I’m thinking about leaving my city of Sarajevo. I’ve been thinking about this for some time, as have probably many Sarajevo citizens faced with a similar situation. I am not materially deprived and I would not be leaving because of economic reasons. Moreover there is no war, at least not the type waged by guns. No one is forcing us to leave either. However, my family and I do not feel welcome anymore in the city where we were born. This city has nothing further to offer. With a dire need to have everything nationally labelled, the majority refers to us as “mixed marriage”. The term “mixed” I can only understand in the context of different sexes, but obviously this is not what others have in mind. The idiom – mixed marriage – which may to some mean nothing, to others mean everything. In the most recent history of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was much exploited in various, predominantly negative ways. In former Yugoslavia, mixed marriages were highly encouraged and symbolized the foundation of brotherhood and unity of nations and nationalities, but soon after the beginning of the war they grew to be the most unacceptable social category, with children from such marriages becoming particularly unacceptable. These are the people who do not have “their own”, meaning that everyone else who does (have “their own”) rejects them. Therefore it is not surprising that many people from this social category left former Yugoslavia, and BIH in particular, since most of them lived there. And since all the governments in BIH since 1992 were mostly nationalistic, they made special efforts to further complicate the life to these people and in a “nice way” hint that it’s better for them to leave. Because with such people it’s never certain. One is never sure who they will vote for, and one can not truly rely on them.
At the beginning and during the war, a few of then high-ranking Bosnian officials, publicly declared children from mixed marriages to be genetic waste. They even had a bizarre “scientific” explanation for this, which all together made things even more deplorable. On several occasions, after the war, the Islamic community targeted “those who were raised in atheism,” which in majority of cases stood for those who came from households comprising of several nationalities/religions, or those who never gave religion any particular significance. Most recently the Deputy Reis, in an interview to the daily newspaper Avaz on the occasion of Eid, described such people as “the most dangerous enemies”. I must admit that it’s an extraordinary feeling to read in the largest Bosnian daily newspaper that, overnight, I became someone’s greatest enemy, even though I was born, lived and survived here. The title of the interview (if I remember correctly) was “Muslims are once again under the yoke of tyranny”, and the part about the enemy was emphasized with a separate textbox. Considering that most people who read Avaz read only headlines, subheadings, and eventually textboxes, it is not difficult to make out the intent of the article. But there’s more.
It is well known that religion, education and culture constantly overlap and pressure each other. At some point of life, this mystic triangle is something almost every person encounters. Some less, some more. The mutual relationships between these three categories, similar to conflicts in this region, is perhaps more intense than anywhere else. During the time of our history marked as “Tito’s Yugoslavia”, education and culture had priority over religion. Or, perhaps it’s better to say that religion had less influence on education and culture. Today, things are exactly the opposite. Religion rules, so not much else exists for people who can’t identify themselves with it, since education and culture are in a free fall (to put it mildly).
One very interesting and painfully clear example of the supremacy of religion over education was the series of events relating to Emir Suljagic, the (former) Minister of Education of the Sarajevo Canton. Contrary to other politicians, he belongs to a group of atypical individuals who tried to do something for children that come from families in which religion and religious identity is a matter of choice rather than an obligation. He wanted to make them equal with others. Because they were not, despite the claims of authorities that Sarajevo is a multiethnic city and a symbol of tolerance. The fury over the now former Minister’s decision to make religious classes an elective (with free choice being an underlying principle), and not include them in the average score calculation, so that those who do not take the elective are not sanctioned, is unprecedented. Religious circles, spearheaded by the Islamic community and followed by the representatives of other “constituent” religions, used all possible means to threaten him with basically everything. They of course mentioned Srebrenica, because this argument can be taken whenever there is a lack of any other. The frightening campaign, framed in the context of the Srebrenica genocide, as insane as it may sound, was completely based on fabrications. They argued that the Minister wants to abolish religious education, which was never the case. Even today you can find all articles from that era and see that there is not one document, statement, or anything else that came from the Ministry of Education, which referred to the abolition of religion. The intent was just to allow a freedom of choice: religious education for those who are interested, as well the right to opt out and not be discriminated for it.
Despite the unprecedentedly brutal attacks, the Minister remained adamant, and resigned (for the first time). It became very obvious that he was left without any real support. His party reluctantly stood behind him, the Cantonal Assembly passed some sort of decision that softened the statement originally issued by the Minister, and it did not accept his resignation. 1:0 for religion. Despite numerous tangible successes, I believe that Suljagic will not be remembered for anything besides his false “abolition of religious education”. And there were many things that the Minister of Education accomplished in a very short time frame, which is best demonstrated by the public support received from teachers after his second, irrevocable resignation. But the article is not about this.
The provided example clearly shows the superiority of religion over education in today’s Sarajevo. Also, it demonstrates what happens when those who are “multi” in multiethnic Sarajevo try to stand for something or someone supporting or representing multiethnic interests. The bullet that was mailed to Suljagic was not addressed only to him, but also to all those who believe that he was doing something which would bring true equality, at least in the area of education. And even if the bullet could be interpreted as an act of a sole extremist, the recent general and media campaigns to which Suljagic was subjected certainly are not. The bullet is just a logical sequence in the chain of events already witnessed in other former Yugoslav countries. For example, hypocritical use of compelling arguments based on surveys each time “multi” should be put into practice. Like, let’s interview children and parents and see if they would like to exclude a religon course with a 95% score average from the overall grade average – and then argue that the majority is for religious education. Well of course it is, when this is the best way for students to improve their overall grade average. I guarantee that, if a same survey was conducted on the theme “do you want the marks in mathematics to be removed from the average grade score”, support would be even more overwhelming than for religious education. However, such a survey would be qualified as unreasonable (and it would be).
The dominance of religion over culture is also very visible. In Sarajevo, mosques are rapidly being built on every piece of unused land. Before someone accuses me in advance of being against mosques, I must say that I am not. I grew up in a city full of mosques from the time of the Ottoman Empire and many of them I highly appreciate as cultural and historical monuments as well as religious shrines. But the flood of newly built mosques, which are very difficult to relate to the ones built a long time ago, is very indicative. At the same time, museums and art galleries are being closed down, theatres only play several shows per month, and the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra barely holds one concert every month. At the same time, manifestations of religious character can without trouble fill the Zetra, while a prime cultural event is denoted by an Angelina Jolie movie. Institutions under threat of collapsing or those that have already closed are precisely the institutions that support the cultural, multiethnic character of the Sarajevo and its diverse history. One can not say that religious communities are directly responsible for the collapse of culture, or that they should have to financially support cultural institutions, but, without a doubt, they did attract the “audience” to their side, which eventually lead to abandoning other types of cultural events.
If one adds the extremely poor state support for cultural and historical institutions, it is clear where this is leading us. To again have a culture that once existed in Sarajevo in an environment where religion is omnipresent will require a strong state which, unfortunately, Bosnia is not today. Information about the deterioration of culture and education catch media interest very briefly, if at all. Very few people, generally those that have no influence, react to such news. Not one religious community reacts to these things, because they do not need any museums, or galleries, or concerts. Because they know that those who visit such sites are not suitable material for processing and indoctrination.
After 36 years of life in Sarajevo and believing to be an open-minded person, for a while now I have been wondering how much time must pass in order to, once more, witness a redistribution of power between religion, culture and education. And how much time must pass so that my Sarajevo again understands the meaning of multi-ethnicity, diversity and acceptance of others. Some 20 years ago this seemed to be clear to everyone. Maybe it was clear to those who no longer live in this city, who were killed, died or left. For the citizens of Sarajevo today that idea, unfortunately, seems to be far from comprehensible, although I believe that almost everyone is ready to swear to the multiethnic character of the city, without thinking about what Sarajevo can offer to those for who religion is not the most important thing. Declarative multi-ethnicity is much more hypocritical than recognizing Sarajevo as a city with a majority of Muslim population, and that it is within this context that it develops and operates. Sometimes I truly believe that it would, for the rest of us, be better if that was the case, because every society that has a defined majority will also have a minority that has its distinct rights. In the case of Sarajevo today, theoretical multi-ethnicity actually allows the majority to do whatever it wants, while completely marginalizing minorities.
And lastly, there is a problem of extremely twisted criteria by which standards are being set. If someone today tells a non-Bosnian that people living in Sarajevo are not doing well, they will probably get a typical response such as “so what is it that they lack, no one is lifting a finger against them”. True, but this lack of direct threat is far from enough to make someone feel good. The siege of Sarajevo and rivers of blood that flowed through the streets of this city have made people react only to life-threatening things. Everything else is fine. I survived the whole war in Sarajevo, and experienced many unpleasant things without contributing to any of them, and yet 17 years after the war I can not console myself with the sentence “all is good, just as long as there is no shooting”. I want to see that my city accepts and wants me as its citizen, and that it is able to offer me something beyond physical protection. In my city I wish to feel like a citizen of Europe and not only and exclusively as “other” (since I am not a member of one of BIH’s constituent peoples). For anyone to feel like a citizen of the world in today’s Sarajevo requires much more than providing just plain material security.