Decoloniality article

On the Advantage of Not Fitting In: Religious-National Identities as Border-Living

Gazi Husrev Beg Mosoque, Sarajevo. Painting by Spiro Bocaric (1909). Public Domain. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The Balkans are somewhat of a challenge for those thinking and writing about colonialism and its afterlife. Before the decolonial turn in the human and social sciences scholars debated whether the Balkans belonged to the colonial world at all. There were, on the one hand, those who argued that the Balkans ought to be considered as part of colonial experience and an aspect of the study of orientalism. Larry Wolff, Milica Bakić-Hayden, and Vesna Goldsworthy, among others, produced influential studies of the region and broadened the horizons of postcolonial scholarship—even as other, non-regional postcolonial critics, were very slow to acknowledge their insights, as Dorotea Kołodziejczyk’s has shown.

On the other hand, however, there were scholars who resisted the view of the Balkans as a subspecies of orientalism. One of the most recognized in this group was the historian Maria Todorova. For her, the Balkans merited investigation on their own terms, rather than under the umbrella category of the colonial. In the Balkans, Todorova notes, there is an absence of self-understanding as colonized peoples. Moreover, neither the Ottomans nor the Habsburgs—which dominated the Balkan region for centuries—could be described as colonial empires. In these two instances, Todorova elaborates, we can find “no abyss or institutional/legal distinction between metropole and dependencies”; “no previous stable entity which colonized”; “no amelioration complex, no civilizing mission obsession comparable to the French or the English colonial projects”;  “no hegemonic cultural residue” that would be “comparable to the linguistic and general cultural hegemony of English in the Indian subcontinent . . . or of French in Africa and Indochina.” Finally, Todorova identifies the distinctive character of the Balkan religious experience. She stresses that Balkan religious heterogeneity is among the chief reasons why Western Europeans have perceived the region as ambiguous and anomalous—so different from the Western European drive for religious homogenization that was part and parcel to the rise of modern Western European nation-states.

Todorova’s remarks, especially her highlighting of the Balkan religious in-betweeness, provide the starting point for the challenge I want to pose to scholars and activists from this region who identify with decoloniality, especially those who trace connections between postsocialist and postcolonial trajectories and politics while overlooking the role of religion in social life and in the modes of “being and living locally” (16). It is plausible that their inattention to religion is an extension of the secularist bias that characterizes postcolonial approaches more generally. It is also possible to see their inattention as a problem for their own decolonial practices and goals. As An Yountae and Nelson Maldonado-Torres contend elsewhere on this blog, if one is to follow Frantz Fanon, religious ideas ought not only to be subjects of critique but also explored as sources of radical change. On my reading, the absence of a focus on religion in decolonial studies of the Balkans merits probing because the region’s religious experiences fit neither the patterns of the Western European religious homogenization nor of religious colonization. As such they can be analytically, normatively, and politically generative. Defined by multiple peripheralities—as neither the colonizer nor the colonized— the Balkans and their religious-national configurations emerge not only as a reflection of the established nation-states but also as border-living that, through the local experience of life, contests those nation-states.

Examining the complexities of the religious in-betweeness of the Balkans and what they imply for our understanding of nationalism in relation to the nation-state is especially relevant since, as Nikolay Karkov has shown,  decolonial scholars and activists from the Balkans follow the lead, among others, of Madina V. Tlostanova and Walter Mignolo as they attempt to bridge post-Soviet/post-socialist and subaltern considerations and resistances, in order to “revisit the local histories . . . within the colonial matrix of power” (6). Decolonial thinkers from the Balkans thus reject the questioning of the region’s colonial status and posit that everyone is part of coloniality/modernity: “Its totalizing reach,” writes Nikolay Karkov, “leaves no place untouched and no stone unturned,” so that the Balkans (as constitutive of Eastern Europe), “while formally never colonized by the West,” are “no exception to coloniality’s logic” (46).

Defined by multiple peripheralities—as neither the colonizer nor the colonized— the Balkans and their religious-national configurations emerge not only as a reflection of the established nation-states but also as border-living that, through the local experience of life, contests those nation-states.

Moreover, the new generation of decolonial scholars from the Balkans considers the incorporation of this region into the European Union a neocolonial event. They turn to decoloniality as a frame of analysis and a reminder of the radical power of decolonial praxis against neoliberalism,  And, while the region’s thinkers and activists are careful to separate their decolonial resistance to the neocolonial transnational projects from the populist nativist politics that rejects Western European modernity, they reassert the view of nationalism prescribed by the subaltern decolonial experiences, imaginaries, and practices. They follow thinkers like Ramón Grosfoguel when he contends that nationalism can provide only “Eurocentric solutions to a Eurocentric global problem as it reproduces an internal coloniality of power within each nation-state and reifies the nation-state as the privileged location of social change. . . . Nationalist responses to global capitalism reinforce the nation-state as the political institutional form par excellence of the modern/colonial capitalist/patriarchal world-system” (25).

Within the decolonial framing, where the whole problematic of nationalism is, then, identified as the domain of nation-states and, in turn, as constitutive of the colonial matrix of power, the phenomenology of Balkan nationalisms cannot be explored as arising from the complexity of the local border-living. Rather, it is relegated to the “right-wing . . . activist, and violent politics,” the “narratives and movements [that] remain subscribed to an ontology of difference that categorize spaces and people according to frameworks of race and nation,” and “the exclusionary and dehumanizing logics of the self-proclaimed national emancipatory agendas” (28). Put another way, despite the in-betweeness of the Balkans in relation to the abyssal line—despite them being neither on the side of the colonizer or the colonized—decolonial thinkers from the region see nationalisms primarily or exclusively as the embodiment of the nation-states’ logic, ideology, and power.

Balkan religious heterogeneity—also shaped by border-living as a historical reality for centuries—complicates this straightforward picture. As the Bosnian Islamic theologian Enes Karić underscores, in one thousand to two thousand years of history, the Balkan region never “entrusted its whole to one religion alone.” The centuries of proximity of Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, and Muslims shows “the meaninglessness of theories that divide religions into ‘native’ and immigrating ones”; they also demonstrate that the decolonial framing of Christianity as another aspect of domination invested in western colonial modernity does not have much in common with the place of Christianities in Balkan local life and experience. There is nothing here that resembles the spread of Orbis Christianus to the Americas where colonization and Christian missionary endeavors were a joint enterprise. Christianities, western and eastern, arrived to the Balkans early and, from being central to the power of various local medieval states, often became constitutive of the Ottoman Empire’s millet system. Balkan religious history, in other words, is one of constant shifts in power constellations among different religious groups; it is also a long history of proximities, both conflicts and encounters, among Orthodox and Catholic Christianities, and Islam.

These shifts in power relations and the “movement” of borders that accompanied them, provide the backdrop for the ways in which both Christianities and Islams in the Balkans have enabled religious-national connections expressed as border-living, rather than merely boundary-maintenance. In my considerations of the Bosnian Franciscan radical peacebuilding in the 1990s and the Rhodopes’ Christian-Muslim living in the context of komshuluk—“good neighborly relations”—I uncover the ways in which particular religious and national identities are affirmed while also remaining open. For the Bosnian Franciscans, the latter meant the affirmation of the Bosnian identity in the midst of violent conflicts as an identity that embraced but did not abolish religious or national particularities. It demonstrated, in the words of Father Mile Babić, the possibility of both freedom and belonging. For the Rhodope Christian-Muslim komshuluk, this word, of Turkish origin but perceived as part of the Bulgarian language, was lived as “a closeness in separation” and “the efforts to maintain it.” While keeping alive the memories of conflict and violence among different groups, all members of komshuluk also work to sustain the ideals of good neighborly relations as a moral good justifiable in religious terms. Put another way, in both the Bosnian and Bulgarian examples, the ways of border-living have long faced, responded to, but also resisted the attempts of various nation-states, including those of communist provenance, to determine and regulate the religio-national categories in these regions. And in both instances of border-living, religious and national intersubjectivities remained irreducible to nation-states: when they were rooted and embedded, national without being nationalistic, religiously humanistic yet particular, these configurations of religious and national intersubjectivities promoted deep pluralism while contesting whichever nation-state they faced.

Balkan religious history, in other words, is one of constant shifts in power constellations among different religious groups; it is also a long history of proximities, both conflicts and encounters, among Orthodox and Catholic Christianities, and Islam.

The religio-national border-living I retrieve in the Balkans might not be as critical or radical as envisioned and enacted by either the subaltern or Balkan decolonial thinkers and activists. It is, however, border-living and doing through which, as Tlostanova and Mignolo suggest, it is possible to evade the colonial matrix by way of not belonging to “its memories, feelings, and ways of sensing” (7). Why, then, work to fit in the Balkans in either postcolonial or decolonial frames, if it is their liminality that is valuable? I don’t posit this question to circumvent but rather to engage a decolonial understanding of border-living, and to do so in a way that can complicate and perhaps even deepen that notion. The Balkan religio-national in-betweeness also challenges the decolonial approach to nationalisms as the phenomena that is first and foremost embodied in the structures of nation-states. If we consider religio-national connections and configurations in the Balkans as instances of border-living, isn’t it plausible to ask whether the decolonial view of nationalism is another iteration of methodological nationalism—the understanding that nation-states are the dominant formation and representation of modern political life, which in this particular iteration would imply that nation-states absorb the complex collectivistic phenomenology of national belonging?

My invitation to take the Balkans in their singularities rather than fitting them into the pre-established decolonial frames of thought also reflects an ethical concern. In my view, only when the Balkans are, to follow Romina Istratii, considered as succumbing to neither Northern nor Southern theoretical or praxis-oriented frameworks, can we ensure that all ways of being and living locally are truly listened to, rather than considered through a gradation of levels exploitation (as sometimes happens in decolonial considerations). And, only if the Balkan experiences and stories, modes of resistance, and affirmations are taken not only on their own but also as constitutive of those knowledges that have far too often been silenced,[1] can we enact an expansive vision of pluriversality, in which decoloniality, as Walter Mignolo puts it, is only one option, and it is always a truth in parentheses (115).


* This post draws on the proposals that the author develops in two essays, “Linking Identity and Solidarity:  A Reflection from the Periphery” (forthcoming) and “Neither Exclusionary Religious Nationalisms, Nor Abstract Religious Humanisms: Belonging and Border-Living in the Balkans,” in Balkan Contextual Theology, ed. Stipe Odak and Zoran Grozdanov (Routledge, 2022). I am grateful to Stipe Odak and Zoran Grozdanov for their comments and for permission to use some material from the essay I published in their volume. I am also grateful to Joshua Lupo and Atalia Omer for questions and suggestions in the development of this piece.

[1] For the notion of silenced knowledges, see Boaventura de Sousa Santos, The End of the Cognitive Empire: The Coming of Age of Epistemologies of the South, 8

Slavica Jakelić
Slavica Jakelić is the Richard P. Baepler Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Valporaisio University. Her scholarly interests and publications center on religion and nationalism, religious and secular humanisms, theories of religion and secularism, theories of modernity, and interreligious conflict and dialogue. Jakelić has worked at or was a fellow of a number of interdisciplinary institutes in Europe and the United States—the Erasmus Institute for the Culture of Democracy in Croatia; the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University; the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna; the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago; the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study; the Erasmus Institute at the University of Notre Dame; and the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School. She is a Senior Fellow of the national project “Religion & Its Publics,” placed at the University of Virginia, where she was a faculty member and co-director at the UVA’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture for several years. She is also a Senior Fellow of the international project "Orthodoxy and Human Rights," placed at Fordham University.

Jakelić 's writings have appeared in journals such as the Journal of the American Academy of ReligionJournal of Religious EthicsPolitical TheologyThe Hedgehog ReviewThe Review of Faith &International AffairsStudies in Religion, Sciences Religieuses, and Commonweal. She co-edited three volumes: The Future of the Study of Religion, Crossing Boundaries: From Syria to Slovakia, and The Hedgehog Review’s issue "After Secularization." Jakelić is the author of Collectivistic Religions: Religion, Choice, and Identity in Late Modernity (Routledge, 2010) and is currently working on two books, Pluralizing Humanism (under contract with Routledge) and Ethical Nationalisms.

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