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Anger in Bosnia, but this time the people can read their leaders' ethnic lies

Protesters were carrying three flags side by side – Bosnian, Serb and Croat, brought together by a radical demand for justice

Presidency and Government buildings on fire during protest in Sarajevo

'The protesters' despair is authentic. One is tempted to paraphrase Mao Zedong: there is chaos in Bosnia, the situation is excellent!' Photograph: Sulejman Omerbasic/Corbis


by Slavoj Zizek

Last week, cities were burning in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It all began in Tuzla, a city with a Muslim majority. The protests then spread to the capital, Sarajevo, and Zenica, but also Mostar, home to a large segment of the Croat population, and Banja Luka, capital of the Serb part of Bosnia. Thousands of enraged protesters occupied and set fire to government buildings. Although the situation then calmed down, an atmosphere of high tension still hangs in the air.

The events gave rise to conspiracy theories (for example, that the Serb government had organised the protests to topple the Bosnian leadership), but one should safely ignore them since it is clear that, whatever lurks behind, the protesters' despair is authentic. One is tempted to paraphrase Mao Zedong's famous phrase here: there is chaos in Bosnia, the situation is excellent!

Why? Because the protesters' demands were as simple as they can be jobs, a chance of decent life, an end to corruption but they mobilised people in Bosnia, a country which, in the last decades, has become synonymous with ferocious ethnic cleansing.

Before now, the only mass protests in Bosnia and other post-Yugoslav states were about ethnic or religious passions. In the middle of 2013, two public protests were organised in Croatia, a country in deep economic crisis, with high unemployment and a deep sense of despair: trade unions tried to organise a rally in support of workers' rights, while rightwing nationalists started a protest movement against the use of cyrillic letters on public buildings in cities with a Serb minority. The first initiative brought a couple of hundred people to a square in Zagreb; the second mobilised hundreds of thousands, as had an earlier fundamentalist movement against gay marriages.

Croatia is far from being an exception: from the Balkans to Scandinavia, from the US to Israel, from central Africa to India, a new Dark Age is looming, with ethnic and religious passions exploding and Enlightenment values receding. These passions were lurking in the background all the time, but what is new is the outright shamelessness of their display.

So what are we to do? Mainstream liberals are telling us that when basic democratic values are under threat by ethnic or religious fundamentalists, we must all unite behind the liberal-democratic agenda of cultural tolerance, save what can be saved and put aside dreams of a more radical social transformation. Our task, we are told, is clear: we must choose between liberal freedom and fundamentalist oppression.

However, when we are triumphantly asked a (purely rhetorical) question such as "Do you want women to be excluded from public life?" or "Do you want every critic of religion to be punished by death?", what should make us suspicious is the very self-evidence of the answer. The problem is that such a simplistic liberal universalism long ago lost its innocence. The conflict between liberal permissiveness and fundamentalism is ultimately a false conflict a vicious cycle of the two poles generating and presupposing each other.

What Max Horkheimer said about fascism and capitalism back in the 1930s (that those who do not want to talk critically about capitalism should also keep quiet about fascism) should be applied to today's fundamentalism: those who do not want to talk critically about liberal democracy should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism.

Reacting to the characterisation of Marxism as "the Islam of the 20th century", Jean-Pierre Taguieff wrote that Islam was turning out to be "the Marxism of the 21st century" prolonging, after the decline of Communism, its violent anti-capitalism.

However, the recent vicissitudes of Muslim fundamentalism can be said to confirm Walter Benjamin's old insight that "every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution". The rise of fascism is, in other words, both the left's failure, and simultaneously proof that there was a revolutionary potential, a dissatisfaction, which the left was not able to mobilise. And does the same not hold for today's so-called "Islamo-fascism"? Is the rise of radical Islamism not exactly correlative to the disappearance of the secular left in Muslim countries?

When Afghanistan is portrayed as the utmost Islamic fundamentalist country, who still remembers that 40 years ago it was a country with strong secular tradition, including a powerful Communist party which took power there independently of the Soviet Union?

It is against this background that one should understand the latest events in Bosnia. In one of the photos from the protests, we see the demonstrators waving three flags side by side: Bosnian, Serb, Croat, expressing the will to ignore ethnic differences. In short, we are dealing with a rebellion against nationalist elites: the people of Bosnia have finally understood who their true enemy is: not other ethnic groups, but their own leaders who pretend to protect them from others. It is as if the old and much-abused Titoist motto of the "brotherhood and unity" of Yugoslav nations acquired new actuality.

One of the protesters' targets was the EU administration which oversees the Bosnian state, enforcing peace between the three nations and providing significant financial help to enable the state to function. This may seem surprising, since the goals of the protesters are nominally the same as the goals of Brussels: prosperity and the end of both ethnic tensions and corruption. However, the way the EU effectively governs Bosnia entrenches partitions: it deals with nationalist elites as their privileged partners, mediating within them.

What the Bosnian outburst confirms is that one cannot genuinely overcome ethnic passions by imposing a liberal agenda: what brought the protesters together is a radical demand for justice. The next and most difficult step would have been to organise the protests into a new social movement that ignores ethnic divisions, and to organise further protests can one imagine a scene of enraged Bosnians and Serbs demonstrating together in Sarajevo?

Even if the protests gradually lose their power, they will remain a brief spark of hope, something like the enemy soldiers fraternising across the trenches in the first world war. Authentic emancipatory events always involve such ignoring of particular identities.

And the same holds for the recent visit of the two Pussy Riot members to New York: in a big gala show, they were introduced by Madonna in the presence of Bob Geldof, Richard Gere, etc: the usual human rights gang. What they should have done there was to express their solidarity with Edward Snowden, to assert that Pussy Riot and Snowden are part of the same global movement. Without such gestures which bring together what, in our ordinary ideological experience, appears incompatible (Muslims, Serbs and Croats in Bosnia; Turkish secularists and anti-capitalist Muslims in Turkey, etc), protest movements will be always manipulated by one superpower in its struggle against another.



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