Balkan spring

"Balkan spring" Continued...

Issue: "History speaks," April 1, 2006

As the majority group in Bosnia, Muslims control the nation's religious climate. Public schools teach an Islamic curriculum and the countryside is dotted with mosques. At 6:00 every morning, hundreds of mosques broadcast pre-recorded Arabic prayers from towering minarets. For most Bosnians the prayers are nothing more than a tinny-loudspeaker alarm clock because they do not speak Arabic. Locals jokingly define a "Bosnian Muslim" as someone who drinks liquor, eats pork, and does not pray five times a day. There are no laws opposing evangelicals in Bosnia, yet many churches meet in near-underground conditions because of the overwhelming pressure and influence of Islam.

That pressure may be growing due to an influx of millions of dollars into Bosnia from countries like Saudi Arabia. Most of that money is pouring into the construction of new mosques. "Our people are hungry and the Saudis spend millions to build mosques," says shopkeeper Hiba Mehic, who makes traditional Bosnian crafts for export in Zenica. An evangelical convert from Islam, Ms. Mehic complained, "We are forced to listen to those Arabic-language prayers echo throughout the city five times each day." She also said that the Saudis are paying women $40 to $50 per month to wear traditional Muslim head coverings in public. With high unemployment and average monthly wages at $100 per month, "the financial incentive is enticing women to wear the head covering," she said.

Most of Bosnia's middle class fled the country to find jobs in Australia and the United States. Many who remain are unemployed and aimless. Chinese merchants are beginning to fill the void by importing cheap products and setting up storefronts. At a coffee shop in downtown Zenica, Enis Vukovic, 24, laments the state of the economy. "There is no work. I do odd jobs." His description of "odd jobs" sounds more like petty criminal activity. To substantiate his claim of few job opportunities, he need only point to the steel factory in Zenica. It once employed 22,000 workers but now has 4,000 and pays one-tenth its pre-war salaries. "The only real jobs are in Germany," said Mr. Vukovic. "Those who go there to work never come back."

The United States has pumped millions of dollars into Bosnia, over $40 million annually in recent years and approximately $1.15 billion since the war to rebuild Bosnia's infrastructure, government institutions, and banking system. In Sarajevo, a U.S. embassy spokesman (who asked not to be named in keeping with State Department protocol) described the Bosnian government as "very inefficient" but declined to call the current government corrupt. Brokered talks among Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats continue, he said, to diffuse ongoing tensions and to reform the country's constitution. Membership in the European Union and NATO is depending on such reforms, but he admitted that already "some of the [U.S.] money pumped into constitutional reform may have been sidetracked into corrupt hands."

To make up the difference, the United States recently assisted the Bosnian government in putting forward a 17 percent national sales tax. The "VAT Spat" that resulted over the unpopular tax led Prime Minister Adnan Terzic to offer his resignation after members of his own party threatened to go against the tax in parliament. But the prospect of a government collapse prompted an about-face on all sides: Coalition parties agreed to support the tax and Mr. Terzic withdrew his resignation. That made consumers the losers. "The tax will only force more economy underground and guarantee cash for corrupt officials," said Enis Vukovic, sipping coffee in a Zenica café. "There will still be no jobs, no future." Most Bosnians agree they must work harder to integrate with Europe, but not if being more European just means higher taxes and rising unemployment.

With the approach of spring, winter snow on Bosnia's mountain slopes is beginning to melt. The retreating icy-white blanket reveals crushed brown grasses from the previous summer. No new green growth is yet evident. Some in Bosnia wonder when springtime will really come.

Giving and forgiving

When Slobodan Milosevic collapsed of a heart attack in his Dutch cell, he had spent five years in prison yet prosecutors were only 50 hours away from concluding testimony. His death rekindled Serb nationalists, left victims of Serb atrocities without a verdict, and exposed old wounds.

Enter Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, a Croat born near the border with Bosnia who spent his boyhood in Serbia before coming to the United States for scholarly training. Teaching each year at a seminary in Croatia and traveling the region tethers him to the region's theological as well as political struggles. His most recent book, Free of Charge (Zondervan, 2005), is an exploration of two practices at the heart of Christian faith-giving and forgiving-in short supply among adherents as well as those who could benefit from the example.

WORLD: What is it like to return to the former Yugoslavia?

VOLF: I am struck by the wounds that are still present below the surface because people have concentrated on surviving, both at the economic level and political level. I am struck by how much inner ruin and sheer material ruin the war has produced.

Bosnia is a good example. There is a huge influx of aid from the outside and yet it has no sustainable economy. Croatia is doing a bit better because of [Adriatic coast] tourism and individual initiatives. My home, Osijek, is a backwater. There were major factories in operation, but during the war they were destroyed, and they never came back. Yugoslavia as a market has crumbled and other markets have picked up the slack. The consequence is high unemployment, high drug abuse, and low morale.

WORLD: In Free of Charge you say most Christians don't take forgiveness seriously enough. Does that emphasis come from what you've witnessed?

VOLF: It's much more than political events, but as I saw this war emerging, one of the early problems you could see is that liberation theology fit too well. What do you do when both sides call themselves oppressed? Liberation theology provided the antagonists with religious combat gear rather than any way to help resolve their situation. It became very clear that the fundamental category, to use the terminology of the Apostle Paul, is not justice simply; it's justification. It involves concern for justice but it involves mending a relationship in a way that is lasting. At the time nobody wanted to hear that. They were too busy shooting. But after the war I found a lot of resonance for what I was trying to say.

WORLD: Are you asking us to forgive the Saddams and bin Ladens and Slobodans of the world? Do we have to do that?

VOLF: I'm not sure "have to" is the right term. Did Christ die for their sins? The prophetic stance of the Christian faith is a stand for generosity, to give more than you expect to receive. You need a full account of the reality of the gospel, of who God is, because otherwise it doesn't make any sense.

WORLD: Do you believe Milosevic should have been indicted for war crimes and brought before the UN tribunal?

VOLF: At the political level what's always important is the naming of the wrong as wrong. That's also an important aspect for individuals. Given that part of learning from the war in former Yugoslavia is to ask what was going on, yes, he should have been tried. Under cover of darkness one can proceed with unconscionable deeds.

What I object to is the retributive understanding of punishment. I think that we can have a disciplinary or Reformed understanding of justice but not retribution. I think Christ is the end of retribution.

WORLD: In your book you state that to forgive is to accuse. Can you explain that concept?

VOLF: In today's climate we think of forgiveness as having to do with our own internal emotional state. Like Dr. Phil, you forgive so that you can deal with the turmoil in your own soul. I have no doubt we need to work through that internal turmoil, but forgiveness doesn't have primarily to do with that; it has primarily to do with my relationship to the person who has wronged me. When I forgive someone, in that act I blame the person. We affirm that a wrong has been committed. It's a social event, it happens between people, it doesn't happen within the mind of one person. The accused must hear and understand that they've done something wrong for the transaction to be complete.

There is a general sense that we are at our best when we give and when we forgive. But we want to do it somehow without risking ourselves, without being abused. I tell people: Don't take this only as a command; it is a gift.


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