SARAJEVO – One of Bosnia’s most prominent writers, Zeljko Ivankovic, is engaged in a bitter war of words with Iranian diplomats, who say his latest book is an attack on Islam.
"Tattooing Identity,” a collection of essays on history and identity, was published in sections in the Sarajevo daily “Oslobodjenje” in June.
The Iranian Embassy took issue with an excerpt citing Azar Nafisi's bestselling memoir “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” about her life in Iran during the 1979 revolution and after.
The passages were published just as street protests were breaking out in Tehran over the country's disputed election results, and Iranian diplomats in Sarajevo perceived the publication as harsh criticism directed at the government in Tehran.
In a two-page statement, also published in "Oslobodjenje," they criticized Ivankovic's work as a "public lynching of Muslims.”
"The main purpose," it said, "can only be to serve as part of a psychological and propaganda war against the Islamic world."
Ivankovic, for his part, says the Iranian reaction “brutally trampled” over his rights.
“By accusing me of poisoning relations between ethnic and religious groups [in Bosnia], they've interfered in the internal affairs of a country in which they are guests,” Ivankovic said. “They claim I'm no different from [accused war criminals] Arkan, Karadzic, Milosevic, and Tudjman, and that I'm apparently working to complete their mission. As if I had an army, police, and political machinery at my disposal.”
Bosnian intellectuals have rushed to Ivankovic's defense. The Writers' Association of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the PEN Center, and the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights criticized the Iranian Embassy for violating freedom of expression and basic human rights.
Silence At The Top
Those groups were joined by the Croatian Writers' Association and scholars from German-speaking countries. Everyone, it seems, but Bosnian officials.
Foreign Minister Sven Alkalaj says he isn't familiar with Ivankovic's case, but that any threat or insult directed at the writer should be investigated.
“The nature and extent of any verbal assault should be determined and ascertained as to whether the motive was to humiliate, or impart any form of hatred, racism, or xenophobia. In that case, any such outburst should be condemned,” Alkalaj said.
Former Bosnian diplomat Hajrudin Somun says the authorities may be ignoring the controversy because Bosnia’s official policy is to maintain good relations with Iran regardless of Tehran's stance on particular issues.
“It's important to keep Bosnia-Herzegovina's political structure in mind, above all the relationship with Iran, a staunch ally of Bosnia during the [1992-95] war. That bears on the government's reaction,” Somun said.
But critics say Bosnian officials' silence is irresponsible. Srdjan Dizdarevic, president of the Helsinki Committee in Bosnia, says ignoring the controversy effectively enables Tehran to draw Bosnia into its own current struggle between the authorities and the opposition.
“Either it's a case of submissiveness [toward Iran], or that a part of the Bosnian leadership prefers to flirt with Iran on this question, or else would simply rather not clash with Tehran by opening a dialogue” on the subject, Dizdarevic said. “I think that's absolutely incomprehensible. Our freedoms as Bosnian citizens are clearly at stake.”
But Bosnian PEN Center director Ferida Durakovic says she's not surprised at the authorities’ lack of involvement.
“I'm surprised only at the degree of our indifference to everything that's happening, all that's being done to us, and seeing our rights trampled on by those abroad as well as inside the country,” Durakovic said.
Government critics say the officials responsible for defending the lives and freedoms of Bosnian citizens either aren't paying attention to their own media, or are simply shutting their eyes to a major political and international issue.