In the West, the top three watershed geopolitical events of the modern era are commonly seen as the end of the Cold War with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the al Qaeda attacks in the U.S. in 2001, and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The 1995 Srebrenica Genocide, has largely been forgotten and outside the Muslim world its significance never widely grasped.
Yet as Brendan Simms noted in Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, from 1453 to the Present:
In the Muslim world, the slaughter of their co-religionists in Bosnia contributed substantially to the emergence of a common consciousness on foreign policy. According to this global discourse, Muslims were now on the defensive across the world: in Palestine, Bosnia, Kashmir, Chechnya and elsewhere. A large number of Arab, Turkish, Caucasian, central Asian and other Mujahedin – in search of a new jihad after Afghanistan – went to Bosnia to fight. It was among European Muslims, however, that the Bosnian experience resonated most forcefully. ‘It doesn’t really matter whether we perish or survive,’ the Grand Mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina [Dr. Mustafa Cerić] remarked in May 1994, ‘the lesson will always be there. And it is a simple one: that the Muslim community must always be vigilant and must always take their destiny in their own hands. They must never rely on anyone or anybody to solve their problems or come to their rescue.’ This ‘Zionist’ message echoed across the immigrant communities in western Europe, especially Britain. ‘Bosnia Today – Brick Lane tomorrow’ warned the banners in one East London demonstration. Some of the most prominent subsequent British jihadists such as Omar Sheikh, who masterminded the kidnapping and murder of the journalist Daniel Pearl, and the Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg – were radicalized by Bosnia. In other words, the new Muslim geopolitics of the mid-1990s was a reaction not to western meddling but to nonintervention in the face of genocide and ethnic cleansing [my emphasis].
A decade later, when Nadeem Azam interviewed Cerić (who in 2003 in recognition of his contributions to inter-faith dialogue, tolerance and peace, was awarded UNESCO’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny peace prize) he reiterated his message on the necessity of Muslim self-reliance.
What are your feelings about the future of Islam in Europe?
Not very good. The rise of fascism combined with an officially-sanctioned tendency to be unreasonable when it comes to discussion about Islam are bad omens. I am not a soothsayer but I can see the reality of a day when the treatment of a Muslim in Europe will be worse than that of serial killer: we are, I am afraid, on the verge of seeing a situation develops whereby it would be a crime to be a Muslim in Europe. The events of 11 September, 2001, have made things worse. May Allah protect us.
But having such feelings does not depress me. It actually should motivate us and make us even more resolute in our efforts. More importantly it should make us think of planning and organising. If the day comes – like it did in Bosnia – you might be unable to control events around you but you should at least be ready to do what is needed to be done by a Muslim at such an hour.
The message of the four year-long war we fought is a simple one: that the Muslim community must always be vigilant and must always take their destiny in their own hands. They must never rely on anyone or anybody to solve their problems or come to their rescue; they must always rely on God and the faith, goodness and compassion within their communities. This is very important. Our strength will always be reflective of the strength of our communities.
Today, Cerić’s fears are clearly all the more well-founded as across Europe xenophobia and Islamophobia relentlessly grow and in the United States a presidential candidate gains the strongest boost to his campaign by promising a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims.
The lesson that Srebrenica taught many Muslims in the West was that even when they are in no sense foreign or culturally set apart, they are still at risk of exclusion and elimination.
Last month after the EU referendum in the UK, a resident of Barnsley, South Yorkshire (five miles from where I grew up), when asked to explain why he had voted for Brexit said: “It’s to stop the Muslims coming into this country. Simple as that.”
Among opponents of the war in Iraq, a widely accepted narrative has long been that the antidote to the unintended consequences of so much ill-conceived Western meddling in the Greater Middle East over the last 15 years is to simply step back and disengage. This sentiment, in large part, is what got Barack Obama elected in 2008. Let the region sort out its own problems or let closer neighbors such as the Russians intervene, so the thinking goes. The U.S. has much more capacity to harm than to help.
Yet as the killing fields of Syria have grown larger year after year, the message from Srebrenica merely seems to have been underlined: the magnitude of the death toll in any conflict will be of little concern across most of the West so long as the victims are Muslim.
After Donald Trump called for Muslims to be shut out of America, Michael Moore declared: We are all Muslim. And he promoted the hashtag #WeAreAllMuslim.
Expressions of solidarity through social media are easy to promote and of debatable value, yet the isolation of Muslims in this instance, rather than being overcome, merely seemed to get reinforced. #WeAreAllMuslim was mostly deployed as a sarcastic slur shared by Islamophobes.
The global trends are strong and clear, pointing to a future marked by more and more social fragmentation as people withdraw into their respective enclaves where they believe they can “take care of their own.”
We live in a world in which we are getting thrown closer together while simultaneously trying to stand further apart. It can’t work.
At some point we either embrace the fact that we are all human and have the capacity to advance our mutual interests, or we will continue down the current path of self-destruction.
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Last year, Myriam François-Cerrah, a British journalist who is also a Muslim, took a group of young people from the UK — all of whom were born in the year of the genocide — to Srebrenica where they learned lessons that arguably have more relevance now than they have had at any time since 1995.
The events immediately leading up to the genocide are recounted in this segment from the BBC documentary, The Death of Yugoslavia: