Ratko Mladić and Myths of the Bosnian War

This is a cross post by Aymenn Jawad Al Tamimi

The recent arrest of the Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladić should mark the end of a dark chapter in the Balkans’ history. The military leader is charged with fifteen counts of genocide and crimes against humanity, including accusations of involvement in the Srebrenica massacre that witnessed the slaughter of 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys.

The capture itself is the culmination of a long period of international pressure — particularly by NATO — on Serbia, rather than an attempt to press for the resolution of a manhunt for a suspected war criminals residing in Serbia. The international community feared that a manhunt might jeopardize the fragile, tottering post-war ceasefire. Instead, it was made clear to Serbia that the country could not hope to attain EU membership while wanted individuals were sheltered within its territory.

Serbia, however, for many years remained resistant to seeking out Mladić; and such an attitude is still prevalent among a significant sector of the population. A poll, for example, conducted by the Serbian government’s “National Council for Cooperation with the Hague Tribunal” not long before Mladić’s arrest, found that 78% of respondents said they would not report the general to the authorities, even though the Serbian government offered a $14.1 million reward for information to locate his whereabouts; 40% described him as a hero, while only 34% affirmed that they would approve of Mladić’s being arrested.

The change has come with the establishment of a broad, pro-European coalition in the Serbian government led by Boris Tadić, who became Serbia’s president in 2008. The arrest of Radovan Karadžić quickly followed in July of that year. The question arises, however, of how Mladić was able to hide in Serbia for so long, while Goran Hadzić, who led the Serb insurgency in Croatia, is still at large.

Serbia now appears to be turning away from its authoritarian, traditional ally, Russia, and looking westwards. This move also appears true for Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania — all of which are heading towards EU membership. The geographical gap in the EU between Italy and Bulgaria might finally be filled — a development to be welcomed by all.

Yet, as Mladić heads to The Hague to face trial, there will no doubt be a debate among American conservative circles over the nature of the Bosnian War. One narrative that has garnered too much currency, promoted in particular by pundits such as Julia Gorin and Andy Wilcoxson, is that Serbia was merely defending itself against jihadist aggression in the Bosnian War. This assertion stems from many myths that need to be debunked for good. Although the foreign “holy warriors,” or mujahedeen who came to Bosnia – as well as the Iranians who provided aid to Bosnia’s president, Alija Izetbegović — probably had in mind the goal of establishing an Islamic toehold or beachhead from which to further Islam in Europe, that objective never garnered any real level of popularity among the native Bosniaks. Izetbegović’s Bosnia was never an Islamic state of any sort, and the foreign mujahedeen failed to establish a base there.

Further, Julia Gorin, Andy Wilcoxson and others deny that Serbia attacked Bosnia following Bosnia’s declaration of independence. This denial ignores the initial attack on eastern Bosnia launched by Serb militias against the non-Serb civilian population, something that was part of an attempt in 1992 to establish a “Greater Serbia” by ethnically cleansing Bosniaks and Croats from areas of the former Yugoslavia with mixed populations. The aggressive intent toward Bosnia was made clear by Radovan Karadžić, who, considering the possibility at the time of a Bosnian declaration of independence, declared in a thinly veiled threat to the Bosnian parliament on 14-15 October 1991:

“You want to take Bosnia and Herzegovina down the same highway to hell and suffering that Slovenia and Croatia are travelling. Do not think that you will not lead Bosnia and Herzegovina into hell, and do not think that you will not perhaps lead the Muslim people into annihilation, because the Muslims cannot defend themselves if there is war – How will you prevent everyone from being killed in Bosnia and Herzegovina?”

The subsequent standard procedure for capturing of Bosniak towns in eastern Bosnia was to burn down and ransack dwellings, along with rounding up Bosniak civilians. In the Foča region (southeast) of Bosnia; and mass rape by Serb soldiers and police officers was the norm.

Other points glossed over by deniers of Serbia’s attack on Bosnia in 1992 include the fact that the Užice Corps, a JNA [Yugoslav army] corps based in Serbia, was centrally involved in the Serb conquest of East Bosnia in 1992. In addition, all regular Serb forces in Bosnia were under the exclusive and formal control of Serbia and Montenegro until 19 May 1992. Serbia’s former representative on the Yugoslav Presidency, Borisav Jović, even admits in his published diary that the Bosnian Serb Army (or “Army of the Republika Srpska”) was organized by the leaderships of Serbia and the JNA, who handpicked Ratko Mladić for the role of directing the Bosnian Serb Army.

Moreover, Željko Raznatović’s “Arkan’s Tigers” –- organized in Serbia using football hooligans from Belgrade’s “Red Star” soccer club –- spearheaded the conquest of Bijeljina in April 1992, just over a month after Bosnia passed a referendum for declaring its independence on February 29, 1992. Raznatović himself had a record of organized crime — involving countless murders and bank robberies — during the 1980s.

Finally, Vojislav Šešelj- — the founder of the far-right “Serbian Radical Party” and currently on trial for war crimes — admitted that his paramilitary forces were under JNA [Yugoslav Army] command during their early operations in East Bosnia in 1992. Likewise, an officer from Serbia, Momcilo Perisić, directed the JNA’s bombardment of Mostar in April 1992.

Is it any surprise, therefore, that a CIA report in 1995 found Serb forces guilty of 90% of the war crimes in the conflict? Even so, those who imagine that the UN ignores inexcusable atrocities committed by Bosniak and Croat forces against Serb civilians are way off the mark. Only last month, for example, two Croat generals were convicted of just such war crimes.

At this point, it should be emphasized that animosity between Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks did not arise in a vacuum following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. The tensions run back to the days of the Ottoman Empire. Although all three groups claim distinct ethnic identities and languages, the reality is that they each are of a common South Slavic origin and merely speak different dialects of Serbo-Croat. What has defined the distinction historically is religion: the Croats being Catholic, the Serbs Orthodox, and the Bosniaks descendants of Serbs and Croats who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule (beginning in the 16th century) — primarily to escape the “protected,” second-class-citizen dhimmi status imposed on non-Muslims. This meant that Bosniaks received preferential treatment under the Ottomans, arousing the anger of the Serbs in particular. As the acting British Consul in Sarajevo, James Zohrab, wrote in a letter in 1860:

“The hatred of the Christians toward the Bosniak Mussulmans is intense. During a period of nearly 300 years, they were subjected to much oppression and cruelty. For them no other law but the caprice of their masters existed…Oppression cannot now be carried on as openly as formerly, but it must not be supposed that, because the Government employees do not generally appear as the oppressors, the Christians are well treated and protected.”

Nevertheless, Islam in Bosnia has never been marked by a strict adherence to the practice of extreme Islamic Shari’a law. For example, “Sljivovica,” or plum brandy, has always been popular amongst Bosniaks, in contravention of the traditional Islamic prohibition on the consumption of alcohol. Over time, the notion of being Bosniak evolved into a cultural rather than strictly religious identity. Contrast this, for example, to the Acehnese, a people in northern Sumatra (and the subject of renowned scholar Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje’s work “The Acehnese” that first appeared in English in 1906), who became Muslim entirely of their own accord and are generally even today keen on living under Shari’a law. Islam’s development in Bosnia therefore seems to be rooted in conversion to Islam as a matter of expediency, rather than in genuine religious zeal.

Ottoman rule, which ended in 1878, was followed by Austro-Hungarian control that gave rise to an independent Kingdom of Yugoslavia. During World War II, the Axis powers dismantled the monarchy and set up the puppet “Independent State of Croatia.” The governing fascist Ustaše movement targeted Serbs, Jews and Roma in particular. Meanwhile, the Nazis set up a “Handschar Division” to recruit, with the help of the Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin Al-Husseini, Bosniaks to the Waffen-SS. However, even among the Serbs, there were Nazi collaborators in the ranks of the Nedicites and Ljotidtes and Chetniks, all of whom singled out Jews for extermination. Yet future Communist ruler of Yugoslavia Josep Tito- an ethnic Croat- set up a strong anti-Axis resistance front comprising Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. This is all a far cry from the attempts by far-right Serb nationalists to excuse Serbia’s aggression in the Bosnian War by portraying the entire Bosniak and Croat nations as guilty of being Nazi collaborators in the Second World War. Post-1945, Yugoslavia was a Communist state under Tito’s rule, but power was thoroughly decentralized.

In 1986, however, when the fragility of Tito’s state was becoming all the more apparent, a document known as the “Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts” was issued, making ridiculous allegations that Tito had set up a Croatian-Slovene hegemony in Yugoslavia, which supposedly exploited the Serbs, and that Serbs in Kosovo were the targets of genocide. The authors of the memorandum were some of the most prominent Serbian intellectuals, including Pavle Ivić, Mihailo Marković and Vasilje Krestić. The document’s primary aim was to revive pan-Serb nationalism, and it was influential in Milosević’s rise to power. Although Milosević publicly did not endorse the document, in practice he did his best to implement the memorandum’s program of readjusting Yugloslavia to correct a perceived “anti-Serb” bias, an idea which under Milosević became mainstream discourse amongst Serbian politicians as parties like the “Serbian Radical Party” openly called for a Greater Serbia. The concept of Greater Serbia hearkens back to the days of the Serbian Empire that preceded Ottoman rule.

Gorin and others regularly assert that Bosnia’s president, Alija Izetbegović, was an Islamist aiming to set up a state governed under Shari’a Law to reduce Serbs and other non-Muslims living in the region to the status of “protected,” or second-class citizens, or dhimmis. The case here rests on a text Izetbegović wrote in the 1960s, and known as the “Islamic Declaration,” in which he stated that an Islamic state could never be established in a country where Muslims did not constitute the majority of the population, as was the case in Bosnia.

He also wrote, however, in the “Islamic Declaration”:

“Non-Muslim minorities in an Islamic state should be granted religious freedom and every protection. Muslim minorities in non-Islamic majority countries should be loyal to every social duty and every norm imposed by the community, on condition that they don’t offend Islam and Muslims, and of being able to dispose of religious freedom and of a normal life.”

Further, in an interview dating after the “Islamic Declaration” with Start BiH (Bosnia and Herzegovina) Magazine, he affirmed that “Bosnia should be a secular state. A non-secular Bosnia would be terror.”

In his later work known as “Islam Between East and West,” published in 1985, Izetbegović described European culture since the Renaissance in positive terms, and called Christianity a “near union of supreme religion and supreme ethics,” all while devoting a whole chapter to Anglo-Saxon political culture and social democracy. Nowhere in his writings did Izetbegović express hostility or hatred towards non-Muslims. His attitude is best summarized in his belief that:

“Islam is the best, but we Muslims are not the best. The West is neither corrupted nor degenerate. It is strong, well-educated, and organized. Their schools are better than ours. Their cities are cleaner than ours. The level of respect for human rights in the West is higher, and the care for the poor and less capable is better organized. Westerners are usually responsible and accurate in their words. Instead of hating the West, let us proclaim cooperation instead of confrontation.”

In any case, one should judge Izetbegović by his actions, not his words. When in power in Bosnia during the 1990s, he did not attempt to establish an Islamic state; his Bosnia remained a secular country, with women employed in all occupations and mostly not even wearing the headscarf, or hijab, as elsewhere in Europe. Further, there was no Shari’a, and non-Muslims were freely able to worship. In the Bosniak-held capital city of Sarajevo, churches continued to operate, whereas in Serb-controlled towns in Bosnia, mosques were routinely dynamited.

The Bosnian Serb lobby made much of an apparent reprint of the “Islamic Declaration” in 1990, just in time to reveal Izetbegović’s supposedly Islamist vision for Bosnia. The trouble is, the anthropologist Ivo Žanić eventually found the source of the reprint: a high school students’ satirical magazine in Sarajevo devoted to the general climate of intolerance in Bosnia.

Some people also point to the presence of a few international holy warriors in Bosnia, fighting against the Serbs during the Bosnian War, as apparent proof of the Bosniaks’ jihadist aggression. On the contrary, the trans-national mujahedeen consisted of no more than just a tiny minority. As a simple analogy, does the small presence of the “Greek Volunteer Guard” (many of whose members came from the Greek neo-Nazi organization “Golden Dawn”) among the Bosnian Serb forces prove that the Serbs were mainly driven by the ideology of National Socialism? Of course not.

How about using the fact that Muammar Al-Qaddafi, who has a history of backing Islamist militants and has openly called for Islam to conquer Europe, supported Serb nationalists during the conflict as proof of Serb sympathy for jihadism? Again, the illogic should be evident, even though, to this day, Serb nationalists who promote the “Serbs-as-anti-jihadists” narrative for the Bosnian War are some of Al-Qaddafi’s most ardent fans.

It may be to assume that any conflict involving Muslims on one side versus non-Muslims on the others is a case of jihadist aggression, but it is important not to fall automatically into such a trap. Otherwise, Islamist apologists can seize the opportunity to deny real cases of the waging of holy war, or jihad, to subdue non-Muslims under Islamic law — as in the Sudanese Civil Wars that have ravaged the Christian and animist south.

The Bosnian War needs to be judged on its own terms — not by means of a simplistic narrative of jihadists engaging in aggressive conflict against non-Muslims — and the upcoming trial of Ratko Mladić should confirm that.