Some analysts see a connection between today's Islamophobia and the toxic Serbian nationalism of the 1990s, which sought to erase the Muslim Bosnian presence in the Balkans.
Twenty-five years after the Serbian massacres of Bosnian Muslims took place in Srebrenica, very few lessons appear to have been learnt given the far-right movements and Islamophobia that continue to emerge and thrive across the Western world.
Despite the past experience of the Bosnian War, and recent white supremacist attacks, many European experts, officials and pundits, appear to focus on extreme groups that have a Muslim background. This approach, however, leaves rising far-right groups - some with violent intentions - quite free to conduct their cruel acts across the world.
Some experts think that some old prejudices of the Western world toward Muslims, coined as Islamophobia now for some time, might have played a serious role in its inaction towards the Bosnian War and further enabling the Serbian nationalist leadership to massacre the European Muslim population.
“I think Islamophobia played a role in that. If this had been other (non-Muslim) communities, they could have acted much sooner,” said Sami al Arian, an American-Palestinian professor, who is the director of the Center for Islam and Global Affairs at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University.
“But when it came to Muslims in Bosnia or Africans in Rwanda, the inaction of the United States, which was leading the world at the time, (and Europeans) spoke volumes to the fact that these lives don’t matter as much when European and other Anglo-Saxon type of conflicts take place within the context of the Cold War,” Arian told TRT World.
Some metaphors of Islamophobia and the main symbols of the Bosnian War also appear to have similar roots.
Then-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and his Serbian generals always referred to Muslim Bosnians alternatively as the Ottomans or the Turks - this despite Bosnians being ethnically Slavic and the Ottoman Empire having ceased to exist about seventy years ago.
After the terrible massacre of the Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, last year, a code word was found on the rifle of Australian murderer Brenton Tarrant. It was Turkofagos, which means “Eater of Turks”, a well-known expression, particularly, among the Greeks.
Greeks used the term to describe their fighters during the Greek Rebellion of 1821 against the Ottomans. It has other meanings, too.
“There is a darker meaning, however, lurking behind the term, a meaning that Greeks have long been keenly aware of—and of which the New Zealand terrorist clearly was, too. It traces to the very birth of the Greek nation, when the revolutionaries didn’t just fight the Ottoman army—they also committed brutal ethnic cleansing against Muslims and Jews,” wrote Yiannis Baboulias, an investigative journalist and co-founder of the Precarious Europe project.
Resembling the Greek ethnic cleansing of the Muslims in the 19th century, Milosevic’s Serbs were also planning to exterminate the Muslim Bosnian population in order to purify the Serbian nation and the Balkans from the remains of the Ottomans and the Turks - just as Tarrant wanted to do in the Pacific.
“In those times, a 'Turk' wasn’t just an Ottoman soldier: It was anyone who wasn’t a Christian. The darkest aspects of the term Turkofagos have more recently been resurrected by far-right and nationalist groups as they apply the term to honour any killer of Muslims,” Baboulias added.
Like Baboulias, Arian also believes that the historical context has a powerful presence across the Balkans, particularly, in the Bosnian War.
“States may act for geopolitical and strategic reasons. But when people start killing other people, especially their own neighbours they have lived for centuries, raping them and acting with other types of hatred, it has to do with history and religion unfortunately,” Arian said.
The psychological aspects of the Bosnian War
Every political incident is rooted in psychological engineering, according to Vamik Volkan, the emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia, who received The Sigourney Award for 2015. It is generally regarded as the Nobel of psychoanalysis.
During a conference series organised by the Bahcesehir University in 2008, Volkan remembers how he psychologically reacted to Turkey’s Cyprus Operation back on July 15, 1974.
Volkan was born and raised in Cyprus as a Cypriot Turk. He is one of the founders and leading experts of political psychology discipline. He also led many field studies and wrote several books on psychology's place in politics and international relations.
He was living in the US during Turkey’s Cyprus Operation. There was no direct flight from Virginia to Turkey in those days. He flew to a European country, and then went on to enter Turkey through the Balkans by road.
“During my travel, without having any concrete information coming from Cyprus, I was constantly crying when I saw remains of the Ottoman-era structures, identifying the incidents in Cyprus with what happened in the Balkans back in the day, falling into a psychological regression,” the professor recounted.
Volkan identifies this situation as “time collapse”, where a person or a social group could sometimes erase time differences between different incidents, identifying all as part of a single one.
In the above incident, at the time, the professor’s psychology identifies the Ottoman Empire’s Balkan losses during the disastrous Balkan Wars back in 1912, which heralded the collapse of the empire, with another possible loss in Cyprus.
But in 1974, Turkey successfully defeated Greek Cypriots to claim the northern part of the island, protecting its brethren, the Turkish Cypriots.
Volkan thinks that another “time collapse” happened when the Serbian leadership identified the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1989 with the Battle of Kosovo, which happened in 1389 exactly six hundred years ago between the Ottomans and the Serbs. Both incidents have been regarded to weaken Serbian nationality, according to many experts.
The Serbian leadership, led by Milosevic, which was later tried for war crimes against Bosnian Muslims in The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), accused Bosnians of the fall of Yugoslavia, calling them directly as Ottomans or Turks.
“During the collapse of Yugoslavia, so many anxieties were present in the country because of the fear people felt that the country was being torn apart. But Milosevic comes and says ‘Never mind. We are going to bring the Kosovo War back. We will bring Prince Lazar back’,” Volkan said.
Lazar was the Serbian leader in the Battle of Kosovo, where he was killed. But the Ottoman Sultan, Murad I, was also killed during the battle. Some years after the Battle of Kosovo, much of Serbia came under the Ottoman rule and part of Serbian population converted to Islam under the Ottomans. This Muslim population has been called as Bosnians since then.
“Indeed, Lazar was dead for six hundred years. They put his body in a coffin and a six hundred years old corpse goes village to village, all the way back to Kosovo,” Volkan told TRT World.
“Within a year, societal processes fundamentally change. They believed afterwards that they were going to have a great Serbia. Prince Lazar is going to come back and they are going to kill all Ottomans which meant Bosnians. And genocide occurred,” Volkan analyses.
Serbian ‘Chosen Trauma’: The Battle of Kosovo
Milosevic, whose father and mother, along with his paternal grandfather and maternal uncle, committed suicide, had an interesting last name - it connected with the ups and downs of the Serbian history.
Milosevic means son of Milos, which was also the name of the person who allegedly killed the Ottoman Sultan Murad I in the Battle of Kosovo.
“Milošević ordered a huge monument to be built on a hill overlooking the Kosovo battlefield. Made of red stone symbolizing blood, it stands a hundred feet high. The numbers “1389-1989” are clearly inscribed on this monument, etching the intended “time collapse” in stone,” wrote Volkan in his groundbreaking paper, Slobodan Milošević and the Reactivation of the Serbian Chosen Trauma,in 2006.
"None should be surprised that Serbia raised its head because of Kosovo this summer. Kosovo is the pure centre of its history, culture and memory. Every nation has one love that warms its heart. For Serbia it is Kosovo," Milosevic said during the ceremony.
"Six centuries later, now, we are being again engaged in battles and are facing battles," he added.
Volkan thinks every nation and every personality have “chosen traumas” in different degrees. According to him, the Battle of Kosovo has emerged as the chosen trauma of Serbians in history. He cites a huge volume of Serbian literature, religious sermons and personal accounts, dedicated to the Battle of Kosovo.
Drink, Serbs, of God’s glory
And fulfill the Christian law;
And even though we have lost our kingdom,
Let us not lose our souls
(Markovic, M.S. (1983). The secret of Kosovo. In Landmarks in Serbian Culture and History, ed., V.D. Mihailovich, pp. 116. Pittsburg, PA: Serb National Federation.)
The above lines are from one of the most popular Serbian songs.
“... The single sound of that word—Kosovo—caused an indescribable excitement. This one word pointed to the black past—five centuries. In it exists the whole of our sad past—the tragedy of Prince Lazar and the entire Serbian people....” wrote a Serbian young soldier in his memoirs during the Balkan Wars of 1912, when Kosovo separated from the Ottoman Empire, being part of Serbia and its old ally Montenegro.
“Each of us created for himself a picture of Kosovo while we were still in the cradle. Our mothers lulled us to sleep with the songs of Kosovo, and in our schools, our teachers never ceased in their stories of Lazar and Miloš,” the soldier recounted.
“My God, what awaited us! To see a liberated Kosovo....When we arrived in Kosovo ... the spirits of Lazar, Miloš and all the Kosovo martyrs gaze on us,” he reacted.
(The quotes are taken from Vojincki Glasnik, June 28, 1932, reported in Emmert, T.A. (1990). Serbian Golgotha: Kosovo, 1389. pp. 133-134. New York: Columbia University Press.)
In 1989, in the wake of the collapse of Yugoslavia, which means the Land of Southern Slavs, Milosevic was also considered himself as a man destined to rewrite the Serbian history.
“On June 28, 1989, the day marking the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, a helicopter brought Milošević to Kosovo Polje—a symbolic gesture representing the return of Prince Lazar/Jesus Christ to earth to create a Greater Serbia,” Volkan recounted.
A similar psychological “time collapse” also appeared to happen ahead of the World War I, which was triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, a heir presumptive to the then-Austro-Hungarian Emperor, in Sarajevo, the current capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The Serbian nationalist assassin, Gavrilo Princip, who was a member of the Serbian clandestine group called the Black Hand, killed the Austrian heir-apparent on June 28, 1914, a date particularly picked by the group to identify its act with the Battle of Kosovo.
The secret group, whose assassination was set up by the Serbian intelligence, was aiming for the liberation of South Slavic provinces, mainly Bosnia from the Austria-Hungary Empire, to create a Yugoslavia.
“It appeared that in Princip’s mind, the old [Ottomans] and new [Austrians] “oppressors” were condensed, and the desire for revenge was transferred to the Austro-Hungarian heir apparent,” Volkan wrote.
Like Princip, who has continued to be celebrated as a hero by both the mainland Serbs and Bosnian Serbs to date, Milosevic also thought himself as a saviour of the Serbian nation.
“Thereafter, a sense of entitlement to kill Bosniaks and Kosovar Albanian Moslems began to spread. Since the ancestors of these people had become Moslems under the Ottoman rule, they represented the original enemy, the Ottoman Turks,” Volkan said.
He also notes that long before the appearance of extreme groups like al Qaeda and others with Muslim roots, “there was, in Europe, an entitlement to kill Moslems in the name of a specific type of Christian religious ‘fundamentalism’.”
“Everyone knows what happened in the former Yugoslavia, and the details are beyond the scope of this paper,” Volkan also noted.
In July 1995, only in Srebrenica, which has been designated as a safe area by the UN during the Bosnian War, 8,000 Bosnian men and women were killed by Serbian forces, marking the largest massacre in the heart of Europe since the Holocaust. The world’s top two courts, the ICTY and the International Court of Justice (ICJ), have defined the Srebrenica killings as genocide.
Top Bosnian officials, citing The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) data, believe that at least 200,000 people were killed, including 12,000 children, by Serbian forces. It went on to state that at least 50,000 Bosnian women were raped and 2.2 million were forced to flee their homes during the brutal war.
A number of prominent international and national political bodies, including a resolution by the United Nations General Assembly, as well as several other court decisions, have defined the incidents taking place in Bosnia as genocide.
In 2006, Milosevic died in the UN war crimes tribunal's detention centre.