BOSNIA: The Help That Mattered
Those trying to portray the international crisis as a conflict between the West and Islam should consider the lesson of Bosnia.
By Alija Izetbegovic in Sarajevo
Dated: Nov 16, 2001, Republished Oct 06, 2006
After the tragic events of September 11, the world has seemed polarised between an anti-Islamic West and an anti-American Muslim East. There are important exceptions, little islands of common sense. Despite some strange statements by Western leaders in the first days of rage, efforts have been made, especially by Prime Minister Tony Blair, to insist that this war is against terrorists, not Islam. But still, other less reasoned voices are louder and more persistent.
They should consider the lesson of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We Bosnians understand the feelings of Americans better than most. For nearly four years, we were subjected to irrational terror attacks by Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic. More than 200,000 civilians were killed. In the besieged city of Sarajevo alone, almost 15,000 people died from sniper fire and shells.
Sometimes I wonder whether such an on-going terror, which stretched over 1,400 days, is harder to bear than the instantaneous shock that struck New York and Washington. Yet the question is pointless: both are terrible in their own ways, and both beg questions about the meaning and existence of the human race.
Yet Bosnians can attest that the new forms of conflict are not between types of religion but between forms of civilisation. The struggle is between a modern, globalised world and one of traditional values.
Bosnians can testify, from hard experience, that the West has fought for this new world and certainly not against Islam.
True, the United States responded almost instantaneously to the attacks on its own cities, while it needed more than three years to react to the attacks on towns in Bosnia. But the explanation is a deeply human one: any man feels the pain of his own wounds more deeply than those of others. We take from this not that America is anti-Muslim but that we ourselves need to be as strong as possible to defend ourselves.
In the early years of the Bosnian war, the United States considered the conflict a European problem and to a great extent it was right. But Europe was impotent. Hampered by its own conflicting interests and complicated decision-making processes, and tinged perhaps with Islamophobic memories, Europe was not ready to take radical steps to stop the killing.
The tragedy of Srebrenica, the greatest genocide since the Second World War, changed everything. But still the United States had to take the initiative. Otherwise there would have been one genocide after another, until all of Bosnia became one big Srebrenica.
Two other reasons may explain these different responses. A truly diverse society, the United States was better positioned to comprehend the ideas, dilemmas and problems of a multi-ethnic Bosnia. Except for rare exceptions, Europe is made up of nation states. The United States, as a young (and inexperienced) nation, also retains a measure of idealism, in contrast to old and cynical Europe.
When the United States mediated peace talks in Dayton, Ohio, and then sent 20,000 of its soldiers, Bosnia became a US project. Whether the new Washington administration will continue to see it this way, I do not know. But I am certain that the presence of international troops, especially American, is indispensable for at least five more years. Otherwise, Bosnia will return to the situation in 1992, when the war began.
This is the general consensus among ordinary people in Bosnia. A crucial fact, often overlooked, is that in nearly six years there has not been a single attack against the international troops here. This is no coincidence. The vast majority of people, and most politicians, believe that these soldiers are here on a peace mission. Far from any kind of civilisational conflict, Western troops are welcome as essential support for our own effort to build a new, modern Bosnia.
Of course, the experience of Bosnia cannot provide any parallel to Afghanistan because there is no Islamic fundamentalism here.
True, we do have many Muslim believers. After a half century of communist repression and unofficial but enforced atheism, it is natural to see a religious revival. But radicalism is alien to the Bosnian spirit, and fundamentalist elements are a tiny minority. In the words of author Tone Bringa, we are Muslims "the Bosnian way".
For centuries, the line of contact between the East and the West ran right through Bosnia. While our history is marked with violent periods like any country, the friction between these two worlds produced a specific Bosnian mentality marked by tolerance and openness. Even during the most difficult days of war, when passions were running at their highest, in Sarajevo, Zenica and Tuzla, Orthodox and Catholic churches, and synagogues, remained untouched. People displayed remarkable patience and little desire for revenge.
Revisionists are now trying to rewrite this reality by pointing to the presence of mujahedin. During the war, volunteers from Islamic countries did come, mainly to the central Bosnian towns of Travnik and Zenica. But they came uninvited, across borders we did not control, and still do not completely control. While the number of Islamic volunteers never exceeded 300, the Bosnian Army had more than 200,000 fighters. We did need weapons, because we had our own boys whose surnames, origins and intentions we knew.
Dealing now with those few radicals that remain is a separate issue, for a different time, from the period of war, when innocent people were being killed, women raped, and our houses of worship and sacred objects destroyed.
In our desperation, we took whatever help was offered. But the help that mattered, the help that still matters to Muslims and to all religious and ethnic groups in Bosnia, was that provided by a country now enduring its own period of pain, the United States.
Alija Izetbegovic is the former chairman of the presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina.