Genocide in Bosnia: A Warning to Muslims in the West

Srebrenica. Editorial credit: ToskanaINC /

The genocide against Bosnian Muslims took place within recent memory and a mere two hour flight away from the UK. But as MPACUK explains in this feature, although such horrors seem a world away from the relative security enjoyed by most Muslims in countries like Britain we need to ask whether their story is a warning that Muslim minorities cannot afford to ignore. 

Barely more than 20 years ago in the heart of Europe we witnessed mass murder, expulsion and systematic rape committed against tens of thousands of innocent victims – simply because they were Muslims.

A whole network of concentration camps was used to imprison, torture and kill Muslims as part of the genocide in Bosnia. Hundreds of thousands were forced out of their homes. Rape centres were set up where tens of thousands of Muslim women were imprisoned and repeatedly raped by soldiers. In Srebrenica during just five days in July 1995 more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys were rounded up by the Serbian army, murdered and dumped in mass graves.

The campaign of extermination against the Muslims in Bosnia extended to every trace of Muslim religion and culture. Serbian militias dynamited mosques in areas they occupied and the Serbian army specifically targeted sites of cultural importance to Muslims such as the Oriental Institute in Sarajevo – burning more than 5,000 ancient manuscripts. The perpetrators of this genocide sought to extinguish even the memory of Muslim life in Bosnia.

These Muslims were white Europeans, just like their non-Muslim neighbours. They spoke the same language as their non-Muslim neighbours. They wore the same clothes and led the same lifestyle. Yet they became the victims of a horrific genocide while the world stood by and watched.

How could all this have happened in a society where Muslims and non-Muslims had lived peacefully together for centuries?

The reality is that genocide doesn’t happen suddenly. There are stages which lay the foundations for such extreme crimes, stages at which genocide can be prevented. The gradual process by which a society can descend to the depths of mass murder has been analysed into 8 stages by academics studying the history of genocide. These steps may sometimes overlap but what is clear is that there is a pattern of events which leads toward such crimes against humanity, and that pattern is the same whether it is happening in Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia or any other society.

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The 8 Stages of Genocide:









Let’s look at the first 3 stages – classification, symbolisation and dehumanisation. First the idea of “us and them” is created in people’s minds. “They” are different to “us.” Differences get picked on, and common ground is deliberately ignored.

Secondly this other group is singled out and identified with symbols – in the case of Muslims these could be parts of the traditional Muslim dress code, like the hijab or the beard.

And thirdly the phenomenon of dehumanisation – the other group is painted as inferior, their lives are not valued in the same way, ultimately they are seen as less than human. This doesn’t happen overnight – it’s a slow drip-drip-drip of a process.

These first steps involve nothing more than words – but they pave the way for denying all rights and freedoms, and ultimately for killing the people who have been labelled in this way. These steps are an essential part of the process of genocide because it becomes acceptable to commit crimes against those who are not seen as fellow human beings, but as a terrible threat that must be eliminated.

In Bosnia, as in all modern day genocides, the media played a huge role in these first stages of the genocide, alongside the rhetoric of politicians and public figures. But what is truly frightening is that when we examine the Islamophobic ideas that were used to support and justify genocide in Bosnia these ideas are shockingly similar to the way that Muslims are being talked about now, here in the UK, and across Europe and the West.

The Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosovic (later charged with genocide), first started to stoke the flames of hatred against the Muslims by calling upon the history of a famous Serbian battle against a Muslim army, just as the far-right in Britain often use the imagery of the Crusades.

“Prince Lazar’s battle six hundred years before was a battle to defend Europe, and Serbia is still today a bastion of European culture and religion.” (Slobodan Milosovic, 1989)

A Srebrenica mother mourning her son. Editorial credit: Wirestock Creators /

Muslims in the UK are often portrayed as an invading force threatening British culture and values, just as Bosnian Muslims were painted as “Turks,” foreign and threatening to European civilisation – despite being a fully integrated community that had co-existed with Christians in Bosnia for centuries.

“The Muslims want for the second time to create a Turkish Bosnia, with Sharia law and other norms that are unacceptable in modern times.” (Department of Information in Belgrade, Serbia, January 1993)

Muslims represent “an element in our lives that are hard to integrate, and which will be difficult to integrate into any western civilisation.” (ZoranDjindic, later the Serbian prime minister, 1994)

During the period of the genocide a major part of the propaganda on the Serbian state-run mass media was portraying Muslims as a violent threat by spreading “exaggerated and false messages of ethnically based attacks against the Serb people.” Today fear of violent Muslims is fuelled by inflammatory reporting and commentary on terrorism, such as the false claim by The Sun newspaper that 1 in 5 British Muslims support so-called “jihadi” groups like ISIS.

Another element in the propaganda used on Serb Radio at the time of the genocide in Bosnia was accusations that Muslim men were plotting to steal Serb women, supposedly for their “harems.” In the UK today the actions of criminals are being used to associate all Muslim men with rape and paedophilia, with headlines about “Muslim grooming gangs.” These stories of Muslim men preying on white girls are repeatedly exploited by the far-right to stir up fear and hatred against Muslims.

Whether the issue is grooming gangs, or ISIS, or halal meat, or the niqab… we nearly always hear the same dominant narrative (expressed with varying degrees of subtlety) – Muslims are threatening our way of life. It is easy to recognise this as the same basic narrative that was peddled by the Serbian propaganda: Muslims are different and foreign, backward and violent, they do not share our enlightened values and they pose a threat to our way of life… a threat which must be tackled.

Studies have documented how the rise in Islamophobia in countries like the US and UK is not principally a popular reaction against acts of terrorism committed by Muslims, or a simple response to cultural difference – it is purposely manufactured for political motives, just as it was by Serbian nationalists. And as a result, increasingly opinion polls show that Islam is seen as a threat to society:

If we look again at the 8 stages of genocide, the next step after dehumanisation is organisation. Once “us” and “them” have been defined, and “they” are shown to be bad for “us,” people naturally organise a response to this perceived threat. These groups might be backed by the state, or not; they might be organised centrally, or they might be local mobs.

For example in Bosnia in the build-up to outright genocide Serb militia groups began to be set up, trained and armed. And in England today we see groups such as the EDL organising anti-Muslim riots up and down the country with Muslims beaten up for venturing onto the street, and Muslim businesses targeted and smashed up.

The rise of far-right groups focusing their hate specifically on Muslims has been accompanied by soaring levels of hate crime, especially against Muslim women, and widespread attacks on mosques. One of the most horrific examples of violent Islamophobia was the murder of Mohammed Saleem, an 82 year-old grandfather stabbed to death on his way home from the mosque in an attack intended to ignite a race war – an attempt that was continued through a bombing campaign against mosques.

But the process of organising against a minority group isn’t just something that happens on the level of street violence. In the years leading up to the genocide, Serb nationalists managed to manoeuvre themselves into influential positions within politics and media. While on a political level in the UK we have seen parties like the BNP and UKIP turning their focus against Muslims, and we witness hate-mongering in a “respectable” guise as think-tanks like the Henry Jackson Society push an Islamophobic agenda aiming to influence government policy.

Sarajevo 1996. Editorial credit: Northfoto /

Of course the increasing power and organisation of Islamophobes in countries like the UK does not represent a conscious drive toward “ethnic cleansing” by anyone other than the most extreme of the far-right. But when Britain’s biggest selling newspaper asks readers, “What will we do about The Muslim Problem?” it is reasonable to argue that we cannot be too complacent about the future.

After organisation the fifth step on the road to genocide is polarisation. At this point, negative labelling of the “others” is mainstream. Influential members of the media and of political systems drive a wedge between the targeted group and the rest of society by making the “others” seem to be fundamentally opposed to “us.” Policies and laws begin to be put in place that treat the “others” differently from the rest of “us.” And on the flip side, the voices of moderation defending the targeted group are side-lined or silenced.

This process of driving society apart was symbolised in Bosnia by the bombing of the Mostar Bridge, physically dividing the Muslim community from the rest of the city. During this period any Serbs or Croats who spoke up for or tried to defend their Muslim neighbours were singled out as traitors.

It is with this same goal of polarisation that in 2011 the anti-Muslim extremist Anders Braevik attacked a summer camp run by Norway’s Labour Party, which he hated for being pro-immigration and in favour of multiculturalism.

However, polarisation does not always occur in a dramatic and violent way. Many people have argued persuasively that in the UK the government’s Prevent policy and focus on “non-violent extremism” institutionalises suspicion of Muslims and applies glaring double standards. At the same time, draconian new anti-terror laws – overwhelmingly applied to Muslims – undermine the basic rights that are afforded to others in the legal system.

And while non-Muslims who are sympathetic to the Muslim community are denounced and ridiculed as “Islamophiles” by right-wing commentators, the forces of polarisation are epitomised by the way that converting to Islam is portrayed: at best something very weird – something someone would only do because of some deficiency in themselves – or at worst an act of outright treachery. Again the parallels are clear when we also look at statements from Bosnia in the build-up to the genocide.

“It was genetically deformed material that embraced Islam.” (Bosnian Serb President BiljanaPavsic)

“What sort of woman freely converts to a religion which supports the oppression, torment and murder of thousands of Christians, homosexuals and spirited women, worldwide, every year? The sort of woman who writes love letters to a serial killer.” (Julie Burchill writing about the conversion of Lauren Booth, The Independent)

Once society has been polarised and driven to extremes the final three steps on the path to genocide are preparation, extermination and lastly denial.

Preparation can happen in many ways: snatching away property rights; being herded into ghettoes; restricting the right to marriage or having children. The next step is obvious: the genocide itself. The massacres. The murder. The so-called “extermination.” But this is not the final step.

Denial – there was no genocide. Or, it wasn’t a genocide, it was an equal conflict. Or, it wasn’t us killing them, they were killing each other. Evidence can be destroyed. Witnesses are intimidated. The narrative of events is distorted. In the case of Bosnia we often see it portrayed as simply a civil war rather than acts of deliberate calculated extermination against the Muslim population. And we can observe a worrying alliance between Serb nationalist extremists and Islamophobes across the West, with Bosnian Serb genocide deniers being courted by the Trump White House.

Could it happen here?

So, could atrocities such as those inflicted on Muslims in Bosnia ever happen in America or Britain, or in other Western countries?

Despite the rising fear and hatred directed against Muslims across the West, genocide seems unthinkable to most… Despite the fact that history has proved that under certain circumstances otherwise ordinary people have gone on to participate in persecution and atrocities many of us feel our societies are somehow immune… Despite the fact that just two decades since the horrors of Bosnia we are witnessing another horrific genocide against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, Islamophobia is seldom really seen as a deadly threat. Surely we could never find ourselves facing the same fate as our Muslim brothers and sisters in Bosnia, who once lived peaceful lives alongside their non-Muslim neighbours?

English Defence league. Editorial credit: Karl Nesh /

We live in uncertain times, where world events increasingly defy prediction. We face instability with factors such as economic upheavals and the looming climate crisis. It is therefore important to note that it was out of the political and economic chaos following the collapse of Communism in Europe that the conditions for genocide arose in Bosnia and Muslims were tortured, raped and murdered by their former neighbours.

Milton Friedman famously summed up how shock events can create the conditions for the seemingly impossible to become the seemingly inevitable: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” In light of this observation it is worth taking a serious look at some of the ideas about Muslims that are ‘lying around’:

“There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say the Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order. What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan … Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community“(Martin Amis, award-winning author, in an interview published in The Times)

“Muslims are a threat to our way of life” (Sunday Telegraph)

“Islam is the greatest force for evil in the world today” (Professor Richard Dawkins)

“Islam is the problem.” (Boris Johnson, politician and journalist)

“Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board” (Douglas Murray, think-tank director and political commentator)

“We need a final solution.” (Katie Hopkins, radio presenter)

One thing is for certain in these uncertain times – we can’t afford to watch passively as Islamophobia continues to rise, waiting to see just how bad things can get in our lifetime – or our children’s lifetimes.

This essay was first published on the MPACUK website.

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