Bosnia, Donald Trump, And What We Should Have Learned By Now

Media attention turned away from Bosnia decades ago, redirected to other areas of the world by new instances of conflict and tragedy, returning only intermittently to observe major anniversaries of the Srebrenica massacre. A United Nations criminal tribunal's sentencing of former Bosnian Serb politician Radovan Karadzic to 40 years in prison on charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity for his role in the massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995 placed this small Eastern European country back in the news briefly on Thursday, and the timing couldn't be better. As fearmongering and shameful bigotry become the de facto Western response to terror attacks by Islamic extremists, it's important to consider what Srebrenica can teach us about anti-Muslim sentiment.

How can Europe and the United States — which have both seen a dangerous growth in anti-Muslim rhetoric, xenophobia, and Islamophobia — learn from what happened in Bosnia in the 1990s?

It's estimated more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were executed in the 11 days immediately following the Bosnian Serb Army's capture of Srebrenica, a town declared a U.N. safe area roughly two years earlier. As his defense, Karadzic argued Serbs had been left with no choice but to defend themselves against Bosnian Muslim separatists' efforts to establish an Islamic state. Throughout his trial, Karadzic painted himself as a "true friend to Muslims," despite overwhelming evidence he'd fueled an anti-Muslim rhetoric via inflammatory speeches he gave prior to the start of the Bosnian War, The New York Times reported.

If Karadzic's statements don't inspire at least a little déjà vu, you probably haven't been paying attention to the anti-Muslim rhetoric that has become increasingly embedded in narratives surrounding both the refugee crisis and the 2016 U.S. election.

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Out of the Srebrenica genocide comes powerful lessons and tragic reminders about what invariably follows the unchallenged rise of xenophobic ideology and racial, ethnic, or religious hatred like that currently on the rise in the United States and Europe. Srebrenica, much like Auschwitz and Rwanda, was the tragic result of an ominous progression that began with indoctrination fueled by hate speech. Language matters. How political leaders discuss and frame issues matters. If we learn but one thing from Srebrenica, it should be that there are real consequences to the xenophobic and violence-inducing hate speech currently being promoted by some Western politicians.

Mainstream political discourse in the United States has recently been overrun with anti-Muslim bigotry thanks to a handful of opportunistic presidential candidates who choose to construct and fuel a climate of Islamophobia through fearmongering and polarization rather than promote integration and cultural or religious understanding. When politicians use the threat of terrorism to spin divisive rhetoric that condemns the entire Muslim community for the crimes of a few specific individuals they step into dangerous territory where innocent civilians are demonized. Moreover, their rhetoric seeps out into the greater community, emboldening some members of the community who, whipped up by the sensationalized stereotyped prejudices of politicians, accost Muslims members of that same community.


Most recently, Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz called for law enforcement to police Muslim neighborhoods in the United States in the wake of Tuesday's bombings in Brussels. But what makes things especially troubling, however, is that this wasn't the first time Cruz or his Republican rival Donald Trump have responded to a terror attack with shameful fearmongering and xenophobic proposals. For both Cruz and Trump, anti-Muslim sentiment appears to be a political tool used to turn fear into support and votes in the race to the White House. Following the Paris attacks last November, Trump called for all Muslims to be banned from traveling to the United States while Cruz proposed the country only allow the resettlement of Christian refugees. In a nation founded on principles of religious freedom, Muslims have once again become the "Other" in American political discourse.

It's important to remember the lessons Srebrenica teaches about remaining vigilant against resurgences of racial, ethnic, or religious hatred. We must not permit anti-Muslim sentiment and religious hate speech to spiral out of control as there are very real, and often violent, consequences to leaving such hateful attitudes unchecked. But there is another lesson to be learned from Bosnia and the Srebrenica genocide: that prejudice and hatred can be overcome by knowledge and compassion for the Other. Ignorance and misrepresentation sit at the core of Islamophobia and xenophobia and fuels much of the hateful rhetoric seeking to dehumanize Muslims. We must have a zero tolerance policy toward the xenophobic hate speech that erodes the core principles of our democracy or be condemned to repeat some of history's darkest days.

Image: Tina Gong/Bustle