Saturday, August 27, 2005

The Myth of the Islamic Fundamentalism in Bosnia

Some terrorist experts contend that there is a rising Islamic threat in Bosnia and that it was the Islamic fundamentalism that caused the war in Bosnia. Is there any truth to these assertions or are they only myths invented by Serb nationalists and certain left revisionists in the West?

Noel Malcolm, a foremost authority on the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina, has written a book called Bosnia a Short History. In this author’s opinion, Noel Malcolm’s book offers without a doubt one of the most balanced and comprehensive accounts of the history of this region. Extremely well documented and brilliantly researched, Bosnia a Short history explains the root causes of the war in Bosnia and easily dispels some of the prevailing myths about the ancient ethnic hatreds in Bosnia frequently put forth by many Western commentators. Malcolm points out in his book that the Muslims of Bosnia constitute one of the most secularized Islamic communities in the world. This contention is supported by the fact that there were approximately 30% mixed marriages in Bosnia before the war began in 1992. According to Malcolm, religion has always had a rather insignificant role for the Muslims of Bosnia and was considered by the overwhelming majority of Bosnian Muslims a private matter. As Malcolm astutely observes: “for many rural Muslims and the vast majority of urban ones, being a Muslim was reduced to a set of cultural traditions: Muslim names, circumcision, baklava, and the celebration of Ramazan Bajram…” (p. 222). With no hesitation, Malcolm strongly rejects the idea that there exists an Islamic threat in Bosnia: “talk of a fundamentalist threat in Bosnia was in any case particularly inappropriate, because the Bosnian Muslims were by now among the most secularized Muslim populations in the world” (p.221). Even so, many Western experts frequently refuse to make a distinction between the Muslims of Bosnia and the Muslims of the Arab world (not that there is anything wrong with the latter; the present author is merely trying to demonstrate the actual differences between the two), as if all Muslims were homogenous. A closer examination reveals that the Muslims of Bosnia have little in common with the Arab Muslims: they do not speak the same languages, they do not have the same histories, traditions and mores.
Professor of Religion at Haverford College, Michael Sells, believes that it was this simplistic and parochial perception of Islam that blocked a military intervention in Bosnia: “the refusal of European governments to either defend Bosnians against genocide or allow them to obtain arms to defend themselves has been based in part on stereotypes about Islam” (p. 122). Elaborating, Mr. Sells argues that :”central to the Orientalist stereotype is a confusion in the presentation of Islam between religious observance and religious militancy. While few would argue that the militant wing of the Irish Republican Army represents all observant Catholics, the association of observant Muslims with religious militancy is widespread” (p.122-123). Thus unwillingness, writes Sells, to help the Muslims of Bosnia only further increased the gap between the Christian and the Muslim world (p. 124). While the Muslims of Srebrenica were being brutally slaughtered by Bosnian Serb forces the West did nothing to prevent nor to stop the gruesome massacre in which 8,000 Muslim men were killed. As Zeyno Baran, director of the International Security Program at the Nixon Center, correctly points out: “the war in Bosnia, particularly the arms embargo imposed on the Muslim population while the Serbs were massacring them, became the major turning point for the global Muslim consciousness. Even secular, non-political Muslims were furious about what they perceived as Western indifference to the mass killings of their co-religionists” (The Baltimore Sun, July 25 2005). Also the fact that the two individuals most responsible for the massacre in Srebrenica Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic are still at large seriously undermines and threatens the relationship between the Christian and the Muslim world. Many Muslims presumably ask themselves the inevitable question: is the West really putting an honest effort into apprehending and bringing to justice Karadzic and Mladic? It is a legitimate question worthy of considerable consideration.
Now, while keeping this mind, consider a book titled Al-Qaida’s Jihad in Europe: The Afghan-Bosnian Network by Evan F. Kohlmann. In this book, Mr. Kohlmann suggests that the Muslims of Bosnia were collaborating with the Muslims of Afghanistan in a joint effort to unleash unprecedented terror throughout the Christian world. To support his thesis, Kohlmann correctly points out that an insignificant number of Mujahidins arrived in Bosnia in 1992 to aid Bosnian Muslims. What Mr. Kohlmann however does not mention is that the Muslims of Bosnia were poorly armed when compared to the extremely powerful Serbian aggressor. Bosnian Serbs were heavily armed; they possessed sophisticated weaponry (tanks, military jets etc) and also they received full diplomatic and military support from the neighboring Serbia. Not to mention the fact many Serbian paramilitary units (Vojislav Seselj’s Chetniks, Mirko Jovic’s White Eagles and Arkan’s troops) also engaged in the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims. According to Mr. Sells: “the advantage of the Serb army in heavy weapons over the Bosnians was estimated in anywhere from 20-1 to 100-1” (p.116-117). Noel Malcolm writes that :”although the U.N. itself recognized Bosnia and admitted it as a member-state distinct and separate from Yugoslavia on 22 May 1992, it continued to apply the embargo as if nothing had changed. Of course it continued to apply it to Serbia too; but Serbia held most of the stockpiles of the former federal army, and had a large armaments industry of its own” (p.243).
In his book, Mr. Kohlmann also fails to mention the fact that many Greek and Russian volunteers came to Bosnia in order to aid the already heavily armed aggressor-Bosnian Serbs. Mr. Sells asserts that this fact received little if any attention in the Western media. I agree with Mr. Sells that there is no doubt that the Islamic fundamentalism frequently creates headlines in the media while the Christian fundamentalism rarely if ever received any coverage at all. During the war in Bosnia, Orthodox priests many times encouraged the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims. According to Sells: “in an Orthodox monastery near Sarajevo, a Serb priest blessed the followers of the ethno-fascist warlord Vojislav Seselj, after the names of the towns associated with the worst atrocities against Muslims were read aloud in triumph” (p 80). Elaborating, Sells further writes: “Trebinje’s 500-year-old mosque and elegant Turkish-style buildings were burned and its Muslim population killed and expelled immediately following celebrations of the feast day of St. Sava, the founder of the Serbian Church. Mirko Jovic, leader of the White Eagles terror squad, called for a “Christian, Orthodox Serbia with no Muslims and no unbelievers” (p.80). Sells also analyzes Serbian literature demonstrating its highly stereotypical and prejudiced view of Bosnian Muslims, a view which of course had no basis in fact. For example, books by the extremely popular Serbian authors Vuk Draskovic and Petar Petrovic Njegos contain numerous elements of vicious anti-Islamic propaganda. Even Serb psychiatrists have made some bizarre and absurd statements about Muslims. Jovan Raskovic, a famous Serb psychiatrist, came to a conclusion that Muslims have an “anal erotic fixation” and that they are materialistic and greedy. Raskovic’s conclusions about Croats were equally bewildering and preposterous; in Raskovic’s opinion, Croats are afraid of everything. Concerning the Serbs, Raskovic lauded them for their bravery since only the Serbs had effectively dealt with the Oedipus complex. It remains a mystery how s person like Raskovic could have been considered a serious and respected psychiatrist. If the Serbian people believed in this sheer nonsense and apparently many did, then it is not difficult to trace the origins of Islamophobia that is still very much present in the Serbian society. In point of fact, this is how you justify genocide: you begin spreading vicious lies and gross misinformation about your enemy. Then you hire “experts” to corroborate these so called “truths”. What better person to verify these “truths” than a respected psychiatrist?
In order to understand the root causes of the war in Bosnia it is imperative to look into this highly sophisticated and elaborate anti-Islamic propaganda. There is no doubt that this propaganda had played a pivotal if not critical role in enabling and justifying genocide of Bosnian Muslims. In Love Thy Neighbor, Peter Maass explains how malicious Serbian propagandists did everything to portray Bosnian Muslims as Islamic fundamentalists whose goal had always been a creation of an Islamic state in Bosnia. Here is what Maass writes of one Serbian propaganda film: “if there was an Academy Award for the Crudest, Goriest Propaganda Film, then the Serbs would win, hands down” (p.88).

Some Western commentators have asserted that the war in Bosnia was a result of ancient ethnic strives and the inability of Muslims and Christians to co-exist peacefully. Of course, this explanation is a flagrant misrepresentation of the facts, as Noel Malcolm’s book has so clearly demonstrated. The same Western experts somehow always tend to overlook the importance of the covert agreement between Milosevic and Tudjman to divide Bosnia between themselves. Needless to say, to realize this goal they had to either expel or annihilate the Muslim population of Bosnia. As Chuck Sudetic points out in his book Blood and Vengeance: “the war in Bosnia had to be presented as a civil war, an ethnic war, a religious war, the latest tremor along an unstable cultural fault line, an age-old struggle between Christianity and Islam, anything but what it was: a land grab managed from Belgrade with help from Zagreb” (p.128). That is exactly what it was.

List of References

Malcolm, Noel. Bosnia a Short History (1996). New York University.

Sells, Michael. The Bridge Betrayed (1998). University of California Press.

Zeyno, Baran. Bosnia and Terrorism. The Baltimore Sun July 25 2005.

Kohlmann, Evan. Al-Qaida’s Jihad in Europe: The Afghan-Bosnian Network (2004).

For a detailed account of Jovan Raskovic see

Maass, Peter. Love Thy Neighbor (1996). First Vintage Books Edition.

Sudetic Chuck. Blood and Vengeance. (1998). Penguin Books.