After Srebrenica: The Rohingyas, The Uighurs and Others. “Never Again” rings hollow17 Jul 2020
Last weekend the world commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. On 11th July 1995, more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were murdered in Srebrenica simply because of their Muslim identity. It is believed a further 30,000 Bosnian Muslim civilians, mainly women and children, were expelled from Srebrenica by the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Sprska (VRS), and approximately 50,000 Bosnian Muslim women from the region were systematically raped under the command of General Ratko Mladić.
The Srebrenica genocide has been described as “the worst atrocity on European soil since the Second World War”. Despite that, it was only recognised as genocide in 2004 by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), a ruling upheld by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2007.
Has justice has been achieved? Mladić and others have since been convicted of war crimes. The plight of the victims is being recognised and commemorated annually, thanks to organisations such as Remembering Srebrenica UK, even as mass graves continue to be unearthed. Destroyed monuments in towns and villages across the region are being restored, such as libraries, mosques and bridges, including the famous Stari Most that was shelled by Croat forces during the conflict. But Serbian and Bosnian Serb leaders still refuse to recognise the genocide and ethnic cleansing, and some of the perpetrators continue to serve as politicians or policemen, as if to taunt the long-suffering mothers and wives of those men and boys.
What happened in Srebrenica, and the Rwanda genocide a year before, reminded the world of how hatred can lead to genocide if left unchallenged. The slogan “Never Again”, first coined after the Holocaust, was repeated. Yet 25 years on from Srebrenica, the appetite to meaningfully prevent human rights abuses against Muslims, by those motivated by hatred and Islamophobia, seems to have died.
Think of the plight of the Uighur Muslims in China. We have seen footage of Uighur people being held in so-called “re-education” camps where they are forced to denounce their religious beliefs and cultural practices, while bulldozers flattened centuries-old Islamic monuments in Xinjiang. We’ve read credible reports of women being sterilised, forced birth control, children being separated from their mothers and women being raped – forced to sleep with Chinese men. Uighur communities are living under high surveillance, while the authorities ban them from using traditional Muslim names. Most recently, US Customs seized 13 tonnes of human hair products believed to be taken from Uighur women, and leaked drone footage appears to show chilling scenes of Chinese authorities loading hordes of Uighurs onto trains, presumably to transport them to detention camps. We can no longer stay silent.
Think of the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. They have been slaughtered and displaced en masse by an army and government that claims that the minority Muslim population are “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh. Just like in Bosnia 25 years ago, this didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was a result of years of abuse, othering and de-humanisation of the country’s Muslim minorities, while people in power turned a blind eye. According to the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, Rohingya Muslims are “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world”. Since the violence started, women and children have been raped, burned alive, their villages razed during a campaign of mass killings in what the UN has described as “genocidal intent.” Why did we stay silent?
Meanwhile, in India, we are learning of similar hatred and violence being dished out where BJP and police officials are inflaming tensions and inciting attacks against Muslim citizens, while promoting a supreme Hindu majoritarian ideology, Hindutva. As recently as February, pro-Hindutva mobs attacked Muslims around New Delhi after months of steadily-rising tensions over the Citizenship Amendment Act that risks leaving many Muslims in India stateless on the basis of their religion. Local mosques were burned and a parade organised by the Hindu-nationalist organisation, RSS, filled the streets. The fact-finding team of the Delhi Minorities Commission concluded that attacks against Muslims were abetted by the Delhi Police. The failure to stop violence “was not due to individual or sporadic breaches, but a pattern of deliberate inaction over several days”.
In Europe, Muslim communities are still shaken by the bloody terrorist attack that took place at Christchurch, New Zealand where an armed extremist entered a mosque killing 51 worshippers in 2019. The horrific attack was live-streamed over Facebook with a Serbian nationalist anthem playing which celebrates Radovan Karadžić, who was also convicted of war crimes against Bosnian Muslims in the ‘90s. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, was praised for being a compassionate leader, uniting fellow New Zealanders which gave them hope after the tragedy. However, the country’s Islamic Women’s Council accused the police and intelligence services of othering their community and not taking threats against them seriously in the lead-up to the attack, despite the mosque having reported threats made to them, including on the day of the attack. The police and security services have been accused of being more focused on finding extremism within Muslim communities, than protecting them from threats from far-right racists and extremists.
The Christchurch attack has since inspired copycats, but some leaders don’t appear to be concerned. Politicians and commentators increasingly drum up support from the intolerant fringes of their voter bases, always at the expense of minorities. There are countless examples of this by US President Donald Trump, who was described by the Christchurch attacker as “a symbol of renewed white identity.”
In the UK, our Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has in the past described Muslim women as “bank-robbers” and “letterboxes”, and suggested that the Muslims in Bosnia “weren’t exactly angels”. Zac Goldsmith’s campaign in the race for London Mayor suggested his rival, now Mayor, Sadiq Khan had links to extremists. Additionally, prominent right-wing commentators promote the myth that Muslims don’t actively engage in public life because they’re a “fifth column”; a “nation within a nation” that can’t be trusted, but when they do get involved, they are linked to or have sympathy with “extremists” who are “infiltrating” the establishment to fulfil an “agenda”.
On the one hand, right-wing politicians and commentators denounce the far-right and white supremacist violence, but on the other hand they reinforce the same intolerance, hatred and Islamophobia that drives them by inflaming irrational fears for votes and likes. Let’s not forget that the extremist terrorist responsible for the Norwegian massacre, Anders Behring Breivik quoted Melanie Phillips extensively in his manifesto. Language is important.
So, what happened to “Never Again”?
As we reflect on the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, we must pause to consider how and why the attitudes and behaviours that led to the genocide emerged and stand in solidarity with victims of anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia around the world. In doing so, however, we should not forget that Islamophobia is just one of many forms of racial and religious hatred that seems to have grown to unacceptable levels in our world today. We can’t let any of it go unchecked. We must learn from the past and make every effort to bring an end to all forms of hatred and persecution.