Western Muslims and Jews must pay closer attention to what’s unfolding in Bosnia

Sarajevo (Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash)
Sarajevo (Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash)

It should not be surprising that a European Muslim such as myself is deeply alarmed by the most recent developments in Bosnia’s arcane politics. It might be surprising, however, that I have first decided to write about the escalating risks of that country’s disintegration in a Jewish newspaper. But that is because, having lived through and navigated one crisis after another, I have come to see that our two communities are deeply and inextricably connected.

An uptick in Islamophobia often follows an uptick in anti-Semitism. And a surge in anti-Semitism invariably means a surge in Islamophobia.

We are each other’s canary in the coal mines.

Western Muslims and Western Jews must—for their own sakes and for each other—pay closer attention to the dangerous brinksmanship now unfolding in Bosnia.

That small Balkan country, held together by a thoroughly inadequate constitution and a declining international peacekeeping commitment, may be on the verge of collapsing into conflict. That would be terrible not only for Bosnia’s Muslim plurality, for Bosnia and the Balkans, but also for European minorities, transatlantic security, and the global strength of the West.

Before I explain why, let me share just a little about what is happening in Bosnia today—a country that, for many (bad) reasons, usually goes missing from the news cycle.

After America and NATO terminated the predations of radical Serb forces in the mid-1990s, finally intervening to stop a horrific genocide, rampant sexual violence, and undisguised ethnic cleansing, the West imposed a peace agreement on all parties. While this peace agreement had the benefit of halting the conflict, it also essentially froze the war too, validating Serb gains made through gross human rights violations, and leaving Bosnia effectively riven in two.

Between Bosnia’s Serbs and, on the other hand, Croats and Bosniaks, ostensible allies.

The postwar order further burdened the country with three Presidents, one for each of its major communities—the Croats (Catholics), Serbs (Orthodox Christians), and Bosniaks (Muslims). Needless to say, this not only rewarded pre-war sectarianism and bigotry, but effectively enshrined ethnic polarization into the very structure of the state. Ever since, politicians appealed not to shared futures, but to competing narratives.

As such, for example, any gain for Bosniaks was interpreted as a loss for Serbs. Every decision was a zero-sum calculation.

If it seems it’s a miracle the state survived—well, that’s for other reasons.

With America’s deep investment in securing the region and the long-term promise of European Union membership—for Bosnia as well as Serbia—the conflict remained cold, more rhetorical than actual. Recent years, however, have seen American influence decline, the transatlantic bond fray, and the promise of European Union membership become worryingly distant, if not altogether inaccessible. The consequences have been awful. And predictable.

Currently, Bosnia’s Serb President, Milorad Dodik, is agitating to effectively partition the country, with his most recent scheme being the creation of a separate Serb army. Appealing to support from Belgrade, and more importantly from Moscow, he has been aided and abetted in his campaign to weaken American and European influence on and over the conflict. More than any time in the past twenty-five years, Bosnia’s security is in jeopardy.

And with it, the idea of a pluralistic, secular, democratic Europe, one in which Muslims, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians can live side-by-side. In its place? A rigid, polarized, illiberal populism, which, as we all know, is only a temporary waystation to outright fascism.

The genocide of Bosnian Muslims was the first instance of genocide on the European continent since the Holocaust. Tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims were detained, herded into concentration camps, and eventually massacred, while tens of thousands of women were raped, and hundreds of thousands more were forced from their homes.

The goal of Serb irredentists was to create a greater Serb homeland.

Ethnically, religiously, and politically “pure,” free from the contamination of difference, diversity, and pluralism.

Like many Europeans, and many European Muslims, I was absolutely horrified: Just a few hours’ flight from London, and Sarajevo, which had hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics, was suffering the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. Worse, this was at the peak of American and European power and prestige, and it still took years—and tens of thousands of civilians slaughtered—to goad the world into action.

Given how much more precarious are democracy, liberalism, and pluralism today, what is the likelihood of the international community coming together to act in a worst-case scenario?

The conflict drove me to become politically and socially engaged, morally committed to seeing to it that no community, anywhere in the world, including in Europe.

Through that experience, I know all too well that an eruption of conflict would be fatal. For Bosnians, yes. And that should be enough cause to act. But it is still worse than that.

If Bosnia breaks up, that would be an enormity—but what is to say the fragmentation would stop at Bosnia, or cease at some imagined border convenient for fellow Europeans who imagine they can keep chaos contained?

The last time radical Serbs preached and practiced ethnocide, the conflict reached into Croatia and Kosovo, too. That may well happen again—and more so. The idea of Europe, the idea of transatlantic cooperation, the idea of the West, and the idea of a liberal world order, would all be savagely weakened. If we cannot guarantee pluralism, religious freedom, and security, in Europe itself, then what good are our multilateral institutions?

And without them, what happens to Europeans who pray a little differently, who dress a little differently, who live a little differently?

We are morally compelled to act. For Bosnians. For ourselves. For everyone who depends on democracy for their sacred rights, freedoms, and dignity—indeed, their very lives. And so, I appeal to my Jewish friends and neighbours, asking that you become more invested in what is happening in the Balkans, build bridges with like-minded institutions and organizations, and join partners and peers in advocating for maintaining the world’s commitment to Bosnia.

To peace and pluralism in that country.

Together, we can make Bosnia a priority. We can cultivate relationships that begin with foreign policy and, we can hope, grow deeper still. We can revitalize the West. We are not passive victims of history, waiting for events to unfold. We are active agents, the living, breathing foundation of democracy and liberalism. We stand together, and we change the direction of global affairs. We stand apart, though, and we not only doom Bosnia and the Balkans.

We jeopardize ourselves.

About the Author
Muddassar Ahmed is the President of the Concordia Forum , which is an annual secular retreat, bringing together senior Muslim leaders from across the West
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