As the war in the former Yugoslavia moves towards a denouement, Aleksa Djilas, son of the late dissident Milovan Djilas, disputes the view that it is a peculiarly Balkan horror. Instead, he argues, it is part of the unstoppable process of border formation and ethnic homogenisation already experienced throughout the rest of Europeby Aleksa Djilas / October 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Many years ago I was discussing with a cousin The Mountain Wreath, an epic drama in verse written by Petar II Petrovic Njegos, a 19th century prince and Eastern Orthodox bishop of Montenegro. The drama-the “Paradise Lost” of Serbian literature- is about the early 18th century “ethnic cleansing” of Montenegrins who had converted to Islam.
As a ruler, Njegos did not pursue extreme anti-Muslim policies. But his poetry reverberates with profound enmity to Islam. He considers the struggle against it to be of cosmic significance, beyond considerations of ordinary morality. In macabre and beautiful verse, Njegos warns that the Christian and Muslim faiths will swim in blood; the faith which does not sink will have proved its superiority.
My cousin, who had recently arrived from Montenegro to study in Belgrade, was expressing his love of Njegos’s poetry when I asked: “How did the Muslims in your class react when they had to read The Mountain Wreath and learn parts of it by heart?” He could not answer. It had never crossed his mind to ask his Muslim classmates such a question-even though some of them were close friends. Clearly, he did not connect them with the Muslims against whom Njegos wrote.
My cousin, like most other Serbs and Montenegrins, had an ambivalent attitude towards Muslims. Because Muslims are indistinguishable by language and appearance from Serbs, Serbs generally considered them as “our people.” Friendships and intermarriages were common. Yet, at the same time, Serbs could not forget their history. This teaches that the Ottoman empire, which in the 15th century brought Islam to the Balkans, was an absolute evil. Ottoman rule was undoubtedly harsh and the Christians who lived under it benefited less from European civilisation than those in neighbouring Habsburg lands. Yet the Ottoman empire showed in some periods more religious tolerance than Catholic central Europe; it built roads and bridges and initiated urban life in the Balkans. It was a simplification to claim that “five centuries under the Turkish yoke” brought only violence and humiliation, cultural decline and political marginalisation.
Serb uprisings limited Ottoman power in Serbia in the first half of the 19th century, but Bosnia-Herzegovina was only freed from it in 1878-when the Congress of Berlin put the province under Austro-Hungarian administration. Under the Ottomans, many Slavs who converted to Islam enjoyed a privileged position. Serbians regarded these converts as traitors, although most of them had…