The recent vandalism of a historic mosque in Bosnia and Herzegovina is the latest in a series of disturbing developments evoking the worst fears in the country's Muslim population.
On October 11, Sultan Sulaiman’s Atiq Mosque in Bijeljina, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) – a designated national treasure that was restored after being completely destroyed by Serbian paramilitary forces during the 1992-1995 war – was attacked and vandalised in the middle of the night, sparking further fears Bosnian Muslims are again the targets of rising Serb nationalism.
The city of Bijeljina is located in the Serbian majority BiH entity of Republika Srpska and the site of one of the first mass killings of the Bosnian war, when militias under the command of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic massacred dozens of Bosnian Muslims on 1-2 April 1992.
The attack on the city’s most renowned mosque comes just four weeks after mosques and Serbian Muslims were the targets of violence and vandalism following the elections in Montenegro on 30 August, with graffiti praising the perpetrators of the Srebrenica genocide splashed across walls and buildings throughout the region.
“This is really frightening,” Mevlud Dudic, president of the Islamic Community in Serbia, told Euro News. “Bosniaks and, I would add, all normal people, tremble when the Srebrenica genocide is mentioned in this kind of context. I like to believe that things from the nineties will never again happen in the Balkans.”
Serb nationalism is ascendant again throughout the region, including Serbia, Bosnia, and Montenegro, and it’s been driven by political leaders who seek to scapegoat Muslims for their leadership failures, foreign government meddling, specifically Russia, and Srebrenica genocide denialism.
Experts in genocide argue that Srebrenica genocide denialism has been allowed to fester and flourish to a degree in which it could now be described as “genocide triumphalism,” particularly in Serbia and Serbian controlled Republika Srpska.
For instance, when Bosnian Serb leaders aren’t downplaying or denying the casualty count of the Srebrenica genocide, they portray Serbs to be under siege from Muslims and that the atrocities of the early 1990s were carried out in national self-defence, a “glorious” enterprise to rid the region of Muslim “terrorists” and “invaders.”
Earlier this year, the Srebrenica Memorial Centre published a report to mark the 25th anniversary of the mass murder of thousands Bosnian Muslim men, women and children, noting that “rather than abating with time, denial of genocide has only grown more insidious in recent years – locally, regionally, as well as internationally.”
“Another common discourse which negates the identity of the victims and is deeply ingrained in the historical ideology of Serbian nationalism, argues that Bosniaks are not in fact a legitimate people, and thus by definition cannot be targeted by genocide,” observe the authors of the report.
The temperature has been rising against Muslims in the region for the past several years, as evident in the way several mosques have been demolished by authorities in Serbia and Bosnia since 2017; the fining of Red Star Belgrade’s basketball team after its fans unfurled an anti-Muslim banner at a 2018 season Euro League game; and Serbian President Aleksander Vucic warning Serbia will go to war in an alliance with Croats against Bosnian Muslims “should it come to that.”
“The situation in Bosnia is very tense. We are afraid of the new war and we know very well that if the war starts, we will be the victims again — Muslims, of course,” a Muslim citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who asked not to be named out of fear of Serbian reprisal, told me in 2018.
Riada Asimovic Akyol, an American based journalist who was displaced by Serbian efforts to ethnically cleanse her hometown in Kosovo in the 1990s, worries that these fears are being compounded by orchestrated efforts in Serbia to protect those responsible for inciting, enabling and carrying out the genocide, while at the same time those who speak out against those atrocities carried out in their name are vilified and threatened with violence and even death.
“Two decades later, we have Serbia being ruled again by Milosevic’ accomplices, basically,” says Akyol.
Serbia’s long-time ally Russia, which views Republika Srpska as a bulwark against NATO expansion in the Balkans, has not only been fermenting both Serb nationalist fervour and anti-Muslim animus but also has shipped thousands of semi-automatic weapons to the Serbian entity in Bosnia via Serbia, as reported by The Guardian, in hopes of igniting a separatist conflict, which would again put Bosnian Muslims in the cross-hairs once again.
The recent US-brokered agreement between Serbia and Kosovo may have dampened Russia’s strategic ambitions in the region for the time being, given the outcome of the deal is mostly dependent on Trump winning his re-election bid, but it has given Bosnian Muslims further reason to fret the future.
Srecko Latal, a journalist and analyst who has covered the Balkans since the 1990s, says the recent visit by Milorad Dodik, the Serbian member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, to Croatia should sound further alarm bells, describing it as a step towards “putting Croats and Serbs on a collision course with the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) in Bosnia once again.”
“Dodik’s visit to Zagreb, and the degrading comments Croatian President Milanovic made about Bosnia after his meeting with Dodik, have added insult to the Bosniaks’ existing injuries. It reminds them all too clearly of the 1990s when Croat and Serb leaders conspired to ethnically cleanse and divide Bosnia,” says Latal.
The 1 September attacks on Muslims in Montenegro and the vandalising of one of Bosnia’s most treasured mosques on Sunday should be heard as a 5-alarm fire by the international community. Two million Bosnian Muslims live in the desperate hope that Brussels and Washington DC are listening.
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