Opinion

Justifying Genocide: How the Global Far Right Has Embraced Serbia’s Deadly Demonization of Muslims

From Bosnia to Breivik: 25 years after Srebrenica, its perpetrators’ heirs are glorifying their genocide. Their claim to have 'saved' the Christian West has made them a model for white nationalist terrorists everywhere

Hikmet Karcic
Hikmet Karcic
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An aerial view of the Memorial Center in Potocari near Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina. July 6, 2020
An aerial view of the Memorial Center in Potocari near Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina. July 6, 2020.Credit: DADO RUVIC/ REUTERS
Hikmet Karcic
Hikmet Karcic

In 2018, Hatidza Mehmedovic passed away. Her husband and two sons were murdered by Serb forces during the Srebrenica genocide in July 1995. 

Since the end of the war, she had headed up the "Mothers of Srebrenica," an organization advocating for the truth about the genocide and working to help bring closure to its members. She returned to Srebrenica, defying the very same murderers who bound, blindfolded, executed and then buried their husbands and sons. 

Like many other mothers of Srebrenica, who lost all the male members of their families, she lived alone. One of the few satisfactions left to the "Mothers" over the years has been to find the remains of their loved ones and for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. 

After a short and difficult illness, she passed away in a Sarajevo hospital. That day, as thousands of people throughout the world were mourning Hatidza's death, Vjerica Radeta, the Deputy Speaker of the Serbian Parliament and a high-ranking member of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, tweeted: "I read that Hatidza Mehmetovic from the association of Srebrenica businesswomen has died. Who is going to bury her? The husband or the sons?"

The tweet shocked and disgusted many, although it came as no real surprise coming from a Serb Radical Party official. Nevertheless, it felt like a new low. 

Two Serbian policemen guard a group of Bosnian Muslim men from the Srebrenica enclave who crossed into the Serb town of Uzice from Bosnia seeking sanctuary. August 5 1995.
Two Serbian policemen guard a group of Bosnian Muslim men from the Srebrenica enclave who crossed into the Serb town of Uzice from Bosnia seeking sanctuary. August 5 1995.Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Why was it unsurprising? For many years, the Serbian media has pushed the narrative that the 1995 Srebrenica genocide is an international conspiracy aimed at defaming the Serbs. They have enjoyed a constant measure of success. 

During and right after the war, the Serbian establishment denied there had been a genocide of Bosnian Muslims or that Bosnian Serbs had been perpetrators in that genocide or any of the other mass atrocities committed between 1992 and 1995. Already well-hidden mass graves were dug up and removed to multiple secondary and tertiary locations; the media, academia and Church denied the atrocities and continued to support and defend the Miloševic regime. 

Over time, the propaganda machinery became more sophisticated and organized. It built on pre-war propaganda that pushed the message to ordinary Serbs that the Ottoman Empire was returning to establish a "green [Muslim] transversal" across the Balkans, and that Bosnia and Herzegovina was filled with bloodthirsty extremists. Now, Serbian terrorism ‘experts’ and ‘analysts’ claimed that the victims of Srebrenica were in fact jihadists. 

The framing of Bosniaks themselves has evolved over the years. When Miloševic started his nationalist campaign, Albanians and Bosniaks were called "irredentists" and "counter-revolutionaries." With the fall of Communism, this terminology became redundant, so the terms, "fundamentalists" and "Ustaša" were employed. It was proved to be a perfect combination. 

The Serbian establishment manipulated the history of World War Two genocides of Serbs, Jews and Roma, to provoke fear of a repetition. As Communism fell, and the country’s first democratic elections were held in 1990, Bosniaks were, for the first time, able to publicly proclaim their national and religious identity. 

This national and religious revival and its accompanying nation-building, a common occurrence throughout the rest of the post-socialist world, was then weaponized by the Serbian nationalists to portray Bosniaks as religious fundamentalists. That the instructions to use this terminology had come from the Serbian elite was clear when lower-level Serb leaders fumbled with the word. 

In April 1992, Zeljko Raznjatovic Arkan, the Yugoslav State Police hitman and football hooligan, entered the Bosnian border town of Bijeljina, followed by a Serbian TV crew. After 'mopping up' the place of its Muslim inhabitants (with the loss of scores of lives), he triumphantly declared that the fundamentalists had been destroyed. However, he had so much difficulty pronouncing the word fundamentalizam that journalists had to help him out. 

A protester holds a portrait of Bosnian Serb war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic at an ultra-nationalist rally against Mladic's arrest outside the Serbian Parliament on May 29, 2011 in Belgrade
A protester holds a portrait of Bosnian Serb war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic at an ultra-nationalist rally against Mladic's arrest outside the Serbian Parliament on May 29, 2011 in Belgrade.Credit: AFP

This perfect demonization concept for Serb nationalists – Bosniaks as the Muslim fundamentalists and/or Nazi-era Ustasha – soon faded out after the Bosnian Army and Croatian forces foughta civil war between 1993-94. Serbian propaganda switched back to using the Muslim fundamentalists trope again.  

Since the end of the war, Bosnia and Herzegovina and its Bosniak Muslim population have been consistently framed as a hub for extremists, backed up by fabricated links between Bosnian jihadists and almost every one of the world’s recent Islamist-connected terrorist attacks. 

Bosniaks were accused of wanting to create a jamahiriyah in Bosnia, similar to Gaddafi's Libya, which did not really make sense since a jamahiriyah is a Muslim Socialist republic, not a religious state, and Gaddafi, just like Saddam Hussein and many other Arab dictators, was a vocal supporter of the Miloševic regime. 

That support was historically rooted in their membership of the Non-Aligned Movement, spearheaded by Yugoslavia during the Cold War, and by sympathy for the idea that Miloševic's regime was bravely defying the U.S. and NATO. A seeming counter-intuitive Arab support for the Serbs (notably from the UAE) is still visible today in their refusal to recognize Kosovo's independence. That refusal – by Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, PA, Lebanon, Syria, Sudan, Iraq, Iran – is still grounded in those non-aligned movement times.

Marchers recreate the path Bosnian Muslims took to escape advancing Bosnian Serb forces who went on to kill 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys during 10 days of slaughter (the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.) July 8, 2020
Marchers recreate the path Bosnian Muslims took to escape Bosnian Serb forces who went on to kill 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys during 10 days of slaughter (the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.) July 8, Credit: Kemal Softic,AP

Over time, Serbian denial has become flexible and responsive. The Serbian revisionist machinery knows what narrative fit best, playing into the fears of the West, and in doing so, delegitimizing the genocide. Denial is not carried out by marginal internet trolls, but rather by high-positioned and educated individuals, part of a network of government, academia, media and Church agents.

By denying the genocide, a new counter-narrative has been created: That "whatever happened" between 1992-95 was a legitimate fight against jihadists. 

The narrative of Bosnia and Herzegovina as an unstable country threatened by jihadists first emerged during the war in the 1990s but has now been co-opted by the wider far-right and has even entered mainstream European thinking. This narrative is also being used within Croatian circles.

In recent years, support for Bosnian Serb leaders and indicted war criminals Karadzic and Miloševic has slowly entered Western intellectual circles

In 2019, it became apparent how far the rhetoric used by Karadzic and Miloševic has been adopted by respectable Western institutions and individuals. Peter Handke (who denies the Srebrenica massacre and gave a eulogy at Miloševic's funeral) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and Jessica Stern (who interviewed Karadzic, in jail for genocide) published a book called "My War Criminal" in which she decribed him as a "Byronic" figure.  

Representatives of the Association of Victims and Witnesses of Genocide hold a picture of 2019 Nobel Literature laureate Peter Handke in Srebrenica, at the Swedish embassy in Sarajevo. Nov 5, 2019
Representatives of the Association of Victims and Witnesses of Genocide hold a picture of 2019 Nobel Literature laureate Peter Handke in Srebrenica, at the Swedish embassy in Sarajevo. Nov 5, 2019.Credit: DADO RUVIC/ REUTERS

Anti-Muslim bigotry mixed with genocide denial is very successful. As well as a large dose of anti-Semitism. As journalist Peter Maass discovered, several of the Nobel committee jurors who awarded Handke his prize relied heavily on conspiracy theories for their decisions and defense of Handke. The main conspiracy theory was that Bosnian Muslims had hired a PR firm to gain the support of major Jewish organizations in order to portray the Serbs in a negative light.  

Thus murdering Bosniak civilians and dumping them in hidden mass graves has become a justified fight against terrorism. Raping and sexual abuse are probably considered a worthy counter-extremism effort. 

The constant talk of genocide irritates the perpetrators. High-ranking Bosnian Serb official Rajko Vasic tweeted in 2018: "Just thinking. If you [Bosniaks] love the genocide committed against you that much, wait for the next opportunity."

Thus we have arrived at an odd, (to borrow Weisband’s phraseology) "macabresque" time: the genocide in Srebrenica is both systematically denied, yet celebrated, and then its perpetrators threat to repeat it. This celebration was recognized and conceptualized by Australian-Bosnian scholar Hariz Halilovich who coined the term "triumphalism" to describe it, suggesting it be added as an 11th phase of Gregory Stanton’s "10 stages of genocide." 

A Muslim woman mourns by the grave of her relative during the funeral of 534 newly identified victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Potocari, Bosnia. July 11, 2009
A Muslim woman mourns by the grave of her relative during the funeral of 534 newly identified victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Potocari, Bosnia. July 11, 2009.Credit: Reuters

The triumphalism phase of the Bosnian genocide is visible in the region: the celebration of convicted war criminals; the memorials built for fallen Serb soldiers in areas where mass atrocities were committed on Bosniak Muslims; the naming of public spaces after convicted war criminals. The list goes on.

The international peak of this genocide glorification (thus far) was the horrific 2019 Christchurch massacre. As the gunman drove to the Al Noor mosque, he was playing the Serb-nationalist war-time song,  "Karadzic, Lead Your Serbs."  

It was a song used during the Bosnian war to boast morale for Serb soldiers targeting Muslim civilians. Now it was being used to boast the morale of a far-right anti-Muslim mass murderer. In fact, it’s become an anthem for the global far right, under a new name: "Remove the Kebabs" – "kebab" meaning Muslims. 

The Christchurch shooter’s manifesto contained similarities with an earlier far-right terrorist, Anders Breivik, who killed 77 civilians in Norway in 2011. Both cited Serb war criminals and nationalists as their inspiration, and considered the Bosnian war as a battle to save Europe from the invasion of Islam.

Depressingly, the genocide committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina now serve as a model for emulation by far-right extremists throughout the world. The narrative of Bosniak Muslims as fundamentalists who deserve annihilation to save the West has transformed into a global rallying cry. Only now, all of us "kebabs" are the target. 

Dr. Hikmet Karčic is a genocide scholar based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. He is a researcher at the Institute for Islamic Tradition of Bosniaks in Sarajevo and a Senior Fellow with the Center for Global Policy in Washington D.C. He was the 2017 Auschwitz Institute for Peace and ReconciliationKeene State College Global Fellow. Twitter: @hikmet_karcic

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