A Very Old Mosque

One headline in Saturday’s New York Times reads “Power Struggles in the Middle East Exploit Islam’s Ancient Sectarian Rift.” As I am led through a mosque by its young imam sporting modern western clothes and smart designer spectacles, for the moment I completely forget this ancient sectarian rift. Instead I marvel at the careful detail displayed on the walls of this ancient mosque, erected in 1580, one of the oldest continuously operating mosques in the former Yugoslavia, one of whose original features is the signature three-bay balcony, usually located on the outside of the mosque, set apart for women to pray. In this mosque the balcony is located inside the mosque itself. However, it is minutes before the imam will sing the call to prayer and while a long line of men stream into the sanctuary, I see no women. Is it only because it is Ramadan, I wonder?


Questions such as these are becoming more persistent, more urgent, the nearer our approaching departure from this region. Why, we wonder, do citizens in Tuzla and elsewhere so assiduously avoid discussions about religion?

On Thursday, another economist at the University of Tuzla and his wife treated us to Iftar, the traditional meal following sunset when observant Muslims break their fast. It was extraordinary and not only on account of the food. It was the first time in over ten months that any non-clergy in Tuzla has talked with us personally about their religion. Why? Kadrija Hodzić’s theory, which seems to ring true to my experience, is that individuals in the former Yugoslavia identify religion with ethnicity and ethnicity and they identify ethnicity with genocide. When former Yugoslavians conceal or privatize their religion, they are in effect inviting a dialogue with one another that they might not be able to have were they to wear their religion “on their sleeve” so to speak. There is some of this in the United States as well, as, for example, in the decision by local congregations whether or not to display the American flag in their sanctuaries. Ultimately, the decision appears to come down to a question of non-offense. If the majority of parishioners would be offended by displaying the American flag, then it is not displayed. If the majority would be offended by its absence, then it appears. And, yet, there is a broad consensus among the liberal religious — Jews, Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindu — that standing shoulder-to-shoulder, arm-in-arm, in prayer and song against injustice, oppression, and violence is an indispensable witness.

When Occupy briefly overran US cities, liberal clergy showed up in droves, praying and singing together in a shared witness to the universal divine preference for the poor. This preference is ironically signaled in the common bumper-sticker: “Who would Jesus bomb?” The answer, of course, is no one. And presumably the same bumper sticker would hold for Krishna, Buddha, Moses, and Mohammed.

Yet, what if you live in a region where bombs have been aimed at others because of their ethnicity and their religion? I was astonished when, in public museums in Croatia and Slovenia, the phrase “Turkish hoard” was indiscriminately plastered upon displays recounting when the “Turkish hoard” appeared and when it was driven out. “Turkish hoard,” really? Even more astonishingly, the curators apparently saw no inconsistency between this designation of Ottoman Muslims while simultaneously recounting the tremendous rise in literacy, land rights, diversity, openness, and trade during the period when Croatia and Slovenia were “occupied.” Bombing the religious and ethnic other in the name of one’s favorite deity has a long history in our region. Shoulder-to-shoulder, arm-in-arm? Not in your life.

The Reverend Kirsten Snow Spalding, my wife, was not wearing her collar yesterday when we toured the mosque. But often she is, almost universally without comment from our hosts. What do people think when they see her at demonstrations and rallies in support of students, workers, flood victims, victims of genocide, and war? In the United States it is a no brainer: God supports students, workers, victims of natural and unnatural disasters. Here it is different. As one sympathetic local Orthodox member of the clergy explained: my presence would be universally “misunderstood.” Misunderstood by his parishioners, who would see him as siding with their enemies; misunderstood by non-Orthodox as a cynical political act designed to undermine the movement’s legitimacy.

And so the divine is compelled to vacate the streets, retreat inward and become a mere private household deity.

But what is clear is that the closeting of the divine is not promoting an end to ethnic hatred or religiously-inspired violence. To the contrary, twenty years later religion and ethnicity continue to top the list for the cause for divisions in former Yugoslav society. And I suspect that these divisions will only get worse. Two things will need to happen in order to ameliorate the situation. The first thing that will need to happen is that non-believers will have to come to terms with the fact that they live in a region where many people are religious. We have to stop ignoring religion or blaming religion for violence. Naming violence does not entail naming religion. It was not Orthodox who killed Muslims. It was not Serbs who killed Bosnians. It was criminals who killed criminals. If they also happened to claim to be Orthodox, then clearly this is a fundamental misreading of their faith and the sooner that Orthodox religious leaders stand up and confess openly that genocide is anathema to Orthodox faith the sooner we can move on. But a large part of moving on will be non-religious resisting the temptation to ontologize violence as “Serbian” or “Orthodox” or “Muslim” or “Croat.” The second thing that will need to happen is that religious leaders will have to step out together to renounce genocidal violence together. Yes, there is a risk here that members of our own communities will misunderstand our standing together with “perpetrators.” But in order to dispel this misunderstanding we need to clearly dissociate the category “perpetrator” from the ontologized religious or ethnic categories to which it has wrongly become associated. There is nothing in the category “Orthodox” or “Muslim” or “Catholic” that makes it synonymous with “perpetrator.” And the sooner religious leaders clearly and unequivocally articulate this fact in action, visibly, the sooner parishioners will also be forced to identify themselves either as opponents of official Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim teaching or as its defenders.

Because when it comes to genocide, indifference is not an option.

Happily the former Yugoslavia has not yet descended back into the kinds of sectarian violence of which we know it is capable. And, yet, clearly, through their self-imposed silence and indifference, both the religious and non-religious alike are preparing the ground for another round of killing. Only open conversation, discussion, and visible displays of solidarity will disperse the building storm clouds.