Asim Mujkić is a professor at and head of the Department of Philosophy within the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina). As a philosopher and sociologist, he is the author of extensive publications that address questions of ethnicity and identity, ethnic phenomenology, existentialism, and the work of American philosophers Richard Rorty and John Rawls. In September and October, he conducted research on ethnic nationalism at Indiana University as recipient of REEI’s McCloskey Fellowship, which commemorates former Congressman Frank McCloskey and his efforts to advance peace and democracy in the Balkans. During his residence at IU, Mujkić delivered a talk on “Language and Resistance” and served as a featured panelist at the First Annual McCloskey Roundtable, subject of another article in this issue.
We sat down on October 29th, his last day on the 4th floor of the HLS, to talk about his research and to reflect on his time in Bloomington.
JSN: To start off, can you tell me about your personal relationship with the United States?
I have quite a few connections. In 1986, I was one of 70 high school students from the now former Yugoslavia who participated in a student exchange program to the United States. I was sent to Pueblo County, Colorado. At first I was a bit disappointed. You know, you see movies of New York and LA and then you’re sent to Pueblo County! But after I arrived and settled in, I absolutely enjoyed my time there. Now, I’m happy I was sent to Pueblo County. I lived real life there.
I came back to the US 10 years later as a member and representative of the Commission of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina for the Brčko Area Arbitration where I worked with the Barnes and Thornburg Law Firm in Indianapolis. This is when I first met Frank McCloskey, who was no longer a congressman but a lawyer, and he worked with us.
My sister also lives in the US. She moved here from Germany after she and her husband were forced to leave, some 20 years ago. She now lives in Fort Worth, Texas.
Let’s go back to Frank McCloskey. You are currently the Frank McCloskey Fellow at REEI and clearly had a friendly relationship. Can you tell me a bit about that?
Frank was known to Bosnians as one of the few American political actors who visited Bosnia when it was completely isolated from the rest of the world, on the verge of total extinction. He gave us hope, which was incredibly important to us. There were a few other American intellectuals who came. Susan Sontag, for instance, visited and put on a production of Waiting for Godot, which we connected with because we were waiting for Clinton to do something for Bosnia, as he had promised during his election campaign. Joan Baez also performed in besieged Sarajevo when the city was without heat, electricity, and aid. All of these interactions with Americans got us regional intellectuals thinking about liberal democracy and how we could implement it after the war.
To get back to Frank, it was a pleasure and a lot of fun, working with him, even when things seemed desperate. Our goal for the arbitration was next to impossible, to change by the power of arguments and words something that had been established by vicious war crimes, tanks, airplanes, and destruction. And we prevailed, to the benefit of all citizens in that area. Personally, Frank was such an open, or democratic, highly moral person. It is hard to find people like him these days.
One prominent aspect of his personality was his religious or spiritual side. I realized how much religion was important for him, religion as deep spirituality. In that regard I believe that his moral imperative was deeply philosophical and theological- as described by French intellectual, Levinas, the imperative concerns not what the others owe one, but what one owes to others, especially if they are weak and in need. There was never a question of reciprocity for Frank on these moral matters. It was always his sense of duty- what he had to do, no matter what. He did not expect rewards or for Bosnian people to love him. So, if we read him in this way, there could not be any contradiction in his opposition to the intervention in Vietnam and his advocacy for the intervention in Bosnia. Both stands are ethically consistent.
I’ll share with you one story that in my view very accurately conveys who Frank really was. It was one of his last visits to Bosnia, a few years before he passed away. We were in my house, which I rented in Old Town Sarajevo, talking. I happened to mention that I had recently got a video copy of an excellent British BBC movie called Warriors, a true story about a British military unit in Central Bosnia during the Bosnian war, and about the crimes they had to witness. Frank insisted on seeing the film, so I played it for him. At some point in the middle, he suddenly got up and ran to the toilet. I knew something was wrong. He was very upset, with tears in his eyes. “I’m sorry, but I cannot watch this,” he told me. He could not stand the suffering of innocent people, even in the movie. I guess all the brutality that he actually witnessed came back to him and he had a difficult time dealing with it.
How has the Bosnian War influenced your scholarship?
I experienced war through refugee status. I had to leave my town, Brčko, which experienced intense bouts of ethnic cleansing. After 10 years it was arbitrated which was my way of struggling to get that town back. However, during the war, my parents stayed in the occupied town. They were later exchanged as prisoners of war through the initiative of a local Red Cross organization.
In the first stage of the war, I worked as a journalist and ad hoc teacher in elementary schools for the children of refugees south of Brčko which was under central control of the Bosnian Army. Schools had been set up in the basements but were abandoned facilities with irregular schedules, in between shellings. I mainly worked on war crime stories, interviewing numerous surviving camp detainees who were exchanged and who came to our territory. In 1994 I moved to Tuzla, a regional center where, according to the Washington Agreement, the entity of the Federation was established. I was then invited to set up an information or press service for the Office of the Government of Tuzla Canton. Only after the war, in 1997, did I move to Sarajevo to finish my Masters of Philosophy program which I had registered for in 1991. This is when my academic career started. In fact, even before the war I was bound to develop an academic career. As a supposedly talented graduate, I was invited by my mentor Senior Professor Abdulah Šarčević, to be a young researcher at the Center for Philosophical Investigations of the Bosnian Academy of Arts and Sciences. Unfortunately, the outbreak of war shattered my dreams in this regard.
The experience of the war affected my academic interests deeply. Since then, all my research has been focused on ethnic nationalism. In fact, here at IU, I conducted research on ethnic nationalism. While getting my PhD in philosophy, I became—as did many intellectuals in Bosnia and Herzegovina—interested in American pragmatism, which I wrote two books about. In 2005, I hosted two visits by American philosopher Richard Rorty, where he served as my personal guest and delivered lectures at the University of Sarajevo. I also published Rorty’s essays in our local languages of Bosnian, Serbian, and Croatian, which was a rather unique publication.
In reading American philosophy, I developed a sensibility toward American democracy, and toward democracy in general. From a pragmatist prospective, I entered into a critique of nationalism, which is how I became involved in the public discussion on the Bosnian political crisis.
Yes, when I googled you, I was surprised to see that you had appeared quite frequently on TV news and talk shows out of Sarajevo.
I was attractive as a public speaker because I was a young scholar with a refreshing new angle. Well, at least I was told so. In fact, an entire generation of younger intellectuals that has recently come of age has been involved in the discussion of the political identity of this country. I maintained a liberal approach until around 2010 when I started to see how nationalism undermines liberal democracy almost in the same way it previously had undermined ex-Socialist regimes. Encouraged by a sequence of protests from Istanbul to Germany, Sarajevo included, I started to look for alternative models of political subjectivation because obviously liberal democratic hegemony will at some point either collapse or transform into something closer to national sentiment. So, I think it’s very important to search for possible counter hegemonies other than those of the nationalist, racist, chauvinist type.
At this point, I arrived at a new notion of class by reading the American philosopher John Dewey. I’m inspired by his conception of radical democracy. Dewey says if it’s not radical, it’s not democracy. I then returned to Marx and Gramsci’s ideas through the lens of American pragmatism. You know, in the 80s we hated Marxism because it was in our textbooks and because it was a dogmatic doctrine designed to justify very particular regimes of power. But later, some of us came back to his ideas in very different ways. Now I am more than worried about the corruption of human rights that has entered textbooks. This is a symptom of ideology.
Can you tell me more about your research in general?
The calls for national unity in the Balkans obscured the establishment of classes and I sincerely think the way to dismantle the dominance of nationalism is to pose a question about class.
The way political oligarchies rule, especially in the Balkans, is that the rise of wealth among the richest is followed by the rise of poverty among others. This is the untold story of the 1989 Revolution that hides behind stories on human rights and democracy. What we experienced in 1989 was the establishment of a class system. This gap in wealth and power struck us all in 2008. The secret to domination of the ruling classes lays within their hegemonic power- they manage to persuade others, as Marx clearly pointed out some two-hundred years ago, that their interests are general, universal, and/or national interests. The conception of nations blurs class division. In my view, there are two alternatives, two alternative ways of thinking that can come from this establishment of a class system. One is based on nationalism- and most unfortunately, right now, Europe is falling into a nationalist trap. The other alternative will come from scholars looking for a non-exclusivist route to political legitimacy.
While here, I’ve realized that American nationalism is ethnonationalism as well, white nationalism. It seems the right wing’s plan is not only to reverse Roe vs. Wade, but to go all the way to Brown vs. [Board of] Education. You can see what is happening now at Harvard. Nationalists are using the language of human rights to persuade the populace of their own ends. In this usage, they are rendering the vocabulary of liberal democracy useless. Bosnian politicians also use the vocabulary of minority rights to persuade the public that their agendas are morally superior. I notice a similarity between the populisms of the US, Europe and the Balkans. There is a reckless political vocabulary in use-the same type that has been in use in wider Balkan political discourse for 25 years. Maybe the Bosnians were pioneers of this new vocabulary of right-wing order now rapidly spreading in the U.S.
We’re currently witnessing the internationalization of nationalism. I am working to fight this conceptual growth and to develop an alliance which is non-nationalist by highlighting human concerns which, I believe, are all comparable and universal, like exploitation. Class segregation, I believe, is an indicator of how people really live. National identity has to do with how people ideologically live.
A Google Scholar search for your work reveals the popularity of your article, “We the citizens of Ethnopolis” (2007), wherein you comment on Annex 4 of the Dayton Agreement from which the Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina was formed. Although seemingly well intentioned, this annex left the people of the former Yugoslavia deprived of their individuality and democratic citizenship- rendering them ethnic party members bound by their state-ascribed ethnicity. This grouping of society encouraged institutional corruption and nationalism, while crippling the ruling government. Did this work in particular start a discussion that needed to happen, in your opinion? Are you happy for having written it?
I’m not happy at all for having to deal with ethnonationalism. Although, I’m glad that I could participate in the public debate on consociationalism ten years ago and that I contributed to the understanding of the direction in which Bosnian political communication could be going. I am also proud as an academic and intellectual. I’m proud that I participated in large anti-nationalist demonstrations in 2013 and 2014 and in the establishment of an ad hoc open university where intellectuals tried to offer new vocabulary for a rising social movement.
To what extent can we really express new sentiments and ideas within a framework of hegemonic vocabulary? We need a new lexicon. If we use the vocabulary of the hegemony people can only become confused and meaning becomes lost. Witnessing this misery, these ethnic and nationalist divisions, I just always wonder whether this is the best we can do? I don’t think so.
Jessica Storey-Nagy currently serves as REEI Graduate Assistant for Outreach. She is a doctoral student in Central Eurasian Studies with a concentration in Hungarian Studies.