10 Dec 2008
Bosnia: Blame Santa
In a country with plenty of serious problems, from a flailing economy to a dysfunctional government, attacking Santa is probably not the cure-all, Anes Alic writes for ISN Security Watch.
By Anes Alic in Sarajevo for ISN Security Watch
Thanks to a rather absurd, and so far unpopular, move by officials in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, Santa will not being coming down the chimneys of public schools this year.
Though a strong tradition for the past half a century, a decision supported by the Islamic community and the nationalist Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) party has banned Santa from his usual pre-New Year's rounds to Bosnian nursery schools and kindergartens to hand out gifts to children.
Arzija Mahmutovic, the director of the Children of Sarajevo public institution, which operates 24 public kindergartens in Sarajevo, has refused to organize Santa's traditional visit, arguing that it is not in the spirit of Islam. However, she added generously, that parents were free to organize a visit by Santa on their own and outside of public schools.
Santa, also known as Grandfather Frost and much beloved by Muslim, Serb and Croat children alike, has always visited schools and companies across the country. Most private kindergartens and schools organize a visit by Santa visit and a New Year's Eve celebration, while state-run schools play along depending on the leanings of those on their boards of directors.
Judging public reaction, the majority of parents in Sarajevo are opposed to Mahmutovic's decision.
Media and internet portals held telephone and street polls finding that some 88 percent of Sarajevans supported Santa's visits and insisted such holiday cheer was in no way offensive to any religion. Private kindergartens and nursery schools are not playing along with this latest attack on the jolly old figure, saying demand for Santa remained high among their clients, regardless of religion.
"Grandfather Frost is not a religious symbol. Unlike our politicians who are trying to separate us like sheep, Santa symbolizes friendship, joy and contributes to the richness of our city," one parent said on an internet forum.
But Santa has fallen on bad times in Bosnia, and like everything else here, he has become an easy victim of nationalist politics. To Bosnian Croats, he is "Father Christmas" (Djed Bozicnjak); to Bosnian Serbs he is "Christmas Pal" (Bozic Bata); and to Bosniaks, "Grandfather Frost" (Deda Mraz). But soon, if the Islamic community and nationalist Bosniak parties have their way, he will cease to exist entirely.
The idea to ban Santa in Bosniak-majority areas is not a new. In fact, the first failed attempt to ban Santa came from wartime Bosnian president and nationalist Bosniak Party of Democratic Action (SDA) leader Alija Izetbegovic.
In early 1996, several months after the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina ended, Izetbegovic criticized media in Sarajevo for its reporting of celebrations of the first post-war New Year's Eve.
Addressing the media, Izetbegovic said that New Year's as a holiday was not in the tradition of the Bosniak people (though that certainly was not true), and that it was little more than an excuse for people "to get drunk and make fools of themselves." He declared Santa Claus a communist fabrication.
Out of all republics of the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and particularly its capital Sarajevo, has always been the most multiethnic and enjoys a high percentage of "mixed" marriages. For this reason, it has always been popular in Sarajevo for inhabitants to celebrate holidays across ethnic lines and regardless of attempts by religious officials and nationalists to cramp the style of celebrations, whether it be Bajram, Christmas or New Year's.
During Muslim holy days, Catholic and Orthodox friends will often abstain from drinking alcohol and eating pork in solidarity with their Muslims friends or family members. Likewise, it is often that Muslim and Croat or Serb friends will exchange gifts on Christmas, and in some cases, even attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve. And Bajram seems to be an excuse for everyone to eat baklava together.
Late on 24 December last year, there were more Muslims and Orthodox Sarajevans than there were Catholics waiting outside the city's beautiful central cathedral for Christmas Eve mass to begin. For Easter, Muslim grandmothers sat with their children painting eggs.
These customs have long thrived in Sarajevo, even during the hardest times of the war, and all in all, they have provided for beautifully mixed holiday traditions.
But what war did not manage to destroy, nationalists and their petty rhetoric are doing their best to finish off - now stooping to the level of attacking a benign Santa and taking away the joy of children who eagerly await his visit. It is pettiness that has gone too far, but it is not in the least surprising.
In primary and high schools, students often learn different ethnic-based histories and are taught in different "languages." Public schools also offer the horribly misnamed "Religious Sciences," which focuses largely on the predominant religion of the majority of students in the school. Students who opt out from this are sidelined and wander the halls during this period.
Earlier this year, Sarajevo education authorities, including Mahmutovic, decided to include religious education in Sarajevo kindergartens and nursery schools as well. The move caused outrage among many parents who refused to send their children - as young as two years old - to learn about religion, which here has extremely nationalist tones.
Those parents who opposed the move began protesting in a "Stop Religious Segregation in Kindergarten" campaign. However, religious Bosniaks, supported by the Islamic community, nationalist politicians and the ever-disgruntled Mahmutovic (whose failed personal life has seemingly charged her growing sentiments) said the "petition represents a culmination of an anti-Islamic campaign." And, so, here we are now.
In the end, most of us in Sarajevo look upon these latest anti-Santa rumblings as another less-than-amusing scene in the ongoing political farce that has come to characterize this country. It certainly should not be taken so seriously as to convince one to believe that Bosnia is being "Islamicized." At least the urban, educated population would never allow this. However, it does serve as another stain on Sarajevo's once-beautiful multiethnic reputation. It also makes a longer joke out of what is clearly circus politics.
It will be most difficult for parents, who will now have to find ways to explain to their children what has happened to Santa: has he died; has he been exposed as a communist plot and arrested; has he been deported for using Coca-Cola to chip away at Muslim identity; has he simply retired; or, worst of all, have all the kids misbehaved?
Anes Alic is the co-founder and executive director of ISA Consulting, based in Sarajevo and Tel Aviv.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).
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