During the early 1990s, the war in Bosnia dominated Muslim attention much as a war in Iraq has in the last few years, considering which it is perhaps surprising how little of the events of those years is known to many young Muslims today.
As Yugoslavia disintegrated after the death of Tito in 1980 and the collapse of communism in 1989, many Muslims were surprised to discover a Muslim community and country emerging from the wreckage. In March 1991, however, Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman, presidents of Serbia and Croatia and supposedly implaccable foes, met at a hunting lodge in Karadjordjevo and agreed a pact that led to massive bloodshed over the next few years: a pact for the extermination of Bosnian Muslims and the partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina between their two countries. The Bosnia war was famously a three-way conflict in which Serbs, Croatians and Bosniaks – Muslim Bosnians – all fought each other, and later in the war Croats and Bosniaks co-operated against the Serbs; but the fundamental reality of the war, that it started as an attempt by Serbs and Croats together for the genocide of Muslims, should not be forgotten.
Nor should the fact that, in the early years of the war, the West deliberately stood back to allow them to complete the job; in the words of British foreign minister Douglas Hurd, assisting the Bosnians would only create a “level killing field”. (Hurd was later used by the British National Westminster Bank as a lobbyist to deal with Milosevic, raising questions about their previous relationship.) Despite the fact that the genocidal nature of the Serb war quickly became apparent, through the work of journalists such as Ed Vulliamy, for example, and the publication of pictures from the Omarska and Trnopolje concentration-camps, only Muslim countries and organisations offered the Bosnians any substantial support, a fact initially acknowledged by Bosnian leaders. This support enabled the Bosnians to survive the early months of the conflict and forced the West to change the policy of non-intervention. This point is confirmed by a memo by Richard Holbrooke, then US special envoy on Bosnia, in January 1993, which stated: “I would therefore recommend consideration of something which I know will cause many people heartburn: that we allow covert arms supply to the Bosnian Muslims, so that Bosnia’s outside support no longer comes solely from the Islamic nations” (quoted in Holbrooke’s memoir, To End a War, 1998).
The other major change in the dynamic of the war came as a result of European (particularly German) pressure on the Croatians. Reacting to public anger at the genocide of the Bosnians, and widespread support for them, the Germans began to arm the Croatians and persuaded them to ally politically with the Bosnians against the Serbs in 1994, even as Croats inside Bosnia-Herzegovina were still fighting against Bosniaks and intending to join Croatia. This was made easier by the fact that Serbs were fighting and committing atrocities against Croats as well as Bosniaks. This made it possible for the Europeans to claim later to have supported the Bosnians against the Serbs, when in fact all they had done was to support the Croats against both the Bosnians and the Serbs, to ensure that the Bosnian resistance to the Serbs did not result in a strong Muslim state in Europe. The dubious alliance between the Croats and Bosnians prevented the Bosnians from gaining the full reward for their resistance at the end of the war, with the Croats being given disproportionate influence in post-war Bosnia.
As the Bosnians fought for survival early in the war, and Muslims offered their only support, many Muslims hoped that Bosnia would emerge as an ally of the Islamic movement and a beacon of Islam in Europe. At the time of the Bosnian conference organised by the Muslim Institute and the Muslim Parliament in London in 1993, at which Bosnian leaders met Islamic-movement figures from all over the world, this writer warned the leaders of the Muslim Institute and Parliament that this was an unrealistic expectation, and that the best that could be expected was a new Muslim nation-state which would be as pro-Western as any of the existing post-colonial nation states. This is exactly what has since transpired; in 1998 Bosnian president Aliya Izzetbegovic – by then member of a three-man presidency operating under a foreign High Representative, as agreed at the Dayton Accords of December 1995 – caused anger among Muslims by disparaging the Muslim contribution to the Bosnian war effort at the OIC summit in Tehran. His comments were understandable in the context of the failure of Muslim states, but failed to take into account the political realities of the Muslim world (particularly that most Muslim governments are authoritarian dictatorships that do not reflect their peoples’ wishes) and the contribution of Muslim individuals and organisations.
Muslim attention has since moved on to other Muslims suffering in other parts of the world; there is no shortage of those. But the real lessons of Bosnia – of the fear of Islam in Europe, and the fact that the West was prepared to allow the genocide of Bosnian Muslims – should not be forgotten; the arrest and trial of Radovan Karadzic should not be allowed to enable the West to claim any credit for the survival of the Muslims of Bosnia.