages to the Dissolution of Yugoslavia, Ed. M. Pinson (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1993), pp. 1-21. Both Fine and Malcolm, Bosnia: A Short History, show that the Orthodox Christians in Bosnia only in the post-medieval period came to identify themselves explicitly as Serbs.

As Fine states, based on careful study of registers and populations, p. 15, “Conversion was a large-scale and multidirectional phenomenon. We find Bosnian church members converting to Islam, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism and as a result disappearing from the scene entirely. We find Catholics greatly declining in numbers [due to Ottoman preference for Serb Orthodoxy over Catholicism, as shown in Fine’s earlier discussion], with many emigrating but also with some converting to Islam and others to Orthdooxy. We find Orthodoxy gaining in numbers but still losing some of its members, particularly to Islam, but even a few to Catholicism. Thus changing religions was a general multidrectional phenonmenon; Islam certainly won the most new converts, but Orthodoxy won many.”

Exposed as historically untenable are the national myths that ethnic groups are stable entities that remain fixed down through the centuries, or that the Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Muslims of Bosnia today are direct descendants through stable ethnoreligious communities of ancient Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim ancestors. The various loyalties in Bosnia were complex and shifting, and conversions followed many patterns. Orthodox Christians converted to Catholicism, Catholics converted to Orthodox Christianity, Orthodox Christians and Catholics converted to Islam. Muslims converted to different forms of Christianity. As Fine and Malcolm both demonstrate, Orthodox Christian in Bosnia did not call themselves “Serbs” until the 18th century.

Thus the claim by Radovan Karadzic, Metropolitan Nikolaj, and Patriarch Pavle, that Serbs were in Sarajevo before Muslims, and that thus, the present-day Serbs have priority over the city, is based upon the myth of unchanging racio-religious entities.

Ivo Andric placed a religious essence in the unchanging racial entity of Slavdom. It was Christian by nature and any conversion from Christianity to Islam was a conversion out of the Slavic race into the Turkic race.

The ideology of “ethnic cleansing” is based upon the reified, unchanging ethnoreligious entity. One is a Serb, Croat, or “Turk” born of a Serb, Croat, or Turk parents, descended from origina Serbs, Croats, or Turks. One’s identity if fixed in the essence of one’s ethnoreligious group.

At this point we return to Visegrad. As the genocide was about to begin, the monument in Visegrad to Ivo Andric was vandalized. This became one of the excuses for the genocide against Bosnian Muslims that occurred in the town on the Drina in 1992. Ivo Andric frquently refers to Christian Slavs without great distinction between Orthodox and Catholic; they are both part of the “people” as opposed to Bosnian Muslims. Andric is claimed as a hero by both Croat nationalists (he was born to a Croat family) and Serb nationalists (he later identified himself with Serbs).

His compelling writings have indelibilty impressed themselves on Western readers. To see how they can lead even those most horrified at the “ethnic cleansing” to mouth some of the ideology used to justify “ethnic cleansing,” we need only look at Peter Maass’ recent account of the Visegrad atrocities, in his recent book Love Thy Neighbor. I turn to this issue in the next posting.

Michael Sells


One Response to “Of Bogomils, Race, and Ivo Andric”

  1. […] most people are familiar with Visegrad through Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andric’s classic (and controversial) novel, “Bridge on the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: