Atrocity denialism has gone mainstream — from the glorification of convicted perpetrators to the casual creation of memes — and boosts the far-right with deadly consequences.
Sometime around March 7 this year, a banner appeared in the eastern Bosnian town of Bratunac, a few kilometres from Srebrenica, infamous for the July 1995 genocide of Bosniak Muslims by Serb forces.
The banner read “Happy Birthday, long and healthy life”, along with the photos of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general who orchestrated the genocide and Milorad Dodik, Bosnian Serb strongman and current member of the Bosnia and Herzegovina presidency.
The two shared the same birth date, March 15. Since 2006, Dodik has held political power, initially even referred to as a “breath of fresh air” by the international community. Besides being anti-EU and anti-NATO oriented, he is on the record for genocidal and Islamophobic rhetoric.
This rhetoric however is not only limited to the Bosnian Serb politician but is widespread online, exposing millions to lies, disinformation, and historical revisionism.
The Srebrenica Genocide, which resulted in the execution of 8,372 Bosniaks has been the subject of criminal proceedings against Bosnian Serb perpetrators at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and Bosnia and Herzegovina Courts. However, since the 2010s, the denial of Srebrenica and other atrocities has become much more institutionalised and systematic not only in Bosnia and Herzegovina but also in neighbouring Serbia.
For example, two years ago, the Bosnian and Herzegovinian entity of Republika Srpska established two “truth Commissions” which were assigned to research the suffering of Serbs in Srebrenica and in Sarajevo.
Members of these Commissions are well known revisionists and Islamophobes who are no strangers to perpetuating and even contributing to conspiracy theories. The “experts’” goal is to reinforce false claims which only further traumatises victims and their families. Although the “findings” of these Commissions were scheduled to be published in 2020, nothing has happened to date, whether due to Covid-19 or something else.
Moreover, the culture of denialism has also gone mainstream, glorifying convicted perpetrators in some instances. This phenomenon has become so widespread that a few years ago, my colleague, Bosnian-Australian scholar, Hariz Halilovic, coined the term triumphalism, which covers all the dynamics of celebrating not only perpetrators but their legacy – in this case, the ethnically cleansed Republika Srpska entity.
In recent years, this triumphalism has become extremely attractive for the global far-right. Terror attacks by right-wing extremists and white supremacists from Oslo and Halle to Christchurch were inspired by Serb nationalists ideology. This extremist rhetoric spreads online like fire with disastrous consequences far beyond the borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Several memes inspired by the Bosnian Genocide have been adopted by far-right extremists online – the most infamous being the “remove kebab” meme.
This meme originated from a Serb war time militaristic song titled “Karadzic, lead your Serbs”. This song is considered an informal anthem of the global far-right, while the term “kebab” which was later added by internet trolls, serves as a slur for Muslims. This very same song inspired, and was played in 2019 by the New Zealand terrorist en route to the two mosques where he ultimately live streamed the massacres he committed.
A short look at social media, notably Instagram and TikTok, demonstrates the staggering extent of Bosnian Genocide denial and far-right extremism that Generation Z is exposed to. The lengthy genocidal history and far-right attacks are not only shortened to palatable 60-second videos, but are further manipulated and edited in ways that compel youth enough to stick through and watch.
Those who question these incendiary posts are often bullied and ostracised from the platforms. A lack of censorship in combination with the propensity of these videos on social media platforms makes countering this medium of extremism feel like a Sisyphean feat.
The international community failed Bosnia and Herzegovina in preventing the atrocities committed during the 90s. Today, while Bosnians struggle against revisionist rhetoric, they feel like they are being failed again.
Although the atrocities ended 25 years ago, this does not mean that it ended for the survivors. The recent events in Montenegro, the electoral victory of Serb nationalists, was accompanied by Islamophobic remarks and Srebrenica Genocide denial.
This, however, is not an isolated case as in the last quarter of the century, the denial of atrocities committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina was subject not only of the far-right but also at one point of certain pockets of leftist academia. Some Western anti-interventionists academics opted not only to support the Milosevic regime but also to deny the obvious atrocities which were committed by Serb forces for the purpose of criticising US and NATO interventions in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. A general trend of Bosnian genocide denial demonstrates that the events in Bosnia and Herzegovina are instrumentalised by the far-right that glorifies the atrocities, while certain left-wing apologists deny them ever happening.
The same recipe is cooking today in more recent atrocities worldwide, especially in Syria. Except now with mass media and online trolling, it has become much more sophisticated. It is no wonder today you can see certain members of the far-right supporting Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad while certain leftists deny the crimes occurring in Syria - or point to the regime as a victim of an imperialist plot. Where have we heard that before?
The "othering" of Muslims by far-right ideology, if left undealt with, may have deadly consequences, not limited only to Muslims, but all other minorities. There is a thin line between Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry and dehumanisation and violence. And it escalates very quickly. Bosniaks learnt it a quarter of a century ago.
As we approach the 26th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, the front against historical revisionism is not only in the streets of Bratunac but, and just as dangerously, it has spread its tentacles all over the internet.
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