BOOK REVIEW / Fundamentally unholy wars: 'Bosnia: A Short History' - Noel Malcolm, Macmillan: 17.50

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The Independent Culture
WARLORDS, tribes and bandits of every stripe march through the pages of Noel Malcolm's distinguished account of Bosnian nationhood, but it is the struggle of the Bosnian Muslims that supplies the tragic theme. Out of the gloom and chaos of ancient Illyria, the first mention of Bosnia occurs in a work by the Byzantine emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus in 958. Another chronicler found by the year 1180 a people 'with its own customs and government' who did not obey the local Serb grandee. Little was known of the Bosnians, save that they were Slavs who inhabited the area where medieval Hungary met Byzantium. Many turned to Islam after the Ottomans defeated Serbia in 1389 and conquered the craggy land between the river Sava and the sea.

Noel Malcolm demolishes a host of myths and distortions that have provided propaganda for ethnic purists ever since. It is said by the Serbs that Turkish rule thrived on religious persecution and the uprooting of Christians. But the conquerors found a fractured church, containing Manichaean heretics and rural paganism. They did not implant Turkish settlers. Ottoman tax records show that Islam gained ground slowly, by conversion, and Muslims became a majority only over the course of 150 years. In fact, the Ottoman empire survived by assimilation. Communities of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews flourished in Sarajevo and Mostar, while most literature was written in Arabic, Persian or Turkish. So much for the contention of the Serb novelist Ivo Andric that Ottoman rule was devoid of culture, and for the manic demand of the modern Serb nationalist Vojislav Seselj that the Muslims should go back 'to Anatolia'. This kind of rhetoric coexists with a contradictory insistence among Serb and Croat fanatics that the Muslims are really members of one or other group who should rejoin community and motherland. Bosnian Muslims are thus invited to choose between apostasy and extinction.

Malcolm is very good at nailing the persistent legends that underpin such evil. The danger to Bosnia has always derived from the ambition of external states, not from internal strife. He draws a connection between the decline of Ottoman power after 1836 and

the simultaneous 'Slav awakening' which brought Russia and Austria- Hungary into Balkan politics. Bosnia and its Muslims were caught in the middle.

The Austrian conquest in 1878 brought new pressure upon the Muslims; the Sarajevo elite chose to co-operate, while zealots in Travnik and Mostar declaimed against infidel rule. Muslims had fought with the Serbs against Austria, but when the Sarajevo assassination of 1914 pitched Bosnia into the First World War most stayed loyal to Vienna. In the 1920s they sided with the Croats against Serb influence from Belgrade. The scene was set for the divisions of the Second World War, which poison local politics to this day.

Bosnians and Croats at first applauded the Fascist state run from Zagreb, but most soon turned against it. There was indeed a Muslim division of 21,000 men recruited to fight for Germany, and it perpetrated atrocities against Serbs. The Muslim clergy, however, protested against ill- treatment of Serbs and Jews. The Muslim division disintegrated by the end of 1944 and many Muslims fought in Tito's Communist army.

During Tito's rule, the Muslims faced, in Malcolm's all-encapsulating phrase, 'statistical oppression and bogus ethnic history'. When Yugoslavia broke apart, Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia pursued a design for aggression that mimicked Hitler's. Local Serbs were told that they faced Croat fascists and Islamic fundamentalism. The majority vote among Bosnians for a sovereign, independent and tolerant state was ignored. History was summoned to the service of racial war.

Malcolm's book aims to put the historical record straight. His judgement of Serbia is harsh. His verdict on the statesmen of Europe is damning. Yet it comes armed with such a sober mass

of detail, and in prose so restrained, that only at

the final page do we become aware that we have read not merely a work of scholarly rigour but a polemic of deadly effect.