Mile Babić – « Populism and Religion in Bosnia and Herzegovina »

Mile Babić

« Populism and Religion in Bosnia and Herzegovina »

Thierry-Marie Courau, Susan Abraham, Mile Babić

Concilium 2019-2. Populismus und Religion
Concilium 2019-2. Populism and religion
Concilium 2019-2. Religiones y populismo
Concilium 2019-2. Populismo e religione
Concilium 2019-2. Religions et populisme
Concilium 2019-2. Populismo e religião

Populism is present today throughout the European Union and throughout Europe, and nowhere more so than in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Present as a form of thinking, discourse and action, and present as a communication style, in politics, for sure, but also in everyday life. One might say it is present as both an ideology and a meta-ideology. The populist parties attract ever-increasing numbers of followers, while politicians of all stripes deploy populist patterns of thought at least sometimes. Consequently, populism is now the greatest threat to democracy in Europe. 

In this text, I would like first of all to point out the meaning of populism. After that I would like to show to what extent populism was present in the former socialist countries by pointing to its deeper roots, its presence in the Middle Ages under a different name, fear as its basis and the democratic and theological answer to it.

1. What is populism?

The German political scientist and professor at Princeton, Jan-Werner Müller, first lists and then describes the main characteristics of populism in his book, What Is Populism? According to Müller, that he be critical of elites is a necessary condition for a politician to be included amongst the populists, but not a sufficient one. Populists are anti-elite, but also always anti-pluralist, claiming they and only they represent the people. They declare anyone who does not think like them immoral and corrupt members of the elite (the elite is by definition immoral and corrupt). In their view, once they are in power, no opposition is legitimate. To empirically or rationally based objections that demonstrate the people are not 100% behind them, they vaingloriously insist that they alone are morally upright, and they alone represent the people as a whole[1].

For Müller, populism is a form of identity politics that assumes only populists can determine what makes up the people’s identity. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, we might put this as that only the populists can say who is a real Bosniak, Croat, or Serb, and who isn’t. The populist claim is that the people they alone represent form a homogenous totality, rather than a community of free and responsible individuals. Populists recognise no plurals: one people, one thought. Once in power, they strive to subordinate the state and its institutions to their own interests and, so, spread corruption and clientalism. They allow their clients and cronies free rein, which is why populist politicians tend to suppress civil society, as they cannot tolerate alternative opinion. They justify their suppression of freedom of thought on the grounds they alone represent the people. Their followers justify and defend them, if caught red-handed in corruption, on the grounds they are doing it for the real people. Populists are willing to change even the constitution, if required to head off the development of pluralism.[2]

The Croatian political scientist, Berto Šalaj, defines populism as a political meta-ideology with two core characteristics: the divinisation or deification of the people, and so the positive valuation of a united and homogenous people, and anti-elitism. Šalaj situates populism between pluralist social systems of values, on the one hand, and monistic systems (like fascism, communism, and religious fundamentalism), on the other. In their book, Dobar, loš ili zao? Populizam u Hrvatskoj, he and Marijana Grbeša show that the sources of populism lie in representative democracy itself,[3] a position Jan-Werner Müller also argues for, qualifying populism as a corrupted form of democracy. For Müller, populists do not oppose the principle of political representation. They just insist they are the only legitimate representatives of the people. In a critical review of an essay collection entitled Kršćanstvo i populizam. Jasne fronte?,Axel Bernd Kunz stresses that populism should be understood as a debating strategy that is structurally closed-off to alternative opinions.[4] To put this more clearly, one might say that populists take democratic forms and procedures and fill them with antidemocratic content.

2. Populism in former socialistic countries

When his book appeared in Belgrade in 2017, Müller took part in a public discussion with the historian Dubravka Stojanović and the sociologist Vesna Pešić. All three participants agreed that populism’s crucial characteristic is anti-pluralism. Populists can’t comprehend anyone thinking differently and consider those who do to be traitors, in the pay of foreign powers, merciless and corrupt. Noting that her own book on Populism the Serbian way would be out soon, Dubravka Stojanović pointed out in discussion that there has been populism in Serbia since the days of Svetozar Marković (1846-1875), the influential Serbian socialist thinker who represented the (leftist and Russian-inspired) Narodnjak form of populism and believed that the principality of Serbia would be able to skip several stages of historical development and pass directly from pre-capitalist forms to the socialist form of society, without needing to pass through capitalism. Nationalist populism in Serbia was further developed by Nikola Pašić (1845-1926), the founder and leader of the Popular Radical Party (Narodna radikalna stranka), by the Serbian Orthodox bishop Nikolaj Velimirović (1881-1956), who was both a Christian theologian and a Serbian National-Socialist ideologue, by Dimitrije Ljotić (1891-1945), a Serbian politician and Nazi collaborationist, and by Milan Nedić (1876-1946), the leader of the puppet government in Serbia under the Third Reich in the Second World War. Socialist self-management in the former Yugoslavia, under Josip Broz Tito (1892-1980), who served as president of the state with an unlimited mandate (i.e., for life), was a typical example of left populism. Prof Stojanović has shown clearly how both left and right populisms make their appeal to the people, whom they claim support them 100%, or even 104%, as did Slobodan Milošević (1941-2006), former president of Serbia and then of the federal republic of Yugoslavia and indictee at The Hague for war crimes. In populist politics, the ruling party equates itself with the people, the people with the leader, so that state = ruling party = leader. As a famous watchword in Serbo-Croatian from the Socialist era had it: Mi smo Titovi, Tito je naš (‘We are Tito’s, Tito is ours’). The leader of the Serbian radicals, Nikola Pašić, had earlier made a similar claim. Ultimately, Stojanović points out, populism, whether left or right, leads the country towards a spiral of violence in which that those who think differently are persecuted and killed.

The sociologist Vesna Pešić stressed that populism is a negation of democracy in which we find the maximum possible development of clientalism, as the individual must rely on the populist party to progress. Even when populists speak against elites, corruption, capitalism, et cetera, they are acting, she asserts, as standardbearers of authoritarian forms of thought and action, not of freedom, as they often present themselves. She points out that the communist movement, whose leader appealed to the working people (class-based populism), and the nationalist movement, whose leaders calls on the Serbian people (nationalist populism), are both plainly advanced forms of populist system. In socialism, the true or real people was the working people, in nationalism it is the Serbian people. Both populisms ended in violence and wars with neighbouring peoples and states.[5]

It is worth recalling that all the characteristics of populism found in Serbia and mentioned by Stojanović and Pešić are also present and active – mutatis mutandis – in the other countries that emerged from the break-up of Yugoslavia and indeed in all former socialist countries. It is clear that anti-pluralism (which rejects alternative opinions as immoral and corrupt) appeals to the nation as an homogenous totality rather than a community of free and responsible individuals, leads directly to hatred of the other and the different and, ultimately, to violence that seeks to destroy that other.

The nationalist parties within the Bosniak, Croat, and Serb peoples in Bosnia and Herzegovina are forever denying each other’s legitimacy as representative of their respective constituencies. By indulging in this form of politics, they stifle human rights within their own groups. This fact alone is enough to show that not one of these political parties has any respect for human rights, the nationalist parties least of all. While claiming to support universal human rights, they are actually giving preference to national rights that are fundamentally particularist. As a result, national identity becomes more important than individual identity, no matter how clear it is to any politically informed person that there can be no democracy without freedom of the individual (citizen).

Populist politicians across Europe divide and polarise into “us” and “them”, producing exclusivity and hatred and making easy promises they never intend to keep, in order to usurp and politicise government institutions and increase their own political power. They excoriate as immoral anyone who disagrees with them, deploying ad hominem and ad populumarguments and dismissing those based on the faculty of reason common to all human beings. It follows that such populist politicians are taking action against democratic institutions, objective reason, and fundamental human freedoms: the freedoms of conscience, thought, and speech. They appeal to the people and treat them as an homogenous totality, a totality within which no one thinks for themselves, following their great and strong leader instead. They appeal to the voice of the people and to “sound common sense”, construing that voice and that common sense as made in their image and for their purposes. Apparently concerned for the ordinary man, their real desire is to increase their own power and pursue their own interests. They offer simplistic solutions to complex problems, because one (their) side contains exclusively the representatives of the real people (authentic and moral), while the other opposing side is made up of those who have betrayed the people, truth, and morality. They put themselves forward as the leaders who alone can save the people. They flatter and pander to the people (the populus), reinforcing the stereotypes and prejudices that already exist in the people and deploying them to their own purposes. They press only for their own interests, while insisting there is no alternative to them, they alone are the saviours of the people.

3. Deeper roots of the populism

It now becomes necessary to say something of the deeper roots of populism. One of them is the crisis of democracy, which has caused a sense of insecurity. Democratic practice has clearly become remote from democratic ideals, equality between individuals undermined in the name of liberalism. The political centre and the middle-class are disappearing, to be replaced by two extremes: a group of the rich and powerful, on the one side, and a great mass of the poor, on the other. A certain erosion has taken place of social systems, like the communities in rural areas and smaller towns, in favour of the anonymity of life in large towns, which produces isolation, and of augmented globalisation, which has its winners and losers. In short, the democratic, economic, and social crises go hand-in-glove with a crisis in the culture, as recent waves of migration have reinforced fear of the other, particularly of those who are culturally and religiously different, specifically of Islam.

Political analysts and commentators have popped up in Europe to use every available catastrophe to spread fear of the other. In the place of trust in the other, they deepen distrust, spreading fake news and disinformation. It’s important to note that the standardbearers of populist politics have produced a profound polarisation (division) in society, and neither they nor the representatives of liberal democracy are prepared for or capable of two-way dialogue. The advocates of democratic values must be told they too bear a certain responsibility for accepting the populist logic that produces exclusion: either us or them – no compromise, no dialogue.

The prominent German sociologist, Ulrich Beck, talks of a global risk society (Weltrisikogesellschaft). He has developed an original theory of risk and reflexive modernity, in which he shows that the process of the individualisation of religion is itself ambivalent: it can lead either to religious fundamentalisms (closing in on the self) or to religious cosmopolitanism. For such religious cosmopolitanism, other religions are not a threat, but an enrichment. Anyone who integrates the religious traditions and perspectives of others into his own personal religious experience thereby knows more and learns more, not just about others, but about himself too. If we accept and value cultural and religious differences positively, then we enrich each other. The individualisation of religion, however, can produce fear in some, causing them to flee to religious fundamentalism for security’s sake.[6] It is worth noting that European politicians have not resolved the fears and insecurities brought about by the ongoing processes of globalisation, modernisation, and individualisation, the deepening gap between rich and poor, and, especially, the suppression of democratic principles (equality and fraternity/solidarity). They have at best kicked them down the road. These fears have been intensified by the latest uncontrolled wave of migration and the populists are now projecting the sum of all these fears and securities onto refugees from non-European countries, as their new scapegoats.

The advocates of democracy answer populist bias with their own bias, painting the populists as suffering from a xenophobic disorder. This mutual rejection has resulted in violence, both on the European periphery and in the European centres (Paris, Brussels, Nice, Berlin, Munich, et cetera), causing states of emergency to be introduced out of this heightened sense of insecurity. It has also led to columns of refugees moving freely around the periphery and centres of Europe and so increased support for the populist parties, which have lost all faith in a united Europe, retreating and closing themselves off within their national states.

If we want to strengthen social democracy, then those who would fight for democracy must engage in dialogue with the supporters of populism, not discredit them with scorn. Populism is more than just a protest against corruption in the states of Europe or even against of the ruling elites. It is an expression of the great insecurity eating away at European society. Is the xenophobia to be found in the populist parties just an expression of their obsession with foreigners (immigrants) or of their need for help? How are we to reconcile the logic of the market and social welfare under conditions where the state shows an inability to assist the lower and middle classes? Those who feel socially and economically marginalised are looking for help and their concerns should not be ignored. 

In their one-sidedness, populists exacerbate things in mobilising and amplifying popular dissatisfaction, fears, concerns, and resentments, using them for their own political purposes. The goal is to attain power, whatever the means: through easy promises, aping concern for ordinary people, feigning closeness with the people, and denouncing those who think differently from them as immoral. Populists themselves respect neither moral norms nor rational logic, and their argumentation always tends to the ad hominem or the ad populum. They are more concerned to impress the people than to arrive at any truth. They subordinate government institutions to themselves personally, allowing their clients or hangers-on to do whatever they like, under a form of special dispensation. Consequently, they care little for truth, morality, or social justice, their greatest concern being how to increase their own power. They glorify their leaders as charismatic figures above the rule of law, drawing on the assistance of religious populism to claim that those great leaders have been sent by God and that the voice of the people is itself God’s voice. In this way, the desire for ever greater power is buttressed by divine legitimation (justification). One must, nonetheless, admit that the populists often ask the right questions, but give the wrong answers, as the then French Prime Minister Laurent Fabius put it in 1984.

4. Roger Bacon

Having studied the life and works of the great 13th century Franciscan thinker Roger Bacon, I have noted that what we call populism he termed errors and mistakes (errores) and obstacles to recognition of the truth on the path towards perfectibility and wisdom: “the example of frail and unworthy authority, ingrained habit, the opinion of the ignorant crowd, and the cloaking of one’s own ignorance with a show of apparent wisdom” (fragilis et indignae auctoritatis exemplum, consuetudinis diuturnitas, vulgi sensus imperiti, et propriae ignorantiae occultatio cum ostentatione sapientiae apparentis). The first obstacle to the recognition of truth is the following of frail and unworthy authority (in populism this is blind trust in the leader even when he is obviously mistaken, whether factually or morally), the second is the obstacle of ingrained habit (in populism this is reliance on stereotypes and prejudice), the third is the obstacle of uninformed public opinion (in populism this is the appeal to common sense and arguments made either ad populum or ad hominem). An ad hominem argument is an attempt to deny the truthfulness of a claim by drawing attention to negative characteristics or beliefs of the individual expressing it. An ad populum argument is an attempt to prove the truth of a claim on the grounds that many or most people believe it.The fourth obstacle is cloaking one’s own ignorance in ways that present it as knowledge or wisdom.[7]

Bacon considered uninformed public opinion even more dangerous than reliance on unworthy authority or ingrained habit, “because authority only solicits and habit binds, but public opinion gives birth to and confirms the obstinate [in their obstinacy]” (nam auctoritas solum allicit, consuetudo ligat, opinio vulgi obstinatos parit et confirmat). In his view, the proponents of error put their the faith in the multitude, as though a greater multitude were a proof of truthfulness (populists put their faith in the people as a whole, all of whom are on their side – argumentum ad populum). He also points out that the proponents of error expect to use the multitude to defeat those “whom they could not best through reason” (quem ratione superare non poterant). Proponents of the third obstacle (uninformed public opinion) tend more towards violence and evil than proponents of the first two. All evil, Bacon says, that befalls the human race does so when people celebrate their errors (lies) as truth and their evil as good. The proponents of the fourth obstacle are of this sort: they care neither for truth nor good, any more than do today’s populists.[8]

5. Fear as basis of populist logics

The former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, gave a very instructive answer to a question about the radical polarisation that has come about in European societies (with populists on the one side, their opponents on the other) in an interview given to the Zagreb newspaper, Jutarnji list (Morning Press), on September 2, 2018. He pointed out that “populism exists on both left and right, partly as a result of economic factors, like the financial crisis, but also partly because of cultural factors, e.g. as a consequence of immigration” and that the solution lies in creating a strong centre. Blair also stresses the importance of listening and understanding “why people choose populism, because, if we don’t find answers to their sincere concerns and issues, then the process whereby the traditional political parties are being taken over by populists will continue and intensify.” The true threat to democracy is “for the world to divide into two groups of people and not willing to listen to each other, to talk to each other, and so to love each other.” For him, the soul of democracy lies in “a sense for compromise, getting along, and believing that what connects us is more important than what divides us.”[9] It is particularly dangerous to deny all legitimacy to things just because we do not agree with them.

The question now arises as to what degree religions have just made nice with national populism and to what degree they have actually supported it. The eminent Croatian historian and former professor of history at Yale, Ivo Banac has demonstrated in his book Hrvati i Crkva (‘The Croats and the Church’) how the Catholic Church succeeded in resisting communism (Stalinism), whose programme required a dismantling of religion, along with scientific demonstration of God’s nonexistence, expressed in a new ideology called scientism. The Communist theoreticians thus advocated “scientific atheism” (they declared it possible to prove in a scientific way that God does not exist).[10] The church became fully modern only once it had accepted nationalism as the height of modernity. One should perhaps add that the thesis of one’s own people’s infallibility has been given particular emphasisas sentences have been issued at the International Court in The Hague. None of the sides is ever willing to accept that there might be criminals amongst their people or to accept the verdict of the court, as those being condemned for the crimes they committed should rather be considered heroes, saints, and martyrs. It follows that the members of a given people are moral especially when committing war crimes, because it was for their people they did them. What Banac says of Catholicism is also true – mutatis mutandis – for both Orthodoxy and Islam in all the countries into which Yugoslavia dissolved and in the other former socialist countries more generally.

Looking at populism more closely, we may note that populist logic is built on fear. Fear (Angst) is, for Martin Heidegger, existential, integral to the very structure of the human mode of being, and may take on various forms, some pathological, under different influences. Such fear was intensified during the financial crisis in Europe (2007-8), which created crisis within the European Union itself. The refugee crisis deepened the crisis even further, as it struck at the foundational principles and values of Europe itself. Should Europe build its own stability and security on the exclusion of others? Or is a politics of openness and cooperation required? How are populism, terrorism, and the uncontrolled influx of refugees all to be resisted? From psychology, philosophy, theology we know well that the only proper answer to fear is trust. But, it must be trust that is not contrary to the logic of human reason. 

6. A theological response to populism

What form might a theological response take to the fear and crisis so evident in populist politics? My personal preference for a theological response to the populism spreading throughout Europe and the rest of the worldwould be to give life to the theses of the eminent theologian and founder of the new political theology, Johann Baptist Metz, who also happens to have been one of the founders of Concilium. His theses call for a break with the evil in our past and advocate for the spiritual development of Christians as bearers of hope. The key concepts in his theological thinking are: passiocompassiomemoria passionisthe authority of suffering, and the history of suffering. The relevance of his theses in today’s world is obvious, not least in the regions that once made up Yugoslavia and in the other former socialist countries, but perhaps most of all in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Metz stresses that all the major religions and cultures recognise the authority of suffering, that is the authority of people who suffer because they are exposed to injustice, hatred, or violence: 

There is an authority that is recognised by all the major religions and cultures: the authority of those who suffer. Respect for the suffering of others is a condition of all culture. To be able to talk about other people’s suffering is the precondition for all demands for truth. As well as of the demand for theology and for any Christology.[11]

His first thesis sets out that all the major religions and cultures recognise the authority of those who suffer. This assumes that humanity and everybody who goes to make it up have a shared responsibility for all the suffering that takes place within humanity. There is, thus, a universal responsibility, which means that there can be no suffering in the world that does not concern us. Metz explains that this imperative derives from the universality of God’s children. If we are all God’s children (in theology) and if we are all equal (in politics), then we are bound to our responsibility for all suffering, not just by biblical tradition, but also by the principles of the modern democratic state. If we want to transform the world into a world of peace, not one of conflict, we must act on our responsibility for all the suffering in the world. This is a moral imperative enjoined upon us unconditionally, an unconditional command. It is from this reflexive awareness of all suffering, from this memoria passionis, that our hope in a better future grows, a future that is not a continuation of the evils of the past. The passio Christi and the passio of all humanity are inextricably connected. Jesus’ first regard is messianic and directed primarily at the suffering of the other, at the suffering of each individual who suffers: “whatever you have done unto even the least of my brothers, you have done unto me!”(Mt 25,40).

The second thesis posits that respect for the suffering of others is a condition for all culture. This is the criterion for distinguishing between savages and barbarians, on the one hand, and persons of culture, on the other. Barbarians and savages are those who do not respect the suffering of others. This barbarian can extend so far as actually enjoying other people suffering, the term for which is schadenfreude. When historians of culture discuss Europe, they refer to four cornerstones: Athens (Greek culture), Rome (Roman culture), Jerusalem (the Abrahamic religions), and the Germanic-Slavic peoples, who were barbarians and savages. This barbarism of the peoples (gentes) is evident throughout European history: during the Inquisition, during the wars of religion, during the Jacobin Terror, during the two world wars, in the concentration camps (the Holocaust and the Gulag) and in current technologically perfected forms of killing not just soldiers, but innocent civilians, women, and children. Today, what is being intentionally increased is the suffering of others, both qualitatively and quantitatively, rather than respect for that suffering. The words cult and culture share the same root, the Latin verb colerecoluicultum, indicating that religion belongs at the very heart of culture. The common task of religion and cult is the perfection of human nature, not its destruction.

Metz’s third thesis states that talking about the pain of others and articulating their pain is a precondition for seeking truth. Those who remain silent about the pain of others have no desire for learning the truth. They conceal that pain under a veil of silence, passing over the truth in silence, over what has truly happened. That is, they do not desire to know that truth which alone can free us from lies and error. In the former socialist countries, one side greatly exaggerates the number of victims, the other side grossly underplays it, showing clearly that neither side cares for the truth or for the victims.


Reflexive awareness of Jesus’ suffering is subversive, as it leads us to a break with established understandings and inspires in us hope in a new future. Practical heirship to Jesus Christ has a mystical and political dimension, the “open-eyed mysticism” (Metz), eyes opened to the suffering of others. With shared suffering (compassio) goes mutual address (conversio).


[1] J.-W. Müller, What is Populism?, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. In German: J.-W. Müller, Was ist Populismus?, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 2016); in Serbian: J.-W. Müller, Šta je populizam?, Beograd, Fabrika knjiga & Peščanik, 2017. The Serbian edition was used in writing paper, especially p. 30-35.

[2] Ibid., p. 15, 97-98.

[3] B. Šalaj & M. Grbeša, Dobar, loš ili zao? Populizam u Hrvatskoj (Good, Bad or Evil? Populism in Croatia), Zagreb, Tim Press, 2018.

[4] W. Lesch (ed.): Christentum und Populismus. Klare Fronten?, Freiburg im Breisgau, Herder, 2017; A.B. Kunz, “Potential und Versuchung”, Concilium 54 (2018) 3, p. 351. See A.B. Kunz, „Potential und Versuchung“, Concilium (German edition) 54 (2018) 3, p. 351, review of W. Lesch (ed.): Christentum und Populismus. Klare Fronten?, Freiburg im Breisgau, Herder, 2017.


[6] U. Beck, Der eigene Gott. Friedensfähigkeit und Gewaltpotential der Religionen, Frankfurt am Main und Leipzig, Verlag der Weltreligionen, 2008, p. 209-237.

[7] The Opus maius of Roger Bacon, 1-3, ed. John-Henry Bridges, Oxford, 1897-1900, I, p. 2, 9.

[8] Ibid., p. 10-11.

[9] Jutarnji list (Morning Press), September 2, 2018, p. 10-11.

[10] I. Banac, Hrvati i Crkva. Kratka povijest hrvatskog katoličanstva u modernosti, Sarajevo-Zagreb, Svjetlo riječi & Profil, 2013, p. 153-156.

[11] J.B. Metz, Mystik der offenen Augen, Freiburg-Basel-Wien, Herder, 2011, str. 156.


Mile Babić is a Bosnian Franciscan and a professor of theology and philosophy. He graduated in History of Literature; obtained Ph.D.’s in Theology (Christology of Theodoret of Cyrus) and in Philosophy (Hegel’s Philosophy of Right). He has been lecturing at the Franciscan Theologate in Sarajevo since 1977. He is the editor-in-chief of Miscellany Jukic. The main areas of his research include the Theodoret of Cyrus, John Duns Scotus, Nicolaus Cusanus, G. W. F. Hegel, the contemporary literature, theology and philosophy. Since 2013, he is a member of Concilium’s editorial board.

Address:  Franjevačka teologija Sarajevo, Aleja Bosne Srebrene 111 – BiH-71000 Sarajevo (Bosnia-Herzegovina)

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