Remembering Srebrenica – memory and forgetfulness

    The events that transpired in Bosnia should raise alarm bells for those who do not ever wish to witness another Srebrenica. The chauvinistic theo-nationalism that underpinned the Bosnian Genocide is once again on the rise.

    In his book Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, Tony Judt implores us to remember the past before it is forgotten or washed away in myth. For him, the acceleration in changes from previous generations, have been accompanied by a comparable acceleration in amnesia.

    The 20th century has become history at an unprecedented rate. Perhaps hastened by what British Muslim scholar, Abdal Hakim Murad, refers to as the attention deficit inducing conditions of late modernity, the past is becoming itself ever sooner.

    As the recent past becomes history, knowledge and understanding fade to traces of memory ever more rapidly. For most of the world, meaningful historical reference reaches back several months – at most.

    It is in this context that we approach the auspicious 25th anniversary of Europe’s worst massacre since World War II, particularly at a time when revisionist, racially-driven and increasingly religiously-oriented nationalisms seem to once again be taking hold across the world, from India, Russia and Europe to the US under President Donald Trump.

    Situated somewhere between memory and forgotten history, Srebrenica and the history of the Bosnian genocide in many ways represents a microcosm of our current predicament, one in which the very same ideas through which the murders of thousands of Bosniak civilians were justified, are once again ascendant.

    Sectarian foundations and pseudo-science

    In contemporary portrayals of this dark chapter of European history, the war in Bosnia is most often retold as a conflict of ethnic rivalries and ancient hatreds, effectively narrating away the fact that it was religious difference that most deeply impacted the motivations of the protagonists. According to Michael Sells, author of The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia:

    “The violence in Bosnia was a religious genocide in several senses: the people destroyed were chosen on the basis of their religious identity; those carrying out the killings acted with the blessing and support of Christian church leaders, the violence was grounded in a religious mythology that characterised the targeted people as race traitors and the extermination of them as a sacred act.”

    Within the hierarchy of the Serbian Orthodox Church, there were a number of different interpretations and approaches to the unfolding conflict.

    In Republika Srpska’s parliament, dominated as it was by Orthodox clerics, Bosniaks were largely presented as being nothing more than Serbs who had strayed from the path of Orthodoxy. They required a second baptism by fire at the hands of Radovan Karadzic’s Bosnian Serb forces.

    Back in Belgrade, the 44th Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle (who died in 2009 prior to the settling of accounts as part of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) justified Serb nationalist claims to Bosnia on the basis that Muslims (Bosniaks) were not indigenous to the land and were nothing more than usurpers from ‘the East’.

    Karadzic’s successor as premier to the Bosnian Serb enclave of Republika Srpska, former academic at the University of Sarajevo and convicted war criminal, Biljana Plavsic, argued that “it was genetically damaged Serb material which passed over to Islam.”

    Tracing the historical authenticity of the origin of racial classification, takes us on a baleful journey that demonstrates how lost in our own modern concepts we have become. Modern understandings of ‘race’ were not only distortions of their previous incarnations but so convoluted that those previous conceptions were almost unrecognisable.

    Conceptions of ‘race’, which historically, if somewhat loosely, referenced lineage or even variation within the human species came to signify an innate and fixed disparity in the physical, intellectual and even cultural make-up of people. Certain groups of human beings were, in this configuration, no longer considered as variants of a common ancestry, but rather as deviants from an idealised heritage.

    Christianity, traditionally considered as the “perfection of Israel”, was re-construed as emerging directly out of an ancient prophetic tradition lifted from its Semitic heritage. Islam, once the insurmountable Abrahamic ‘other’, was re-constituted as Semitic in its essence and only universal in pretension, resistant to modernity and therefore to rationality. In this perspective, the only redeemable trait was ‘Sufism’, considered by many orientalists to be a Persian innovation and therefore essentially Aryan.

    In this context, Plavsic’s assertion about the Bosniak Muslims served to lend pseudo-scientific cover to what was ultimately a deeply rooted religio-political mythology awash in anti-Islam sentiment.

    Serbian religious nationalism

    According to a 2003 International Crisis Group report, since the 1995 Dayton Peace Accord (which was notably denounced by senior Church officials at the time for what they saw as its insufficient consideration of Serb claims in Bosnia), “the Serbian Orthodox Church has strengthened its position in society significantly”, adding that “the Church seems to be increasingly tied to ultra-conservative and nationalist groups.”

    Abdal Hakim Murad, drawing a connection between Serbian nationalism during the Balkan wars and Spanish fascism under Franco, writes that:

    “Serbia during the Bosnian war represents the most striking alliance of men of religion with the most extreme xenophobic agendas seen in Europe since the Collapse of Franco’s ‘National Catholicism’ in 1975. As it happens, ‘theo-democratic’ Serbia resembles Franco’s Spain in certain respects, most notably through the idolising and idealising of a Christian past.”

    In what he calls Serbia’s emerging ‘theo-democracy’, “where the old Byzantine ideal of a symphonia between religion and state is a nationalist axiom”, Serbian religious nationalism is one in which Jews and Muslims, even if they have survived persecution, are to be truly invisible, adding that “even non-Orthodox Christians are to be treated with derision.”

    For Murad, “where Bosnia is still remembered, there is a dogged resistance to defining it as what it was: a war, which, at least for its Orthodox participants, was an intensely religious experience.”

    Ancient Tropes

    To understand this strange disposition towards the Bosniak-Muslim population, it is necessary to turn to the mythologisation of the defeat of the Serbian King Lazar at the 1389 Battle of Kosovo at the hands of the Ottomans.

    While this event has permeated Serb history since, it was not until the 19th century, at a time when nascent national identities were forming throughout Ottoman lands, that it was appropriated by emerging nationalist ideologues to be the foundation of what was ultimately a national myth rooted in anti-Islam tropes.

    Serbian religious nationalism – not unlike the variety on the ascendance today, whether in India, Europe, the US and even the Balkans – with its deeply Islamophobic orientation, should be taken as analogous to European anti-Semitism.

    With this perspective, the jingoistic interpretation of Jews as ‘Christ killers’ has been transposed onto Muslims and hence, in the Serbian nationalist mythos, Muslims have become synonymous with treachery.

    The Canary in the Coal Mine

    The events that transpired in Bosnia should raise alarm bells for those who do not ever wish to witness another Srebrenica. The chauvinistic theo-nationalism that underpinned the Bosnian Genocide is once again on the rise, not only in the Balkans, but increasingly in Russia, India and elsewhere. Furthermore, it has become politically empowered in the United States and is increasingly gaining ground in Europe. We shouldn’t forget that the likes of Anders Breivik and Brenton Tarrant found at least part of the inspiration for their violent attacks in the ideas and rhetoric of Bosnian Serb war criminals.

    Perhaps more concerning, although not as immediately violent, is the increasing normalisation and political success of the far-right in Germany, Austria and other parts of Europe where liberal ideals seem to have come full-circle back to narrow, fearful politics.

    As we seek to remember the horrors of Srebrenica, we are increasingly at risk of forgetting what lessons it has taught us. In the face of what is arguably an a-historic and ultimately delirious worldview, perhaps we would be best served by asking ourselves what the outcome could have been, or could be, if we were to take a more critical approach to our understanding of self-hood and our definition of the other.

    If we only remember for its own sake, not only are we more likely to be blind to the signs on the horizon, our remembrance will become what is effectively a monument to forgetfulness.

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