Is it personal responsibility, or a function of good government, to uphold religious rights—for people of faith, or of no faith?
“The soul of my city died when they destroyed the mosques,” said Marija matter-of-factly.
It was a startling statement coming from our half-Bosnian, half-Croatian friend, a woman of Roman Catholic background but brought up a proper atheist in Communist Yugoslavia. It was the year 2000, five years after the end of the Bosnian War, and my wife and I were in Banja Luka, the capital of the semi-autonomous Serb Republic. In our first year of marriage, we had recently arrived to help pilot a peace education project in six Bosnian public schools, and Marija, a teacher at the Gymnasium, Banja Luka’s college-preparatory high school and a keen observer of her society, had quickly emerged as our confidante. When we had tough questions about our new home, we usually came to Marija first.
Now, sitting in the living room of her apartment, where she had somehow resisted eviction during the wartime expulsion of Banja Luka’s substantial Croat and Muslim minorities, Marija explained the importance of mosques in the city where she had been born and raised—and the devastating impact of their absence.
During the 1960’s and 1970’s, Bosnians of Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholic Christian, Muslim, and Jewish family roots lived together in relative harmony and prosperity. In Tito’s Yugoslavia, “Unity in Diversity” was the national motto, and the ruling Communist Party, while not persecuting religion as severely as in some other Communist states, certainly promoted a public secularism that downplayed traditional religious-ethnic divisions. The federal censuses indicated that Bosnia, the most diverse of Yugoslavia’s six constituent republics, had the highest rates of group intermarriage and the highest percentage of citizens who identified themselves by the generic national designation “Yugoslav”—rather than an ethnic label. Bosnians were proud of their cosmopolitanism, proud of living at what they called the crossroads of East and West, and proud to showcase their society during the 1980 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo.
Marija told us that in Banja Luka—a mostly Serb city near the border with Croatia, formerly the military frontier between the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires—the adhan, the Islamic call to obligatory prayer, sounded from the minarets of more than a dozen mosques, blending with the ringing of church bells to provide a distinctly religious rhythm to the busy city soundscape. For Marija and the other teachers and students of the Gymnasium, the call to afternoon prayer drifting in through the open windows from the small mosque nearby was a reliable—and far more pleasant—marker of the end of the day than the school bell. It was a sound that told Marija she was at home.
Barely a decade after the Sarajevo Olympics the Cold War abruptly ended. Yugoslavia’s economy collapsed, and self-serving former Communist Party bosses stoked the long-dormant fires of ethno-religious prejudice as a means of preserving their power. The country fractured, and Bosnia, sandwiched between the stronger and more militant republics of Croatia and Serbia, was the most vulnerable. With armies invading from either side and new ethnic paramilitaries staking claims to large swaths of territory, Bosnia’s brutal and complicated four-year-long war, the worst in Europe since the end of World War II, stunned the world and contributed a chilling new term to the post-Cold War political lexicon: ethnic cleansing.
In Banja Luka, our teacher friends had already told us, the beginning of the end had been when the state required students to declare their “nationality.” Some older ones refused in protest. Younger ones, especially those from mixed families, often had no idea what their ethnic origins were and came back to school in tears to check–so administrators insisted–only one box on the forms.
Meanwhile, Serb landlords evicted their Muslim or Croat tenants, Serb paramilitaries forced Muslim and Croat families to abandon homes that they owned, and non-Serbs were fired from their jobs. Then, over a period of two weeks and always at night, Banja Luka’s mosques—including the Ferhadija, the finest example of Ottoman architecture in Bosnia—were all dynamited to rubble. The message was clear: if you weren’t a Serb, you had to get out. The church bells kept ringing, perhaps even more than before, as warlords promoted the Orthodox church as the foundation of a new Serbian nationalism. But for Marija, who tenaciously refused to leave her home or give up her job, they rang out hollow and false. What religion, she reasoned, claiming to embody the love of the one God, could condone the destruction of another that made exactly the same claim?
In the fifteen years since my wife and I left, there has been some progress in rebuilding the cosmopolitan Banja Luka of Marija’s youth. Croat and Muslim refugees have returned, although not nearly enough to restore their pre-war numbers. Most of the mosques have been rebuilt, including the Ferhadija, which is in the final stages of reconstruction.
But in my own country, the same fifteen years have witnessed an upsurge of religious, and particularly anti-Muslim, prejudice. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks against targets in the eastern U.S., Islam has become a pretty serviceable bogeyman for a political culture that seems to thrive on fear and resentment, in line with a general fear of the decline of Christianity in America that goes back at least to the Cold War. Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders (as well as, perhaps ironically, proponents of the “New Atheism”) and their political allies have led the charge, painting Islam—a diverse religion of about a billion people in places as widely dispersed as Indonesia and Indiana—as a unique source of violence and instability in the world today, a threat to Western civilization, a malevolent force seeking to infiltrate and undermine American society. That this line of attack is bad history, bad policy, and bad religion does not make it any less useful or effective.
But there are far more recent examples of strong hostility to Islam. In January this year, officials at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, under pressure from prominent clergymen and fearful of anonymous threats of violence, reversed their earlier decision to allow Muslim students to sound the adhan from the bell tower of the campus’s iconic chapel. The following month in nearby Chapel Hill, three Muslim students were shot to death, execution-style, by their neighbor, a professed anti-theist with a particular contempt for Islam. In March, when in a speech President Obama cautioned Americans against hubris in condemning widespread violence committed in the name of Islam—and cited the sordid historical relationship between Christianity and white supremacy in this country as a reminder—the reaction in the conservative media was swift and severe: slavery and Jim Crow, they said, had nothing to do with religion; the president is anti-Christian; the president is a defender of Islamic extremism; the president is himself a Muslim and, yes, a foreigner. Just this month, a gun range owner in Oklahoma made the news for advertising his business as a “Muslim free establishment.”
Late this spring in my own home state, the country received a bloody reminder that the fires of hate, once stoked, prove hard to contain or direct. In June, a young white supremacist raised in a white Protestant church entered a historic black Protestant church in downtown Charleston, sat for a while in a Bible study and then began shooting people. Before he opened fire, he reportedly said to the congregants, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
With these few words, Dylan Roof placed himself firmly within a toxic and astonishingly persistent stream of American political culture. Change the specific object of fear and hatred depending on the century, or the decade, or the region, but the story remains the same: malevolent forces that conspire to destroy the United States must be resisted by any means, including violence. As I have written about before, sometimes the specific currents flow together and commingle. These days, many people believe that Christian America is under attack on multiple fronts, by immigrants, blacks, liberals, a rotten federal government, Muslims at home and abroad. For some, President Obama seems to combine all these evils in his person.
But there is a countervailing stream in American political culture—as well as in the body of international law that successive U.S. governments did so much to shape during the twentieth century. Freedom of conscience and belief, freedom to speak and to share one’s views, freedom to assemble peacefully and to worship as one chooses, all have come to be seen as essential to individual human dignity and to the healthy functioning of society. Every American should consider it a personal responsibility—and a basic function of good government—to uphold these rights universally, for people of all faiths or of no faith, within the borders of this country and everywhere else. For American political and religious leaders to fan the flames of religious suspicion and prejudice is irresponsible and dangerous, and it goes against the grain of religious liberty that was written into our founding documents and secured over generations of struggle. For them to decry the imagined persecution of their own religion while fomenting real hatred against another, rings as hollow as the church bells of Banja Luka.