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Reflexions on the Case of Bosnia Herzegovina - CS EN


Analysis of the post-conflictual situation between different ethnic and religious communities.


The case I chose to analyse is related to my understanding of a particular conflict situation and my own experience. I believe that the conflict that occurred in Bosnia Herzegovina in the Nineties had an inter-religious component and that it was much eradicated in the local communities, at the point that it survived the war. It can be argued that the Bosnian case was mainly “ethnical” and found its roots in several other issues and was not religious, but I believe that one of the components determining an individuals belonging to an ethnicity in Bosnia was religion. Additionally, it was generally perceived as an inter-religious conflict (as also the fact that it was often instrumentalised as such proves it) and unquestionably it had an inter-religious conflict component, even if it was certainly not only about religion.

I think that the value of this case lies in showing how, in every-day life, inter-religious conflicts are often an element of a complex picture that is composed by several other issues, which are all mixed together and are difficult to distinguish one from the other. At the same time, this case also shows how inter-religious conflicts are often less about the big theoretical issues (such as values) and more about perceptions of differences (such as thinking the other group has incompatible values without in fact really knowing them.)


Case description

In the year 2000 I lived for four months in Livno, a mainly Croat municipality in Bosnia Herzegovina. I was there as an intern assisting Livno’s Human Rights Officer of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In the relatively little town of Livno the majority of its inhabitants identified themselves mainly as Croats, but there were also smaller Serbian and Muslim communities. I do not need to describe the bloody events that happened in former Yugoslavia in 1992 as I believe they are geographically and temporarily near enough to us to be well known.

Within this context, I witnessed how for the local population one of the main conflict causes was perceived to be the different religious background. In Livno itself, which was not dramatically touched by the war, the small Muslim community was concentrated in a peripherical neighbourhood, lived in clearly poorer conditions of the rest of the Croat population, and was not integrated into the community’s daily life. In Bosnia, as in any other context where an inter-religious conflict occurred, any future possibility of a pacific cohabitation and reconciliation needed to build on mutual acceptance of religious differences.

In addition to the numerous discussions I had while staying in Livno with my colleagues and friends, I had the opportunity to participate to a process aiming at bridging two municipalities with different populations (Livno which was predominantly Croat, therefore Roman Catholic, and Bugojno, a mainly Muslim town). The scope of the process was to allow people that were displaced from one of the two municipalities to the other2 to go back to their original homes (a sort of exchange of the premises among illegal home occupiers from both sides). Although the causes of the conflict that broke out in Bosnia Herzegovina cannot be attributed only to religious roots, religion certainly became one of the justifications for the conflict once it broke out and communities where identified by their religion.

When trying to put into contact municipalities with different “ethnic” or “religious” majorities (for not saying completely “mono-ethnic” communities) a great effort in conflict mediation was necessary. People on one side and the other would see the others as murderers and this would be closely bound with the different religious background. The challenge in our work in bridging municipalities was also to create an inter-religious dialogue, however, due to the complexity of the issue, it was never addressed directly. I think that this may be one of the causes why re-integration of the different religious communities took so long and was not very successful (while I was there I witnessed to very few returns and the first return ever in the municipality of Drvar). In this assignment I will explore one way of how this mediation could have been tackled.


Values and positions at stake

As I said earlier, I am personally convinced that most inter-religious conflict incidents find their roots in, at least, “also” other sources and reducing to only religion factors is simplistic. Perceptions and interpretations are what assume a big value in everyday life, more than the big theoretical disputes among academics or ecclesiastics. In the case of Bosnia Herzegovina (as for former Yugoslavia in general) it was a political event, symbolised by the fall of the Wall of Berlin, that created a disruption into the social and political setting and the fight was mainly about power and independence, while religion was initially a secondary element. In former Yugoslavia, for example, peaceful cohabitation among different religious groups was a fact for decades until the end of the 1980s (although the means to achieve it can be argued.) During the war in Bosnia Herzegovina religion became very important as the communities in conflict could be defined by their religious believes. The religious component grew stronger in determining communities’ identity and positions and became undeniably one of the war issues. As the focus of this paper is on religions and ethics, I will deliberately avoid political issues and their argumentation even though, especially in this particular case, they played a crucial role.

In the specific case I decided to expose, the re-instauration of relations among two municipalities with a different religious majority and the integration of displaced families of the religious minority group into these municipalities, there were several reasons why these two communities did not want to share the same territory.

The main issue concerned the threat each religious community saw in the other from a religious point of view3. Despite being in a monotheistic setting, both Christians and Muslims believe they worship the only truthful God and that their interpretation of religion is the only correct one. By reintegrating families pertaining to the different religion and not creating (or maintaining in this specific case) “religiously” pure communities, the uniformity of thinking and understanding religion was challenged. In fact, the challenge was generated by the mere existence in the community of “different people” and put at stake the values and religious traditions of each religious community. As a result, both communities were against the religious  promiscuity  within  their  territory  having  a  discourse  of  “them  or  us”.  Without engaging into a long debate that is not the object of this short paper, history has generally shown that both in Christian and Muslim worlds there has been a trend of expelling the “unfaithful” (in one way or the other) from the community4 in order to create uniform territories.

This issue can be concretely divided into two main issues at stake: values and traditions. Without judging whether it is true or not, I think that each community perceived that the religious values of the other group were incompatible with theirs. I am not an expert so I will not judge if it is correct or not, but, even only seeing the different presentations and interventions we had at the Master, I noticed that many people classify some values (such as compassion, pardon, guilt, shame, love for the other, etc.) as belonging more to one or another religion. This shows that without having a profound knowledge people can believe that values are different and incompatible among different religious groups.

Religious traditions (or perceived as such) were challenged. Muslims and Roman Catholics have different religious traditions. Some of them can be observed in daily life. The one which is the most visible5 on the Muslim side is the use of the veil among women. Religious promiscuity among women that wear the veil and women that do not can make some women challenge this tradition. Similarly, the Roman Catholics could feel their traditions were challenged if half of the population does not follow, for example, Easter rituals.


Mediation strategies

When trying to solve an inter-religious conflict I believe that no mediator is completely neutral as she/he will have her/his own values which derived from the cultural context she/he lives or lived in. Additionally, the conflicting parties will probably try to box him or her into some “religious category”. For example, any white European will be automatically be classified as Christian, despite it may be atheist, of another religion such as Buddhist or even Muslim. It  will therefore be impossible to find a perceived totally neutral mediator by both parties in the conflict.

I see two possible mediating strategies. The first one is to rely on a mediator that is perceived as not having a particular interest in the conflict, despite his/her religious beliefs, and being able to inspire impartiality to the parties. I am thinking for example of the past use of Norwegian mediators in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict. This is probably possible when both parties share the same respect and trust for one particular person. The second option is the possibility to have a mediator that can be clearly identified as near to one position (but in this case impartiality may be lost). Again the concrete case can be found in the Israel-Palestine conflict with the US mediation.

I think that, despite all the challenges created by inter-religious conflict when associated with war, inter-religious dialogues should be addressed as it can bring its contribution to reintegration and the re-establishment of peaceful coexistence. In the Bosnian case, I would have taken into consideration the possibility of engaging an external actor, trusted by both parties, not of the region, but perceived as knowledgeable of the situation.


Personal approach

In the specific case I reported, in order to solve the conflict and contribute to the pacific and integrated coexistence of the Muslim and Catholic community in a town, I would try to ask to few high ranking representatives of both municipalities and probably as well a small group of their religious representatives to meet and have a seminar. The participants would choose an agreed neutral mediator and the topic of the seminar would be the coexistence of different religious communities. As the topic is very sensitive I would have avoided a more direct formulation such as “integrating members of the different religious communities in the municipalities’ territory”. I think that in the year 2000 it may have been to sensitive to have this seminar public. To avoid that the representatives of both municipalities would not accept the invitation for fear of “discredit” towards their community I would organise the seminar discretely and convey the small group in a private retreat. Additionally, I believe that if it was the international community that organised and invited participants to the seminar participation would certainly be higher. The “mediation-seminar” would address with this small group the issues related to the values at stake for both religious communities and the reasons why they believe they cannot coexist.

Both sides would have the possibility to talk and express their concerns and then with the help of the mediator they would try to find a common strategy to achieve peaceful coexistence through common interests and goals. The aim of the process would be to eliminate (or at least reduce) the perception of incompatibility among the two religious communities and have the possibility of a dialogue where both communities acknowledge the existence of the other group within a multicultural setting. I believe that finding common values and destroying negative stereotypes it is the first step to achieve peaceful inter-religious coexistence.

As a mediator I would play a crucial role in underlying some factors (such as the possibility of pacific coexistence and integration) when they are mentioned by participants or bring them up them if they are not raised. I think that one of the main topics is diversity and the need of understanding that it is not a threat. Considering that it is an inter-religious conflict I would try to ask both parties, after having studied both religions, to illustrate some crucial aspects (such as love for the other or helping the needy) of both religions. This would reduce the perceived distance between the values of the two religious groups, which was identified in section 3, along with traditions, one of the elements of the inter-religious conflict. The aim of this exercise would be to destroy the negative stereotyping each religious community has of the other.

At the same time, however, I would illustrate successful cases of multi-religious states and how they have managed this diversity and even culturally enrich themselves. This would be done with the scope of not giving the impression of wanting to diminish the differences between the two religions (as neither community would accept it). Personally, when I would perceive that differentiation is positive I would underline the differences in view of improving a “knowing the other” process.

At the end of the meeting, I would ask the selected representatives to discuss of the next steps to bring forward this “bridging” process and write a common memorandum. Probably the process will be lengthy. I believe that, when the time is appropriate, the results of the meeting should be shared with their communities as the aim is to end the inert-religious conflict among communities and not individuals. This will hopefully start to create the basis for an inter- religious dialogue and provide the possibility to reconcile the two communities and allow the displaced people return process.



This brief paper wanted to raise several issues. First of all, the issue that inter-religious conflicts can be the result of other issues (such as political) and that is why it can be difficult to define which are the values and positions at stake. Secondly, my impression is that often it is a partial and not detailed knowledge of the other religion that creates false perception of the other religious community values and positions (which may or may not be true) and therefore conflict. In addition, conflicts always involve feelings in addition to rational thinking. For both these reasons in the Bosnian case, it is difficult to determine which are the values and positions at stake and it is therefore impossible to apply a pure argumentative approach to solve the conflict.



Amartya Sen “La democrazia degli altri”, Mondadori, 2004.

Figures over Bosnia Herzegovina were obtained from the following website: