Blog on Language and Religion

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Jul 23 12:36:51 UTC 2007

Sunday, July 22, 2007 Language and religion

Separatism is usually based on either language or religion. In Yugoslavia
Slovenia, Kosovo and Macedonia wanted to separate on linguistic criteria,
while Croatia and Bosnia used religious arguments. I think it is good to
make a distinction between both as such separations work out very
differently. As countries modernize there is a natural tendency towards
linguistic separation. As the role of the government grows it becomes
increasingly expensive to provide services in all languages. And with the
advance of international languages like English fewer people speak each
other's languages. You see the same in Western countries. For example
Belgium has an official language border. The only area that is still
officially bilingual - Brussels - has become de facto French speaking (about
90%). In Canada too Quebec has adopted a policy that stresses the french
speaking character of the province.

People understand this character of linguistic separation. The separation of
Slovenia and Macedonia went nearly effortless. Kosovo might go rather easy
too if the international community didn't make such a mess of the process by
pushing for terms of separation that are seen as extremely unfair. Religious
separation is a completely different thing. Unlike linguistic differences
there are no special policies necessary to keep a multi-religious society
working. One only needs to keep track that there isn't too much
discrimination. With religious differences people tend to live much more
mixed and are often not even aware of their differences. However, once the
process of separation starts it tends to be self-reinforcing.

Nowadays both Bosnia and Croatia have created their own languages as a kind
of justification for their separation. Obviously religious separatism
doesn't feel very well and needs to be justified.
Because there is no cost to religious diversity the arguments for religious
separatism have to come elsewhere. Usually this is found in discrinminating
the "others".

In my opinion one to main conceptual errors of the West in Yugoslavia was
not to make a distinction between religious and linguistic separatism.
Unfortunately the same mistake is nowadays repeated in Iraq, where the
Americans try to solve the linguistic separatism of the Kurds with same
tools as the religious separatism of the Sunnites. The latter could better
be solved by pushing for a policy of "no discrimination" where both sides
are treated equal.

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