America, Learn From Bosnia: It Can Happen Here Too

Twenty-one years after Srebrenica, the same language pre-empting the slaughter of Muslims - as interlopers, as a fifth column, bent on establishing sharia - is now commonplace in the U.S. and U.K.

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A Bosnian Muslim woman, who survived the Srebrenica 1995 massacre, mourns near graves of her relatives at a memorial cemetery, Potocari, Bosnia, July 11, 2016.
A Bosnian Muslim woman, who survived the Srebrenica 1995 massacre, mourns near graves of her relatives at a memorial cemetery, Potocari, Bosnia, July 11, 2016. Credit: Elvis Barukcic, AFP

On July 11, Bosnia and the world will mark the 21st anniversary of the genocide at Srebrenica. This will be a day to mourn, but it is also a day to learn. 

Over three days in July 1995, Serb forces killed some 8000 men, some as young as twelve and as old as seventy-four. It was perhaps the worst atrocity in a war that was marked by outrageous violence. There are few more appropriate places to host a conversation on anti-Muslim bias. The place where it led to genocide.  

I was invited to join the European Islamophobia Summit, to speak at and to attend three days of discussions by experts who considered hate speech, and hate crimes, from across the Western world, with a focus on Europe. Nearly every speaker brought up the consequences of an irredentist Greater Serbia pursued at the expense of Bosniak [Bosnian Muslim] liberties — and lives. 

Sure enough, you don’t have to look very hard to find evidence of a brutal aggression that, as most Bosniaks will tell you, did not end so much as it was frozen. People who lost friends, family, loved ones. Damage from war time. Cemeteries that seem impossibly, grievously large.  

While it’s hard to conceive of the same kind of anti-Muslim violence that struck Bosnia striking elsewhere in the West, it’s not impossible to imagine it, either. The same language we saw in the former Yugoslavia that laid the groundwork for the slaughter, of Muslims as interlopers, as a fifth column, a foreign implant, bent on establishing sharia — necessitating a preemptive, if unfortunately genocidal, first strike — is now commonplace even in the United States and the United Kingdom, historically liberal democracies. 
I came away from those three days in Sarajevo, discussing the surge in anti-Muslim hate speech on a transatlantic and continental scale, keen to write about those who survived. 

I came away with six lessons. 

1. Bosnia proves how Islam is grounded, indigenous, rooted, in the West.

There is even older history in Spain, and plenty in other places — Bulgaria, for example, or Tatarstan. But few Western Muslim places are as old and as storied as Sarajevo — at least, of those that survived. (The Muslim history in places like Sicily, Serbia, Romania and Poland is often overlooked, or disappeared, or actively denied.) To keep young Muslims from being too unsettled by the invective coming their way, they need a sense of rootedness.
Of belonging to the place they are alleged to be foreign to. That applies, of course, to any other embattled minority. Most of all in a time of demonization, populism, and nativism.

Islam isn’t foreign to the West. How can you say Islam versus the West, when Islam is in the West, and has been for centuries? 

2. It can happen anywhere.

The second lesson should be a warning. Namely, the suddenness of Bosnia’s transformation. Back in 1984, Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics; it remains the only Muslim-majority city to do so. Sarajevo was known for its cosmopolitanism, open-mindedness, pluralism. That’s one reason the war turned so vicious: An irredentist dream of greater Serbia confronted a messy mosaic of lived demography. 

Within a matter of years, if not months, political instability, political opportunism, hateful rhetoric, and ample arms, combined to produce total war. For all those who say it can’t happen here, or elsewhere, that is at best wishful thinking, if not naive delusion. It can happen anywhere. 
We must be on our guard. 

America has made great progress in the last few decades at confronting racism, prejudice and bias. Donald Trump might make fun of political correctness, but political correctness is miraculous.

We have the choice between living in a hegemonic society, dominated by certain groups; we can live in a chaotic society, full of ethnic and racial competition; or we can choose to coexist meaningfully, which requires a hawkish vigilance, the voluntary, civic and social policing of our language, to push out and exclude hateful and hurtful discourse. Not governmentally, not legally, but organically. 

The alternative is civil conflict or the exclusion of most groups from public spaces. (While we’re at it, let’s stop being politically correct and call Trump what he is. A racist.)     

The third and fourth points are twinned. 

3. Bosnia is at peace today.

Whether it will remain at peace in the future, however, depends on the continued attention of the wider world to her politics. We can end even the most vicious conflicts, and we can forgive, and we can find a way forward, precariously of course, and put the past to rest. That doesn’t mean it’s dead, or that it can’t be stirred. But it does mean that we are not doomed to the divides we see today.

4. We must deepen our international connectiveness and not isolate ourselves

An anti-Trump protester holds his sign in front of mounted police outside a rally for Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump, Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. March 12, 2016.
An anti-Trump protesters confronted by police in Cleveland, Ohio March 12, 2016. Credit: Rebecca Cook, Reuters

We have a global responsibility to address conflicts before they tip over into the genocidal. We also have the ability, in many circumstances at least, to intervene to put an end to them when they do. There’s a lesson we deserve to remember. When part of the world burns, the rest is liable to catch fire. 

The Syrian refugee crisis proved that country’s civil war could not be easily contained. And even those conflicts that are contained require constant attention. Maintenance. Investment. Deepening international institutions and cooperation, not irresponsibly unraveling them. That is, however, a small price to pay for the alternative. It might feel good for American politicians to turn away from the rest of the world, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the world will simply go away. 

The fifth point came on my second night in Sarajevo.

5. A living, pluralist Islam survived even the slaughter.

Mosques in the United States tend to be stricken by a sexual tension so awkward they all but make female participation in sacred spaces impossible. I’ve joked with friends that the safest space to be in a zombie apocalypse is a mosque. If the zombies can make it past the terribly parked cars, the lethal shoe racks, and the flooded bathrooms, they will simply wither under the judgmental stares of elders in the mosque, immediately able to pick up any visible shortcoming in one’s piety. 

But Bosnia! On Saturday night I went to perform the special Ramadan taraweeh prayers at the Gazi Husrev Beg mosque, the largest in the city’s Ottoman quarter, a gem of a building constructed by the great Mimar Sinan. There were hundreds, if not over a thousand, people there, crammed in. On old, uneven stones, men and women spilled out of the mosque and prayed practically side by side. Some men and women stood and watched from without, observing the spectacle, admiring it, or perhaps waiting for friends. Many of the women in the courtyard were covered. Many dressed quite liberally.

Nobody seemed to mind this. I found the space freeing, empowering, truly moving. There was so little attention to me, or to anyone else, that I felt free to focus on God. Which is, I suppose, what a mosque is supposed to actually do. How many Muslims would love to have that kind of sacred space their own? We could, if we perhaps learn from what Bosnia accomplished. In this prayer space, yes.

But in all of its Islam.

Because, and it is hard to overestimate how significant, how miraculous, how admirable this is, but Bosnia survived. Decades of Communism tried to stamp out religion and spirituality by force. (Don’t forget that Communism is to atheism as jihadism is to Islam.) But it didn’t work. That resilience, and its survival into the present day, in such a liberating form, is inspiring. 

While we tremble before the prospect of a Trump presidency, the consequences of a Brexit, the rise of the far right across Europe, fully aware of the cost involved, of what it meant the last time such forces reared their heads in Europe, we should also forget that, in the end, evil did not triumph.

The Nazis tried to wipe out Judaism; Judaism survived. Communism tried to wipe out Islam; Islam survived. I burst out laughing when I saw signs for the Sarajevan McDonald’s, on Titova street — the red-and-yellow logo of the quintessentially capitalist American icon taking the place of Yugoslavia’s particular socialism. 

The voices of discord, of demonization, and intolerance, are loud. They are hard to deal with. It’s not easy to confront an idiot, except at the idiot’s level. We are dragged down into the mud. But we don’t have to be. 

The sixth and final lesson is here:

6. Slow and steady wins the race against bigotry and hate.

Rather than give in to the life cycle of modern media, the attention span of the contemporary consumer, the chaotic peregrinations of Donald Trump, we can hold fast to our own values and our own ideals even when it seems like we must descend to that level. If we want to defeat Islamophobia, and to push racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and the like, back into the margins where they deserve to be, we need only look to Gazi Husrev Beg. 

The mosque, yes. But the person too. 

The Ottoman governor died childless, but willed that all his wealth go to the city of Sarajevo, which became his heir. His estate transformed the city through the construction of bazaars, of madrasas, of worship spaces, of caravanserais — the word “serai” is, incidentally, present in Sarajevo itself — and then for centuries after it buzzed with mercantile, religious, social, cultural activity. 

It was there that World War I started, with the bungled assassination of the Austrian Archduke. Under monarchy, then through World War II, then a socialist Yugoslavia, then war, where it suffered the longest siege of a city in the history of modern war, and now in this in-between, peace without warmth, silence without concord, but Sarajevo survived. 

Husrev Beg planned for a future greater than himself — without himself. He knew he would not live forever, as indeed none of us will, so he founded the kind of city that would endure for centuries after him. 

That is, I think, the ultimate key to fighting bigotry. While your opponents focus on short-term soundbites and attack ads, capturing ephemeral headlines or stealing the spotlight, we do the patient, quiet, unrewarded work of building a better world, conscious that our horizon is well beyond our lifetimes. The mark of the hateful leader is the willingness to burn the world.
That can be done quickly.

The mark of the great leader is to build the world, which takes longer than any one of us is alive. And that’s a good thing, because the world should be more important than any one of us is.   

Haroon Moghul is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Development at the Center for Global Policy. His next book, How to be a Muslim, will be published in 2017.

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