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Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Language of Constraint

An Interview with Nihad Hasanović, a Bosnian writer, Part III

Part one

Part Two

Is there any way we can talk about notions of honour and decency in today’s society in the light of what happened on a tram that was apparently packed with as many as sixty passengers, none of whom were capable of any form of reaction. What is your response, as a writer and thinker, to that scenario? (The reference is to the shocking incident when an innocent young boy, Denis Mrnjavac, was stabbed to death by another teenager on a Sarajevo tram )

According to the newspapers he was killed simply for looking at them in the "wrong way". What sort of a reason is that for taking someone's life? Thousands upon thousands of that boy's ancestors had fought a struggle for survival over millions of years, triumphing over difficulties that are beyond our capacity to imagine. They hid from dinosaurs, survived tyrannies, revolutions, wars and epidemics. That young man with the gentle face was the culminating point of an unbelievably long and beautiful fight for life. And then one day the last individual in that long line of succession was riding on a tram and a group of mindlessly brutal kids decided to murder him for no reason except perhaps to prove how “tough” they are.

This act of hubris, a motiveless crime of self-confident arrogance, demands our urgent attention, particularly bearing in mind that it occurred in the more fortunate half of this world, where people aren't dying on a massive scale from hunger, where we have plenty of electricity and drinking water, where women are lucky enough to be able to spend hours putting on make-up and making themselves beautiful.

That other young man, the killer - I ask myself what sort of a person he is? How was he able to act like that, how could he be so ruthless? Was he replaying some low-budget action movie? Maybe he had some fictional or real-life criminal as a role-model. The kid wanted to be that criminal, he wanted to show that taking someone's life was no big deal for him. Maybe he imagined his crime would bring him some sort of social respect. We see in the world around us how easy it is for the ruthless and the unscrupulous to prosper, compared with the people who try to behave ethically. For this guy, brutality was cool, good even.

Greed is the hallmark of the times we live in, and that's particularly evident in Bosnia, with muscle-bound goons with dilated pupils driving around in expensive cars and hordes of gold-diggers of every kind, from the turbo-folk groupies to graduate girls who manage to love world music and Štulić at the same time. Unfettered capitalism is tearing us apart.

Let’s try to imagine the Earth as a room containing, say, five cubic meters of firewood, one liter of edible oil and a barrel of petrol. All these resources are going to be exhausted one day, of course. But our Earth is so big it's hard for us to appreciate the limits on its capacities. Everyone is desperate to increase their material wealth. But once those reserves are gone how is all that material craving going to be satisfied?

The notion of moderation is a target for scorn today. Just mention the word and see how uncomfortably people react.

The Ancients had much more respect for moderation. I believe the term will become increasingly important as the Earth's resources run down. In fifty years or so the word moderation will sound considerably less feeble than it does today, simply because some of our raw materials, goods and energy resources will no longer be available to us. When that day arrives and we are forced to tighten our belts, we may look back on this golden age of consumerism with nostalgia.

Is it possible for every family on this planet to have their own car? I’m not really sure about that. Is it possible for everyone on Earth to consume the same amount of energy that the average American does? No.

I don’t believe that the adolescent who killed Denis Mrnjavac had any moderation or self-restraint.

So you're saying that we need to concentrate on reemphasizing the spiritual and ethical side of our nature.

Spiritual… I use the term with caution, with no religious connotations. When religious people set out their case - and I'm referring in particular to the three "testosterone religions" I mentioned earlier - they tend to argue along these lines: “Without religion we would all have killed one another; with no God we would have no moral code and we would be at one another's throats".

I find that argument unconvincing - an expression of cowardice, in fact. What about all those atheists who aren't criminals, very much the opposite in fact? Religious people will of course say that these self-declared atheists are actually believers, just unwilling to admit the fact to themselves.

And what about other creatures, like the bonobos, who as far as I know have no form of organized religion or holy scripture? Like other species of primate they show very little aggression or violence. Meanwhile some human communities although ostensibly very religious are nevertheless extremely aggressive and bellicose.

In a very cunning way religions have usurped the moral and empirical experience that humanity has accumulated over the course of history and pre-history.

Individuals with special qualities have emerged, great orators, capable politicians, some of them perhaps possessing special neurological advantages and capabilities (seen by some perhaps as more akin to disabilities) that their followers have interpreted as a divine gift. These exceptional individuals convinced their congregations that moral norms are derived from the realm of metaphysics.

Religion I am convinced is a force for evil rather than good. And when religion enters the social sphere it inevitably becomes a factor in politics. For example the Islamic Community in Bosnia (Islamska Zajednica or IZ, Bosnia's most prominent Islamic organization) is a political organisation, however its leaders may view themselves and their role. Reis Cerić is a politician who exercises terrifying influence over the God-fearing masses.

The first Queer Festival in Sarajevo had to be abandoned because it offended the sensitivities of radical Wahhabi thugs. On a sacred night they lay in wait for the “improper ones” and attacked them with the help of hooligan allies. Most moderate Muslims reacted with indifference to the scene of “pederasts” being beaten up during the night of Ramadan, intentionally or otherwise taking the side of the Wahhabis.

As a result the secular space of public life has been destroyed and that night of 24 September 2008 the religious state made its entrance by the side door. Public events are now restricted to the type of activity that cannot cause offence to Islamic radicals.

As a hiererarchically autonomous body the Serbian Orthodox Church in Bosnia functions in a similar way to the Islamic community, except that the Serbian Church has its hands soaked to an incomparably greater extent with the blood of the last war.

And what about the Catholic Church? Countless crimes have been committed under its tutelage and the Pope's leadership. Think about Latin America and all the atrocities committed there since the end of the 15th century. Any religious organization that embraces love and cherishes goodness should have terminated its own existence after such crimes. Nevertheless the Church lives on, nourishing itself from that eternally sweet lollipop that goes by the name of the fear of death.

A view that is regularly advanced maintains that although religion itself is good it is consistently misinterpreted. In which case I should like to know of a period of history when religion has been “properly” interpreted? I'd like an example, please.

The holy scriptures are texts characterized by a rich density of metaphor that encompasses a multitude of contradictions, allowing scope for a variety of interpretations to suit individual inclination. Religious manifestos of this kind have no role to play in bringing about political progress, particularly not where important ethical decisions are involved.

In my view any role those sacred texts may have had to play came to an end several centuries ago, they no longer serve the needs of today’s world. I have no wish to impose my own way of thinking on anybody else. It seems unlikely we will ever be able to prove the existence of a supernatural being in charge of the entire universe. And the existence of alien beings or UFOs is equally impossible to prove today.

Whether or not an individual chooses to believe in the comforting presence of a supernatural force is very largely dependent on the personality of that individual, his or her personal history and attitudes.

The problem arises with the allegedly divine nature of these sacrosanct texts. For people who are Muslims by birth, people who are nominally Muslim, any attempt to discuss aspects of Islam at a deeper level is difficult and fraught with danger .

The suppression of freedom to interpret the Qu'ran is a very serious problem. As long as the Qu'ran cannot be publicly criticized in this country and anyone challenging its authority is forced to go in fear of their life, as long as that situation continues we are forced to accept a special kind of intellectual confinement. And writers and artists from within the Islamic tradition continue to face a difficult struggle to avoid the intellectual atrophy that results from the self-censorship that the denial of their basic freedoms imposes.

Any form of humor that involves Islam evokes hostility and is seen as an act of disrespect or extreme right-wing Islamophobia. But just look at Robert Crumb's bizarre comic-books and the way he pokes fun at Christianity and the symbols of Christ and the priesthood. Did anyone stab a knife into Crumb’s chest because of that? Did any leader of a Christian church issue some kind of fatwa condemning him?

During the nineteen-sixties there was a powerful movement of critically-minded intellectuals in the Arab world who did their best to champion the cause of a strictly secular society in their own countries. The Western powers and above all the USA gave them no support because of their own financial interests. Many of those brave secularists lost their lives during Islamic revivals - those hurricanes of change for the worse. The West has never given its backing to secular movements in the Near and Middle East because of the threat they posed to its investments. It was much easier for the UK or America to cooperate with totalitarian regimes and religious radicals who were happy to sell out to the West on condition only that they were left in control of the souls of the people.

In Bosnia we think in nationalistic rather than individualistic terms; we are nationalists and enthusiasts for communalism (consociationalism). How can we match up to the standards of the major democracies where an individual's fate is not predicated on membership of a particular ethnic group or religious affiliation? Why is it impossible to call oneself a Bosnian in today’s Bosnia, and how can we challenge the views of the nationalists and communalists?

I approach this as a layman and not an expert, a political analyst or a lawyer. There's one key question we need to ask: which comes first – the individual or the collectivity, the nation? I give preference to the individual and that's where our starting point should be. This is why it makes sense to fight for the creation of an open democracy, however far off that prospect might appear, where the merits and qualities of an individual can be appreciated without reference to his or her membership of a particular nation, ethnic group or faith community.

Communalists argue their case with what I regard as perhaps unconscious sophistry. Roughly speaking their argument is that in a Bosnia structured on the lines of an open democracy Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) would be in the majority and so would be able to outvote the other, less numerous nationalities like the Serbs and the Croats. But this would not be a genuine open democracy, it would still be a country made up of distinct nationalities. Members of the constituent nationalities would still be the only people whose vote mattered, just as they are today.

Building an open democracy is a lengthy, time-consuming process. It involves a process of ongoing re-education that may take centuries. Among other things it depends on being able to break down prejudices concerning people of different cultural or sexual orientation, faith, language or skin color.

Before the nineteen-fifties and -sixties, it was inconceivable that Afro-Americans might ever rise to positions of political power, not until the time of Martin Luther King. Today, as a result of the painful and often bloody process of transformation that American society has undergone it is now possible for an Afro-American to run for President of the United States.

Centuries of crude physical as well as political struggle paved the way for this new scenario. Every human being should have the opportunity to pursue their own personal path to self-realization, as Rorthy might say, instead of being forced as we are in Bosnia to choose which of three sheep-pens to enter. Take for example someone with parents of different nationalities. To make a career in the government service this person has to identify himself or herself as belonging to one of the three main ethnic groups. What else is that but a subtle form of racism? It is impossible to become President of Bosnia unless you are prepared to identify yourself as a Serb, Bosniak or Croat, and what is that if it's not discrimination? The Bosnia created by the Dayton Agreement leaves no room for a civil alternative to have a voice within the system of government. Everything that passes through the mill of Dayton emerges perverted, crushed, destroyed and ludicrous.

The political organization of the country in which we live is as it is thanks to the signatures of two very evil statesmen – Slobodan Milošević and Franjo Tuđman. Theirs are the signatures under the Dayton Agreement. Slobodan Milošević died prematurely, fortunately for him, before he could be found guilty of the crime of genocide. This is the man who helped to construct the mechanism of government as it exists today. Monstrous, isn’t it? Even after his death he is still forcing us to beat our brains out against the wall.

André Gide said that a writer must know how to swim against the tide. Have you, as a writer, any critical comments to make regarding the state of Bosnian politics?

The population of self-satisfied young people waving university degrees needs to develop an awareness of political reality. This is something that I’ve discussed with friends a million times over. Young people who have had the privilege of an education lack political awareness and have no sense of responsibility.

The number of people who study literature without having any real interest in books or study journalism without ever reading newspapers is something peculiar to Bosnia. What is even more ludicrous is their belief that this is how things should be done and they never stop to ask whether there might be anything wrong with this.

So you diagnose a condition of political and social apathy among the young?

There is a lot to unpack here. Firstly there's the aftermath of the war. People are basically worn out, especially those who saw their lives wasted on the frontline or suffered the trauma of life under siege and daily artillery bombardments. Something has emerged here that Carl Sagan remarked on in another context - an inability to concentrate. Because of the stress they have endured and their state of nervous exhaustion people don't have the energy to discuss social and political problems in depth. It will take decades for their nerves to heal, and that’s something that needs to be understood.

Another problem is a more generalised one, so it seems to me – a tendency that is evident not just in Bosnia but in the West as well – a lack of social and political awareness. I referred to this earlier. Some of the blame must lie with television and the way that it serves up information in a gimmicky, fragmented way. As a result television has become incapable of teaching people how to think coherently, quite the opposite in fact. This is what Carl Sagan was referring to when he talked about American youth being excessively influenced by music channels like MTV, with their profusion of brief clips, and claimed that the way American teenagers think is defined by a similar brief span.

The education system could play a very helpful role here. In first grade they give you sticks counting sticks and an abacus and start teaching you to add, subtract and do times tables. Why not teach kids about ethics and politics (in a way that’s appropriate to their age, of course)?

Read the next chapter


Sarah Francosaid...

what Nihad mentions about television is the subject of political scientist Giovanni Sartori in Homo Videns, Television and Post-thought (televisione i post-pensiero), written in 1997.

Sartori presents the same argument that Nihad does here. while an activity such as reading demands concentration, watching tv doesn't. Of course TV is very important and I think 80% of what i know I learned thanks to Tv. but the problem is how people learn it.

the same goes for the internet. I have seen people who should know best linking websites that are not serious as if they were reliable sources. I am talking about academics, not average people.

of course, tv and internet are powerful tools that can enhance or minds and help us be more aware. but how do people use these tools?

excellent interview...


Fascinating Interview J.C., I am learning more about your culture than ever before. It's difficult for me to understand nationalism, or even ideas like ethnic cleansing. I read this 3 times actually, but am just now commenting.

As your country fights for individualism, my country fears losing it. I cannot criticize Obama as he hasn't done anything. I have no idea what his plans actually are but I hope they work for the best.

This is a long article, but well worth the read:)

J. C.said...

Hi Sarah and Bobby, and thanks for your opinions.
Bobby, I, as well, will never be able to understand nationalism or ethnic cleansing.

Dave Kingsaid...

An excellent interview. Thoroughly absorbing, ranging widely but not too widely. I was particularly fascinated by the remarks about religion and religious texts and about the latter being collections of rich metaphors pointing in contradictory directions. Great stuff! Thanks for this.

J. C.said...

Hi Dave, thanks a lot for your input.

Michelle Gartnersaid...

I always find it funny that non religious types can stereotype the religiously minded and describe what we think. It's rather close minded and discriminatory to stereotype believers. I wouldn't even begin to think that I know how another human being might think- nor try to describe the thought process behind atheism or even another religion not of mine own. One reason I stopped pursuing a psychology degree was the rampant erroneous belief that people think alike and that there are cookie cutter diagnosis and solutions. The more people you live with and in close quarters to- you will find that people do not even see the same colors. It is even more profound to find this out when living with your own offspring. How then does someone say all religious people think this way... or all Christians feel this way about ________? I am finding that being derogatory to the faithful is becoming more and more in vogue. In fact the older I become the more I see outright prejudice thinking and pointed abuse towards religious thinkers.It's sad because many great minds in many disciplines were inclined to religious beliefs and it enhanced their creativity and humanity.

Amila Jašarevićsaid...

This is an absolutely great read. I haven't even read the last part yet and I've already recommended it to all of my online friends :)

J. C.said...

Amila thanks o yes, flattering is always welcomed.

Amila Jašarevićsaid...

Haha no problem.. :D

Michelle Gartnersaid...

To put it bluntly - I read the 3rd installment and I was shocked that any such bigotry was put forth on your blog.

Read the first paragraph of the third installment again JC- if this same wording was phrased towards a particular race say whites, or blacks, or maybe jews or how about homosexuals? Would you print this same sentiments on your blog if it is was directed towards people based on race or sexual identity. No- probably not. Why then is it okay if it is about religious minded people? How could you print an interview about a group of "people being uneducated and not confident enough to believe whatever they are told?"

Let's apply Ockham’s razor (a principle my husband likes to quote liberally and I am familiar with) to this and I will tell you this-

it is neither bold nor enlightened to spout bigotry on a blog toward any one group of people whether the words are your own or another persons.

Michelle Gartnersaid...

Oh and JC please don't take any of this personally- I hate emotionalism in any form. I don't take any of this personally at all- it's not as if one day this fellow said I will write something inflammatory just to piss of some Lutheran woman in Wisconsin.

I just really think that you would have thought twice if these same words were pointed at a different demographic- but perhaps I am wrong I don't know you and perhaps you think people who are religiously minded are idiots... and you are entitled to your opinion no matter how you feel.

J. C.said...

Hi Michelle, sorry I didn't notice your comment earlier, as you know I have some issues with the comment form and I am seriously thinking about taking a course in HTML. I wish that Nihad could answer about your comment. This is after all, his opinion and an interview with him. I discussed once with Bobby about what means spirituality today - and I could say it again - the subject is so complex and in my view - a deeply personal one. And for explaining it in my case - it would take pages, and I do not want to sound like some postmodernist lol. I am glad that on this blog I had many cases where the people of the most deferent political, and in this case, religious views were interacting and that the discussion was many times productive and without hurting anybody's feelings. Something similar happened on my post on Obama where we had democrats and republicans engaging in polemic.
Michelle, I must add that I think that in your second comment you went too far in a wrong direction. And that the part you were quoting in the first comment was taken out of context.
And as a conclusion - I want to say that I am glad to publish something like this on my blog because I do not consider it as a bigotry like you have said, but like an opportunity to criticize. Religion and their installments should not be excluded from criticism and every secular and democratic society should exercise that right.
Thanks a lot for your opinions.

Michelle Gartnersaid...

Genrealizations about religious organizations and stereotyping is not criticism. How many religious organizations does this fellow know personally out of the 1,000s that exist? To stereotype and make generalizations on religions without personal knowledge of the individuals involved is very close minded.

Actually have had this conversation with several conservatives that find modern liberals have very little tolerance or even the ounce of open mindedness towards opinions not of their own. I know of several liberals that just shout down conservatives without even allowing them to speak. It's a bigotry of sorts.

It's interesting that in this country we have a great many people who are critical of religious people and yet you find these same critical people in line at religious based food banks for aid when they become desperate. The same people who malign religion worldwide seek out the Red Cross and Salvation Army as well as other faith based religious organizations for aid, food, and medical care. How do I know this- from missionary workers and people in the field? If religious organizations are so much a problem why seek them out when times are desperate. Perhaps because people know deep down their are compassionate people of faith that will help them regardless of who they are or what they believe?

Bigotry is a short cliff- there are people behind the organizations- not a nameless evil. In every group of people there are evil, there are the complacent, there are those who abuse power etc. Religion as a whole is not the reason the world has so many problems, but there are people who think it is a root evil. In the long run- individuals are responsible for their actions- not religions or political organizations. The individual stands trial alone. Individuals taking responsibility for their actions- a whole religious organization is not to blame for this war or that wrong doing. Shifting the blame is a common practice- to me it is short sighted to shift the blame to this organization or that one.

The United States has a great many people who claim to be religous- but I have found the very degrees of what this means is very subjective. Even the terms spiritually mean a thousand diferent things to a thousand different people. How then can everyone be lumped into this sect or that?

Perhaps JC I take issue with this in this way. I think that taking things on the whole and lumping them into the macro level leaves much more room for error. I think when a person is more mindful of the micro level- individuals, families, small groups and neighborhoods, there is less room for generalizations towards any one religion or group. Things start looking less homogenized - including relgions or groups of people.

Passing judgment on whole groups of people is never constructive whether it is a religious organization, a political party or a race.
Something I value very much is living in America, because of the incredible diversity of people and how different they think. Even people who belong to same organizations or the same sect as myself do not hold the same beliefs or traditions.

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