In Nazi ideology, the Fuhrer is the living embodiment of the people’s community (volksgemeinschaft); he is the manifestation of the people’s will, and thus ties the entire presentation and ideological system (weltanschauung) together as one cohesive whole. Yet, the “Fuhrer principle” is not wholly explanatory of Nazism, nor should it be taken to be [1]. Rituals, symbols, and their repetition were crucial in the presentation and maintenance of Nazism as an ideological hegemon. This much is obvious – one cannot escape the prevalence of grand illustrations of Nazi spectacles in Western popular media, given the photos of the momentous Nuremberg rallies and others, especially seen in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. They have been seared in the public mind, but in doing so, they have also been mostly emptied of historical context.

Nazism would not have been as successful as it was had there not been historical precedent, and this continuity is crucial to demarcate because it places us squarely in the minds of the German spectator, and grants us an understanding of the allure behind the presentation. Thus, the purpose of this essay is twofold – for one, it aims to further affirm the claims that ritual was crucial to the maintenance of weltanschauung and relied on it; and secondly, I will demonstrate that Nazi rituals harkened back to forms of previous mass public expressions (Catholic, Protestant, Teutonic, and otherwise) which were emptied of their prior substance and used for other ideological ends, namely that of the Nazi state. These rituals took the form of religion in what German legal scholar Herman Heller pithily called “Catholicism without Christianity” [2]. Nazism transformed religion’s rituals and politically utilized it by “[obscuring its] transcendence by means of an ever-larger infusion of ritual” [3]. I hope to show how ritual and historical continuity was one of the central spectral features of the weltanschauung, and was thus integral to its legitimacy.

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I. The Main Components of the Nazi Mythos

A dominant group demands a mythos for it be seen as historically legitimate. One cannot discuss political rituals, or any tradition, without discussing their mythologized origins. As Eric Hobsbawm writes, “[invented traditions] are responses to novel situations which take the form of reference to old situations, or which establish their own past by quasi-obligatory repetition” [4]. This type of historical “play” – the usage of history for ideological ends – necessitates a myth and presentation in order for it to be viewed as a consistent narrative by its viewers. The Nazis were able to do so by creating a “holy history,” sanctifying their politics to works towards their mythologized ends [5].

The religious amenities of fascism are well-documented. Academic Paul Mazgaj writes:

Translating the ancient religious topos of death and redemption into a secular myth of national decadence and renewal, fascists were able to project an incredible dynamism, sense that a new society would soon rise from the ashes of the dying one [6].

Several authors had commented on the relationship between mythology and politics more generally. Emilio Gentile theorized about the sacralization of politics as one involving a political liturgy, an elect community, and a specified code of ethics [7]. Karen Anderson has written of the necessity of “sacrifice, liturgy, and ritual” in mythology [8]. Stanley Stowers in his piece The Concepts of ‘Religion,’ ‘Political Religion’ and the Study of Nazism asks us a pressing question – “did National Socialism break down the wall that modernity had recently erected between the secular domain of politics and the domain of religion?” [9]. Perhaps a glimpse of the answer can be found in a quotation from the National sozialistishe Monatshefte in its September, 1938 issue:

It is said that the body belongs to the state, and the soul to the Church or God. This is no longer the case. The whole man, body and soul, belongs to the German nation and to the German state. The latter has also taken all matters of faith under its own control [10].

This supposed “breakdown between politics and religion” must first be understood through the basis of Nazi ideology – the myth.

The Nazi mythos can be broken up into four main mythological “clusters.” Firstly, there is the myth of the leader or messiah represented through the Adolf Hitler whose goal is to unite and lead the volk towards historical salvation. Secondly, there are the people themselves (volksgemeinschaft), who form a community united all under the domain of the Fuhrer. Third is the concept of degeneracy or the myth of culturally alien things which pose a threat to the volk. Nazism depended on moral dualism, which several scholars such as Hamilton Twombly Burden have dubbed “Manichean,” which rests on the premise that all things fall on one of two sides of the dividing line – that which is “good or bad, right or wrong, or us or not of us” [11]. The Manichean evil in this scheme then, for Nazism, is the Jew who represents “the war of life or death” but extends even greater to include everything that is assumed non-German including socialists, Roma people, the disabled, and Slavs [12]. Fourth and last is salvation or rebirth which scholar Rodger Griffin has called “palingenetic ultra-nationalism” taken from the Greek word palingenesis meaning “becoming again” [13]. For Nazism, this rebirth or salvation would come as a cataclysmic end during which all cases of prior anomie, degeneracy, and moral crises would be resolved through the Fuhrer. This is Nazi salvation history (heilsgeschichte), sacralized politics for this world and not the next, which affirmed the reality of their cause; they thus painted reality in this mythos and saw themselves as Germany’s proper eternal return. In doing so, they also created the conditions with which to justify their political ascension.

II. The Necessity of Ritual

Public rituals in Nazi ideology served to create internal consensus where the spectacle would work as a mass suggestion. This was done through huge parties and grandiose architectural feats. And Hitler himself knew the allure of these spectacles. Simon Taylor in Symbol and Ritual under National Socialism brilliantly connects these grandstanding rituals to Hitler’s own words, quoting him writing after a socialist rally in Berlin just after WW1:

A sea of red flags, red scarves, and red flowers gave to this demonstration, in which an estimated 120,000 took part, an aspect that was gigantic from the purely external point of view. I myself could feel and understand how easily the man of the people succumbs to the suggestive magic of a spectacle so grandiose in effect [14].

The Nazi leadership understood the power of these performances. The rituals therefore accomplished a crucial role in the ideological framework of Nazism – it tangibly created the volksgemeinschaft which could be felt and seen, and hence “allowed for mechanisms of mass suggestion [to] operate” [15]. Spaces were thus architecturally designed to concentrate the crowd’s attention on the centerpiece: the Fuhrer or the holy symbol representing him [16]. Such fixtures were previously only seldom used for anything other than holy presentations. Architect Albert Speer’s “Cathedral of Light” (Lichtdom) drew on this historical continuity sharply, and Goebbels even spoke of the “need to emulate the mysticism of the Roman Catholic Church at party rallies” [17]. It is through these spectacles that the Nazis were able to stage-manage the psychological process of identification by using grandiosity and rituals to affirm their ideology’s superiority against the Manichean evil they were fighting against.

III. The Nazification of Tradition and Ritual

Simon Taylor identifies three types of National Socialist celebrations present in various forms from 1919 to 1945: (1) celebration of the National Socialist Year (Jahreslauf), (2) morning celebrations (Morgenfeiern), and (3) life celebrations (Lebensfeiern) [18]. Celebrations marking the National Socialist calendar year were most common and these included the Founding of the Party Programme (February 24th), the Fuhrer’s birthday (April 20th), and the commemoration of the failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch (November 9th)[19]. Taylor also mentions other holidays which were previously Christian or labor holidays, but were re-imagined for Nazi purposes such as Christmas and Labor Day. The Nazi Party would use these public holidays to organize support as scholar Barry Stephenson notes in one such example in 1933 when the party rallied in Wittenberg’s Marketplace on the Protestant holiday of Reformation Day, October 31st [20]. In other such example of historical rewriting, the Nazi Party transformed Remembrance Day on March 16th, a day meant to mourn the fallen of World War One, to a day of pride and triumph where “the swastika flag was no longer to be lowered to half-mast, but flown proudly… as a symbol of Germany’s reawakened faith and pride” [21]. Taylor notes that many other holidays suffered the same fate including “Easter, Mother’s Day, Whitsun, [and] the Harvest Thanksgiving” [22]. These Christian and, in some cases, old pagan Teutonic customs, needed to be revived to counter what they called “Jewish-Marxist materialism” [23]. These state-sanctioned holidays created a cycle of “high holy days” which were meant to resemble religious calendars and signified when the people would carry out their yearly rites.

One particular ritual – the 9th of November – became central to the Nazi myth of palingenesis. It was here that narratives were transformed, connecting the defeat in 1923 to Nazi victory in 1933. The message of the ritual was of rebirth and martyrdom, that the spilling of Nazi blood during that failed coup was a prerequisite to the “historical inevitability” of National Socialism. On the morning of November 9th, 1935, Hitler unveiled the Bloodflag (Blutfahne), the flag carried by the conspirators in 1923. It was stained by the flag of its martyrs and was brought out to consecrate the newly-built Temple of Honor in Munich where the sixteen fallen party members were housed. The Bloodflag was a holy symbol and was thus unveiled only on the 9th of November and at Nuremburg during Reichsparty-day [24]. During its presentation, names of the fallen were read as upwards of thousands assembled party members and Hitler Youth responded “Here!” in unison. In this quasi-religious ceremony, the Fuhrer would symbolically unite the living with the dead – united through blood and honor. As Taylor writes, the Bloodflag was the “essential confirmation of the Nazi mythos” [25] symbolizing the Christian cross with Hitler as its figurehead, consecrated as Christ. If it had not already, Nazism had begun to take on religious signification with the unveiling of the Bloodflag. The flag was a “sanctuary,” the blood of the fallen was “holy,” and the Reich was “eternal” as it was constantly repeated through Nazi rhetoric [26].

In order to further affirm their fight against the Manichean evil, public gatherings were planned to combat presumed “degeneracy.” Book burnings were a staple where texts by Jews, certain intellectuals, and leftists were driven around in carriages through the streets for all to see and then subsequently burned. The ritual was not unprecedented in European history – for they were “reminiscent of both the medieval book burnings of Talmudic and heretical texts as well as the Catholic ceremony of the auto-da-fe” during which heretics were burned alive in a public act of penance [27]. An art exhibit of “degenerate art” was also organized by Adolf Zeigler and the Nazi Party 1937 to present to the German people the values that had previously undermined their society.

IV. Closing

Ritual and presentation were not peripheral to Nazi ideology. In fact, they were central to it. These public spectacles solidified the state’s supreme power, and touched on all facets of the Nazi mythos: the supremacy of the Fuhrer, the people’s community, the historical enemy, and Germany’s rebirth as a nation. Throughout all these spectacles, the fixation remained on the Fuhrer. Whereas such presentations were previously reserved for holiness, Nazism made politics sacrosanct; it reappropriated previously-religious symbols and rituals and emptied them of content, and thus filled them for their own use. And if it were not for this historical precedent, Nazism would have had little momentum. It required these historical parallels – and its party members acknowledged their mythic power, and organized with its help. Thus, although not a religion, Nazism took on religion’s mystical form and broke the barrier between the state and religion. It was a quasi-religious ideology without transcendence, Catholicism without Christ, but to its fervent followers, it was so much alike that they followed and swore its allegiance to it all the same.

***

[1] A succinct explanation of the Fuhrer Principle was said by Rudolf Hess at the end of Triumph of the Will: “Hitler is Germany and Germany is Hitler.”
[2] Max Ascoli, Arthur Feiler, Fascism for Whom? (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1938), 281.
[3] Richard Grunberger, The 12-Year Reich (New York: DeCapo Press, 1971), 72.
[4] Eric Hobsbawm, Terrance Ranger, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 2007), 3.
[5] Stanley Stowers, “The Concepts of ‘Religion’, ‘Political Religion’ and the Study of Nazism,” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Jan. 2007): 9.
[6] Paul Mazgaj, Imagining Fascism: The Cultural Politics of the French Young Right (Cranburby, NJ: Rosemond Publishing, 2007), 30.
[7] Stanley Stowers, “The Concepts of ‘Religion’, ‘Political Religion’ and the Study of Nazism,” 16.
[8] Karen Armstong, A Short History of Myth (New York: Cannongate, 2006), 2-9.
[9] Stanley Stowers, “The Concepts of ‘Religion’, ‘Political Religion’ and the Study of Nazism,” 10.
[10] Otto of Austria, “Christianity and National-Socialism,” World Affairs, Vol. 105, No. 2 (June 1942): 76.
[11] Jason D. Lahman, “The Form that Fuels the Flame: Public Ritual and the Nazi Mythos,” Ex Post Facto, Volume XIX (2010): 47.
[12] Wilard Gaylin, Hatred (New York: Public Affairs Press, 2003), 221.
[13] Jason D. Lahman, “The Form that Fuels the Flame: Public Ritual and the Nazi Mythos,” 40-41.
[14] Simon Taylor, “Symbol and Ritual under National Socialism,” The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Dec. 1981), 511-512.
[15] Ibid., 512.
[16] Ibid., 513.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid., 505.
[19] Ibid., 505-506.
[20] Barry Stephenson, Performing the Reformation: Public Ritual in the City of Luther (Oxford Univ. Press, 2010), 10.
[21] Simon Taylor, “Symbol and Ritual under National Socialism,” 506.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Ibid., 509.
[25] Ibid., 510.
[26] Ibid., 513.
[27] Jason D. Lahman, “The Form that Fuels the Flame: Public Ritual and the Nazi Mythos,” 53.

This is an exercise in historical writing for “a time before there were authors” (Robinson, 14). I will be focusing on Late Antiquity Arabia in an effort to describe what history is. Therefore, the form of this essay, along with the actual historical content, are both equally as important.


A narrative on Muhammad inevitably involves looking at him as he was, as a man of his time. Although it is inescapable that we describe Muhammad’s life with a degree of agency, this is only the fault of our own imaginations. Even greater, it is also the fault of our own narratives. All historical events can be said to be intimately linked to everything before it; this much is obvious. Therefore, it is the historian’s role to delineate which events were formative in history, and which were less so. In other words, which events allow us to view history in motion? – And how are these events situated in relation to another? Little can be said about the continuity of history with any certainty and, as historians, we are left fumbling to find causation.

As Isiah Berlin writes in his seminal essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, “we will never discover all the casual chains that operate: the number of such causes is infinitely great, and the causes themselves infinitely small” (Berlin, 44). Therefore, all historical writing ultimately takes the form of a kind of narrative, none of which are “true” in any objective sense [1]. Rather, they are approximations of a historical reality; all history is the history of approximations, some of which are closer than others, naturally, but they all have a desire to reign in history as an effort to ground it. Walter Benjamin so eloquently writes of this in his Theses on the Philosophy of History: “To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize ‘how it really was.’ It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger” (Benjamin, VI). Any writing of history is such an exercise.

Appropriately, a discussion on the context of pre-Islamic Arabia (and the greater Middle East) before the rise of Muhammad involves privileging certain causalities as more crucial to historical progression than others. Because of this, it is central that a historian examines structures in relation to particulars, rather than just particulars [2] – in other words, we must not look at Muhammad only as a man; we must look at the social fabric in which he was thrown into, and the great powers that shook his conscience so heavily that it demanded he act. Therefore, I will speak of Muhammad through what he did, but we must be cognizant there is no “being” doing anything; everything is happening, and unfolding, in an infinite amount of ways. I propose an account of Muhammad, not as an individual agent [3] but rather as an agent of history, of a force greater than himself, who is irrevocably linked to the material conditions which produced him. In this sense, he is not an actor – he is merely acting. It is on this account that we begin by introducing the world that Muhammad would soon inhabit.

I.  The Material Conditions That Preceded Muhammad

The Arabian Peninsula is vast, “nearly as big as one third of Europe, but very sparsely populated” (Rodinson, 11). The entire region is mostly desert, with low rainfall and dunes that stretch several miles in length and hundreds of feet into the air.  Oases dot the landscape as a refuge for vegetation, along with coastal regions which enjoy agricultural development unlike the majority of the region. It was during these early centuries, before Christ and until a century or two before Muhammad’s birth, that the “the way of life was [solely] dictated by the land.” The majority of inhabits were nomadic, unless they were living in a lush, hydrated area to settle (Rodinson, 12). Therefore, some degree of symbiosis was necessary for social order between the farmers in the lush regions, the Bedouin nomads, and the townsfolk of the surrounding villages. A loose system of protection was developed, where communities purchased safety from the herdsmen. The economic relationship was based in trade, helped by the domestication of the camel, which provided a link between the Fertile Crescent, the caravans, and the bustling communities growing deep within South Arabia. This produced a cultural exchange, hastened through trade, with goods passing through from “India, East Africa, and the Far East on the one hand, and from all over the Mediterranean on the other” (Rodinson, 13). A social structure had emerged – and it lay in the stationary communities alongside oases and the coast which enjoyed all of these cultural treasures that passed through it from all over the known world. The riches flowed into Arabia, especially Southern Arabia, and “the growth of Mediterranean civilizations had the corresponding effect of increasing the wealth of their South Arabian suppliers” (Rodinson, 21). Arabia, therefore, was not a “pure seed in a rotten earth” as it were; it was very much connected to the cultural developments of its time (Rodinson, 24).

It was from the land that basic units of life and of civilization were created – tribes, kinship, and genealogies served as the only foundation with which to grow as a community (Donner, 28). For those living in the Hejaz, life was immensely difficult; they lived on “the verge of famine, drought, and death” (Brown, 3). The tribe and its customs were the only protection an individual possessed in such a tumultuous environment and, naturally, some clans possessed more clout and wealth than others. However, Arabia was still relatively poor – class differences were felt, but in times of war or catastrophe, all social classes were equal in their wretchedness. The instability of life, and the possibility of death and ruin, was the ultimate equalizer.

South Arabia proved to be more fortunate than its northern counterpart, but it is likely that its influence spilled over to its common Arab neighbors. Here, skilled architects built large palaces and monuments. Art was realized, infused by Roman, Hellenistic, and even Indian influences. Luxury commodities began taking form. Writing took shape on social, legal, and administrative questions. All of these developments were in continuous contact with the northern peoples of Arabia. A social divide was thusly being created between the settled peoples of South Arabia and the Arabs in the northern periphery hundreds of years in the making before Muhammad’s birth (Rodinson, 21- 23).

All of this brings us to the 6th century where multiple events transformed the Middle East and, to some, signified apocalyptic proportions. The great Byzantine and Sassanid empires were competing for economic mastery of world. As Maxime Rodinson writes,

From 502 to 505 there had been war under the reforming King of kings [Kavadh I]. He resumed it in 527 over the Caucasus, and it was continued by his son [Khosrau I], who offered to make an eternal treaty of peace with Justinian in 532, But war broke out again in 540 and Antioch fell to [Khosrau I]…. an armistice was signed in 545… however, war broke out again in 572 (Rodinson, 26).

The ruling tribes of Arabia looked at this with envious eyes, for it was them that, too, wanted the fertile lands of Syria and Mesopotamia. Soon, the Arabs settled in these regions found themselves forced to take sides rather than simply assimilate. Because of a lack of resources, the Byzantines and Sassanians established indirect control over parts of Arabia through alliances with its tribes “in exchange for cash subsidies, weapons, and titles” (Donner, 31). Many became auxiliary units, fighting for either ruling power that was willing to give them a reward. And it is certain that culture permeated through these interactions – Christianity had begun to make headway among the Arabs (Rodinson, 28). Christianity’s foothold in Arabia only served to intensify the ongoing war and, by association, now implicated the entire region into the world conflict [4] if it had not been before.

Although it is difficult to personify this 6th century power struggle, its vast implications were felt under the rule of Yūsuf Dhū Nuwās [5] in South Arabia who began persecuting Christians Monophysites in an effort to appeal to Persian power. Byzantine attempted to provide protection to these Christians through Ethiopian auxiliary units in 512, but they were crushed. Thousands were murdered under the rule of Dhū Nuwās consequently. It was to be known as a period of pillage and general indiscriminate slaughter (Rodinson, 32). This undoubtedly made a strong impression in Arabia; for those that had not realized it already, it revealed the serious stakes that were at play.

Everything was changing and history had begun to accelerate in ways previously unseen in the decades before Muhammad’s birth which, according to Islamic accounts, was in the year 570CE. South Arabia became the center of intense conflict, a type of proxy war between Persia and Byznatium, because of its pivotal trading position into the Indian Ocean basin (Donner, 33). Pro-Persian Arabs, the old supporters of Dhū Nuwās, began attacking Southern Arab communities; Abraha came to power in Southern Arabia with the help of Ethiopian soldiers who still remained there, whose successors took a strong anti-Persian stance; Khurso I allied with the Turks and deepened Persian hegemony in Central Asia. All of Arabia felt the pull of history ripping it apart. Southern Arabia felt it most violently, with bloody factionalism draining its wealth and strength (Rodinson, 33-35).  Petty feudal lords began to fill vacuums of power and the Bedouin nomads profited from the chaos by charging more for their protection services. Now with capital and profit, communities soon became centers of Bedouin operations and prospered during regional chaos. All of Western Arabia underwent incredible economic expansion, most notably Mecca and as south as Medina, where new Jewish settlements created an agricultural life previously unfound (Donner, 35). In Mecca, cultivation was unsustainable because of the poor climate; instead, the Meccan tribe of Quraysh turned to commerce and traded with regions as vast as “Yemen, eastern Arabia, and Southern Syria” that were in perpetual need of supplies (Donner, 36). Mecca, and the Quraysh tribe specifically, was now in a position to network with tribes across Arabia and establish joint commercial ventures. It was in the midst of this economic transformation that Justin II declared war on Persia in 572 CE which only further expanded this emerging economic hub (Rodinson, 33).

From the shell of traditional, nomadic Arab society emerged a new form of organization: a mercantile economy. And with it, the tribal structure could not contain itself anymore.  It had begun its slow decline as its values became unintelligible within the new market system. In an environment of panic, a thirst for something new was in the air as some Arabs began to turn to universalist religions as a means of solace, as a means to make sense of the chaos. Yet, these religions – Christianity, Judaism, and all its sects – still seemed foreign; it was not of the land, and could in no way propel Arabia beyond the great powers that were collapsing. Something else was needed. It was at this precise historical moment, amidst an unprecedented shift in Arab consciousness, that Muhammad was thrown into the world to make it his own.

II. The Movement of Ideas

Ideas cannot be separated from their historical moment nor can be they seen wholly separate from the material conditions that produced them. Therefore, ideas Muhammad transformed for his own movement were not entirely new, but they came at a time when there was the historical “space” for them. Muhammad’s ideas would have had no currency had the situation not been so dire, had the entire social order not been slowly uprooted by new economic necessities. The conditions were ripe for Muhammad’s religion to materialize.

Philosophies were constantly in flux in the Near East and their influence was felt deep within Arabia, starting hundreds of years before Muhammad’s birth. Many of them became infused with indigenous cultures in the region, but this would reach its ultimate conclusion with the establishment of Muhammad’s movement. We must first understand Arabia’s own way of life, however, in order to fully comprehend how these other foreign ideas fused with it. The most widespread means of native expression in this largely nomadic society, still unstructured, was through words – poetry was highly prized as a means of persuasion, for it showed wit and vitality, not to mention it being incredibly useful within tribal politics (Rodinson, 15). It was a culture of “mainstream orality and marginal writing, where poetry and other forms of oral performance were Arabian tokens of pride” (Robinson, 11). Muhammad must have encountered these orators, for he was a man with a gift for persuasion. He was a “remarkably able diplomat, a capable of reasoning with clarity, logic, and lucidity” (Rodinson, 53).

Arabia also lacked a cohesive moral structure before Muhammad’s movement. There was nothing uniting the Arabs in social, political, or moral terms which would allow them to assert their power effectively. Communities had moral standards, but these were not inspired by religion; they were “realists” in this sense, and mostly believed in what would create order. The most prized personality was one who had virility and this was maintained through honor. If a man did not act with courage and compassion towards his kin, he would disrespect his honor within the tribe (Rodinson, 17). None of these social organizations had any real supernatural basis that was felt strongly. Many Arabs were, however, polytheists – but some also nurtured an ancient legend of the one God, the God of Abraham, especially those living in the Hejaz. Symbolically, Mecca also had the Kaba “which was a shrine built ages ago by Abraham as the ‘first house of worship appointed to men’” (Brown, 4). Despite these appeals to a greater divine order, for most living in Arabia, man was the measure of all things. In such a harsh environment, there was no time for meditations on the infinite. Muhammad would be responsible for changing the equation; Instead of man being the measure of all things, it would be God.

However, which ideas entered the collective consciousness of those living in Arabia around the 6th century? – And from where did they come? South Arabia was the first to experience an influx of new ideas, but by the 6th century this had begun to spread to all fringes of the desert and even to Bedouin nomads themselves. Aramaic and Hellenistic influences were felt most strongly. This is even demonstrated through the language used in Southern Arabia, where Arabic “had assimilated Greek, Latin, and other foreign words, for the most part through the channel of Aramaic” (Robinson, 25). It was also around the 6th century that Arab paganism began “receding in the face of a gradual spread of monotheism” (Donner, 30). After the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem around the year 70CE, communities of Arabic-speaking Jews began to spread into Arabia and were especially prominent in Yemen and the northwest. Christianity, too, began to penetrate into Arabia and its communities settled in Yemen (with the help of Byzantine influence), eastern Arabia and the northern fringes bordering Iraq and Syria (Donner, 30). Monotheist religions and their philosophies were being felt throughout all of Arabia; they constituted a kind of “religio-cultural matrix” which was a continuum of “belief, ritual and practice, overlapping multiplicities of Neoplatonism, monotheism and polytheism” which avoided being formalized into any idea that could concretely take hold across all of Arabia (Robinson, 6). All of these philosophies lacked the impetus to catch the entire region in its imagination on their own. This would require someone that was of the land, who was deeply in tune with Arabic traditions, and who would make these monotheist religions accessible to Arabs while also transforming it into their own project.

III. The World-Historical Moment Through Images

To the common people of Arabia and the greater Middle East, the war between the Sassanian Empire and Byzantine Rome signified apocalyptic proportions. It had begun in the 6th century but such feelings continued well until the mid-7th century and the establishment of a new major power, the Rashidun Caliphate. Muhammad was forced to reconcile these early cataclysmic events with his conception of the divine, for it seemed as though God was Himself intervening and accelerating history — and to Muhammad this signified a change in the very direction of what was to come.

IV. The Role of Muhammad in This Historical Moment

As been demonstrated many times over now, Muhammad was not born in a vacuum. There were world powers vying for hegemony in Arabia and the entire Near East, which situated Muhammad in a historical moment and propelled him into a role almost without his choosing. God chose him; and, if we take this for its deterministic implications, history had chosen him as well, even without him consciously choosing.

However, what was Muhammad’s historical “role?” He was situated in a context that demanded him to take on certain responsibilities, divinely-inspired no less, but he still had serious material concerns for the well-being of his contemporaries. Still, the question of “’Who was this Muhammad?’ … was a question posed already during his lifetime” (Robinson, 4). Above all, he claimed he was just a man, which further grounded him in the material conditions of his time. And, just as importantly, he was “the seal of the prophet” whose aim was to remedy the abundance of philosophies that were flowing into Arabia and make them one whole. Muhammad’s role as totalizing all these particulars which were in constant conflict (the many sects of Christianity, Judaism, etc.) was a direct response to the moral panic that ensued during the instability of the 6th century – Arabs were being humiliated abroad; tribal customs were outliving their worth; no one know which gods to worship; and the rich began to trample on the disenfranchised (Rodinson, 66). The Second Rome was expected to fall and apocalyptic catastrophe, Judgement Day, seemed imminent. Muhammad was necessary to stem the tide, so to speak, and to prevent Arabia, and supposedly the world, from succumbing to its rampant vices and violence.

For much of his life, Muhammad was situated in Mecca which was booming economically. The tribe of Quraysh had raised themselves to dominance. They held many Ethiopian slaves and those who settled in Mecca could become clients of their power (Brown, 6). Those who flocked to Muhammad’s words were oftentimes the most alienated in Meccan society. These included adolescents who wanted fresh ideas, those who were dissociated from the social system, those critical of Meccan power, the impoverished, and many others. The Quraysh looked at this amusingly at best and, at worst, “there was a certain contempt for the low social status of those involved” (Rodinson, 102). Whether Muhammad had formalized it or not, what he was doing was creating a power in direct opposition to the elites – and “perhaps Muhammad thought that Allah would make use of the fortunes of war between Byzantium and the Persians” and use it to rally his people to create a new society (Rodinson, 123).

Muhammad, therefore, took on a very social role that was very much intertwined with the politics of his day. He was an arbitrator between different classes, an orator of the divine, and a mediator in times of conflict. After arriving in Medina, the first thing he did was write up a written agreement with the townsfolk and his believers (Brown, 27). The very material basis for his actions is even evident in the Qur’an itself, for “not only did the Qur’an provide guidance for dealing with the poor; it also dominated much of the thought and behavior concerned with economic activity” (Bonner, 392). This is no coincidence. For Muhammad, every ‘social’ act was a means of worshiping God and would form the foundation for a new social order.

History knows no true narrative, and no real causality, but we are forced to create them for the sake of relevancy.  Although history cannot be personified through any single individual, the phenomenon of the “holy man” or “prophet” is precisely about acting as if one is this personification. As Peter Brown writes in The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity:

What is decisive, and puzzling, about the long term rise of the holy man is the manner in which, in so many ways, the holy man was thought of as having taken into his person, skills that had previously been preserved by society at large (Brown, 100).

Muhammad encapsulated this phenomenon by being the vehicle through which his long-view of history could be realized. In this sense, he was the living embodiment of the events that tore apart his time. Muhammad, thus, can be said to be the personification of the entire sum of his society, all that preceded him. It is by this account that we can begin to construct a history without agency, and without a Great Man to direct it. Just as God spoke to Muhammad to push towards what was divinely inevitable, we, too, can play with this language and characterization – we can speak freely of God, an ever-present force said to guide us, as synonymous with the incessant march of history forward. If it is not God who we serve as determined beings, then maybe it is God who serves history, for whom Muhammad was the vehicle towards what He deemed as salvation.

***

[1] “Objectivity” is a difficult concept to even conceive of, especially in historical writing. Surely, there are “facts” that are true, but how do these facts fit into the greater narrative? Is there one correct narrative? It is on these grounds that I discount “objective” or “scientific” history as being impossible.

[2] By particulars here, I mean individual actors and events. It would be foolish to stress these without placing them within the structure from which they were conceived.

[3] Once again, language fails us here. I will be speaking of Muhammad as a “man,” sometimes even discussing his actions, but this is only because it is rhetorically useful; if we abstract too much, we might be left with absolutely no narrative at all. We just must remember that his actions are not wholly his own.

[4] In the context of the time, this was most definitely a “world conflict” or “world-historical moment” in the sense that this encompassed what was the known “world” at the time, or the center of it at least.

[5] Interestingly enough, Yūsuf Dhū Nuwās was of the Jewish faith allied with Persian power which showed that religion was perhaps more fluid during this time than it is now.

Bibliography

  • Berline, Isiah. Russian Thinkers. 22 – 81. The Viking Press, New York. 1978.
  • Benjamin, Walter. On the Concept of History. Dennis Redmond. 2005. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm
  • Rodinson, Maxime. Trans. Anne Carter. Pantheon Books, New York. 1971.
  • Donner, Fred M. Muhammad and the Believers. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 2010.
  • Brown, Jonathan A.C. Brown. Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Robinson, Chase F. History and Heilsgeschichte in Early Islam: Some Observations on Prophetic History and Biography. City University of New York.
  • Bonner, Michael. Poverty and Economics in the Qur’an. Journal of Interdisciplinary History. Pp. 391 – 406. XXXV:3 (Winter, 2005).
  • Brown, Peter. The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity. The Journal of Roman Studies. Pp. 80 – 101. Vol. 61 (1971)

Note: Western travelers evoked history as they traversed Bosnia and the Balkans, writing down their experiences and explaining them, and by doing so also proliferated a certain kind of discourse. Therefore, the history of travelogues — and how these narratives were constructed over time — is crucial to understanding Western conceptions of Bosnia, and more generally, how orientalist discourse has been used to illustrate the “Other.” This is the last part of three essays.


The development of orientalist discourse on Bosnia can most concretely be traced through the eyes of Western tourists that wrote of their experiences in the region. Through travelogues, these adventurists documented their perceptions of the Balkan periphery, and their observations permeated throughout their respective societies and provided a discursive basis for viewing the Bosnian “Other.” The first instances of Western travel interest in the troubled region began in the late 16th century, mostly among the British upper-class [1]. However, to explore Bosnia was not their immediate goal – for Bosnia was intimately linked to the Ottoman, and it was merely seen as a passage towards Istanbul [2]. The goal of these early travelers was to understand the “Ottoman peril” during a time when the empire was cutting deep into Europe, threatening the very existence of European trade on the Italian peninsula. Therefore, their observations proved to be meager, totalizing, and nebulous; interest in Bosnia was secondary to actually exploring the Ottoman East. As the 17th century unfolded, Westerner travelers abruptly changed their routes and began to altogether ignore the southeastern passage [3]. Passing through Vienna and Budapest proved to be much more fascinating, and perhaps familiar, to these tourists in their travels towards Istanbul and it was not until the mid-19th century that Bosnian travel literature began to reappear in Western literary discourse yet again. During this time, political conditions had changed and Western policy towards the region began to reorient itself with new material realities. If British foreign policy is to be taken as an indicator of this development, Britain changed its viewpoints because of the changing times – the Crimean War (1854 – 1856), the 1856 Treaty of Paris, and the resurgence of the “Eastern Question” put Bosnia, and southeast Europe, once again on the Western map [4]. Interest only intensified after the Bosnian peasant revolts of 1875 and its occupation by Austria-Hungary, which put a friendlier, more accessible face to the Bosnian Orient.

During the height of these peasant revolts in 1875, archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans traveled to Bosnia to record the insurrection that was unfolding and recorded his experiences in his text Through Bosnia and the Herzegovina on Foot During the Insurrection, August and September 1875. The first part of his text is an immediate account of the troubles, captured through short phrases spaced by abrupt dashes. Violence by the Turkish Orient against Christians is highlighted as a particular problem. He writes of a “murder of a young Christian by two armed Turks,” the “dangerous spirit of the Mahomentan population,” an “outbreak of Moslem fanaticism,” “farmers… being tortured by Turks,” “panic amongst Christians,” and describes the insurrection as a “Mahometan counter-revolution” [5]. His imagination of the Bosnian woman shows a gendered orientalist discourse, as he recounts his experiences with the feminine Other. He speaks of them as covered in glittering jewelry and tunics; and compares them to “exotic insects… with the forewings of dazzling gauzy white and underwings of scarlet” [6]. In his text, he recounts a brief history of Bosnia, stressing its Slavonic origins, and how the Islamization of the region was the elevating of Islam to a “national character… of a fanatical hue” [7]. He further writes:

 … Even Englishmen may be inclined to accept the conclusion that the present connection between Bosnia and the hated government of the [Ottoman] must be severed; the more so as the geographical configuration and position of Bosnia—a peninsula connected only with the rest of Turkey by a narrow neck—make it almost impossible to hold out against a serious invasion, and put it always at the mercy of foreign agitators.

Such a revolution may seem a Utopian dream… For the moment, however, the ultimate form of Bosnian government is a question of secondary importance to the paramount necessity of re-establishing order in that unhappy land [8].

In the spirit of a kind of Christian “cleansing,” he thus recommends “reconciling the Mahometan population of Bosnia to the new order of things… by sacrificing the [Ottoman]” [9].

The tropes of Western orientalist discourse are seen here in full view, to the point where one can easily list them as Edward Said characterized them [10] – such as (1) traveling to an exotic land and the exoticization and fetishizing of its people, (2) assuming fictional, unchanging essences of the land’s people, and (3) a claim to know more than the Orient which is apparent in his diagnosis for the necessity of an anti-Mohometan revolution. However, all of these are fictitious projections by Sir Arthur Evans and speak more of the orientation of Western discourse towards Bosnia than Bosnia itself. As he traverses the violent landscape, Evans illustrates history through his writing, reducing centuries of Bosnian experiences to the perceived, unchanging Orient essence. Through the travelogue, he is not merely documenting his experiences – he is directly involved in the production of history, and of narratives, using the people he encounters to pass his own judgements, and his own politics.

Still, other Western tourists followed in these same footsteps. James Creagh in his 1875 text Over the Borders of Christendom and Eslamiah: A Journey through Hungary, Slavonia, Servia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Dalmatia, and Montenegro, to the North writes of his experiences in Bosnia during the same time Sir Arthur Evans was present. Particularly, he draws a sharp contrast between the Germanized Slavonski Brod of Croatia with that of deeper, Turkish Bosnia with the former being “modern” and the latter as “decadent” and of the East [11]. Belgian author and traveler Emile de Laveleye in his 1887 text The Balkan Peninsula also places a geographical boundary as being the Sava River. He writes,

I have never seen the difference between West and East so strongly marked. Two civilizations, two religions, two entirely different modes of life and thought, are here face to face, separated by a river… this river has really divided Europe and Asia [12].

However, he would go on to argue that this division, although existing for hundreds of years, would be corrected through Austrian influence during which “the Mussulmen character would rapidly disappear” [13]. British aristocrats Pauline Irby and Humphry Sandwith during the same period likened Bosnia to the “wilds of Asia,” which felt more like the Orient than their actual travels into Turkey and Mesopotamia [14]. It is in this sense that Bosnia to these Western travelers was more “East” than the Orient itself; exotic and different, it was akin to stepping into another world, and the geographic proximity of this other world within Europe was seemingly magical. It was magical insofar in that it was a European anomaly, and they firmly believed that stepping into it would give them insight into the East more than the actual East ever could. It was through this crude mythologized narrative that Bosnia’s suffering became the Western traveler’s entertainment, pleasure, and interest – and, to them, it was a clever, accessible way to access the Orient without actually stepping outside of continental Europe.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West deviates from this standard orientalist discourse, but only towards the Serbs; Bosniaks are excluded from West’s focus altogether. Much can be said about the over 1,100 pages of detailed text, which are filled with historical weight that is delicately put alongside West’s travels in the Balkans. She thus re-imagines the landscape with what came before it. However, she falls into a different kind of orientalism, perhaps even inverting the entire discourse – whereas previous writers had seen this Other as contradictory to themselves, West instead fetishizes them. She illustrates them to be somehow “more European” than Europe itself, possessing almost magical qualities that she has now rediscovered. This has much to do with her opinion of the Serbs, towards whom she holds the highest, almost fanatical, regard for. That being said, she maintains the same discourse as previous travelers of the Bosniaks, except it stems from a different source: she looks negatively on Bosnias because she is a Serbian nationalist, and thus views them as unfortunate “Muslim Serbs.” West reproduces the orientalist discourse through her Serbian nationalism, and thus maintains the “bulwark myth” [15] as a central component of Balkan identity which rests on being exclusionary towards Muslims. Her work absolves the Serbs of their wretched history in Western narratives, very prolifically and poetically even — but for the rest of the peoples living there, especially the Bosniaks, the same orientalist narrative is peddled with no regard.

Rebecca_2

Rebecca West. Year Unknown.

She writes of the Slavs as having an “infinite capacity for inquiry and speculation,” as opposed to the Turks who “have no word in their language to express the idea of being interested in anything” [16]. Interestingly enough, oftentimes orientalist discourse does not come from West’s words, but rather, is re-imagined through the people she encounters. In one such encounter, a Jewish man remarks that “I used to feel ashamed because the Germans took me as an equal, and here in my house I was treated as an inferior to men with fezes on their heads.”[17] In yet another heated encounter, a Bosniak man steps into their conversation, seemingly as a discursive intervention against orientalism: “then perhaps you can explain why your Belgrade gangster politicians have devised this method of insulting us Bosnians… [And] we have seen them insulting our brothers the Croats” [18]. Despite having little to no prior knowledge of the Balkans, West makes very firm statements on the nature of its people, and her diagnosis of its problems, and what should be done in the spirit of all Western travelers who came before her. She describes Bosnian women as not “[looking] in the least oppressed… they are handsome and sinewy like their men” and, in fact, they resemble the men in that “[they] look like heroes rather than heroines.”[19] In one absurd observation, she remarks “always, in this part of the world, where there is running water, there is an elderly Moslem contemplating it” [20]. Her solution to the region is, most concretely, Serbian nationalism. Her curiosity of Bosniaks stemmed from how little she knew of Islam; a “population of Islamicized Europeans” struck her as “antithetical to Europe” [21]. The Turks, she felt, “deserved destruction collectively” and that they had left the Bosniaks as a kind of “walking dead,” as the damned, with the Serbs being their opposite, as the saved [22]. According to West, however, the Bosniaks were not directly guilty of their misdirection. Their supposed “Turkishness” could not uprooted through the forces of any other group, she believed, Serb or otherwise. If we accept her words that nationalism “had come to a stage where fantasy becomes a compulsion to suicide,” then perhaps the solution for West would be symbolic suicide, one of culture, and one where Bosniaks retracted their history to embrace the fantasy, the one she took as valid, i.e. bellicose Serbian nationalism. It is in this sense that she might have agreed with Sir Arthur Evans, albeit for different reasons: in order to redeem Bosnia, its people must begin “by sacrificing the [Ottoman]” [23].

Regardless of the lucidity of the text, and the sheer brilliance of its prose, West’s text (and all of these travelogues) leaves me asking a question that may be unanswerable: can the Western traveling author ever escape the orientalist discourse? – and, even further, can any author documenting regional history ever escape the trap of essentializing, of generalizing a peoples into a pathology in an effort to describe them? The travelogue falls into these traps, for it is immensely difficult, if not impossible, to discuss Bosnia without illustrating an image of the “common person” [24]. In some sense, West’s account is “more true” than previous travelogues of Bosnia because it gives historical weight to every encounter, however I question whether even phrasing it in this fashion lends itself to being more accurate. For it is not necessarily that an account is actually “more true,” because all accounts are steeped in projections and speculations; that much is inescapable. However, it could be said that West’s account is more “vivid” if anything, because of its historical narrative and detail, but this does not necessarily make it an accurate, true representation of Bosnia. This is arguably impossible to capture in literary form. All travelogues fall victim to deferring their comparisons relative to their author’s origins; one cannot escape these biases and, in some sense, should sometimes be welcomed as a means of legitimate comparisons (within reason, of course). All of these travelling accounts attempt to get to the “real” Bosnia, oftentimes portrayed as one before Turkish influence, but locating this precise origin is impossible – this is because it does not exist. There is no derivation with which to judge Bosnia on, no historical “essence” which was lost, and no glimpse into a bright future inscribed in the land. All of these are an author’s constructions, conscious or not, and are engraved in the literary form as such. Looking at these with a critical eye, all we have left is no form, just our description of it, and perhaps that is enough to make it “true.” As it was said by photographer Michael Ackerman, “places do not exist, a place is just my idea of it” [25] – and, given that there is no historically fixed point, perhaps that is all we can actually argue at its most basic level.

***

[1] Berber, Neval. Unveiling Bosnia-Herzegovina in British Travel Literature (Spirit of Bosnia, Vol. 5 No. 4., 2010).
< http://www.spiritofbosnia.org/volume-5-no-4-2010-october/unveiling-bosnia-herzegovina-in-british-travel-literature-1844-1912/
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Evans, Arthur, Sir. Through Bosnia and the Herzegovina on Foot During the Insurrection, August and September 1875 (University of California Libraries, 1877).
[6] Ibid., Ch.1: “The Dress of the Woman”
[7] Ibid., XCVI “Historical Review of Bosnia”
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Bullock, Allan. Trombley, Stephen. The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought (Harper Collins Publishers, 1993), pp. 617.
[11] Unveiling Bosnia-Herzegovina in British Travel Literature (Spirit of Bosnia, Vol. 5 No. 4., 2010).
[12] De Laveleye, Emile. The Balkan Peninsula (Bibliolife, 2008), pp. 72.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Unveiling Bosnia-Herzegovina in British Travel Literature (Spirit of Bosnia, Vol. 5, No. 4).
[15] A core component of Serbian nationalism is seeing themselves as the honorable bulwarks against Ottoman invasion.
[16] West, Rebecca. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (Penguin Classics, 2007), pp. 302.
[17] Ibid., 313.
[18] Ibid., 311.
[19] Ibid., 327.
[20] Ibid., 396.
[21] Hall, Brian. Rebecca West’s War (New Yorker Magazine, 1996), pp. 80.
[22] Ibid., pp. 82.
[23] Through Bosnia and the Herzegovina on Foot During the Insurrection, August and September 1875 (University of California Libraries, 1877).
[24] A central problem in deconstruction literary theory: an image produced by any text is never stable.
[25] Dyer, Geoff. Journeys into History (The Guardian, 2006). Accessed May, 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/aug/05/featuresreviews.guardianreview2/

Note: This is the second essay of three that I have written about Western orientalist discourse on Bosnia. This relatively short essay will discuss Austro-Hungarian biopolitics during its occupation of Bosnia, and how even spheres of knowledge deemed “apolitical” (i.e. the physical sciences, esp. medicine) can affirm orientalist narratives. 


09319r

A group of peasants in Bosnia, Austria-Hungary. Taken sometime between 1890-1900.

In 1878, Austria-Hungary invaded the formerly Ottoman-controlled region of Bosnia with the intention of making it a “model colony” because of its strategic importance in southeastern Europe. The Austro-Hungarian state believed that this peasant society, among others in southeast Europe, would bring a “traditional habit of imperial loyalty” and would make “Vienna the arbitrator” of all their disputes [1]. It was also at this time that the scientific fields of anthropology, biology, and the like were proposing natural categories for people. Science had begun to accrue serious power. For the advocates of eugenics in Vienna, this was an opportunity to transform the oriental Bosniak into a hygienic, proper European after being stunted from development under centuries of Ottoman rule. Thus, Bosnia became a playground for a new kind of biopolitics, where Austria-Hungary could exert social and political power over what it defined as “health” and “life.” The goal, therefore, “was not the individual well-being of Bosnians, but rather the ability of this population to serve the Austro-Hungarian interests in the area” [2]. The “cleansing” of Bosnia from the decrepit conditions that caused its people poor health was to be seen synonymous with repairing the Bosnian mind, which had been inculcated with supposed backwardness ever since it had been Ottoman. Part of the Austro-Hungarian civilizing mission was the establishment of public and hygienic policies within Bosnia. In the Foucauldian tradition, this is a case example of Western biopolitics. The native Bosniak population was described by the Austrians as “spineless” and “weak” because of their capitulation to Islamization under Ottoman rule [3]. Therefore, a new narrative needed to be constructed that would not defer its legacy to Turkish rule [4]. Re-engineering the Bosniak body was a major component of this Austro-Hungarian narrative in-the-making.

Throughout the 1880s, political writing in Austria-Hungary centered mostly on the question of Bosnia, specifically the Muslims living there. It was written that Bosnia was a region seemingly “without culture” and that its “’Asian’ population [were to be] viewed simply as raw ‘material’ from which the Austro-Hungarian authorities had to manufacture ‘Europeans’” [5]. Although some commentators doubted the ability of these “Turks” to modernize, the state’s official policy was one of open arms – that Muslims were willing to accept progress, i.e. Austro-Hungarian rule. In fact, there was great hope that the Bosniaks would adopt the European lifestyle. It would also allow the European imagination to have a taste of restructuring an identity from scratch, from the top down. It was exercise in how valid eugenics truly was and if it were even possible to construct a “European” through social engineering.

In order to have successful biopolitics, the state must properly ground the group in question in a certain biological context; it, firstly, becomes necessary to naturalize their identity. As Brigitte Fuchs writes in Orientalizing Disease: Austro-Hungarian Policies of ‘Race,’ Gender, and Hygiene in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1874 – 1914, it was first crucial to establish a Southern Slavic identity which was multi-confessional and allowed room for all these different religions under one ethnic signifier [6]. This was crucial given that roughly half of the population in the monarchy was Slavic [7]. Soon, archaeological and historical work was being done towards this end.  In Vienna, an Ethnographic Commission was established in 1884 which recorded “Bosnian ‘monuments of the Slav language’” such that included local wears, costumes, and farms [8]. It was crucial to situate Bosnia in Western life, as opposed to the Orient, as Brigitte Fuchs writes:

An archaeological commission presided over by Moritz Hoernes (1852 – 1917)…documented the country’s prehistoric and Roman sites. Roman sites served to place Bosnian and Herzegovinian prehistory and its human remnants in a Western tradition and were elaborated into a myth of the contemporary Bosnians’ common origin with the population of the Austrian crown [9].

Hoernes would go on to describe Bosnians, Albanians, Herzegovinians, and Serbs as all belonging to the “Dinaric race” which were said to constitute the main body of the peoples in the Austrian Alps [10]. This effectively connected the narrative of these peoples to their occupier, the Austro-Hungarians.

With the narrative tied to a common origin, diagnoses could now be made without supposed hesitation. Austria-Hungary attempted to establish a public health system throughout the entire region, although by the early 20th century Bosnia was still disproportionately affected by diseases such as typhus fever and cholera [11]. By the time of the initial occupation, however, Bosnia was said by Austro-Hungarian health officials to be “degenerating” with “neurasthenia,” “hysteria,” and many “nervous diseases” [12]. Likewise, Bosnia was also said to lack proper drinkable water, manageable climate, and fresh food; was largely impassible because of its uneven terrain; and relatively unlivable because of its rampant diseases which included typhoid fever, dysentery, malaria, and syphilis [13] .Since the implantation of a sanitary policy was the standard of a proper civilization – “cleanliness is next to godliness,” as the idiom goes – Bosnia needed to be cut off from the rest of the empire until it was hygienic. The Habsburg Military Frontier functioned as this sanitary border, “to stop the spread of contagious diseases from Ottoman lands” – thus, this wall served as a boundary between the civilized and the barbarian, and the West and the East [14]. However, this was eventually completely deregulated as of 1882, which fit nicely into the meta-narrative of the Austro-Hungarians. Now the matrix of associations was one of Islam, Ottoman rule, and rampant disease which, if we follow this twisted colonial logic, the occupiers were here to correct.

kww.fig2.rot

The Military Frontier was established in 1553 by Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I to separate themselves from Ottoman lands, seen as filthy and diseased. It functioned as a militarized sanitary cordon. Having existed for hundreds of years, the frontier was dismantled by 1882 since by then Bosnia was under Austrian control and its supposed “backwardness” could now be corrected.

Croatian_Military_Frontier-1868

The Military Frontier was mainly divided into two administrative units (and then further into regiments) — the regions of Slavonia and Croatia were responsible for policing these borders. The patrolling units were strategically Croatian and Serbian. Land was given for service.

Orientalist discourse can manifest itself in the spheres of power assumed to be apolitical. Biopolitics proved to be a vehicle with which Austria-Hungary was able to impose its hegemony while claiming objectivity. It aimed for Bosnia to be its model colony and also therefore needed to be elevated to proper hygienic standards, but these same standards were entrenched in power politics. Seldom, if ever, does an occupying power care about humanitarian assistance without pushing a certain narrative, or a certain kind of politics – in the case of Bosnia, Austria-Hungary was playing the part of the “savior,” as an attempt to save Bosnia’s from its own wretched history. The cleansing of Bosnia of its disease and lewdness was symbolic of an attempted cleansing of the narrative; Austria-Hungary hoped to wash away the “Turk” and discover the “European” that lay underneath it, but all it found was difficulty, and ultimately, resistance that it could not reconcile.

***

[1] Snyder, Timothy. The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Hapsburg Archduke (Basic Books, 2010), pp. 24.
[2] Bashford, Alison. Levine, Phillipa. The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics (Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 400.
[3] Fuchs, Brigitte. Health, Hygiene, and Eugenics in Southeastern Europe to 1945 (Central European University Press, 2011), pp. 58.
[4] Ibid., pp. 60.
[5] Ibid., pp. 61.
[6] Ibid., pp. 60.
[7] The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Hapsburg Archduke (Basic Books, 2010), pp. 23.
[8] Health, Hygiene, and Eugenics in Southeastern Europe to 1945 (Central European University Press, 2011), pp. 62.
[9] Given what was discussed earlier in regards to the Italian humanists re-discovering Rome, this fits that narrative.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., pp. 33.
[12] Public Health Service. Report of the Federal Security Agency (U.S. Government Printing, 1916), pp. 328.
[13] Health, Hygiene, and Eugenics in Southeastern Europe to 1945 (Central European University Press, 2011), pp. 64.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid., 66.

Note: This is the only the first essay of three that I have written about Western orientalist discourse on Bosnia. This essay will provide proper context. To understand the discursive history of Bosnia, I propose beginning at the Ottoman empire’s influence on the European mind — and, even further, how this created the European identity. 


Western discourse towards Bosnia, and all Muslims living in Europe, historically centers around European’s deepest existential worries. It was produced as a result of growing Ottoman influence, and is therefore deeply infused with European identity, and the spatial dimensions of what constitutes a “European.” And because Bosnia occupies a unique situation within Europe, orientalist discourse on Bosnia can be also be used as commentary on Europe’s historic relations with its greater Islamic community. To understand this discourse towards Bosnia, we must first begin at the source – to a time of unprecedented European fragmentation and panic on all levels of society. It is on these grounds that it would be appropriate to begin any inquiry into on Bosnia with the creation of what Edward Said in Orientalism calls the “Ottoman peril.” OttomanEmpireExpansionto1683 The historical separation of Bosnia from the rest of Europe began most concretely in the 14th century, when Ottoman expansion entered into Southeastern Europe. It was officially declared an administrative unit (eyalet) known as Bosansko Krajište in 1451 [1]. In around 100 years the Muslim population swelled to immense numbers and constituted the majority of the providence. Bosnia was fully integrated into the Ottoman social structure: governed by a vizier, the region was administered by high civil officials (pashas) and judges while also having an elaborate tax policy, mandatory military service, and a Ottoman feudal system to reorganize land [2]. Bosnian Muslims were given privileges unavailable to non-Muslims, and they also did not need to pay the harač, which was a tax levied on all other faiths [3].

Although the Ottoman occupation had changed the very positionality of Bosnia towards Europe, it was only a precursor to the full realization of orientalism seeping into Europe’s discourse towards the historically war-torn region. This would reach its height during the Austro-Hungarian invasion of 1878, during which an orientalist Western power would dominate the supposed Bosnian Orient. This arguably positioned Bosniaks as the permanent “Other” within this imagined Europe, if they had not been already. Regardless, the Ottoman conquests and their rule over the region set the groundwork for this differentiation from the rest of the Southern Slavs – but, as it was the case until 1878, it was “the Other ruling over the Other” so the Bosniaks were not in the spotlight of European Christendom; rather, it was the Ottomans. As Ottoman armies penetrated deeper into Europe, they shook the minds of Christians living on the continent. As Edward Said writes in Orientalism:

Until the end of the seventeenth century the “Ottoman Peril” lurked alongside Europe to represent for the whole of Christian civilization a constant danger, and in time European civilization incorporated that peril and its lore, its great events, figures, virtues, and vices, as something woven into the fabric of life [4].

Therefore, it would lend itself useful to understand how the “Ottoman Peril” became a central facet of Christendom, in an effort to understand how this same pathology was reproduced in discourse on Bosnia. This fear began at a crossroads of world history, which shook all of Europe to the bones – the fall of “Second Rome,” Constantinople, in 1453.

1453 allowed all European fears to be projected onto a new enemy, and it signified a shift in how Europeans conceived of themselves. Western discourse on Islam, consequently, began to change drastically. This shift in European consciousness can be described in its many forms, and it manifested itself in an innumerable amount of ways, but for the purposes of this inquiry it would be best if we discussed the “Ottoman Peril” as relevant to Bosnia, although virtually all of it relevant just by the fact that Bosnia is an Ottoman construction. Despite this difficulty, let us be reductive for a moment and outline a few crucial changes that occurred in the European mind. First was one of narratives: a new identity of a “united Christian Europe” was popularized which ran counter to the then-fractured European narrative dominant since the Great Schism of 1054. A little over a year after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, Cardinal Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who would become Pope Pius II, delivered a speech at the Imperial Diet in Regensburg calling for the necessity of war against the Turks [5]. This speech was thereafter distributed many times over, in print form, with the Gutenberg printing press pushing the discourse to new audiences. Pope Pius II thus crowned himself as speaking on behalf of all Christendom, calling on European powers to rally together against this Ottoman threat. In doing so, he ignored the divide between Eastern and Latin Christianity. He narrativized them as one because their collective security was in the interest of all Christians.

Yet, still earlier, the very fabric of Europe was being reimagined in Italy around the mid-15th century. Italian humanism turned patriotism and cultural pride into a super-national European concept, which meant “also a rebirth of the Classical semantics of discrimination and xenophobia” [6]. One such Italian humanist, Flavio Biondo, wrote of the First Crusade as a “Pan-European project,” as opposed to a purely Frankish one as medieval sources describe [7]. In doing so, he directly connected the first crusade to the war against the Turks as both being in defense against an existential threat to all of Europe. Thus, Italian humanism and its corresponding Renaissance was a “source of European identity… and [it] decidedly contributed to a cognitive-cultural nationalization of Europe through the initiation of the (re)discovery of Greek and Roman historiography and ethnography” [8]. In doing so, they also inherited “one of the key concepts of Roman cultural superiority… ‘barbarism’” along with an “ancient tradition” which Europe could now cling to and mythologize to justify their superiority [9]. These influences permeated from the cultural hub of Italy and spread throughout Europe, as Christendom became rejuvenated with the threat of Ottoman destruction. “Europe” had begun to take on actual, political signification. Christian salvation history (Heilsgeschichte) had moved from Jerusalem to Europe, and everyone on the continent was implicated in protecting it; God was now invigilated in the continent’s steady march forward in history, against the barbarians, on behalf of the true heirs of His justice.

I am no making a value judgement on the Italian Renaissance -- there is little doubt that some of the work produced was breathtaking, as is the above piece inspired by the Anient Greek artist Apelles, The Calumny of Apelles by Sandro Botticelli.

So there’s not any confusion, I am not making a value judgement on the Italian Renaissance — there is little doubt that some of the work produced was breathtaking, as is the above piece titled The Calumny of Apelles by Sandro Botticelli inspired by the ancient Greek artist Apelles. I am simply describing the Italian Renaissance as it was. The innumerable historical consequences of such a period does not diminish the artful works. However, we must also speak of its influence in creating the “European” and how the Renaissance anchored the entirety of the continent to a mythologized Greco-Roman past. This was critical in the development of Orientalist discourse.

Peter_the_Hermit

Peter the Hermit promised the poor peasants a better life in the Holy Land and spoke of God pushing them forward. They would embark on the First Crusade. This historical moment would be re-imagined by Flavio Biondo as a Pan-European military endeavor instead of a Frankish one. The above illustration is from the 14th century text, Abreviamen de las Estorias.

From the mid-15th century onwards, the discourse on Islam within Europe began to change to reflect this shift in European consciousness – or, alternatively, to reflect the creation of a European consciousness. “Muslim” had become a signifier of “Turk.” The phrase “turning Turk” to describe Islamic conversion gained currency in Western discourse, captured in works such as the play A Christian Turn’d Turk by Robert Daborne, Paradise Lost by John Milton, or even Othello by William Shakespeare. In this sense, Europe had absurdly essentialized “Turkish-ness” centuries before the Ottomans had even categorized themselves ethnically as such; “Turkish-ness” only emerged in Ottoman thought around the late 19th century [10].  The European narrative had totalized the Ottoman narrative, making religious, ethnic, and racial categories synonymous, and placed them in direct opposition to the new European, Christian identity. This new-found equation was the basis from which Bosnia would be Other-ized, for now Bosniaks were effectively Turks, and this placed them in direct opposition to the very fabric of European society.

The bulwark myth is still the basis of much of Balkan nationalism and folklore. In the Serbian city of Kikinda, the coat of arms is an Ottoman Turk whose head is impaled with a sword.

In the Serbian city of Kikinda, the coat of arms is an Ottoman Turk whose head is impaled with a sword.

Because of European discourse on the Turkish Other, some nations infused nationalist myth with protecting Christendom. They believed themselves to be bulwarks against Islam, against any force that supposedly existentially threatened Europe [11]. It is no coincidence that the bulwarks against intruders was taken up by the Balkan nations, as if they had to further prove their allegiance to Europe in order to demonstrate that they were, too, part of the European Christian project. Countries fighting against the “Turkish menace” were given the Papal title of Antemurale Christianitatis (i.e. “Bulwark of Christianity”) as Croatia was in 1519 [12]. The “bulwark myth” manifested itself in many nationalist myths including Albania, Serbia, Croatia, Poland, and Russia [13]. However, the stern belief of these nations being a protective wall against invaders was invalidated by the very existence of Muslims living in Bosnia. This proved to be a contradiction in the nationalist myth; the Bosniaks were thus a historical miscalculation, a mistake, an anachronism, and a people whose very existence was a disgrace to these nations that constituted the “the protective wall of Christianity” (antemurale Christianitatis).This cemented the Bosniaks are the definitive Other within their Balkan neighbors, and greater Christendom, because they were a living embodiment of Europe’s Christian failure. This has been demonstrated in the discourse towards Bosnia up until the present day. For Europe, and especially for the Balkan peoples, the Bosniaks was the Orient seeping into Europe; It was a contradiction that called the entire narrative of European Christendom into question, and the only way to resolve such contradictions in the given framework, in an example of pure politics, was through removal and violence – the contradiction had to remedied at all costs, and the Other had to be brought back to their “original” Christian-European past. This was the historical reality Bosnia was thrown into upon being re-imagined as a nation by the Ottoman Empire through their occupation.

***

– 1. Pickering, Paula. Bosnia and Herzegovina (Encyclopedia Britannica). Accessed May, 2015. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/700826/Bosnia-and-Herzegovina/42681/Ottoman-Bosnia
– 2. Ibid.
– 3. Ibid.
– 4. Orientalism (Vintage Books, 1979), pp. 59 – 60.
– 5. Konrad, Felix. “Turkish Menace” to Exoticism and Orientalism: Islam as Antithesis of Europe 1453 – 1914 (European History Online, 2011). Accessed May, 2015. http://ieg-ego.eu/en/threads/models-and-stereotypes/from-the-turkish-menace-to-orientalism/felix-konrad-from-the-turkish-menace-to-exoticism-and-orientalism-1453-1914
– 6. Almási, Gábor. Composite States, National Histories and Patriotic Discourses in Early Modern East Central Europe (BRILL, 2011), pp. 91.
– 7. “Turkish Menace” to Exoticism and Orientalism: Islam as Antithesis of Europe 1453 – 1914 (European History Online, 2011)
– 8. Composite States, National Histories and Patriotic Discourses in Early Modern East Central Europe (BRILL, 2011), pp. 91.
– 9. Ibid., pp. 92.
– 10. Ziya, Gokalp. Nationalism in Asia and Africa (World Publishing Company, 1972), pp. 189.
– 11. Kolstø, Pål. Myth and Boundaries in South-East Europe (Hurst and Co., 2005).
– 12. Tanner, Marcus. Croatia: A Nation Forged in War (Yale Press, 1997), pp. 32.
– 13. Timothy, A. Byrnes. Katzenstein, Peter J. Religion in an Expanding Europe (Cambridge, 2006), pp. 180.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind (Burnt Norton, 1-15)

Burnt Norton (Rose Garden) - P7040004

The “Burnt Norton” manor house in Cotswold, south central England that T.S. Eliot drew his inspiration from. These are some of the beautiful rose-gardens.

If you have been following my blog, you might have noticed I changed its name. I decided this was best. My previous title The Popular Front seemed to outlive any meaning I had attached to it initially. This blog has changed from what I had originally intended it to be — from a (loosely) Marxist commentary on history, to a medium where I can write about the other humanities. All of these many topics intersect and the name The Popular Front, I feel, carries too much historical weight. It corners me to uphold certain political beliefs I had when I created it, some of which I do not hold now. I needed something more amenable, a title that didn’t signify an exact political ideology, and also one that was more curious than definitive. This isn’t to say that the bases of my politics are drastically different of course, but I am saying that the way I view my interests in relation to one another has changed, for the better. This has led to me to rename my blog to what it is now: Into the Rose-Garden, taken from the first part of T.S. Eliot’s poem Burnt Norton. 

Burnt Norton by T.S. Eliot is undoubtedly one of the greatest pieces of work I have ever read. It is part of a greater set of poems titled Four Quartets. Part I, especially, evokes a certain feeling (which I’ll get to in a bit) that I have yet to see captured in other literature so brilliantly. In the opening stanza of this poem (cited above the image), Eliot is merging two very crucial movements in intellectual history to reach an understanding of Truth. One is the European tradition of Romanticism which centered on ideals and realizing them. It was a very uplifting interpretation of human progress and historical necessity and was captured probably most famously in Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Casper David Friedrich (you’ve likely seen it before; if not, here is a link). One of the problems of Romanticism, however, was that in a finite world, how can you capture the fullness of all experiences and all we can achieve (i.e. the infinite)? The early romantic poet Novalis writes of this:

Time originates with displeasure. Thus, all displeasures [are] so long and all joy so short… displeasures are finite like time. Everything finite originates out of displeasure [1].

In other words, finality becomes the ultimate limitation to the Romanticist dream: time and eventual death are the ultimate equalizer. As it is said, “whether rich or poor, [all are] equal in death.”

The second school(s) of thought that are also at play here are also some elements of Buddhism. Eliot was clearly familiar with Buddhist thought because it’s outright mentioned in his other poem The Waste Land. Eliot’s conception of time in the first above-mentioned stanza of the poem is extremely similar to Buddhist conceptions of dependent origination — the idea that everything which exists, all beings, are intrinsically related to one another. Eliot applies this idea of dependent origination to also include time itself; a moment captures either all of time or none of it because all temporality is intimately linked together. These concepts of “past, present, and future” are merely our own abstractions and the only real reason we can make these distinctions is because of the present experience. Time can thus be viewed as a metaphorical “hall of mirrors” — where the present encapsulates all that has occurred and all of what is to come. It is through the reflection of the present that we can see all time. As the Buddhist philosopher Dogen rhetorically wrote in the 13th century:

Just reflect: right now, is there an entire being or an entire world missing from your present time, or not? [3].

The present is thus the most important moment there is. This makes all of our choices immediately relevant and if you read further down in the poem, T.S. Eliot writes:

Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate…

The poem goes on to describe what the bird (symbolic of Truth) leads Eliot to sees in his Manor. He moves from one thing to the next, following the bird, showing the continuity of all experience. Finally, the second section closes with:

But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.

What exactly is this “rose-garden?” — I view it as the greatest manifestation of the Romantic ideal, where language breaks down into what we cannot ever describe; it is the infinite, the most perfect, and an encapsulation of all time; it is also the metaphorical escape from the limits of materialism. However, the irony is that the rose-garden, despite being the greatest manifestation of the infinite, must still be viewed through time. This is because we have no choice. It is “only through time [that] time [be conquered]” and thus it is only through the finite that we can step into, or even glimpse, the rose-garden. Therefore, I do not view entering the rose-garden as an actual choice between one event or another. The choice isn’t to go into the rose-garden or not. We can never fully comprehend this splendor (i.e. actually go into the rose-garden) because we are bound as finite beings. Because of this, we are forced to view it through time itself — which, if we understand what T.S. Eliot said in the beginning of the poem and its Buddhist origins — encompasses virtually everything we can conceive of. The rose-garden is thus present in virtually every situation, we just need to make the conscious choice to be aware of it and capture whatever part of it that we can. The bird even hints at this in these excellent lines where the “hidden” (a crucial word, here) laughing children in the leaves are comparable to the rose-garden itself:

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

This symbolic potential for transcendence — the rose-garden– is present everywhere; held together by a radical conception of the present, the rose-garden is the interpolation of all time, of every possible narrative, and a symbol of infinitude. It captures a feeling that can be grasped but never fully realized, and as such its poetry more often resembles fervent religiosity rather than just an elaborate illustration of what life could be. 

I highly recommend reading the entire poem. I have only broken down this small portion of a greater masterpiece, but it definitely deserves a very detailed read. Regardless, this was the inspiration that brought me to alter the meaning of my blog, and even to reconsider all my writing in new light — my own literature should reorient itself to this end. And on that note, after a long hiatus on this blog, I would like to make it active again.

The same image can be interpreted a million times over, and differently each time. The interpretation of an image is dependent on the spectator, whose understanding is derived from ideology. Thus, ideology is that which guides individuals into particular social niches and associations — it is ideology which gives an image, which intrinsically has no meaning, symbolic meaning.

Firstly, we should define our most important term which is ideology. In Marx’s Capital, he defined it simplest he could, with an aphorism: “Sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es” (“they do not know it, but they are doing it”). Philosopher Slavoj Zizek elaborates on this in his book The Sublime Object of Ideology: 

The fundamental level of ideology, however, is not an illusion masking the real state of things but that of an (unconscious) fantasy structuring our social reality itself (Zizek, 33). 

Ideology is all around us. We are constantly making associations without realizing it because we have been inculcated in a particular historical context. Ideology is especially relevant in Western society since our desires are constantly being shaped in an effort to further consumption.

Consumption derives its power through subliminal messages. It exerts power by transcending itself from simply being an action to being representative of worth. Economist Thorstein Veblen gave this a name — “conspicuous consumption.” Purchasing an expensive car, to give one example, is not merely an act in and of itself. It also represents a certain social rank to the individual and those around you. Therefore, an act of consuming has two dimensions to it. One is the actual use-value of the commodity to the individual. The second is what the commodity culturally symbolizes and it says about the individual to the observer. The focus on the commodity, and the creation of symbols, was pivotal in rise of mass-consumerist society in the 20th century. It shifted the West from a need-based economy to a desire-based economy.

It is no surprise that symbolism differs in each socioeconomic class, not just for consumption, but for virtually everything that is perceived. The following poll is from John Berger’s book, Ways of Seeing:

Museum Questionaire

I think this chart clearly makes the case that human beings derives their associations from perceived usefulness. For a laboring manual worker, the association is naturally that which is most familiar — a church. A church is most dear to them and resembles a large museum in form. For an upper-class individual which possesses the free time to tend to such things, a museum is a thing-in-itself. It is simply a museum, which is why near 20% of these individuals chose “none of these” as their response.

Without usefulness and the free time (or individual interest) to explore certain areas, objects and ideas are dealt conveniently as pure associations. Marketing plays into this ignorance, but we also see this even more evidently in politics. To illustrate this, I’m sure that if you wrote buzzwords like “socialism” and “inequality,” each class of people would have differing associations for that particular word. The fact that many of these associations have replaced the actual definition of the word is frightening and speaks more of the respective economic class which we are all born into rather than personal choice. Sure, there can be choice involved as to how we define words, but to the politically-unconscious laborer, such a choice is relatively meaningless. This is especially dangerous in a time of mass-media and populist politics. Consumerism and politics, coupled with misleading associations, leads to a very unhealthy social situation.

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