Xenophobia, Fantasy and the Nation:
The Logic of Ethnic Violence in Former Yugoslavia (Part I)
Glenn Bowman
Below are essential passages from Part I of Glenn Bowman’s paper.
Please click here for the complete paper with references.
Glenn Bowman is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Kent where he directs the postgraduate program in the Anthropology of Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Identity.
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Sharing the Sacra: The Politics and Pragmatics of Intercommunal Relations around Holy Places

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Two specific elements operated within the political discourses of the victorious parties, whether anti-communist or communist. The first was an evocation of the essential character and desire of the ‘people’ being appealed to; the second was a scapegoating of ‘the other’ who denied the people their true realization and the rewards it would bring about. Each of these elements appealed to a nationalist definition of identity elaborated in ethnic terms.

Thus ‘ethnic cleansing’ was already set out as a political agenda in the 1990 republican elections in so far as what the victorious political programmes sketched out in theory would subsequently be given body on the ground in Croatia, Bosnia-Herçegovina, and areas within Serbia such as the Sanjak and Kosova.

It is not, however, sufficient to say simply that this was ‘done’ to the people by an opportunist and unethical political leadership. We must investigate the enthusiasm with which elements of the Yugoslav populace responded to being ‘hailed’ (Althusser, 1971) as ethnic nationalists who had to destroy their neighbours in order to affirm their selves.

The ethnic hatred that erupted throughout the territories of Former Yugoslavia may have been instigated from above, but the popular response to that fomentation has been enthusiastic.

Tomaz Mastnak, a Slovene social philosopher, points out that the volunteer militias, which have carried out the larger part of the atrocities, are not anti-social anomalies but are expressions of precisely the sort of society which has developed in ex-Yugoslavia: “The militias are exactly the people in arms—civil society at its most uncivil”.

Analysis of the current situation must not only ascertain why ethnic divisiveness has served as a successful means of grasping power but also determine why the call to arms against former neighbours has been responded to with such passion.

When a person is induced to imagine his or her self primarily as a representative of an ethnic collectivity, a threat to that collectivity—like a threat to its power or to the life or property of any of its members who are presented as such—is simultaneously a threat to that person.

He or she not only sees the threatened co-national as ‘the same as’ his or her self but also imagines that co-national’s enemy as simultaneously an enemy to all those (including his or her self) who share identity with the threatened one. The enemy does not attack people as such; it attacks ‘Serbs’, ‘Croats’, or ‘Slovenes’.

If the enemy is the source of all evil, and the ‘we’ that would exist were that evil to be eradicated is inherently good, then the leadership which, in these sullied days, directs the struggle to destroy the evil is itself the personification of the principle of good. The leader stands in as the charismatic representation of the ‘will of the nation’ and, as long as it is believed that he represents that will, any activity that he initiates will be seen as ‘necessary’ for the redemption of the whole.

The nationalist leaderships’ discourses on the enemy, which are widely and powerfully promulgated by the media of communication they control, create, in effect, a world divided between two camps in which there is no neutral place to stand. Thus anyone who does not support the national leadership is necessarily a supporter of the enemy and all elements of the social field have to be interpreted in terms of the side on which they stand.

Moves to destroy that enemy follow the logic of ‘tactical pre-emption’; murdering children, women and the elderly in order to prevent them from becoming, procreating, or aiding those who will murder you makes good sense once the enemy is recognised as such.

That recognition, however, cannot be explained solely in empirical terms, especially when, as in the village portrayed in the documentary, the evidence of antagonism runs counter to the testimony of daily life.

Although it is undoubtedly true that political forces play a significant role in giving shape to and disseminating rumors which generate fear and give rise to inter-communal violence, it is not clear why such rumors should be accepted as true and—perhaps more saliently—why they should be seen as pertinent to situations in which no signs of inter-communal antagonism have previously been evinced.

If, on the other hand, we accept that the political discourses of the contending leaderships of the former republics have somehow transformed Yugoslavs into something different than they were before, we are still left with the question of ‘where has this penchant for extreme violence come from?’ Peter Loizos, faced with analogous instances of genocidal violence in the Cypriot context, argued that ethnic violence is focused on a specific set of subjects by antagonistic political rhetorics.

He left in abeyance, however, the question of what in the people such rhetorics were addressed to called them to answer to its call and adopt an image of the other as enemy with such passion that the will to efface the presence of that other from the earth overcame the moral scruples which had regulated social interaction before the other came to be recognised as such.