Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Ideas Have Consequences: The Theology of Politics & Identity Construction in the Former Yugoslav Republics

Preparing for tonight's Yale Political Union debate on Resolved: Save the Church from the State with Yale Law Professor Stephen Carter, I've been referencing a paper I wrote last semester for my poli-sci seminar on "Conflict and Cooperation in Post-Communist Europe", taught then by visiting Professor David Siroky. It's one of the few papers I'm proud of, so I thought I'd post it here in easily digestible segments over the next few days. If you're interested in the Orthodox Church, the Balkan Wars of the 90s, theories of multiple modernities, or Church-State relations in general, please give it a read and let me know what you think! All posts in this series will be tagged under "Responsible cross wielding", a phrase I came up with for this paper of which I'm rather fond. Footnotes are indicated by numbers in parentheses and listed at the end of each post. It's a slow start, but I end up arguing some pretty controversial things, so stay tuned!
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"Yugoslavia is a country with six republics, five peoples, four languages, three religions, two alphabets, and one Yugoslav - Tito." – Gary Bertsch (1)

“The South Slavs are a people of ideas; religious, state, and other ideas played and today still play a role in their history.” – Vladimir Dvorniković (2)

The composition of identity in southeastern Europe has long been a Gordian knot for anthropologists, historians, and political scientists alike. Understanding what determines ethnicity, how and to what degree is it consciously constructed (and by whom), and the nature of its relationship to religion are all essential for effectively analyzing the death of Yugoslavia, the birth of the sovereign republics, and how they conceive of themselves and their neighbors in a post-Communist world. While constructivist, instrumentalist, and primordialist theoretical models of identity formation provide a helpful framework from within which to examine South Slavic group formation and dynamics, they overlook the role of the intellectual content of specific ethnic or religious ideologies. The radical instrumentalist view posits that ethnicity, and identity more broadly, is simply “a tool exploited by individuals or elites to obtain power or greater resources and benefits,” (3) essentially implying almost infinite powers of (re)interpretation, unconstrained by history, philosophy, or theology. The primordialist view, on the other hand, approaches identity as rigid, fixed, and “natural” (4), precluding the possibility of development or evolution of an intellectual project. Constructivism comes closest to acknowledging the non-arbitrary nature of ethnic and religious ties, suggesting that “ethnicity evolves in parallel with changes in social interactions.” (5) Ethnic and religious identities amount to more than food preferences and how many days a year one fasts, and to assume the intellectual grounding of a group is arbitrary, infinitely malleable, or irrelevant, is to open one’s self up to radical misinterpretation of that group’s actions and motivations, as well as to limit the predictive ability of one’s theories. Likewise, I posit that ethnic and religious loyalties are often manipulated precisely because they already hold sway over peoples’ lives, and that the goals sought from ethno-religious mobilization are tied to the specific natures of the groups being mobilized, contra the idea that “ethnic political entrepreneurs” manufacture false divisions within societies for the pursuit of arbitrary and personal gain.
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1. Norbu, Dawa. "The Serbian Hegemony, Ethnic Heterogeneity and Yugoslav Break-Up." Economic and Political Weekly 34.14 (1999): 835.
2. Banac, Ivo. The National Question in Yugoslavia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988. 70.
3. Sharafutdinova, Gulnaz. "Chechnya Versus Tatarstan: Understanding Ethnopolitics in Post-Communist Russia." Problems of Post-Communism 47.2 (2000): 14.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., 15.

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