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.