Islamophobic rhetoric at the political level, which at its peak in the 1990s Bosnian War played a significant role in the massacre of thousands of Bosniaks, is once again being used by Bosnian Serb, Serbian, Bosnian Croat and Croatian politicians with dangerous aims, according to a new report.
Prior to and during the 1992 -1995 conflict, divisive and dehumanising language was used with the hope of splitting the country into “Greater Croatia” and “Greater Serbia”.
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According to the European Islamophobia Report 2018, which was published by the Ankara-based Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research think tank on Friday, politicians and some sections of the media are today attempting to falsely present Bosnia as a “radical Muslim haven” in order to undermine the country – again with the aim of dividing it territorially.
“In 2018, Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb leader and newly elected Serb member of the Bosnia and Herzegovina presidency, dehumanised Bosniak Muslims by referring to adhan (call to prayer) as ‘howling’ on a show on public Serbian television,” wrote Hikmet Karcic, a researcher at the Institute for Islamic Tradition of Bosniaks who authored the report’s section on Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“In addition, the year 2018 saw a large increase in anti-Bosnian and anti-Muslim bigotry by the Bosnian Croat and Croatian political establishments and also by regional political actors. These actors continue to present Bosnia and Herzegovina as a failed state which is harbouring extremists and which needs to be territorially divided in order to secure peace and security.”
Thirty-nine scholars and experts contributed to the EU-funded report, the fourth edition, which studies 34 countries.
Abdussamed Podojak, 24, from Sarajevo told Al Jazeera that the rhetoric was being used to score political points.
“The consequences have already been deadly and can get even worse.
“Because of all these [Islamophobic] statements and opinions [by politicians], I know a lot of people who don’t feel safe to go to another part of our country, which is absurd … the rhetoric promoting Islamophobia is more than a catastrophe.”
Since the end of the war, from 1996 to 2017, an estimated 13 Bosniak returnees were killed and 20 were injured in hate crimes in Republika Srpska, according to the report. None of these murders have seen anyone prosecuted.
Unfounded fears of changing demographics
Reports of hate speech come against the backdrop of changing dynamics in Bosnia, with more than 25,000 migrants and refugees from Syria, Pakistan, Algeria and elsewhere having travelled through the country last year, headed for Croatia hoping to reach other EU countries.
In this regard, warnings of a Muslim demographic threat have become pervasive.
According to Bosnia’s latest census from 2013, Muslims comprise 50.11 percent of the population, Orthodox Christians make up 31 percent and Catholics form 15 percent.
By showing Bosnia as an unstable country, they seek justification in future possible carving up of Croat-majority areas in Bosnia.
Dodik, who has consistently claimed that Bosniaks are planning to create an Islamic state, has accused Bosniak politicians of planning to give 150,000 Muslim migrants citizenship, thereby changing the country’s ethnic composition.
Earlier this month, Dodik claimed that the conservative Bosniak SDA party wanted to set up an Islamic state and introduce shariah, or Islamic law, after the party embraced liberal-secular reforms.
“To suggest that they’re advocating for liberal-secular reforms to create an ‘Islamist state’ involves ridiculous, mental gymnastics,” political scientist Jasmin Mujanovic told Al Jazeera.
“By equating the mere idea of constitutional reform, even explicitly liberal-civic-secular reforms, with ‘Islamism’, an idea that has never been anywhere near the mainstream Bosniak political activity, Serb nationalists like Dodik and [Serbian foreign minister Ivica] Dacic are trying to ensure that Bosnia remains a permanently dysfunctional state, and one which they will never have to actually compete in free and fair elections.”
Serbia’s foreign minister Dacic has issued similar “warnings”.
In June, during an interview on the Good Morning Serbia talk show, he said: “[Bosniaks] are waiting to pass 50 percent [in population] so they can create the first Islamic state in the middle of Europe.”
“We won’t ever allow Bosnia to become an Islamic state.”
These statements coincide with secession attempts; Dodik regularly advocates for the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina to break away and eventually join Serbia.
Dodik has admitted to spending tens of millions of dollars lobbying for Republika Srpska in Washington, DC.
The entity was the eighth largest in a 2013 list of foreign governments which pay most to influence US politics – the UAE, Germany and Canada were the top three.
Elsewhere, a lobbying document from late last year signed by Dodik and addressed to Antonio Guterres, UN secretary-general, demonstrates how the entity has been attempting to frame Bosnia as a European “safe haven for terrorists”.
“The SDA party’s policies and actions during and since the 1990s war have turned BiH into a sanctuary for jihadists,” one of the documents read.
Political scientist Mujanovic explained that these moves aimed to remove the idea of progress in Bosnia, and therefore make Republika Srpska’s secession more possible.
“They’ve carved out an extremist position and are refusing to budge from it, and framing any alternative attempts of imagining Bosnia as a threat,” Mujanovic said.
Croatian attempts to undermine Bosnia
In late July, the Jerusalem Post reported that during Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic’s meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem, Grabar-Kitarovic claimed that Bosnia is under the control of “militant Islam” due to the refugee and migrant situation.
“While nearly all claim to be Syrian refugees, most are actually African or Pakistani migrants who try to break through the border from Bosnia-Herzegovina, which Grabar-Kitarovic said was very unstable, and had in some respects been taken over by people who have connections with Iran and terrorist organisations,” journalist Greer Fay Cashman wrote. “The country is now controlled by militant Islam, which is dominant in setting the agenda, she said, adding that some are “very violent and break into people’s homes”.
Grabar-Kitarovic’s statement led to outrage in Bosnia, and she later denied making the claims.
According to Heather Conley and Matthew Melino at the Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, Croatian ethnonationalism is being directed against Bosniaks through blame for Bosnia’s failure as a state.
Noting the scandal in Jerusalem, they wrote in a report last month: “Questioning the security of the federation [entity] and implying that Bosniak officials are the cause of such insecurity deepens the narrative that there is a growing need to create a separate Croat entity in Bosnia.”
Although Grabar-Kitarovic of the nationalist Croatian HDZ party, denied making the claims, many were left unconvinced because she has developed a reputation for making similar unfounded claims.
In 2017, Croatian media reported that Grabar-Kitarovic’s office warned that Bosnia was harbouring “5,000 Salafists, who along with their supporters make up 10,000 people with very radical rhetoric and intentions”.
A year earlier, she warned of “radical Islamism”, claiming that a couple of thousand of ISIL fighters had returned to Bosnia.
Bosnia’s minister of security said he had no idea how she came up with this number.
According to official data cited in a 2016 European Commission report, 188 men and 61 women are believed to have travelled to Syria and Iraq from Bosnia between 2012 and 2015.
Last year, the then Croatian MEP Marijana Petir expressed concern at the European Parliament, citing “radicalisation” in Bosnia due to money allegedly sent from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other Muslim countries.
“Foreign fighters are returning to Wahhabi settlements that have sprouted right along the Croatian border, radicalising the Muslim population in Bosnia,” she said, falsely claiming female students who receive scholarships from certain countries must wear the hijab, while men must grow a beard and attend daily prayers.
Karcic, the report author, told Al Jazeera that these statements highlight Croatian nationalist aspirations towards Bosnia.
“By showing Bosnia as an unstable country, they seek justification in future possible carving up of Croat-majority areas in Bosnia,” Karcic said.
Mujanovic said by painting the Bosniak community in Bosnia as “latent radicals”, they can “justify in the eyes of the international community the HDZ’s appeals for greater autonomy”.
Bosnians, meanwhile, said they were concerned for their safety as rhetoric intensifies.
In Sanski Most, western Bosnia, 25-year-old Haris Kvrgic, said he feared far-right groups worldwide might be inspired to carry out attacks.
Western far-right groups and individuals idolise wartime Bosnian Serb military commanders, often hailing figures such as Radovan Karadzic, a convicted war criminal.
“Evidence of this could be seen during the attacks in Norway [in 2011] or New Zealand when attackers used motives from the aggression on Bosnia,” Kvrgic said.