In my first blog piece on this issue, I referred to Michael Ignatieff’s visit to the former Yugoslavia and his depiction of that country as a flashpoint between three distinct communities. In identifying these three communities, he followed the practice common in the media at that time, of referring to the three main “ethnic” groups in the former Yugoslavia as “Serbs, Croats and Muslims”. But there appears to be a category error here: “Serb” and “Croat” refer to nationalities, in some sense that requires further examination; “Muslim” denotes a religion. If you wanted to subdivide the peoples of that region in a consistent manner, you would have to say “Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim” (and presumably at least one other category – “atheist”) but this was rarely done. (Nevertheless, Wikipedia tells me that “Muslim” was indeed a legitimate “supra-ethnic definition of nationality of Slavic muslims” in Communist Yugoslavia; a move described by T.K.Oommen, in Citizenship, Nationality and Ethnicity, as “disastrous”).
Yet the Bosnian Muslims were anything but devout, as my friends who went there at that time confirmed – they sounded about as religious as the average Brit, in fact, paying only lip service to the mosque. Furthermore, I would not be surprised to find a similar lack of religious fervour in the heartlands of either of the two brands of Christianity on offer. These terms were merely labels; but if we want to avoid using them, no other words come to mind. Serbs, Croats and Bosnians? But Bosnians in turn come in all three flavours. And in terms of ethnicity, if by that term we understand some sort of racial categorisation, there is little to choose between any of them. They were, and are, all Slavs; Yugoslavia was the Kingdom of the South Slavs, the religious differences having been imprinted by whichever empire they ended up belonging to. And this reminds us of another oft-quoted fact: the word “Semite” applies equally to the Jews and Arabs who inhabit Palestine, so how can the Palestinians, or their supporters, be described as anti-Semitic?
My dictionary contains four alternative definitions of “ethnic”. If we discount the currently popular usage found in phrases such as “the ethnic look” and “ethnic food”, it offers:
(1) “relating to or characteristic of a human group having racial, religious, linguistic and certain other traits in common”;
(2) “relating to the classification of mankind into groups, esp. on the basis of racial characteristics”; or
(3) “denoting or deriving from the cultural traditions of a group of people”.
The four words used to define ethnic overall are thus racial, religious, linguistic and cultural; and despite the “and” in definition 1, I would say you can pick out any combination of these – but the most important are the last three. I don’t buy the idea often advanced by the right and the tabloid press that “multiculturalism” (which is usually code for “multiracialism”) doesn’t work – at any rate, not in the case of the UK. Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” never arrived; races, qua races, live in relative harmony nowadays, give or take the thugs from the BNP and EDL (and naturally, I’d rather give them than take them); where there is inter-community strife nowadays, it is mainly being whipped up by that great divisive force, religion.
Click here for the last blog piece in this series.