Tuesday, August 30, 2011

It's A Balkan Thing

In a recent article by Christopher Hitchens, one of God’s most ruthless assassins, the Serbian ultra-nationalist issue is discussed from a point of view of religious fanaticism. Prompted by the recent capture of Gen. Radko Mladic, Hitchens sums up Balkan history in a nutshell:

“It would be nearer the truth to say that the entire history of the region is one long confessional feud that when allied to ultra-toxic nationalism was strong enough to drag the entire modern world into a catastrophic war in the summer of 1914.”

Except this nutshell is more like a hot-air balloon, inflated by Hitchens’ own ideological expediency.
First of all, blaming the incident of ‘summer 1914’ as the root cause of World War One is a rather crude example of blind historical negligence. It was more of a simple catalyst, a casus belli, an excuse than a truly fundamental cause. The reasons for full-scale war date back to times and events, prior to 1914 and are considerably more complex and certainly cannot be summarized in a single ‘hitchslap’ sentence.

Second of all, the claim that the “entire history of the region is one long confessional feud” is as vague as it is untrue. The entire history of the region does not revolve around Serbian nationalism and the Serbian Orthodox Church. There are other countries, other nations and other political agendas there – Yugoslavia is not the answer to everything.

Hitchens then goes on another of his coolly-controlled, anti-religious lectures, concluding that “religion nearly destroyed the economy and society of former Yugoslavia and did deep and lasting damage to its people and culture”.

Coming from the Balkans, but living in the UK, I have constantly had to contend with a wearisome paradox. I find myself deploring war crimes committed by the Serbs during the appalling wars of the 90s, but on the other hand I feel a fundamental closeness with this mystical region, inescapable and alluring. I know it well; I’ve lived half my life in it. I know its culture, its history, its people. I also know its problems. I remember being childishly awe-struck by the sight of two NATO F-16 fighters cruising in the sky above Bulgaria on a beautiful summer’s day, during the ugly Kosovo War in 1999. I remember the then infamous joke circulating from mouth to mouth around every village and town in Bulgaria, about the Serbs formally apologising for shooting down an ‘invisible’ American stealth plane – ‘sorry we didn’t know it was invisible!’, the joke ran.

When recently I was discussing the capture of General Mladic with a friend of mine, who is a Politics student, I found his fervent stance on the issue quite disconcerting. With powerful, unwavering conviction, he repeated over and over again: “8000 innocent Bosnians massacred”, “worst mass murder since the Holocaust”, and so on. As a Balkan native, I felt a big catch-22 lump in my throat. I knew I wouldn’t be true to myself if I had simply nodded off his invective against Mladic and the Srebrenica massacre. In such moments I always instinctively feel the need to be defensive; to produce a counter-argument that would instil doubt and suspicion within my friend’s Americanised line of reasoning. Striving to accept my Balkan background and acknowledge it wherever I go and whoever I meet, I find myself delicately exculpating alleged mass murderers such as Mladic. Not because I sympathise with them but because I sympathise with the land that produced them.
Is it to assuage a certain guilt that I bear over the fact that I come from a region largely in disrepute? It is as though the very fact that I am from the Balkans makes me indirectly complicit in any atrocity that happens or has happened there. Sometimes I feel my origin hanging around my neck like Coleridge’s albatross.

There is nothing in the Serbian Orthodox Church, neither rite nor doctrine that encourages babies to be slaughtered in the hands of their mothers. Hitchens’ reference to the Ustase catholic-fascist organisation in Croatia during the Second World War over-emphasizes the role of religion at the expense of the more accurate case of extreme nationalism which seeking to assert its fundamentalist values expediently utilizes the symbolic and propagandistic power of religion. Religious faith is a mediator not a cause in such conflicts. The prime mover in this case is ultra-nationalist radicalism which has seeped through the region with deadly infectiousness and has done so for decades, exacerbated by the still popular myth surrounding Marshall Tito and the nationalist pride which his name still yields in the hearts of many Serbs today.

In my experience, Serbia has always been the flagship of nationalism in the Balkans. The Serbs are innately hot-headed, ready to draw knives and guns at the slightest jolt of their patriotic self-identity. They are generally far more zealous in their convictions than say my fellow countrymen, the Bulgarians. Their naturally fiery passions coagulate in an ultra-nationalism that only time will shake off and destroy. And though these passions already seem to diminish and fade from the picture in today’s Serbia, as demonstrated by the relatively minor protests against General Mladic’s extradition to The Hague, the memory of the catastrophic wars of the 90s will be the albatross around the country’s neck. Such guilt is hard to swallow let alone acknowledge. Is it still deep inside, accumulating, and waiting to erupt? Unlikely, considering Serbia’s current pro-Western government, more interested in pragmatics than principles.

But in light of the media’s scorn for all things Balkan and appetite for murder and mayhem, Hitchens’ painfully biased article is a step too far. This is not a Michael Palin-presented, reader’s-digest travel show demagogically aiming to alleviate the West’s culpability in world affairs, but an essay by one of our heavyweight intellectuals, whose opinion counts and whose words are chewed over and over by many political publications and blogs. His views resound through the net and in print, written with a permanent marker on the white board of Balkan discourse, already graffitied enough with the smears and smirks of Western propaganda.

A single glance at the ending of Mr Hitchens’ article exposes his means to an end:

“Religion nearly destroyed the economy and society of former Yugoslavia and did deep and lasting damage to its people and culture. But in the journal of record for American liberalism, the profound connection between faith and fanaticism is treated as if it were a startling exception rather than a grim rule.”

From the affairs of the Balkans and former Yugoslavia, we are suddenly transported back to the US and find ourselves riding the waves of Hitchens’ life-long polemic against religion, through a critique of American liberalism. In the end, his fiery tirade against religion’s debilitating impact on the Balkans turns out to be nothing more than a vehicle to further his own personal anti-religious agenda.
If you read Voltaire’s entry on the Bulgarians in his Philosophical Dictionary (Part I), you will begin to realise that this ignorance and complacency is traditional and part of the norm in the West’s view of the Balkans. And if Voltaire himself could partake in this tradition, it would seem preposterous to expect anything less from our very own Enlightenment extraordinaire Christopher Hitchens.


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