Srebrenica: Is Europe forgetting its horrors?

I’m not sure what worries me more: That Europe failed, or that Europe is forgetting the lessons of that failure.

Twenty years ago, Serb forces seized control of Srebrenica, a Bosnian town overflowing with refugees who were promised the protection of the international community.

Nevertheless, over the following five days, 8,000 Muslims were killed simply for having the wrong religion.

The questions we were forced to confront in the aftermath of that massacre are as pertinent today as they were then.

How could genocide take place in the heart of Europe, a mere four decades after the Holocaust? What made one group of people hate another enough to justify to themselves the slaughtering 8,000 in cold blood? And was there really a place for Islam and Muslims in Europe?

Anti-Muslim bigotry on march

As a young British Muslim searching for identity at the time, seeing the plight of Bosnian Muslims led to my own crisis of identity. Could we in Britain become the “other” that the Bosnian Muslims had become.

Today those notions of the “other” are once more rearing their ugly head across Europe, becoming not just acceptable, but politically beneficial.

From Germany’s Pegida to England’s EDL, and on to Greece and Denmark, Holland and France, anti-Muslim bigotry is on the march. While Bosnia now has peace, the world around it is increasingly more divisive than two decades ago.

Here in Britain, prominent pundits argue Islamophobia is made-up, severely exaggerated, a justifiable response to a real threat, or a ruse by which to divert attention from the real problem of Islamic extremism.

Yet many of their arguments are the disturbingly similar to those used to justify the ethnic cleansing of Bosnians.

Bosnians were labeled “Turks,” foreigners who didn’t belong, secretly radicals and intent on establishing an Islamic state, or Shari’ah. Bosnians were framed as the enemy, which made them easier to kill, and for years we stood by, despite our moral obligation to act.

Pervasive hate

So what lessons can Europe learn from this?

First, Europeans should consider recognizing July 11, 1995, as a day of shared remembrance, in solidarity with Bosnians and in condemnation of anti-religious hatred. It should act as a reminder that if we do not remain vigilant against the same pervasive hate that two decades ago broke up a nation, it could one day creep up on us again.

Remembrance of Srebrenica would also be an emphatic message that Europe’s Muslims belong to Europe, and that though we allowed anti-Muslim hatred to spiral out of control in the past, we will not permit it do so again.

Second, Europe must accept its unfortunate history of religious hatred. Europe’s worst humanitarian crimes have too often involved religious hatred, ranging from centuries of Protestant/Catholic violence, to the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust, and the more recent Srebrenica genocide.

In each instance, hate speech was used to dehumanize a religious group to such an extent that attempts to exterminate them became acceptable.

Huge increases in anti-Semitic and Islamophobic hate crimes in Britain in recent years further underlines why more must be done to tackle religious intolerance and hate crimes.

EU membership

This is why the EU’s commitment to implementing U.N. Human Rights Resolution 16/18 on tackling religious intolerance and hate crimes, is so important.

Supported by three of the world’s regional powerhouses, the European Union, OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) and the United States, the resolution offers a unique opportunity to establish a common international policy framework to combat religious intolerance.

Persisting with the Istanbul Process, a series of meetings between EU, OIC and U.S. officials, to flesh out an implementation plan acceptable to all parties, whilst slow and challenging, is nonetheless worth such a result.

Third, Bosnia could, and should, become a valuable symbol of the compatibility of Muslim and European identities. This, amongst other reasons, is why we must commit to EU membership for Bosnia.

European and Muslim

During my visit to Bosnia a year ago, I found that young Bosnians, Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox, secular and religious, atheist and agnostic, overwhelmingly desired a deepening of their democracy and membership in the European Union.

While we are losing faith in the European project, they are not. In their actions, words and hopes, Bosnians refuted Islamophobic arguments from top to bottom.

In 1995, the Srebrenica genocide led me and other British Muslims around me to question whether you could really be both Muslim and European.

Today it is the Bosnians who have themselves answered that question.

Having gone through a conflict that denied Muslims a space in Europe, Bosnians never let go of their identity — that they are both European and Muslim, and they refuse to choose between the two.

At an unpredictable juncture in Europe’s history, theirs is a lesson that young European Muslims struggling with their identity — like me two decades ago — can take inspiration from.

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