Vol. 16 No. 11 · 9 June 1994

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What is a Bosnian?

In his review of Bosnia: A Short History (LRB, 28 April) John Fine comes up with an extra-ordinary definition: ‘A Bosnian is someone who supports the Bosnian Government.’ This definition helps to explain Noel Malcolm’s hastily compiled ‘short history’, written in support of currently fashionable Bosnjak (read, Muslim) theories. Malcolm’s book depends wholly on Fine’s earlier writings. However, both are absolutely right that the tragedy of Bosnia was made by external forces; to a large extent by foreign historians. That apart, Malcolm must be given credit for making a relatively great leap forward from the histories of Bosnia published in English so far. But his work is far from being the last word on the matter.

Malcolm states in the Introduction that ‘the very existence of Bosnia as a historical entity has been denied by some writers, who have confidently asserted that “Bosnia has never been a state." ’ There is, however, a clear distinction between a ‘historical entity’ and a ‘state’, and whilst I am a supporter of the Bosnian state, it is a fact that Bosnia was never a true state in the contemporary sense, but a feudal creation of the Croatian Catholic nobility, a fact which cannot be obscured by Malcolm’s statement elsewhere that ‘for more than a century, Croats have written books claiming to prove that Bosnians are “really" Croats.’ To prove that the majority of ‘Bosnians’ were not, originally, ‘really’ Croats, but some odd ‘Catholics’ requires refutation in depth. Fortunately, the Croatian origins of the Bosnian nobility are extremely well documented.

The evidence for the link between Bosnian Catholics and the name ‘Croatian’ are too numerous to be ignored: which evidence Malcolm and Fine painstakingly avoid. Already in 1514 (only 51 years after the Turks occupied part of Bosnia), at the general meeting of the Franciscan Order in Assisi, it was decided that the Bosnian Franciscan province should be divided into two parts, one under the Turkish occupation (Bosnia Srebrenica) and the other in free Bosnia (Bosnia Croatiae) or Croatian Bosnia. However, on page 56 of his book, in an exception to his general tendency, Malcolm contradicts himself and accepts that ‘Croatian Bosnia [is in fact] non-Ottoman Croatia.’ It is clear that the unoccupied part of Bosnia, with monasteries in Bihac, Glamoc, Jajce, Soli (Tuzla) and Bijeljina, could not have had a Croatian name if certain ‘Bosnian Catholics’ rather than Croats had lived in these regions.

Malcolm’s and Fine’s argument that religion was the main factor in determining Croatian nationality in Bosnia cannot stand any serious test. During the whole period of the Turkish occupation Croats in Bosnia were in constant physical contact with the rest of Croatia, as were members of my own family, who escaped from the Turks into Croatia in 1463, leaving the rest of the family in Bosnia, and remained there until the Peace of Madrid, 1617, when they returned to Bosnia.

The irony is that in the pursuit of their ‘Slav’ and ‘Bosnian’ theories, Malcolm and Fine are let down by the very people whom they champion: the present Muslim leadership, who (only a few months ago) decided officially that their nationality is Bosnjak – against considerable opposition from the Muslim masses.

A further example of Malcolm’s and Fine’s confusing of the linguistic environment of Bosnia is their insistence on the use of the term ‘Serbo-Croat’, as the language supposedly spoken there before 1918. Malcolm also resurrects ‘Slavs’ as the original Bosnian population: ‘then, within a few years, two new Slav tribes arrive’ (i.e. Croats and Serbs), after which he immediately contradicts himself: ‘Scholars have long been aware that the name Croat (Hrvat) is not a Slav word.’ All this, in order not to upset the present Muslim ruling class by reminders of an ethnic origin which they would rather like to forget! Instead of getting to grips with this difficult problem (which is the essence of the present conflict) and accepting defeat, Malcolm and Fine rely on outdated ‘Yugoslav’ theories. Like the English and the Americans, Croats and Serbs are divided rather than united by the ‘same’ language. The best example of this linguistic abyss is the Aljamiado literature, written by Muslims, who called their Croatian dialect Ikavski. Regionally this was Bosnian and often Croatian, but never Serbian, because the Serbs never spoke Ikavski.

Noel Malcolm minimises (and in his review, John Fine ignores) the persecution and ethnic cleansing of over one million Croat Catholics under the Turkish occupation. He skirts over the very first example of apartheid in Bosnia when Christians were forced to wear black. Although he discusses the Muslim charitable institution of the Vakufs, he does not mention that their origins in Bosnia lay in the plundering of Christian property.

What we are left with are contrived theories whose only purpose is to justify (on John Fine’s own definition) the hold on power of the present Muslim government in Bosnia.

Paul Tvrtkovic
London SE3

The View from on High

It is good to know from Boris Ford’s letter (Letters, 26 May) that the Chief Rabbi, the Archbishop of Canterbury and a representative of the Archbishop of Westminster do not identify with the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s position on matters of blasphemy; though surely no one imagined that they did just because Christopher Hitchens said so.

The Chief Rabbi says that ‘even a fully fledged case of blasphemy is only punished in Jewish law by excommunication’; according to Biblical law, blasphemy is punished by stoning (Leviticus 24.16), even if rabbinical law moderated this to flogging and then to excommunication, and in the state of Israel material which offends religious sensibilities is suppressed by unofficial if not by official sanctions. He says that excommunication – ‘exclusion from the Jewish community’ – is ‘not practised by the Anglo-Jewish community’; according to reports in the Jewish Chronicle, exclusion from synagogues and communities is practised, though not for blasphemy. He says that he is ‘opposed to the extension of the blasphemy laws to cover other faiths’, so he is in the curious position of supporting legal protection for Christianity but not for Judaism.

The Archbishop of Canterbury doesn’t say what he thinks about blasphemy law, but the Church of England has always supported and often employed the common law under which many people have been prosecuted and punished for publishing material about the Anglican version of Christianity which other people find offensive.

The representative of the Archbishop of Westminster says that ‘the Catholic Church would not connive with any attitude or system which aims to coerce people in the exercise of religious freedom and personal responsibility by force or fear or any other means.’ The Roman Catholic Church has notoriously held such attitudes and run such systems for most of its existence, even if it has moderated its position as it has lost its power, and it too supports the blasphemy laws of this and other countries with Christian traditions.

The question is not whether people agree with the Ayatollah – most people are against killing people when they no longer have the power to do so – but whether they are in favour of law against offensive material about religion remaining stricter than that about politics, race, sex, sport and so on.

Nicolas Walter
Committee Against Blasphemy Law

Derridean Slip

In her review of Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman (LRB, 12 May), Elaine Showalter appears to err in writing that Malcolm ‘has told us how Plath had the habit of going to a park in Cambridge to cut a rose or two for her apartment’. While Plath may well have cut English roses, I believe Malcolm is referring to the incident recorded in Plath’s journal entry of 11 June 1958 when she was living in Northampton, Massachusetts. Showalter’s small mistake would hardly be worth mentioning were it not for its cultivable interest as an almost Derridean or Freudian slip.

P. Nelson-Saginor
Boston College, Massachusetts

Churchland’s Beef

Paul Churchland’s review (LRB, 12 May) of John Searle’s book The Rediscovery of the Mind would have been yet another case of tit-for-tat in the hoary reductionist v. non-reductionist battle over the way to solve the mind/body problem. Churchland, however, produces something much more interesting: an overwhelmingly convincing reductio ad absurdum of his own reductionist position. Simply put, if Searle is guilty of holding a quaint parochialism about ‘the mind’ then so too is Churchland about ‘the brain’: after all, the brain is just a bunch of chemicals, which in turn are just molecules, which in turn are just particles, which in turn are …. So then, why should we think that the ontology of neuroscience is any more ‘real’ than that of intentional psychology? Aiming to etiolate ‘the mental’ with diminutives such as ‘folk psychology’ doesn’t help. What we need to know is the difference, if any, between the kinds of explanation that neuroscience gives and those explicitly adverting to mental states: prima facie, neither invokes the kinds of strict law that scientifically respectable explanations do. On the other hand, both do wield laws containing ceteris paribus clauses, a characteristic, no doubt, of all the macro-level sciences. One wonders then what Churchland’s beef is: is he arguing against Searle or is he arguing against anti-reductionism tout court? From what he says we can only assume both. But if so, Churchland has got to explain what he means by such muddles as ‘whether cognitive neuroscience eventually succeeds in discovering suitably systematic neural analogues for all the intrinsic and causal [sic] properties of mental states’ – among other things, whence neural analogues?

Douglas Braaten
New York

Paul Churchland’s attack on Searle seems to me to fail on its own terms. The philosophical problem is whether mind (consciousness, mental states) may be seen, without essential loss, as reducible to purely physical brain states. Here is Churchland’s summary of Searle’s argument: 1. John’s mental states are known-uniquely-to-John-by-introspection. 2. John’s physical brain states are not known-uniquely-to-John-by-introspection. Therefore, since they have divergent properties: 3. John’s mental states cannot be identical with any of John’s physical brain states.

Now the analogy that Churchland intends as a reductio ad absurdum: 1. The temperature of an object is known-to-John-by-simple-feeling. 2. The mean molecular kinetic energy of an object is not known-to-John-by-simple-feeling. Therefore, since they have divergent properties: 3. temperature cannot be identical with mean molecular kinetic energy.

But this, surely, is a non sequitur. Searle’s argument is not, presumably, that ‘heat’ is not the same thing in the two cases, but that John’s sensation of heat – ‘heat’ as it exists in or for John’s consciousness when he holds his hand over the stove – is not reducible to mean molecular energy. And if this is what Searle means, he would appear to have objections like Churchland’s checkmated: no one doubts that physics can give us an adequate account of a sunset or a Chevrolet or a cold glass of water on a hot day, but when it has done so, however exhaustively, my consciousness of such things remains to be explained.

William Dowling
Rutgers University

The Thing

Andrew O’Hagan’s review of James Kelman’s How late it was, how late (LRB, 26 May) argues that when it comes to describing those powers who oppress the central character Sammy – the police, the DSS and so on – Kelman resorts to ‘posh-sounding caricatures’. The point surely is that the working-class people who Kelman writes about do, sometimes, see all authority as one conspiratorial mass. Indeed, authority is not actually beyond acting in such a way. If Kelman’s work is a caricature it is only in the way that William Cobbett described the regime of Old Corruption as ‘The Thing’. Kelman’s novel provides and focuses a sense of anger and injustice, but an injustice that has little conception of how to organise an effective fightback. Then again that is the job of the socialist newspaper-seller not the socialist novelist.

Keith Flett
London N17

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