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By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
Recent events such as the ongoing Rohingya crisis in Myanmar have emphasized the importance of conversations about religious nationalism and the role of religion in ethnic conflicts. Sponsored by the politics department, Dr. Vjekoslav Perica arrived in Sewanee to deliver a talk entitled “Serbian Nationalism.” This timely topic focused on the violent altercations surrounding the nation-state Kosovo within Serbia.
Perica began his presentation with a 17-minute video montage on Kosovo and its relationship with the United States of America. The montage included former President Bill Clinton’s remarks on the nation-state, responding to violent conflicts between ethnic Albanians and the Serbian majority, the unveiling of a statue of President Clinton on his visit to Kosovo, as well as Serbian Defense Minister Dragan Sutanovac’s comments on division within the nation. Once the video montage had served its purpose as an overview of historical context and a summary of current events, Perica began his presentation in earnest.
The conflict is between ethnic Albanian Muslims in Kosovo and the Christian majority in greater Serbia. Similar to most nation-states housing a national minority, like Catalonia in Spain, Kosovo has long claimed independence from Serbia, and Serbia has refused to acknowledge it.
Perica started off with a timeline of Kosovo nationalism, beginning in the 1980s with the death of Josip Broz Tito, the President of Yugoslavia, and culminating in 2008, with American-sponsored Kosovo independence. In between, Kosovo has undergone several changes, from its declaration of independence from the Serbian state in 1990 to the Serb-Albanian War from 1998 to 1999.
“I’m going to borrow from a popular political slogan of today,” said Perica, and declared that the sentiments in Serbia were practically “Make Serbia Great Again.”
Perica tackled the metaphor behind the much-lauded name given to Kosovo by the Serbian government: Serbian Jerusalem, implying that it is Serbia’s holy land, as well as being the site of the earliest independent statehood under native ethnic kings. He emphasised the importance of the role that memories, narratives, and monuments play in the building up of national identity.
But what happens when history is inaccurate? Perica explained the use of nationalistic engineering to cater to the pride and the formation of national identity, wherein parts of history are selected and used for the benefit of what is usually the dominant governing body. For example, contrary to popular belief, Kosovo is not the actual birthplace of Serbia, and most of the medieval churches that it houses that Serbia claims are essential to the country are in fact less important than the churches that are in Serbia proper.
“Religious nationalism is the seemingly dominant nationalism of our time,” said Perica.
He continued to discuss the divide between the religious monopoly that the Serbian Orthodox Church holds on the country and the Islamic extremism that pervades most of Kosovo. Religious nationalism takes root more easily in countries and nation-states where historic places often house shrines or churches as physical evidence of the history of the nation. In Kosovo’s case, the divide is not merely the difference in religion, but in the heritage that Serbia believes Kosovo is begrudging them by demanding recognition for independence.
A Q&A session concluded the evening. Dr. Vjekoslav Perica further examines this topic in his book, Balkan Idols: Religion and Nationalism in Yugoslav States. He is a professor at the University of Rijeka in Croatia and is currently working on a new book.