Weaponizing white terrorism – the boomerang effect on the Balkans

Attempts by Balkan nationalists to weaponize links of international terrorism with the Bosnian war have had a boomerang effect. The simplifications are the boomerang; and here is why.

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By Mladen Mrdalj

My shock following the first news of the New Zealand mosque massacre was disrupted upon learning that the white terrorist played a Serbian war song minutes before. I found myself wondering if how I was feeling at that moment was how Muslims feel following an Islamic terrorist act. And there it was. Subtle hints, less subtle hints and direct accusations that Serbian nationalism and Radovan Karadzic (the Bosnian Serb leader rightfully convicted of war crimes against Bosnian Muslims) inspired another white terrorist. This despite the terrorist himself identifying another white terrorist as his only true inspiration, and celebrating many non-Serb historical figures (in)famous for fighting Muslims. Yet, they were quoted, and tweeted, and retweeted, solidifying Balkans nationalist friction into a Manichean struggle of Good vs. Evil. Attempts by Balkan nationalists to weaponize links of international terrorism with the Bosnian war have had a boomerang effect. The simplifications are the boomerang; and here is why.

Commenting on the New Zealand massacre, Asne Seierstad wrote that white terrorists “spread myths and conspiracies dressed up as facts.” The Guardian’s Gary Young, however, identified mainstream media and politicians as legitimizing such a radicalization. However, I think most legitimize it unintentionally. White supremacists distrust mainstream media and politics and thus consume mainstream narratives in a perverted embrace: immigrants and respected political, business, and scientific elites become the enemy. By “othering” immigrants because of their race, language, and/or religion on the one hand, and the elites because of a humiliating sense of political, economic, and intellectual impotence on the other, white radicals embrace whoever is portrayed as a villain.

Why has Serbian nationalism become a perfect villain? The explosion of YouTube and social networks in the mid-2000’s coincided with: the “War on Terror,” the culture war against white male chauvinism, and the international coverage of the Yugoslav war crimes trials. Some Western white males felt under attack for being western, white, and male. The “War on Terror” had sparked Islamophobia, including the American president’s call for a “crusade”. A number of war videos had emerged on YouTube, showing Serbs (white Christian Europeans) mercilessly exterminating Muslims. The media covered the verdicts of international criminal tribunals which found Serbs guilty of war crimes and genocide.

The Serbs have been presented as brutal Islamophobes, remorseless and unflinching: They used UN personnel, including Russians, as human shields against NATO airplanes and even shot some down. The respected American diplomat Herbert Okun reasoned: “Serbs kill without compunction and die without complaint”, invoking an image of terminators akin to the eponymous movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. White supremacists’ perverse embrace of respected mainstream views has finalized dehumanization of Serbs into everything that the alienated, insecure, and thus radicalized, white western male wanted to be – Steve Bannon’s honey-badger who “doesn’t give a s**t”. Appropriately, the Western fans popularized the aforementioned Serbian war song by renaming it to read “Remove Kebab”, echoing a machine user manual. They further appropriated a context-specific war song into a universal Islamophobic song by ignoring the lyrics targeting Catholic Christian Croats (the “Ustasha”). Without such decontextualization, the New Zealand terrorist, himself Australian, could have attacked Catholic Australian neo-Ustasha. Or Ulster Loyalists could have decontextualized it into a solely anti-Catholic song.

Diana Buttu noticed a similar dehumanization of Palestinians: “[They] don’t have any legitimate grievances. It’s all Islamic-driven… [it] turns Palestinians into irrational figures who want only to kill Israelis.” White nationalists dehumanize Israelis by admiring their presumed choice to build an “ethno-nationalist state”. The Western mainstream concedes, more or less openly, by tacitly rejecting the Palestinian refugees’ “right of return” as a security necessity, not choice. Similarly, had there been a minimum of fair approach to Yugoslav civil wars, Western mainstream would have recognized all ethnic groups’ rational security necessities, including Serbs’, instead labeling them Islamophobic.

Then, white nationalist adherents of the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory (majority becoming a minority) would have been astonished to learn that Serbs did not mind becoming a minority in Yugoslavia. In spite of constituting only 36 percent of population, Serbs advocated replacing communist ethnic veto with a majority rule based on the one-person-one-vote principle. However, democratic Yugoslavia was acceptable to the Bosniak Muslim leaders only if Croats were to stay and secure a non-Serb majority. This strategy backfired and incentivized Croatian secession, pulling Bosniaks out of Yugoslavia and into Serb-Croat (intra-Christian) conflict. To this day, it remains unexplained how a democratic Yugoslavia would have translated into a Serb hegemony.

“The majority of Muslims prefer a European quality of life. We, Serbs, are much closer to our Muslims than to Europe,” said Radovan Karadzic, seeking an alliance with Bosniak Muslims against Christian Croats. For all their reported Islamophobia, Serbs’ attitude toward Bosniak Muslims was eventually not determined by Islam, but by the Bosniak leaders’ strategic calculation to side with Croats and unconstitutionally outvote Bosnian Serbs in a bid to have a unitary Bosnia secede from Yugoslavia, as Bosniak scholar Adis Maksic demonstrates. Despite the share of Serbs in total population of both Yugoslavia and Bosnia being the same, roughly about one-third, Bosniak-Croat rejection of a common Yugoslav state boosted Serb suspicions and, consequentially, security concerns. In the last bid to save peace, Bosnian Serb leaders accepted Bosnia’s secession with the condition that a unitary country be replaced with three ethnically-based entities, each containing a roughly proportional share of the other two ethnic groups.

If white nationalists would have been disheartened that Serbian war against Bosniak Muslims was a feature of the intra-Christian war, they would have been appalled that Serbs sometimes provided military assistance to Bosniak Muslims against Christian Croats and those Muslims who rebelled against the central Muslim government. Ultimately, aggrieved by NATO interventions, Serb nationalists supported Saddam Hussain, Yasser Arafat, Muammar Gadaffi and Bashar Al Assad. A nationalistic song even celebrated 9/11 attack, renaming Osama bin Laden into a “Serb Miladin”.

Not surprisingly, the overlap of ethnic and religious identities in the context of the ultimate struggle for survival radicalized Bosnian war’s participants. While the Catholic Croat leadership boasted of being Antemurale Christianitatis against both Muslim and Orthodox “Easterners”, Serbs increasingly viewed the conflict as the last episode of a perennial war against both the “Turks” and “Ustasha”, and the Bosniak Islamic radicalization surged with the influx of mujahedin and Islamic tendencies in the leadership tamed by the dependence on the United States.   

Portraying religious radicalization, the effect of war, as its cause, misconstrues the conflict as primordial. While initially this imagined irrationality justified Western inaction, confining irrationality to Serbs justified military interventionism. It conveniently explained away the rationalist explanations of war as the optimal choice of actors legitimately distrusting each other. Identifying Srebrenica massacre with the Holocaust decisively divided its participants into genocidaires and victims, equated war crime and war aim, and effectively limited studying war to studying Serbian nationalism. Crossing the limits becomes “revisionism” and “genocide denial”. “Serb Islamophobia” also imposed a moral burden on Bosniaks to destroy the Bosnian Serb entity (Republic of Srpska). It dehumanizes the Serbs by neglecting their efforts to avoid the war and ally with Bosniaks. Some Serbs resort to the “Islamic hypothesis”: dehumanizing Bosniaks by alleging they largely embraced Bosniak Muslim war-time leader Alija Izetbegovic’s controversial Islamic fundamentalism, and taking mujahedin arriving during the war as evidence of pre-war Bosniaks’ Islamization.

In context of globalizing Islamophobia, international terrorist acts boomerang to the Balkans. Serbs weaponize Islamic terrorists’ links to Bosnia to legitimize Republic of Srpska and its bid for independence. Bosniak nationalists weaponize white terrorists’ admiration for Serbs’ image in Western media to delegitimize and, ultimately, abolish Srpska. The narrative about irrational Serb Islamophobia is their ammunition. Ironically, white nationalists use the same ammunition to continue the kind of war against Islam that the Serbs never fought. Serb chauvinism, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing, including destruction of mosques, were driven by an ethno-nationalist secessionist conflict, just like Serb temples were destroyed because they were Serbian, not because they were Christian. Twenty-four years since it received international recognition, the Serb entity in Bosnia now hosts vibrant communities of Bosniak Muslim returnees that vastly outnumber those of Serb returnees to Croat- and Bosniak-dominated territories.

Brookings scholar Shadi Hamid warned against terrorists encouraging radicalization by heightening contradictions and polarization. Simplifications and cherry-picked gory details feed polarization by legitimizing the segregation of all dissenters into the “Other”, judged by its most extreme elements. Moral options are then reduced to either total victory or total defeat, resembling a civil war psychology. Understanding, disaggregation, and negotiation with the “Other” are thus labeled revisionist, immoral, and treasonous. We should deny moral high ground to binary morality in favor of both complicated and humane experience of groups’ reciprocal recognition of security concerns and necessities. That should help isolate cases of legitimate binary morality such as Holocaust from group conflicts driven by legitimate security necessities. Otherwise, all politics is aggression and all war crimes are Holocaust. Perpetuating the deceiving narrative of “Serb Islamophobia” will ultimately destroy either Bosnia or Republic of Srpska or both. However, the reciprocal recognition of Bosnian ethnic groups’ security necessities will transform truce into peace without sacrificing justice.

Mladen Mrdalj is a lecturer at the College of Economics and Administration in Belgrade, where he also serves as a director of International Center for Governance Studies. He holds a PhD in Political Science from Northeastern University and in 2018 he was a visiting researcher at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies (Boston University).

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.

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