quotes Alarms are wailing in Bosnia

21 November 2021
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Updated 21 November 2021

Alarms are wailing in Bosnia

It is no surprise that global powers have little time to spare for tiny Bosnia as they are consumed by the disastrous consequences of an ongoing pandemic, challenged by rising inflation and broken supply chains, and overwhelmed by the specter of a superheated planet. That often overlooked, remarkably diverse country, which witnessed a horrific genocide less than 30 years ago, is once more on the verge of crumbling.

Will history repeat itself?

Once more, radical Serb forces threaten to overturn the government; we have seen this happen before, and we know — or at least we should know — how terribly this can turn out. In a country with less than half the population of Riyadh, tens of thousands of adults and children were murdered, many after being herded into concentration camps. Tens of thousands of women and girls were raped.

Hundreds of thousands more fled

And why? Because they were Muslims — or, at least, of Muslim ancestry. This, the most recent genocide in Europe, following just 50 years after the Holocaust, shocked the world's conscience. As a young European Muslim, still cultivating my identity, the conflict seared itself into my consciousness, awakening me to the dangers of religious extremism and inspiring in me a dedication to public service, interfaith engagement, and responsible statecraft.

Global reaction

Though many reactions to the Bosnian genocide — indifference or, sometimes, active hostility — dismayed me, these were not the only responses. Many people across the globe stood up for humanity, including those in the Arab and Muslim world who selflessly supported the beleaguered people of Bosnia. And, of course, many in the West did too, including a much younger US senator from Delaware, Joseph R. Biden Jr.

The Bosnia conflict mattered to Joe Biden. So did the fact and manner of its resolution, involving the military and diplomatic intervention of the US and NATO, alongside robust support from many Arab and Muslim states, including Saudi Arabia.

I am sure it still matters to him.

Just last month, Biden's Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined up with and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to issue a joint statement "united in their firm support for the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina." On Nov. 7, Biden's special envoy to the Western Balkans, Gabriel Escobar, arrived in Sarajevo to defuse tensions. 

But America is battered by crises and torn by partisanship. Even a cause near and dear to the President's heart may not receive the due attention it deserves. For that matter, supporters of European unity and Western fraternity can also not sustain their engagement. But Bosnia remains an issue that combines Western interests and inspires strong feelings of Islamic solidarity — and how often can these causes be said to converge?

This is an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to step forward, seize the initiative, raise the matter, and support peaceful outcomes. The Kingdom is also the current chair of the Organization Islamic Cooperation's Islamic Summit. In this capacity, may call for the 57-member body to address the issue as a matter of urgency. 

The OIC took significant steps back in the 1990s to raise the plight of Bosnia on the world stage. Saudi Arabia played a prominent role in working with other member states to support UN General Assembly and Security Council efforts to take enforcement measures to end Serbian aggression. At one stage, OIC countries pledged to mobilize troops before the peace accords were agreed. The OIC member states set up a Special Fund for the Return of the Bosnian Refugees to contribute to the return of the Bosnian refugees forced to flee their country during the war.

So the intervention by the OIC would be suitable for Bosnia for apparent reasons. This would be good for the West because it would avert a disaster with severe consequences for its influence and power. This would be good not only because it would provide opportunities to translate genuine affinities into tangible support but because it would open the door to increased influence in the West and the world.

The OIC has the advantages and connections the West needs but doesn't have. Too often, Saudi Arabia and Muslim countries are maligned by outdated and inaccurate stereotypes. They are poorly understood if not actively misunderstood.

By taking the initiative and promoting peace in Bosnia as an issue of shared concern, the OIC will be contributing to regional stability and reinforcing their capability as stakeholders in international security. After all, the more responsibility a country is known to take, the more regard it is accorded as a result.

It should go without saying that this does not mean imposing solutions or crudely picking sides and inflaming tensions; instead, a responsible initiative would see OIC countries work publicly and quietly to leverage their relationships and immense economic and financial resources to dial down the pressure. And so, the OIC could be America and Europe's partner, sharing some of the burdens of sustaining international peace and prosperity.

The alternative is not just that Bosnia could disintegrate — which should be alarming enough. It is also that the global order would receive another blow, and countries, big and small, richer and poorer, would find themselves more vulnerable and more unstable. Thirty years ago, we learned that what happens in the heart of the Balkans doesn't stay in the Balkans.

That is no less true today.

* Muddassar Ahmed is an advisory council member at the Atlantic Council in Washington.