Jihad or Jenga: The anti-Islamophobes guide to the war in Bosnia

Serbian paramilitary group kick the dying bodies of the first Muslims to be killed in the war in Bosnia 1992_Photo Ron Haviv. jpg (2)_1

Notorious photo of a member of a Serbian paramilitary group kicking a mortally wounded victim

What was the Bosnian War?

It was the most violent of the conflicts that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia. Between 1992 and 1995 Serb, Croat and Muslim forces clashed over where the borders between Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia would fall. It was marked by atrocities as different sides used murder, rape and house burning to terrorise members of rival communities into fleeing an area, so that it could be ‘ethnically cleansed.’ It was finally halted by the Dayton accord that split the country into separate entities for Serbs and the rest of the population.

What has Islamophobia got to do with it?

You mean besides men like Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladić justifying the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia by saying they were protecting its Serb population from a jihad by the country’s Muslim population?

Yes apart from that

Those people who generally think that problems are generally caused by too many Muslims, unsurprisingly conclude that the Bosnian war also resulted from there being too many Muslims. For example, in his book America Alone, the conservative polemicist Mark Steyn ponders:

Why did Bosnia collapse into the worst slaughter in Europe since World War Two? In the thirty years before the meltdown, Bosnian Serbs had declined from 43 percent to 31 percent of the population, while Bosnian Muslims had increased from 26 percent to 44 percent. In a democratic age, you can’t buck demography except through civil war. The Serbs figured that out as other Continentals will in the years ahead: if you can’t outbreed the enemy, cull ’em. The problem that Europe faces is that Bosnia’s demographic profile is now the model for the entire continent.

Is that guy condoning genocide?

That’s been a subject of quite a bit of controversy.

Still, what he says sounds pretty scary for the rest of Europe

It would be if it was true. In fact, the fighting in Bosnia had little to do with Islam.

Not to do with Islam? Wasn’t the war about fighting between Christians and Muslims?

Yes, and also between Catholic and Orthodox Christians, and in many cases Orthodox Christians were fighting an alliance of Muslims, Catholics and other Orthodox Christians.

Also bear in mind that in the Former Yugoslavia religion and ethnicity map onto each other. So even where the fighting was between Muslims and Christians, the relevant fault line was likely between say Croats and Bosniaks. In fact, as the Balkans are pretty secular, ethnicity is generally a bigger deal than religion. A joke during the war ran that ‘A Muslim is someone who doesn’t go to mosque, A Croat is someone who doesn’t go to Catholic Church and a Serb doesn’t go to Orthodox church.”

It’s also worth noting that Bosnian Muslims were pretty incidental to the origins of the wars in Yugoslavia. The Serb dominated Yugoslav Army had invaded and withdrawn from Slovenia and had begun ethnically cleansing chunks of Croatia more than a year before Bosniaks became involved in a serious way.


Slavic Muslims – they are the largest community in Bosnia.

So if the war wasn’t about religion what was it about?

Predictably money and power. As the grip of the Yugoslav communist party collapsed, two conflicting views emerged about what would follow. The Serbs were the largest ethnic group and were seeking a strong centralised Yugoslav state which they assumed they would dominate. By contrast, Croats and Slovenes in the north were worried by the influence of the Serbs and were resentful of subsidising the poorer regions of Yugoslavia. It was this tension between wealthy northern Catholics and the numerous Serbs that destablised Yugoslavia.

Perhaps the way to think about the situation is as a game of Jenga. Yugoslavia was a tower that came tumbling down when the Slovenian and Croatian bricks were removed. The Bosnian brick was one of those that plunged in the resulting collapse: with no central government to act as an honest broker, there was nothing to stop the nationalist governments in Belgrade and Zagreb from trying to expand their territory out of the militarily weak Bosnia. The conflict in Bosnia was thus a result of the chaotic dismemberment of Yugoslavia, not a cause of it.

So there would have been a war in Bosnia even if the Muslim population had not grown?

Indeed. If Bosnia had had the same ethnic breakdown in 1992 as it had in 1962 then it would still have had a population deeply divided about whether it wanted to belong to a Greater Serbia, a Greater Croatia or an independent Bosnia. Serbia and Croatia would have had as much or even more reason to try and annexe territory. And the Muslim population would have been even more vulnerable to ethnic cleansing.

Is there anything that Western Europe can learn from Bosnia?

Yes and it’s pretty much the opposite of what Steyn and his fellow Cassandra wannabes suggests.

Firstly, Islam is really diverse. Bosnia had both Mujahedin and heavy drinking secularists.

Secondly, keeping Muslims out of Europe is not the same as keeping the barbarians at the gates. The Yugoslav wars showed that under the right circumstances Christians were perfectly capable of acts of barabarism.

Finally, even in Bosnia it is possible for Muslims and non-Muslims to live together. While there have always been tensions between different groups, the time before the fall of Yugoslavia and following the Dayton accord have at least been peaceful. That’s worth rooting for, and resisting demagogues of either an Islamist or Islamophobic hue who would undermine it.

Not that we can expect the likes of Steyn to explain that. For partisan pundits who trade on the dramatic and the Manichean, it will always be easier to conjure the spectre of a Jihad than explain the complexity of a botched game of geo-political Jenga.


Endgame in the Balkans: Regime change, European Style by Elizabeth Pond

Postwar by Tony Judt

Updated (03/02/15) to clean up some minor grammatical errors.

3 thoughts on “Jihad or Jenga: The anti-Islamophobes guide to the war in Bosnia

  1. Well,if you’re such a fan of Bosnian muslims,go ahead and live with them but beware they might chop off your head when you least expect it.

  2. Pingback: Self-determination is overrated [Repost] | Matter Of Facts

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