Why Macron’s remarks on Bosnia are dangerous

Portrayals of Bosnia as a source of ‘Islamic threat’ echo anti-Muslim narratives that led to the genocide of the 1990s.

Emmanuel Macron
French President Emmanuel Macron's recent statement that Bosnia is a 'ticking time-bomb' have caused outrage in the Balkan country [File: Ludovic Marin/Reuters]

Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron made yet another statement that caused outrage in the Balkans. This time, he put Bosnia and Herzegovina in the cross-hairs, saying in an interview with British magazine The Economist: “If you’re concerned about this region, the first question is neither Macedonia, nor Albania, it’s Bosnia-Herzegovina. The time-bomb that’s ticking right next to Croatia, and which faces the problem of returning jihadists, is Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Numerous Bosnian politicians, local and foreign analysts and scholars of the region condemned Macron’s statement. It is not only wildly incorrect and unfair, but also politically irresponsible and dangerous. 

First, let us look at the facts. After the civil war broke out in Syria and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) emerged, about 200 Bosnian citizens (0.017 percent of the Bosnian Muslim population) went to fight in the conflict. 

About 50 are known to have returned – 23 people have been sentenced to a total of 42 years and eight months in prison in 14 different cases for travelling to Syria, attempting to go there or recruiting others to fight. Others are still being tried.

About 50 remain in Syria and Iraq, along with around 50 women and more than 100 children. Last month, it was announced that the country will repatriate nine other fighters to try them for their crimes. The government is currently preparing to bring back the women and children.

Since 2011, there has been no terrorist attack on Bosnian territory and outside of the context of Syria and Iraq, there has been no proven direct participation of Bosnian nationals in any such incidents abroad – i.e. Macron’s concerns about a “jihadist” threat emanating from Bosnia are wildly exaggerated.

Nevertheless, since 2015, Bosnia has been working on developing a solution to the problem of radicalisation, including passing relevant legislation, building institutional capacity, working on education, prevention, and deradicalisation programmes, etc.

It is also important to point out that Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) have always practised an inclusive, localised form of Islam that welcomes religious diversity. It was during and after the last war that strange and previously unfamiliar rigid interpretations were introduced to Bosnia through foreign fighters.

At countless instances (including after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris), the office of the Islamic Community has condemned publicly violent extremist ideas and foreign interpretations of religion. In one of its publications on that matter, the Islamic Community – Bosnia’s main Islamic authority – states: “What seemed at first glance to be a mere juxtaposition of different interpretations of the Islamic tradition in a globalised world and a pluralisation of Islamic thought, imported into Bosnia too has developed into an ideologised and highly intolerant and aggressive interpretation of religion and tradition which violently attacks Islamic tradition of Bosniaks. That violent and exclusionary ideology is not the product of Bosniak experience of Islam.”

In other words, the country as a whole has worked hard to resolve the issue of radicalisation to the best of its abilities, despite the many difficulties it experiences, including its complex government structure.

Considering all the effort, challenges and resilience in Bosnia, Macron’s statement hardly reflects reality. He is not the first French leader to disparage Bosnians. During the Bosnian war of 1992-1995, then-French President Francois Mitterrand apparently told his US counterpart Bill Clinton that, despite having sent humanitarian aid to Bosnia, “he was more sympathetic to the Serbs than I was, and less willing to see a Muslim-led unified Bosnia”.

Thus Macron’s comments feel more like a reflection of Islamophobia in his country and its historic failure to integrate and resolve problems with its own Muslim community. It is quite telling that France has seen some 2,000 of its citizens (about 0.034 percent of its Muslim population) join the ranks of ISIL and other extremist armed groups.

Apart from domestic preoccupations, however, there seems to be another reason for Macron’s outrageous comments. His mention of Croatia is not coincidental at all. 

In recent years, Croatian officials, including President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, have portrayed Bosnia as a “jihadist terrorist hub” on countless occasions in order to smear Bosnia’s reputation, including during official trips abroad. Grabar-Kitarovic has falsely claimed that “thousands of fighters [are] returning to Bosnia”.

And there are signs that the Croatian authorities have gone even further than just verbal propaganda. In March this year, a Bosnian investigative media outlet Zurnal published a story alleging that Bosnian Muslims have been harassed by Croatian intelligence which has tried to recruit them as spies and saboteurs to plant weapons in mosques. Shortly after Bosnia’s security minister, Dragan Mektic, accused the Croatian government of putting together intelligence plots to present his country as a terrorist hotbed. 

According to the European Islamophobia Report 2018, funded by the European Union and produced by Turkish think-tank SETA, there has been “a large increase in anti-Bosnian and anti-Muslim bigotry by the Bosnian Croat and Croatian political establishments and also by regional political actors”. 

The fact that Macron has now introduced the narrative that Bosnia is a “ticking time-bomb” into Western European discourse is even more alarming because it is seen as a form of validation and proof.

And apart from its aim of blocking the Bosnian path to accession to the EU, such a portrayal of the country reflects some dangerous regional trends.

It echoes the gruesome, inciting narratives used during the Bosnian war which justified the genocide of Bosniaks committed by Serb forces between 1992 and 1995. Both Serbian and Croatian orientalist ideologues have used the idea that the Muslim community poses a threat because of its “Islamic radicalism” to present Serbians and Croatians as Europe’s defenders against “Islamic invasion”.

The re-emergence of this narrative marks the resurgence of nationalist extremism, which seems to be a much bigger threat to Bosnia than “jihadi extremism”. Over the past decade, historical revisionism, narratives justifying the aggression against Bosniaks as well as unabashed genocide denial have all been gaining ground among extremist Serbs in the region and as well as the diaspora.

The Bosnian government has been particularly worried about the far-right Chetnik paramilitary movement and its secessionist rhetoric about Republika Srpska breaking away from the country. There are similar fears about secessionist tendencies being encouraged by Zagreb among Bosnian Croats as well.

Given Bosnia’s violent recent history, it is unsurprising that its population is more worried about another inter-ethnic conflict than terrorism. And that is why it has been looking to the EU as a source of stability and security.

Surely, there is a lot of dysfunction in the EU and the enlargement process is one aspect of it. However, politicians like Macron need to understand that vetoing accession talks for North Macedonia and Albania and thus killing that EU aspiration for the rest of Western Balkan countries is not going to make the bloc safer; just the opposite – it will increase instability and endanger peace in Europe

In fact, multiple studies have confirmed that it is precisely the process towards EU integration that has kept countries like Bosnia safer from those that might want to exploit its economic and ethnic vulnerabilities.

Ultimately, the sharp reaction to Macron’s words is not about him personally or about France. In fact, Bosnians remember quite well how another French president, Jacques Chirac, gave his consent for the NATO strikes on Bosnian Serb military positions and the creation of a UN Rapid Reaction Force to help end the war and their suffering. Years later, Chirac would remark: “Bosnia and Herzegovina has been an example of tolerance in diversity for centuries. It can and should become again.”

Macron is very much welcome to come and visit Bosnia. Perhaps if he sees and talks to Bosnians, he would understand why they worry about the ongoing aggressive policies of neighbouring countries and resurgent ethnic nationalism. They remind us of the genocide that Bosniaks faced in the 1990s – a horror that Europe should make sure never repeats again.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.