The Confusion of Language, Ethnicity and Religion

Afterword on David Jovanovic's Religion and War in Yugoslavia

by Alma A. Hromic

August 20, 2001

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The confusion of language, ethnicity and religion has nowhere been as pronounced as in the country once known as Yugoslavia, now no more than a squabbling patchwork quilt of Cross-versus-Crescent conflicts which range from acrimony to particularly inventive and shudder-worthy bloodbaths which seem to be rooted (much like the conflict itself) in the Dark Ages.

The only other ethnic group which I know of that has carried the cultural/ethnic/religious identity this far is the Jews, where a way of life, based on religious rules, serves to establish a cultural and ethnic identity which has endured for centuries. Yugoslavia and its peoples, always at the crossroads of Europe and squarely straddling the path of invaders (be they of the physical or cultural variety) have been under a similar kind of survival pressure, and the end result is a not-dissimilar welding of the religious to the national and ethnic identity.

Nonetheless, the Jews have never offered their religion as an ethnicity. It is a cultural and religious identification - but it defines them no further than that (with the exception of the ultra-orthodox). Modern Jews, those living in Israel, call themselves Israelis. Others, living in America or in Germany, will respond that they are American, or German - an American or a German of the Jewish faith. Nowhere else on this planet will a man call himself Muslim and expect that to serve as ethnic and national identification. That is largely a Yugoslav trait, and the identity was forged by Tito and his regime and the "brotherhood and unity" doctrine. But scratch a Bosnian Muslim, and you will find an Orthodox icon secreted amongst the family treasures in the attic. Bosnian Muslims are ethnically Serbs or Croats who happen to be of the Islamic faith. The presence of the Islamic faith in the region is a historical accident, laid at the door of the Turkish imperial ambition. The "Bosniaks" are proudly claiming an identity rooted in slavery, cruelty and intimidation. As David Jovanovic points out in his article, families frequently took the prudent course of having one brother convert to Islam while another did not, thus guaranteeing the family's safety in uncertain times where one brother could protect the other whatever the political power currently in charge of the land. Often, a conversion to Islam in the medieval Bosnia was no more and no less than tough Slavic pragmatism.

Alas, like every convert, it soon became incumbent for the newly-converted to prove their faith and become what is idiomatically known in Yugoslavia as "a greater Catholic than the Pope." Families once united by their different religious choices, ready to shelter and protect the out-of-favour religious denomination if it became a target of prosecution, began to be separated by that difference, and quickly it became a matter of bitterly divisive quarrels as to how strictly religious mores were being observed (or not, as it were).

I am a child of a mixed marriage - but my father, whose family is Muslim, has always entered his ethnicity as Serb and his religion as Muslim when asked for this information in Yugoslavia's official documents. He is one of a large family; his brothers and sisters run the gamut, from those married to Croatians who therefore espouse the Croat cause, to those married to Serbs who either espouse their cause or are bitterly separated, to the rigidly Muslim who speak "Bosnian" and look down on those other two kinds as people who have sullied the faith. My mother is an ethnic Serb, who (like many of her kind) is almost completely irreligious - she follows the traditions of her people, which involve those rooted in religion and quite deeply so, but she does not follow them out of a religious conviction but rather, much like a non-orthodox Jew who has still chosen to go to Shul on high holy days like Yom Kippur, out of a sense of cultural identity. I understand the divisiveness of religion, from within, although these parents have never been divided by their particular religious baggage and have never sought to burden me with any, leaving me to choose freely which road to take.

It is time for issues raised by David Jovanovic to have a wider readership. They will help further an understanding of a conflict where, so far, those who have had an understanding of the underlying facts have either deliberately slanted them for their own twisted ends or have been too afraid to speak out.


David Jovanovic: Religion and War in Yugoslavia



       Alma Hromic, the author with R. A. Deckert of Letters from the Fire, was born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. However she has lived outside her native country for much of her life: Zambia, Swaziland, South Africa, the UK and New Zealand. Trained as a microbiologist, she spent some years running a scientific journal, and later worked as an editor for an international educational publisher. Her own publishing record includes her autobiography, Houses in Africa, The Dolphin's Daughter and Other Stories, a bestselling book of three fables published by Longman UK in 1995, as well as numerous pieces of short fiction and non-fiction. Her next novel, the first volume of a fantasy series, Changer of Days: The Oracle, is due out in September 2001 with Harper Collins. Recently, Hromic won the much coveted BBC online short story competition. Her story, The Painting, was broadcast in the UK in the last week of January 2001.

         Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Alma A. Hromic 2001. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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Related Internal Links

Articles Published on Swans Regarding the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath


This Week's Internal Links

a song of innocence - A poem by John Bart Gerald (with etching by Julie Maas)

Two Epiphanies, From the Aegean Sea to the Bering Straits - by Milo Clark

Bibliography for Two Epiphanies - by Milo Clark

Irrelevant Precision - by Milo Clark

Religion and War in Yugoslavia - by David Jovanovic

Proactivism at The Hague - by Michael W. Stowell


Alma Hromic's Commentaries on Swans

This is an Emotional Argument (July 2001)

Letter From My Father (June 2001)

They Change Their Sky (May 2001)

Year Two, P.K. (March 2001)

Letter to my Unborn Child (February 2001)

On the Anniversary (September 2000)

Subject: Into Myth (September 2000)

Sadness in Novi Sad, Serbia (April 2000)


Published August 20, 2001
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