Comparing Serbian Unrest to Muslim Unrest

Things are getting out of hand in the Balkans. A mob of Serbian nationalists attacked and set alight parts of the US embassy in Belgrade on Thursday to protest American and European recognition of Kosovo after the former Serbian province voted for independence (though Kosovo is 90% ethnic Kosovar, it is situated in the heartland of Serbian culture and history). Sadly, there may even have been a fatality.

It will be interesting to see how the pundits respond; particularly the ones who, witnessing unrest in some Muslim-majority societies during the Danish cartoon crisis, instinctively chalked it up to Islam’s supposedly inherent political deficiencies.

My guess is that we will thankfully not hear anachronistic, essentializing theories about the hegemonic tendencies of “Slavic culture” or Orthodox Christianity, despite the chillingly nationalistic chants for a Greater Serbia or the deeply-felt Orthodox Christian identity that seems to figure so prominently in the conflict.

Personally, I disagree strongly with the Serbian position on Kosovo. In my view, no people’s right to self-determination should be contingent on the nationalistic sensibilities of another, but I nonetheless find this sad turn of events unsurprising in light of Serbia’s wrenching and humiliating experience since the breakup of Yugoslavia. In a time of conflict, international isolation, and uncertainty about the future of the nation, few things could inspire greater fear than the secession of a province, not to mention a province that includes its most historic regions and sites.

Despite the irony of how such passions on the part of Serbs come at the expense of their coreligionists in Kosovo, I suspect Muslims have an advantage in understanding what Serbs today are going through psychologically. In many Muslim societies there is a kindred sense of being simultaneously wronged by history and under siege from the outside world (and sometimes not without reason).

While culture and religion no doubt color the situation to some extent, it seems far more likely that the violence is a symptom of widespread fears and frustrations over Serbia’s suddenly precarious place in the world than that it reveals something essential to Serbian or Orthodox religious culture. I wish the same cautious approach to sweeping, ahistorical generalizations about other cultures more often informed public discussions of the contemporary political problems of Muslims.