Bosnian genocide and Islamophobia: Marking and unmarking history

Published 30.06.2016 00:35
Updated 30.06.2016 01:08

Why is it that history becomes marked into pre- and post-9/11 eras but not before- and after- the Bosnian genocide? Could the victims' religious background and othering on that basis rationalize this erasure and make it a forgone conclusion, as if it did not occur at all?

History is an open-ended book, constantly edited and re-edited by multiple authors and divergent interests. As academics, we are trained to examine history from multiple vantage points and pursue all available sources before a conclusive judgement is reached on a given topic or issue. In this sense, history presents the ultimate challenge since engagement with the subject matter is contingent on a variety of subjective constraints that limit the ability to reach a final conclusion on the subject.

For example, let's take how we mark time and the basic use of a calendar, which is assumed to be neutral, but in reality is far from it, and is a highly subjective undertaking. Are we in the year 2016? What measures or set of criteria are used to reach this determination? Marking history and using a calendar is subjective and is not at all neutral or an objective determination of the passing of time.

In the contemporary context, history has been marked by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, a very important and horrific event causing the death of 2,996 innocent individuals. The terrorist attacks were experienced directly and indirectly by many people around the globe and is appropriately remembered every year. From a global perspective, however, the marking of this horrific act as the singular signpost is problematic. Here, Sept. 11 became an event endowed with a pre- and post-event marker not dissimilar to how the specific Gregorian calendar is situated and for sure is not at all a universal marker despite its vast usage.

Having traveled to Sarajevo, Bosnia, this past week, the issue of marking and erasing history was on my mind throughout the visit. For Bosnia, the marking of history centers on genocide, and in particular, the Srebrenica massacre, which witnessed the slaughter of 8,373 Bosniak civilians in two days, July 11-13, 1995, while under U.N. protection. The Bosnian genocide was committed by the Serbian army of Republika Srpska (VRS) under the command of General Ratko Mladic, which took the lives of some 100,000 civilians, witnessed the systematic rape of 12,000 to 20,000 Bosniak women and ethnically cleansed and displaced 2.2 million people, mostly Bosnian Muslims. Critically, the genocidal crimes committed against the Bosnian Muslim population were witnessed and experienced by inhabitants of the country and by the world community alike. Here, the question must be asked why the Bosnian genocide is not historically marked. Why is it subject to layered erasures and omitted from references as if it did not happen?

If Sept. 11 is rightly marked and remembered for the massive attacks and the large human causalities, then surely the Bosnian genocide, with multiple attacks over four years and countless massacres should be a fixed point in history. As far as numbers, the Srebrenica genocide had almost three times as many deaths and surely deserves to be remembered. I am not situating one horrific act above another, nor is it an attempt to measure who suffered most, rather I am interpreting how history is marked and unmarked as well as the erasure of some people from global memory. Why is it that history becomes marked into pre- and post-9/11 but not pre- and post-Bosnian genocide? Could the victims' religious background and othering on that basis rationalize the erasure and make it a forgone conclusion, as if it did not occur at all?

At the European Islamophobia Summit, Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary from 2001 to 2006 under Prime Minister Tony Blair, insisted on marking time in relation to Sept. 11 and asserted the date is the most significant event that the attendees must mark in the current period. The audience at the summit was predominantly Muslim, and the opening session where Straw spoke was held at the renovated National Library. This was the site of the largest single act of book burning in Europe's history, with 2 million volumes intentionally targeted by Serbians as an act of cultural and intellectual genocide directed at the collective heritage of the Bosnian Muslim population. Lost on Straw was that the people in the room traveled and accepted the invite to the conference because it was in Sarajevo and in remembrance of and solidarity with the people's marked history that is subject to constant erasure from European consciousness.

This erasure was what we experienced from Straw at the summit. Adding insult to injury was Mr. Straw demanding from the stage that Muslim theologians needed to issue fatwas and speak out against DAESH with the underlying assumption that either they are silent or are collectively supportive and responsible for what terrorists are doing.

During the question and answer session, I made sure to challenge this collective assignment of responsibility and the unsubstantiated assertion that Muslim theologians are silent and to be faulted for what is underway in Iraq. I did mention that I was a party of a collective response from Muslim scholars directed at refuting DAESH claims. Furthermore, I pointed out that every Muslim group of any level of standing around the world issued a statement, if not multiple ones, in response to DAESH's criminal and terrorist acts. Lastly, I put the question to Straw as to why he believed that Muslims, as a group, all 1.4 billion of them, should be held responsible for DAESH and not former U.S. President George W. Bush, Blair and himself for the invasion of Iraq and creating the conditions that gave rise to this terroristic enterprise. His answer was not forthcoming and he swiftly shifted from lack of fatwas to blaming people for being confused as to what to do. While people's confusion is not unique to Muslims, Straw problematizing it as the cause for DAESH's rise is wickedly cruel. Furthermore, Straw refused to admit any responsibility for the horror show in Iraq. On the stage and sharing the panel with Straw was Mahdi Hasan from Al-Jazeera English, who pressed him on the question by saying that Blair himself has accepted partial responsibility and if he would do the same, but to no avail.

The European Islamophobia Summit was a moment of marking and unmarking history. An event that should have been marked and written back into contemporary history - the local narrative of the Bosnian genocide - ended up in compounded erasures and shifting responsibility. Not to imply that all the presentations suffered from the same error, on the contrary some great papers and speakers offered detailed accounting of Islamophobia at the European and theoretical levels. But the opening and some parts of the summit created problematic framing and wasted badly needed resources. What the Bosnian genocide provides is a stark contemporary example of the far-reaching consequences of Islamophobia. The Bosnian genocide provides an illustration of what happens when a process of de-humanization is set in motion and is coupled with nativist, nationalist fervor. Death camps, mass rape, ethnic cleansing and genocide begin with constructing an othering narrative that is then affirmed through action. The narrative about Muslims in Europe and America should raise alarms for everyone concerned, and the Bosnian experience is an apt lesson that "never again" was not sustained.

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