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