The ugly face of Islamophobia
Controversial Bosnian Serb politician Milorad Dodik said on television in 2018: “Imams in Bosnia who recite the adhan are howling.” Dodik had just been elected as the Bosnian Serb member of the tripartite, largely ceremonial, Bosnian and Herzegovinian Presidency. Since 2006, he has gone on the record not only with anti-Muslim and Islamophobic rhetoric, but also genocide denial. This kind of dehumanizing hate speech would surely not be tolerated anywhere else. More recently, he has intensified his threats of secession by Republika Srpska from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The 1992-95 Bosnian War ended with the US-sponsored Dayton Accords. Although the agreement stopped the war, it also established a complex and dysfunctional governing structure split along former front lines. The country is composed of two entities: The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska. The majority of Bosnian Serbs live in the latter and the majority of Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats in the former. State-level institutions are rather decentralized and weak at the expense of more autonomy for each of the entities.
In recent months, Dodik has started to concretely materialize the decades-long plan of secession for Republika Srpska. With support from Serbia and the blessing of Russia, Dodik has announced the removal and restoration of state laws on an entity level. In reality, this amounts to entirely delegitimizing the central state government and is a step toward secession.
The timing is perfect. Tensions around Ukraine are continuing to rise, while the EU is uninterested and divided. The US is focused on China, with limited renewed interest in the region in the last few weeks. Turkey is in deep crisis, although President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently offered to act as a mediator. Only the UK has kept Bosnia and Herzegovina in the spotlight, including taking concrete steps to demonstrate its interest in maintaining the country’s sovereignty.
In December, Dodik announced that, in six months’ time, the Bosnian Serb entity would adopt a set of laws retrieving state-level legislation. The most controversial is the reestablishment of the Bosnian Serb Army. During the 1992-1995 conflict, this infamous institution was responsible for the destruction of towns and villages and the execution and rape of thousands, including the Srebrenica genocide and the Siege of Sarajevo. Non-Serbs, particularly Bosniaks, understand that the Bosnian Serb political elite has no interest in distancing itself from the crimes of the past. Rather, they fully and readily embrace it.
Events in Bosnia and Herzegovina show that, no matter how much is invested in state and peace-building, malign foreign influences, nationalistic extremism and racism can quickly turn matters around.
Denial of the atrocities of the 1990s has become so frequent and severe that the former High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina Valentin Inzko imposed a law in the summer of last year criminalizing Holocaust and genocide denial. This act — a standard in the EU — was seen as an opportunity by Dodik as he sought to accelerate his goals. He started referring to Bosniaks as Muslims, claiming they wanted a “Muslim state” and a “Muslim army.” This method, well established by former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s propaganda machine, aims to reduce Bosniaks to a religious minority, thus denying their nationhood. Equally importantly, by using the term “Muslim,” Dodik plays on the fears of the West. With the rise of Islamophobia and nativist far-right actors in the West, any mention of a Muslim-majority state is immediately considered a red flag.
The issue of Muslim demographics in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been on the radar for regional far-right strongmen. Hungarian President Viktor Orban’s spokesperson last month tweeted a comment from a press conference that, in terms of EU enlargement, “the challenge with Bosnia is how to integrate a country with 2 million Muslims.” The same issue was the subject of September’s European Demographic Summit, an annual gathering of populist, anti-immigration and nationalist politicians, where Orban, Dodik, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and former US Vice President Mike Pence talked about Europe’s future.
Orban’s support for Dodik is not merely rhetorical. In fact, Orban announced that Hungary would block any EU moves to sanction Dodik for his separatist plans and added that Budapest would provide €100 million ($112 million) of assistance to Republika Srpska. Other far-right parties in Europe have also offered their political support to Dodik.
Those who know Balkan history will remember that a spark in one place quickly spreads fire to other areas. Recent months have seen heightened tensions in Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia. Serbia has its eyes on all four countries. Any violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina is a security threat to the entire region. It would complicate diplomatic relations and endanger foreign investments.
Recent developments in Bosnia and Herzegovina show that, no matter how much time and money is invested in state and peace-building initiatives, malign foreign influences, nationalistic extremism and racism can very quickly turn matters around and destroy decades of work and stability.
- Hikmet Karcic is a genocide scholar based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and author of the forthcoming book “Torture, Humiliate, Kill: Inside the Bosnian Serb Camp System” (University of Michigan Press, 2022). He was the 2017 Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation-Keene State College Global Fellow. Twitter: @hikmet_karcic