The war in Bosnia that resulted in the deaths of some 300,000 people, most of them Bosnian Muslims, may be over but old hatreds still run deep, and not too far beneath the surface. Theoreti-cally, the Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina is made up of three peoples: the Bosnians, Croats and Serbs. Each of them has their own autonomous region. Bosnia has a rotating presidency. While Bosnians are the largest group in the federation, they continue to suffer attacks and indignities at the hands of others, especially Serbs, as the following episode shows.
A mosque in southeastern Bosnia was set on fire and burnt to the ground in the early hours of December 8 when Muslims in Bosnia-Hercegovina were celebrating Eid al-Adha. According to the local police, the cause of the fire was being investigated. The mosque is in Fazlagica Kula, a village near the town of Gacko, in the Bosnian-Serb republic. Few Muslim families have returned to the Serb-controlled area following the 1992-95 war that left hundreds of thousand of people, mostly Muslims, dead. The fire destroyed the entire mosque structure except the minaret.
The day of the attack is significant: it was the day when Muslims were celebrating an important Islamic festival, Eid al-Adha. Serb hatred toward Muslims has not subsided despite the war ending more than 13 years ago. While the war raged, the Serbs with their heavy artillery perched on the hills above Sarajevo, targeted civilians as well as important buildings such as libraries and mosques. The Sarajevo library with priceless manuscripts in particular was targeted and destroyed, reflecting the hatred the Serbs have for Bosnian Muslims and their heritage. Wiping out a people’s history is a particularly virulent form of racism borne of hatred.
One of the most gruesome acts of genocide occurred in Srebrenica in July 1995. The Bosnians had been disarmed and told to congregate in certain enclaves—Srebrenica, Bihac, Tuzla and Zepa — that would be protected by UN “peacekeeping” forces. The disarmed Muslims were then left to the non-existent mercies of killers like Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. They butchered more than 10,000 Muslims in Srebrenica while the Dutch forces assigned to protect them, looked on. Their excuse was that they could not confront the Serbian killers. Perhaps, but if that was the case, why were the Muslims first disarmed and then herded into enclaves that became slaughterhouses? In Srebrenica, men and boys were separated from women — their wives, mothers and sisters — and then butchered in cold blood. Many of them were dumped in mass graves. Mothers and wives were forced to witness the slaughter of their loved ones. The scale of the massacre surfaced only when tens of thousands of women and young girls straggled into Tuzla after walking for tens of miles across mountain passes. Karadzic was captured last July while living in disguise in Belgrade; Mladic is still at large; he is believed to be protected by the Serbian army.
In another part of Europe — France — there was another attack directed against the Muslims the same day. Hundreds of tombstones in the Muslim part of a French military cemetery near the northern town of Arras and the battlefields of First World War were found sprayed with Nazi symbols, in the third such attack on the site in less than two years. A similar attack had occurred last April. The neatly aligned white headstones, marking the graves of Muslim soldiers who died fighting for France, were spray-painted with neo-Nazi slogans such as “Heil Hitler,” the police said.
Of the 575 Muslim gravestones at the site, 500 had been vandalized. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim soldiers from France’s African colonies fought during the First World War and tens of thousands were killed. Not only are such sacrifices forgotten, French society itself has become quite intolerant toward Muslims. There have been vicious attacks against Muslim schoolgirls because of the hijab. While France claims to uphold the principle of freedom of expression, the simple hijab of a Muslim girl or woman is seen as “threatening” French secularism. The country is home to Europe’s largest Muslim community but there is much racism and hatred directed against Muslims.
A statement issued by the office of the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy condemned the attack on the cemetery. It also called for apprehending the perpetrators and bringing them to justice. While such statements are welcome, it falls short of what is required. Racism in France or the rest of Europe does not erupt in a vacuum. The official policy of banning the hijab in French schools contributes to this atmosphere of intolerance. The French as well as other Europeans, indeed the West at large, must come confront the inherent racism in their societies. It does not help to issue statements of condemnation of attacks on cemeteries but then proceed to subject Muslims in France or elsewhere to racist attacks. The French police themselves are especially racist.