Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Is Islamophobia equivalent to racism or anti-Semitism ? The view from the Balkans

There is some resistance among liberal intellectuals to the term ‘Islamophobia’, because it is assumed that Islam is a religion, therefore an ideology, and it is questioned if one can be prejudiced against an ideology. Yet such a distinction is not satisfactory from the standpoint of a scholar of the Balkans; or indeed, from the historical standpoint generally. To treat chauvinism against a religious community as being fundamentally different from chauvinism against an ethnic or racial group is to superimpose a modern understanding of religion onto the past. We may believe in the ideals of the separation of church and state; and of religion as a private, personal matter of conscience; but it is anachronistic to impose this liberal ideal onto past human history.

We are all aware of the distinction between religious and racial anti-Semitism, but also of the connections between the two – of the fact that even the Nazis used religious background to determine who was Jewish. In the Balkans, at least, the model for chauvinism that anti-Semitism provides – in which prejudice against a religious community evolves into an ethnic or racial prejudice – is the rule rather than the exception. Religious and ethnic prejudice are not distinct categories, and it makes no historical sense to see them as such.

The Ottoman Empire ruled over much of the Balkans from the late Middle Ages until the nineteenth century, and it was the Ottoman system that laid the basis for modern ethnicity and nationality in the Balkans. The Ottoman empire was organised on the basis of different legal statuses for Muslims and non-Muslims, in which Muslims were the dominant and privileged group but Christians and Jews nevertheless enjoyed a degree of communal autonomy. This laid the basis for the different religious communities to evolve into separate nationalities.

When the Orthodox nationalities of the Balkans rose up against the Ottoman overlords during the nineteenth century with the goal of establishing their independence from the empire, the process involved the expulsion or extermination of much of the non-Christian population, which was identified as an alien, non-national element. This process of ethnic or religious cleansing was directed primarily against the Muslim population that was concentrated in the towns. But it targeted also the Jews, who were also concentrated in the towns and who were, in the eyes of the predominantly peasant and Christian rebels, equally alien and part of the Ottoman presence. This was something that occurred in the violence that accompanied the uprisings themselves, with rebels spontaneously massacring non-Christians. But it also took place more quietly in the decades that followed the establishment of autonomy or independence, as the new governments encouraged ethnic homogenisation.

Thus, for example, in Serbia during the nineteenth century, the number of mosques in the main cities rapidly declined. The Serbian capital of Belgrade was largely Muslim before the nineteenth century. But following the establishment of an autonomous Serbian principality in the first decades of the nineteenth century, the Muslim population was mostly expelled and most of the mosques were destroyed or dismantled. Similarly, the Jewish communities suffered restrictions they had not suffered in the Ottoman period, and were expelled or relocated from the towns outside Belgrade. This, of course, is a generalisation: the extent to which Muslims or Jews were massacred, expelled or persecuted varied according to country and period. This was not a matter of Nazi-style total extermination. Persecution and expulsion alternated and overlapped with efforts at cooption, assimilation and toleration. But the model of nationhood remained very much one that was based on Orthodox Christianity, in which non-Orthodox were, at best, viewed as less national than the Orthodox.

This model of religiously determined nationhood was not adopted only by Orthodox Christians, but also by the Muslim Turks. The establishment of a Turkish nation-state in the 1910s and 1920s involved the extermination or expulsion of literally millions of Christians. Formally, they were Greeks or Armenians. But this included Turkish-speaking Christians who were excluded from the Turkish nation solely because of their religion. Turkish nationhood, therefore, was based on the Muslim religion: it was inclusive of Kurds and other non-Turkish-speaking Muslims who inhabited Anatolia. But it was exclusive of Turkish-speaking Christians.

After establishing their nation-state, the Turks had a rather better record of treating the Jews than did the Balkan Christians. This was a legacy of the fact that the Muslims, as the elite group in the Ottoman Empire, had not viewed the Jews as outsiders in the same way that the Christians had done. But there was still some anti-Jewish activity on the part of the Turkish state which, with Nazi encouragement, reached its peak during World War II. Furthermore, in the great anti-Greek pogrom in Istanbul in 1955, Jews were also targeted.

Another example serves to illustrate the connection between religion and ethnicity in the Balkans. Both Serbia and Croatia entered the modern age with relatively small Jewish communities that could readily assimilate into the dominant Serbian and Croatian nations respectively. By contrast, in Bosnia there was no dominant nationality. So members of the Sephardic Jewish community in Bosnia developed a distinct sense of nationality of their own. They saw themselves as distinct from the Ashkenazim, who were culturally different. And as they were not oppressed by a dominant nationality that treated them as outsiders, they were less receptive to Zionism than were the Jews of most Central European countries. So the Bosnian Sephardim followed the general Bosnian pattern, whereby the different religious communities evolved into different nationalities.

There were some exceptions to the general rule of religiously based nationhood in the Balkans. The Albanians are the only major example of a Balkan nation for which religion is not the determining factor. The most likely explanation is that Albanian nationalism originated with the Catholic population among the Albanian-speakers. And the Catholics were not legally and economically subordinate to Muslim landlords in the way that Orthodox peasants throughout the Balkans were subordinate to Muslim landlords. So there was not the same degree of class oppression tied into the religious divide between Catholics and Muslims among the Albanian-speakers, as there was between Orthodox and Muslims among the Slavic-, Greek- and Turkish-speaking peoples. Interestingly, the Albanians’ record with regard to the Jews during the Holocaust was about the best in all of Nazi-occupied Europe; Albanians sheltered Jews more solidly than almost any other occupied people.

Another interesting case, for the purposes of comparison, is that of the Croats. Croatia was not part of the Ottoman Empire, so its social structure was not determined by the Ottoman system. Croatia had a relatively small Jewish community, so its anti-Semitism was fairly typical by the standards of Christian Europe. However, Croat nationalists were almost unique in Europe in the extent to which they were ready to embrace Muslims. Ante Starcevic, the father of integral Croat-nationalism, viewed the Bosnian Muslims as the purest of all Croats. According to the tradition he established, the Bosnian Muslims were the ‘flower of the Croat nation’. This was possible for Croat nationalists because, unlike the Orthodox peoples of the Balkans, Croatia had not been ruled and oppressed by the Ottomans. The Islamophile character of Croat nationalism was, of course, a way for it to lay claim to Bosnia, where the Catholics were only a small minority.

The different ways in which Serb and Croat nationalist ideology perceived the Muslims became apparent during World War II. Serb extreme nationalists – the Chetniks – carried out systematic massacres of Muslims and Catholics, and also murdered Jews or handed them over to the Nazis. Croat extreme nationalists – the Ustashas – carried out systematic massacres of the Orthodox Serbs and Jews. But not of Muslims, as the policy of the Ustashas was to treat Bosnian Muslims as Islamic Croats. In contrast to the nationalism of the Orthodox peoples of the Balkans, it was only in the 1990s that the Croat-nationalist mainstream became overtly anti-Islamic; this was due to the policy of the Croatian despot Franjo Tudjman, who aimed to join with the Serbs in partitioning Bosnia. What made the difference for Croat nationalists by the 1990s, compared to the 1940s, was that by then the Muslims had been formally recognised within the Yugoslav constitutional system as a nation in their own right, distinct from the Serbs and Croats. When Muslims could no longer be viewed as Islamic Croats and potentially assimilated, they became open to persecution by expansionist Croat nationalism.

By this period – the 1990s – both Serb and Croat nationalists were more likely to identify with Israel on an anti-Muslim basis than they were to indulge in anti-Semitism. Although the more extreme elements among Serb and Croat nationalists in the 1990s did sometimes express anti-Semitic views, they were generally astute enough to know the propaganda value of not being seen to be anti-Semitic, and they did try to appeal to Jewish opinion – though not very successfully. Albania and Croatia, therefore, are the exceptions that prove the rule: firstly, that anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish prejudice in the Balkans are essentially similar, in that both are prejudices directed against ethnic groups that have their origins in religious differences; and secondly, that Muslims are targeted and persecuted as an alien ethnic group – like the Jews – not simply as a religious community.

To go back to the case of the Serb Chetniks in World War II: they were an extreme-nationalist movement that systematically persecuted and killed the non-Orthodox population in Bosnia: Muslims, Croats and Jews. The Chetniks were engaged in a vicious war against the Yugoslav Partisans, who were a multinational resistance movement led by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia. The Chetniks identified the Communists with the Jews, but also with the Muslims and Croats. One Chetnik leader even accused the Communists of destroying Orthodox Churches, and building mosques, synagogues and Catholic churches. In World War II, however, it was still possible for the Chetniks to waver between massacring Muslims, and attempting to co-opt them, on the grounds that Bosnian Muslims were ‘really’ Serbs. So as late as World War II, both Serb- and Croat-nationalists could still make some pretence at treating the Muslims as a religious group within their respective nations. One can compare this to the confusion among modern anti-Semites, until quite late in the day, as to whether the Jews were a religious or a racial group.

By the 1990s, however, despite lip service to the traditional nationalist view, that Bosnian Muslims were really just Islamic Serbs or Croats, in practice, this kind of assimilationism was no longer possible or relevant. Muslims were treated in practice as a hated, alien ethnic minority. There was no policy of forced conversion. Serb nationalists, and to a lesser extent Croat nationalists, ethnically cleansed Bosnia of Muslims who spoke their language, much as the Serbian regime attempted to cleanse Kosovo of the Albanians who spoke an entirely different language. Rather like anti-Semites, extreme Serb and Croat nationalists in Bosnia in the 1990s simultaneously viewed Muslims as a racially alien element, while portraying them in their propaganda as part of an international, global threat to Christian Europe.

Of course, there are differences between Islamophobia and anti-Semitism: anti-Semites traditionally portray the global Jewish conspiracy in terms of sneaky, intelligent puppet-masters working behind the scenes, whereas Balkan Islamophobes portray the global Islamic conspiracy in terms of mindless but fully visible – indeed visually striking – fanaticism. Hatred of Islam and Muslims has, for all its intensity as felt by Balkan Christian nationalists, never quite achieved the intensity of being an all-consuming end in itself, as it has for some anti-Semites. And of course, Balkan Islamophobes do not formally treat global Islam as a race, in the way that anti-Semites treat global Jewry as a race. But we are ultimately talking about ideological window-dressing used to justify the same type of persecution and violence.

It is nonsensical to argue that the systematic destruction of mosques and the Islamic heritage in Bosnia by Serbian forces, combined with a propaganda that stressed the role of mujahedin and of foreign Islamic states, was not an expression of Islamophobia, on the grounds that Islamophobia does not exist. But equally, it is nonsensical to argue that this campaign was genuinely motivated by hostility to Islam as an ideology: there was no pretence that Muslims were a danger because they might indoctrinate the Serbian population with subversive views. Serb nationalists in the 1980s and 90s made much of the growing threat of the Bosnian Muslims in Bosnia, and of Albanian Muslims in Serbia. But the danger they presented was not that these groups would spread Islam to the Serbs, and Islamify Serbia. Rather, the danger was that these groups would increasingly outbreed the Serbs, and turn them into increasingly small minorities in their own countries.

Thus, we are not talking about a threat equivalent to the Communist threat, as it was viewed in McCarthy’s US, or to the counter-revolutionary threat, as it was viewed in Stalin’s USSR. Muslim children in Serb-occupied Bosnia were not simply deported along with their parents, as they might have been if they were viewed as the children of subversives. Still less were they subjected to ideological reprogramming. Rather, they were themselves singled out for rape, torture and murder. Muslim women were raped with the stated goal of making them give birth to Serb babies. Biljana Plasvic, the Bosnian Serb vice-president, theorised about the Muslims being a genetically defective offshoot of the Serb  nation.

In sum, Islamophobia, in the Bosnian war, was an expression of hatred directed against an ethnic group, or groups. One of the paradoxes of this is that for all the Islamophobic hatred directed against the Balkan Muslim peoples by Balkan Christian nationalists, and indeed by the anti-Muslim bigots in the West who supported them, the Bosnian Muslims and Kosovo Albanians are among the most secularised Muslim peoples in the world. Just as Jewish atheists will always be the Christ-killers or ritual slaughterers of Christian children in the eyes of certain anti-Semites, so Bosnian Muslim and Albanian atheists will always be jihadis in the eyes of Islamophobes.

This paper was presented at the conference ‘Antisemitism and Islamophobia in Europe: Comparisons – contrasts – connections‘, that took place at University College London on 22-24 June.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008 Posted by | Anti-Semitism, Armenians, Balkans, Bosnia, Croatia, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide, Greece, Islam, Israel, Jews, Kosovo, Kurds, Political correctness, Serbia, Turkey | 2 Comments

Christopher Deliso, John R. Schindler and Shaul Shay on al-Qaeda in Bosnia

The role of al-Qa’ida and the foreign mujahedin in the wars in the former Yugoslavia of the 1990s remains controversial, but the controversy is not over whether the phenomenon was a positive one or not. Reading some of the coverage of the subject, one might be forgiven for thinking that the wars fought in Bosnia and Kosova were merely individual fronts in something much bigger: the global struggle between the warriors and opponents of radical Islam. Yet as is so often the case, it is the smaller, local struggle that is more bitter and protracted than the global one, and that inspires the greater loyalty and commitment. The recently published books by John R. Schindler and Christopher Deliso, Unholy terror: Bosnia, al-Qa’ida, and the rise of global jihad and The coming Balkan caliphate: The threat of radical Islam to Europe and the West respectively, are really books about the Balkans more than about radical Islam; and it is the rights and wrongs of the Balkan conflicts, more than the threat posed by radical Islam, that motivate the authors. Schindler and Deliso share a hostility to Islam and to the politics of Western liberal interventionism which goes far beyond any mere concern with the alleged Islamist threat in the Balkans.


Deliso’s thesis of a ‘coming Balkan caliphate’ embraces Bosnia, Albania, Kosova, Macedonia and Turkey. Deliso’s animosity in particular is directed against the Albanians, and he faithfully upholds anti-Albanian stereotypes popular among the Balkan Christian peoples. He writes of ‘the opportunism they [the Kosovo Albanians] have shown in siding at various times with the Turks, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Mussolini, Hitler, and, most recently, NATO’ (p. 51), thereby repeating the myth popular among Serbian nationalists, of the Albanians as stooges of repeated foreign invaders, though the Kosova Albanians’ record in this regard is absolutely no worse than that of other Balkan peoples. He attributes the emigration of Serbs from Kosova in the decades before 1999 to the fact that they were fleeing ‘from a culturally and socially incompatible land dominated by clan-based Muslim Albanians’ (p. 37). He complains of the high birthrate of the Balkan Muslims, writing ‘it seems that Muslims, already outright majorities in some countries and political “kingmaker” minorities in others, are still expanding and will thus continue to enjoy all of the political, social, and economic benefits that this position entails.’ And while Deliso recognises that the Balkan Muslim birthrate may eventually fall, he fears that ‘these processes take considerable time and may take effect only after it is “too late” for the Christian populations to avoid returning to their Ottoman status – that is, second class citizens in their own countries.’ (p. 113). Deliso also complains about mosques being too noisy, on account of the call to prayer from the minaret: ‘Although it is not terribly politically correct, the term “sonic cleansing” is an apt one to describe the process by which aggressively visible and audible Islam gradually grinds away at non-Muslims, who gradually move out of what become, essentially, ghettoes by choice.’ (p. 86)


Deliso makes many sweeping statements about the dangers allegedly posed by the Balkan Muslim peoples, which are then refuted by his own account. Hence, he writes that ‘the most fundamentally surreal dimension of the West’s Balkan misadventures must be that specific policies have directly benefited Islamic fundamentalism, as attested by the Western support for Muslim-dominated secessionist movements and paramilitaries with demonstrable ties to terrorists and mafia groups in Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, and Macedonia’. Indeed, it is self-determination and democracy that are themselves apparently to blame for the alleged Balkan Islamist threat: ‘Ironically, the creation of liberal democracies in docile, pro-Western nation-states also enables the rival development of radical Islam within them.’ (p. 143)


However, throughout his book, Deliso mentions that the fundamentalist version of Islam, as put forward by the Wahhabites, was rejected by ordinary Muslims in Bosnia, Kosova, Albania and Macedonia and by their political leaders, and was out of keeping with their native tradition (e.g. pp. 54-55, 58, 84-85). In one passage, he describes bearded Islamists in the Kosovar town of Pec attacking Albanians holding a candlelit vigil to mourn the American victims of 9/11 (p. 60). Deliso’s account of the aggressive way in which the Wahhabite movement is attempting to penetrate the Balkans, and the lack of receptivity on the part of native Muslims to it, is not uninteresting or uninformative. This is an important subject, and it is a pity that it is drowned in a sea of unsubstantiated propaganda directed against the Balkan Muslims and against Western policy, propaganda which his account of Wahhabite activities actually undermines. For why should self-determination for Muslim peoples, or their high birth-rates, be a problem if they anyway popularly reject radical Islam?


Deliso manages to overcome such contradictions and construct his bogey of a ‘coming Balkan caliphate’ through multiple conflation. He conflates nationalism with religious chauvinism; moderate Balkan Muslim national leaders with the radicals operating in their midst; Sunni al-Qa’ida with Shiite Iran; al-Qa’ida with the regimes of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates; quiet Saudi Wahhabite proselytising with al-Qa’ida terrorism – all these diverse, conflicting elements are thrown together to make a single indeterminate green Islamic stew. Thus, we get passages such as this one, concerning the involvement of the Islamic world in the ‘Bosnian jihad’ of the 1990s:


According to a former Sudanese intelligence agent, Osama bin Laden’s operations in Sudan during the early 1990s involved an “advisory council” made up of some 43 separate Islamic groups, contraband arms depots, and several terrorist camps. Since the Saudi government preferred to keep its hands clean, supplying mostly money and logistical supplies, Iran would play the key role in importing the fighters and military equipment through the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the national intelligence service, SAVAMA… Weapons shipments from Iran via Sudan, overseen by intelligence officials of both countries and utilizing al Qaeda-linked charities like the TWRA, also picked up in 1993 and 1994. (pp. 8-9)


Out of this stew, Deliso draws multiple non-sequiturs, such as this one:


…Alija Izetbegovic’s single dream was the creation of an Islamic state in Europe. This vision was honored in December 2001, when he was awarded one million dirham ($272,480) prize for his services to Islam by the Crown Prince of Dubai. Only two months earlier, however, the terrorist attacks on America had revealed how complicit he and his government had been in allowing al Qaeda to expand in Europe, through the Bosnian jihad.’ (p. 5).


Or this one:


…the Clinton administration was planning for a second war to save yet another allegedly endangered Balkan Muslim population, this time the Albanians of Kosovo, and thus could not openly admit that it had already made a huge mistake in Bosnia – despite a reality of increasingly spectacular Islamic terrorist attacks against American interests globally, like the June 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia and the East Africa embassy bombings of August 1998. (pp. 10-11).


As the reader will note, the various assertions of motive and causality in these two passages are neither substantiated with evidence nor support each other, while the assertion that al-Qa’ida attacks in Saudi Arabia, East Africa and New York were the result of the ‘Bosnian jihad’ is completely out of the blue.


Deliso conflates the mainstream Bosnian Army struggle against Serb and Croat forces with the activities of al-Qa’ida and the foreign mujahedin to create a single ‘Bosnian jihad’, ignoring the fact that existing works on the Bosnian Army and the mujahedin, by authors such as Evan Kohlmann, Esad Hecimovic and myself have comprehensively demolished the case for such a conflation. Yet Deliso admits that it was the police of Izetbegovic’s supposedly ‘Islamist’ state that arrested a terrorist cell on 19 October 2005 that had allegedly been planning to blow up the British Embassy in Sarajevo (p. 14). He interviews a military intelligence analyst who tells him that, apart from the US embassy, ‘nearly all diplomatic facilities in Sarajevo lack even the most rudimentary protection against attack… all the others remain vulnerable to truck bombs or determined individuals wearing suicide vests’ (p. 23), making the failure of the Islamists to carry out a single successful terrorist attack against a Western target in the supposed Bosnian centre of world jihad all the more remarkable. Even Deliso’s questionable ‘expert’ witnesses admit that Islamist terrorist training camps ‘mostly don’t exist’ in Bosnia (p. 161). The facts simply do not fit Deliso’s thesis. In scraping the bottom of the barrel to find some that do, he complains that ‘Bosnian President Sulejman Tihic assured a gathering of dignitaries in Qatar that his country considered the American occupation of Iraq illegal’, something that Deliso attributed to the ‘Islamic factor’ in Bosnian politics (p. 22). But an ‘Islamic factor’ was scarcely a prerequisite to considering the Iraq invasion to be illegal.


Deliso draws upon some highly dubious sources in support of his thesis about the importance of Bosnia in the development of the global jihad. One such is ‘terrorism expert’ Darko Trifunovic of Belgrade University, whom Deliso quotes about ten times in support of his argument. The ‘terrorism expert’ Trifunovic makes statements such as ‘what the West seems to have forgotten is that long before the [2001] terrorist attacks against America, the Bosnian Serbs were fighting against jihad, a literal jihad ordered and funded by Osama bin Laden, in their own country. Former mujahedin have told me that bin Laden personally ordered them to fight Christians in the Balkans – and later, to expand in Europe, especially Italy and Spain. The West is now paying the price for supporting the mujahedin against the Serbs.’ (p. 143) A comment of this kind might raise suspicions as to its author’s objectivity in even the most naive observer – even one who did not already know that Trifunovic had been expelled from participation in the 11th European Police Congress after the organisers learned that he was a Srebrenica denier who reduced the figure for the Srebrenica massacre to less than one hundred, and who, in an email correspondence with two Bosnian Muslims posing as a Serb, said of the Srebrenica Muslims that ‘I wish Mladic had killed them all’.


Another of Deliso’s sources is a certain Nebojsa Malic, whom Deliso describes as a ‘native Bosnian political analyst’. Deliso quotes Malic as saying: ‘Izetbegovic’s vision of Bosnia was not a multi-ethnic democracy, but a multi-caste hierarchy of the kind that existed under the Ottoman Empire, the memories of which were still fresh at his birth in 1925.’ (p. 25) Deliso does not mention that this particular ‘native Bosnian political analyst’ was a signatory of the petition of the ‘International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic’ which describes Milosevic as a ‘Serbian patriot’ whose ‘crime was to set an example to the world by resisting NATO aggression’. Malic supported the neo-Nazi Tomislav Nikolic in this year’s Serbian presidential election; after Nikolic’s defeat, he complained that the Serbs had just proven that they ‘don’t have the guts’ to fight over Kosova.


While quoting the most raving Serb bigots as though they were objective experts, Deliso has consulted few genuine scholarly works on the Balkans, and his references to Balkan history contain some real howlers. Thus, he writes: ‘Both Croatia and Muslim Bosnia had served as fascist puppet states for the Nazis, during the Second World War’ (p. 7) – there was, of course, no Bosnian fascist puppet state during World War II. Deliso describes Yugoslavia as a country that had ‘sided with the United States in two world wars’ (p. 41) – unlikely, given that Yugoslavia did not exist until after World War I, whereas in World War II, Yugoslavia signed an alliance with Nazi Germany but was then invaded and occupied by it – all while the US was still neutral.


Deliso’s account of recent events in the Balkans is no more accurate. He describes Izetbegovic’s close ally Hasan Cengic as ‘a veteran of the World War II SS Handzar Division who reincarnated the unit while serving as Bosnia’s deputy defense minister in the early 1990s.’ (p. 8 ) It is unlikely that Cengic was a veteran of the SS Handzar Division or of World War II – given that he was born in 1957. Nor does Deliso provide any evidence at all to support his assertion that Cengic ‘reincarnated’ the SS Handzar Division in the 1990s. As I have written elsewhere, claims that a ‘Handzar Division’, named after the SS unit from World War II, was ‘reincarnated’ by Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s appear to rest on a single piece of ‘evidence’: an article by British journalist Robert Fox, published in Britain’s Daily Telegraph on 29 December 1993. Fox’s article is based solely on second-hand information and contains factual inaccuracies. Fox himself did not actually meet anyone who belonged to the alleged ‘Handzar Division’, but merely reported its existence on the basis of what unnamed UN officials on the ground told him. But even this weak source, which Deliso cites, does not implicate Cengic in the Handzar Division’s alleged ‘reincarnation’.


Deliso’s book is not merely a piece of bad scholarship – although it is undoubtedly that. He engages in the sort of atrocity denial and conspiracy theorising that characterises supporters of the former regime of Slobodan Milosevic. Thus, in writing of the Serbian massacre of Albanian civilians at the village of Racak in January 1999, Deliso writes: ‘An alleged Serbian “massacre” at the Kosovo village of Racak, later proved by a UN forensics team to have been a place of legitimate battle, provided the necessary justification for Clinton to start the bombing.’ (p. 43) The nonsense statement ‘proved by a UN forensics team to have been a place of legitimate battle’ is a case of Deliso fluffing his denialist lines.


Schindler’s subject matter is narrower than Deliso’s, being confined essentially to Bosnia. It is less a study of the role of al-Qa’ida and the mujahedin in Bosnia and more a diatribe against the Bosnian Muslims and the Bosnian cause. Despite the author’s claim to having had a youthful flirtation with Islam (p. 13), he is clearly hostile to the religion and views the Bosnian war on this basis: ‘Bosnia’s Muslims were really Muslims, and some of them adhered to a faith that was deeply hostile to Western concepts of freedom, democracy, and human rights.’ (p. 19) Furthermore, ‘Muhammad himself endorsed, and practiced, the violent spreading of the faith and considered it the obligation of every Muslim’; consequently, ‘As devout traditionalist Muslims, Izetbegovic and the SDA [Party of Democratic Action] leadership adhered to the ideology of jihad that stands at the center of their faith.’ Schindler considers the term ‘fundamentalist’ meaningless when applied to Islam, because ‘[a]ll truly believing Muslims are, from a Western viewpoint, “fundamentalists”‘ (pp. 116-117). This hostility to Muslims and Islam appears to be the guiding motive behind Schindler’s book.


In this book, al-Qa’ida and the mujahedin play only supporting roles. After the introduction, the first third of the book makes no mention of them; it instead constitutes a polemic against the former regime of Bosnia’s Alija Izetbegovic and against the supporters of Bosnia in the West. Indeed, Schindler follows the well trodden revisionist road that was long ago laid down by supporters of the regime of Slobodan Milosevic and of the Great Serbian cause – of which the British magazine Living Marxism was perhaps the most notorious – of a Western media conspiracy to demonise the Serb side in the war and fabricate Serb atrocities. Schindler puts the term ‘concentration camps’ in quote marks when referring to the Serb camps of Omarska, Manjaca and Trnopolje, claiming that all media reports of such camps were ‘poorly sourced and based on second- and third-hand information, much of which was flat wrong’ (pp. 83-84); and he accuses the Bosnians of staging massacres of their own civilians in order to incriminate the Serbs (pp. 92, 186).


Schindler revises the death-toll of the Srebrenica massacre downward to ‘as many as two thousand Muslim men, mostly soldiers’ (p. 231) – although, in one of several internal contradictions in this book, he earlier put the figure at about seven thousand (p. 227). He argues that ‘[w]hile this was unquestionably a war crime, it is difficult to term it genocide’ (p. 231) – though it was not so difficult for the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, both of which formally described the Srebrenica massacre as ‘genocide’. Instead, Schindler portrays the Srebrenica massacre as Serb revenge for earlier Muslim attacks on Serb civilians, and employs a gross racial stereotype in the process: ‘To Mladic’s troops, who like all Bosnians believed in blood feuds and payback, this was simple revenge.’ (p. 231).


Schindler describes the siege of Sarajevo as a ‘siege manqué’ (p. 189) and as a ‘faux-siege’, where ‘conditions were much more normal than the Western media was willing to portray’ (p. 203), despite the Serb besiegers’ killing of thousands of people in Sarajevo during the war. Perhaps most tellingly of all, he claims (erroneously): ‘Ethnic cleansing, though unpleasant, was no more than the counterinsurgency doctrine learned by three generations of JNA [Yugoslav People’s Army] officers, who were trained in hunting down “fifth columnists” and “terrorists” by expelling sympathisers as well as fighters.’ (p. 82) He then endorses a CIA report, according to which: ‘The Bosnian Serb Army undertook these ethnic cleansing operations because it believed the Muslim population posed an armed threat or could act as a “Fifth Column” during the war with the Bosnian Government.’ (p. 82).


If the above citations suggest whose side Schindler is on, they do not properly convey the sheer extent of the deception in which he engages. He writes: ‘Milosevic wanted Bosnia and Hercegovina to remain in Yugoslavia, but failing that he would settle for a partition that would leave the ethnically Serbian parts under Belgrade’ (p. 63). Anyone who has looked at a map of the areas of Bosnia occupied by Serb forces in the early weeks of the Bosnian war, while they were still under the control of Belgrade and Milosevic, knows that this is untrue; they occupied huge areas in eastern and northern Bosnia in which the Muslims and/or Croats were in the majority. Schindler writes that ‘the [Yugoslav] army in the months leading to war in most cases tried to place itself between Serbs and Muslims and defuse tensions’ (p. 66), suggesting he has not read, or has simply ignored, the books by authors such as Norman Cigar, James Gow, Smail Cekic, myself and others that detail the unity of purpose between the JNA and the Bosnian Serb nationalists in the preparations for war.


Schindler writes that ‘Belgrade sought to arm the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia, fearing that Yugoslavia was headed for dissolution’ (p. 68 ) – ignoring the fact that Belgrade was itself engineering Yugoslavia’s dissolution, as revealed in sources such as the published diary of Milosevic’s close collaborator Borisav Jovic, former president of Yugoslavia and of the Socialist Party of Serbia. Schindler then writes: ‘The JNA General Staff was not brought into the plan’ of arming the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia (p. 68 ) – again, he has either not read, or has ignored, the memoirs of Veljko Kadijevic, the most senior figure in the JNA during the war in Croatia, who describes in detail the JNA’s role in arming Serb forces in Croatia and Bosnia. Schindler continues, ‘Belgrade saw this concept [of arming the Serbs] as defensive, a plan to protect Serbs outside Serbia – and, in extremis, to prevent another genocide against Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia’ (p. 68 ) – leading one to ask why Belgrade showed so little interest in protecting the substantial Serb populations of cities such as Zagreb and Split, while devoting so much energy to conquering territories such as eastern Slavonia, where Serbs were a small minority.


Schindler portrays the ‘Muslim’ (i.e. Bosnian) side as being the one that was initiating preparations for war, while the JNA was merely responding (p. 72). In order to make a case for this blatant falsehood and the arguments that flow from it, Schindler simply avoids mentioning almost all the acts of aggression carried out by the JNA in the first weeks of the war: the conquest of Zvornik, Foca, Visegrad, Kupres, Doboj, Derventa, Brcko and other towns; and the shelling of Mostar and Sarajevo. He consequently portrays the Bosnian military’s action as coming out of the blue, enabling him to portray it as the aggressor – not very convincing to anyone who knows the history of the war, but enough to deceive an uninformed reader. Having failed to mention all these coordinated Serbian acts of conquest, he then describes ‘two unprovoked Muslim attacks on the JNA that fatally poisoned relations between the army and the SDA’: the Bosnian attack on the JNA in Sarajevo on 3 May and in Tuzla on 15 May. Well, yes, the attacks were ‘unprovoked’ if you do not consider a military assault on your country, the conquest of many of your towns and massive atrocities against your civilian population to count as a ‘provocation’. Schindler claims the attack on the JNA in Sarajevo ’caused lasting bitterness among the Serbs’, and describes the attack on the JNA in Tuzla as a ‘killing spree’ and a ‘massacre’ (pp. 80-81). Yet the JNA was a military target, and attacking a military target was, presumably, a reasonable thing to do in war. By contrast, Schindler does not mention the Serb and JNA massacres of Muslim civilians that had been taking place all over Bosnia, or whether they might have ’caused lasting bitterness’ among the Muslims. Similarly, Schindler mentions attacks on Serb civilians carried out by Naser Oric, the Bosnian Army commander in Srebrenica, between May and December 1992, claiming that it was ‘[s]mall wonder that the Bosnian Serbs thirsted for revenge against the Muslims of Srebrenica’ (p. 228). But he does not mention the Serb attacks on Muslim civilians all across East Bosnia that preceded Oric’s actions.


While whitewashing the role of the Milosevic regime and Yugoslav army in engineering the war, Schindler suppresses or misrepresents evidence in order to make his case: that Izetbegovic and his fellow SDA politicians were radical Islamists. He therefore makes claims against the Bosnian leadership that anyone with a cursory knowledge of the subject knows to be untrue. This involves attempting to portray Izetbegovic and his SDA as being unwilling to share power with the Bosnian Serbs. He claims that following the fall of the Communist regime in Bosnia in 1990 and the emergence of free political parties, the Serb nationalist leader Radovan Karadzic offered Izetbegovic and his party a coalition, but that the ‘Muslims expressed no interest’ (p. 63). In fact, Izetbegovic and the SDA did indeed form a coalition with the Karadzic’s Serb nationalists, and with the Croat nationalists, that resulted in posts in the Bosnian government, presidency and administration being equally divided between the three groups of nationalists, with key posts going to the Serbs – including the command of the Bosnian Territorial Defence. Schindler then misrepresents the plan negotiated between Karadzic and the dissident Muslim politician Adil Zulfikarpasic in August 1991 as a ‘power-sharing plan’ (p. 71), omitting to mention that Serbs and Muslims already shared power in Bosnia, and that the plan was in fact aimed at keeping Bosnia within Milosevic’s Serbian-dominated rump Yugoslavia. Schindler, indeed, argues that Izetbegovic and his party wished to deny the Bosnian Serbs full citizenship – but produces no evidence to back up his claim, other than an unsupported assertion by the Belgrade historian Aleksa Djilas (p. 64).


Schindler relies on extremely dubious source material to make his case against Izetbegovic and the SDA. One eyewitness whom Schindler quotes approvingly several times is Fikret Abdic (pp. 198, 203, 217). Abdic is certainly very liberal in his denunciation of Izetbegovic, but Schindler fails to mention that Abdic is a convicted war-criminal who staged an armed rebellion against his own democratically elected government, and fought against it on the side of Serb forces invading from outside Bosnia, from Serb-occupied Croatia. Another eyewitness in support of Schindler’s case against Izetbegovic is Aleksandar Vasiljevic, head of Yugoslav military intelligence (p. 72-73) – Schindler takes everything he says about Izetbegovic at face value. A third is the former US State Department official George Kenney (p. 86), who resigned in protest at US inaction over Bosnia, but then changed sides, becoming one of the most vocal enemies of the Izetbegovic regime. Schindler does not mention the extent of Kenney’s conversion, or the fact that Kenney wrote to Milosevic, while the latter was in prison in The Hague, to assure him that he considered him innocent of all charges against him, and that he considered his trial to be a ‘show trial’.


So dubious, indeed, is Schindler’s source material, that it is difficult to believe that he is using it innocently, or that he is attempting to convince anybody but the most naive of the merits of his case. He claims that Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic declared an ‘Islamic holy war’ on Bosnian TV in July 1995 (p. 200) – his source for this is the Belgrade news agency SRNA. He claims that the Bosnian Army murdered the Bosnian Croat commander Vlado Santic (p. 214) – his source for this is the Bosnian Croat newspaper Dnevni list, which is linked the nationalist Croat Democratic Union. He tells of mujahedin snuff videos, in which Bosnian Army commander Sakib Mahmuljin allegedly boasts of having sent a gift of twenty-eight severed Christian heads to Izetbegovic and twenty-eight more to Iran, and of Serb prisoners being made by the mujahedin to kiss the severed heads of other Serbs that were nailed to trees (pp. 166-167) – but Schindler has not actually seen any of these videos; his only source is one Croatian and one Serbian newspaper article. Schindler even endorses the view of the intelligence services of Franjo Tudjman’s Croatia concerning the alleged Islamic threat, arguing that ‘the unheeded warnings from the Croatian intelligence services about the unwisdom of entering an alliance with radical Islam and the likes of al-Qa’ida had been prescient.’ (p. 215).


Schindler describes Osama bin Laden as having been one of Izetbegovic’s ‘friends’ (p. 239), though he has no evidence for this. He cites several sources in support of his claim that bin Laden was in Bosnia during the war; the one he describes as ‘most credible’ being the German journalist Renate Flottau, who claims to have met bin Laden in the foyer of Izetbegovic’s office in the early 1990s (p. 123). Izetbegovic’s staff told Flottau that bin Laden was ‘here every day and we don’t know how to make him go away’ (p. 124). As I mentioned in my own book on the Bosnian Army, Izetbegovic himself never ruled out the possibility that he may have met bin Laden, but stated that he had no recollection of having done so; he pointed out that he met thousands of foreign Muslim visitors during the war. Izetbegovic was, of course, visited by many people during the war who were certainly not his ‘friends’, and many who were not Muslims, but Schindler jumps from providing evidence that bin Laden may have visited Izetbegovic to claiming that bin Laden was Izetbegovic’s ‘friend’. Other evidence that he produces on this score is similar in character: e.g. the claim of one of Izetbegovic’s domestic opponents, the Social Democrat Sejfudin Tokic, who ‘attested that photos exist of Izetbegovic and bin Laden together’ (p. 125) – photos which, needless to say, Schindler has not seen. Most of Schindler’s case against Izetbegovic and the SDA is based upon this sort of unsubstantiated rumour. Like Deliso, Schindler claims that Bosnian Muslim radicals during the war established a military unit named the ‘Handzar Division’, named after the Nazi SS division of the same name that had existed during World War II. And like Deliso, he bases this claim on the solitary, tendentious newspaper article by Robert Fox.


One of the more amusing of Schindler’s blunders concerns the scientific calculation of the figure for Bosnian war-dead carried out by Mirsad Tokaca’s Research and Documentation Centre in Sarajevo, which placed it at about one hundred thousand. Schindler seems to endorse this figure wholeheartedly, seeing it as proof that earlier estimates of Bosnian war-dead had been ‘grossly exaggerated’, and complaining that Tokaca’s result ‘got minimal attention in Bosnia or abroad’ (p. 317). The reason this is amusing is that Tokaca’s figures disprove several of the figures for Serb dead at the hands of Bosnian forces that Schindler himself cites. Thus, Schindler claims that ‘more than 3,000 Bosnian Serbs, some soldiers but at least 1,300 unarmed civilians, had been killed by Muslim forces based in Srebrenica’ (p. 228). Yet according to Tokaca’s calculation, only 849 Serb civilians were killed in the whole of Podrinje – the region that includes Srebrenica, and where Oric’s alleged crimes occurred – in the whole of the war. Likewise, with regard to the Serb victims of the Sarajevo Muslim warlord Musan Topalovic-Caco, Schindler claims: ‘By the war’s end, it was clear that at least two thousand Sarajevo Serbs had fallen victim to Caco’s gang, though the civic association representing the city’s Serbs claimed the true figure was closer to five thousand’ (p. 105). Yet according to Tokaca’s figures, only 1,091 Serb civilians were killed in the whole of the Sarajevo region during the war, and this includes those killed by the Serb siege. Schindler claims that ‘at least 1,500 Croatian civilians were killed in the fighting’ between Muslims and Croats (p. 99), yet according to Tokaca’s figures, in the two regions of Bosnia encompassed by the Muslim-Croat conflict, Central Bosnia and Neretva, only 786 Croat civilians were killed during the entire war, including those killed by Serb forces. So when Schindler writes that Tokaca’s figures ‘got minimal attention in Bosnia or abroad’, he is probably referring to himself.


Schindler claims that the SDA had ‘helped establish the beginnings of an Islamist statelet in Europe’ (p. 253), but scrapes the bottom of the barrel to find evidence for this. He admits that ‘Izetbegovic and the party leadership, for all their waxing Koranic to improve public morality, were careful to never speak openly about their plan for implementing a fully Islamic society.’ (p. 196) But if Schindler is unable to find evidence for Izetbegovic’s alleged Islamist plans in what he said, neither is he able to find it in what he and his party did. He mentions an SDA election poster of 2000, entitled ‘Beautiful like Sarajevo girls’, showing three female faces – ‘two in Western makeup, one in hijab’, and notes: ‘This was the SDA’s new Bosnia, forged in a terrible war, and it had many wondering which worldview – Western and secular or Islamist and radical – the party really stood for.’ (p. 274). Yet an election poster that shows two Western-style women coexisting with a woman in hijab cannot by any stretch of the imagination be taken as evidence of a radical Islamic world-view.


Likewise, concerning the unproven allegation that Izetbegovic collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, Schindler writes: ‘Even out of office, the SDA founder continued to deny allegations that he had been a Nazi collaborator as a young man and had served in the Bosnian Muslim 13th Handzar Division of the Waffen-SS. Though no evidence emerged to tie him directly to the Nazis, it was nevertheless significant, observed a Sarajevo pundit, that Izetbegovic continued to feel the need to publicly deny rumors that had existed for many years.’ (p. 276) – an argument so feeble that it defies comment. Schindler admits that Bosnia engaged in a ‘modest participation in the American-led war on Islamist terrorism’ but complains that this provoked ‘open resentment among Bosnian Muslims’, and that ‘local newspapers regularly carried attacks on America and its leader “the state terrorist Bush.”‘ (p. 293). Damning evidence indeed – most of Christian Europe was probably ‘Islamist’ by this standard.


Most instances of supposed ‘Islamist terrorism’ in the post-Dayton period that Schindler cites in his book turn out simply to be cases of former mujahedin attacking Croat or Serb civilians, above all refugees trying to return to their former homes (pp. 263-264), much as Serbs and Croats likewise attacked returning refugees from other communities – though Schindler does not mention the latter. Schindler explains away the absence of genuine Islamist terrorism in Bosnia by claiming that ‘most mujahidin were wary of targeting US or Western interests in Bosnia – anywhere else was fair game – because they appreciated that NATO gave them a de facto safe haven after Dayton.’ (p. 266). So Bosnia was free of Islamist terrorism because the type of Islamist terrorists based there did not like to attack Western targets. It therefore perhaps did not matter so much that, according to Schindler, ‘the Muslim police underperformed when it came to tracking down wanted holy warriors.’ (p. 262). Yet Schindler, like Deliso, mentions the Bosnian police arresting on 19 October 2005 an armed terrorist cell that was planning to attack the British Embassy (p. 318 ) – somehow the police of the ‘Islamist statelet’ had managed to overcome their reluctance to act against Islamists and staved off an attack against a Western target.


There are so many factual errors and internal contradictions in Schindler’s book that it is impossible to list them all, so what follows are just some examples. Schindler claims that ‘reliable analysis concludes that between five thousand and six thousand Islamic fighters came to Bosnia during the war’ (p. 162) – having previously written that ‘there were probably four thousand foreign Islamists who fought for Sarajevo during the civil war’ (p. 119). He claims that the Bosnian Serbs ‘made up most of the agricultural population in Bosnia, and therefore controlled a disproportionate share of the land to be cleared of non-Serbs’, which is simply rubbish – more agricultural land in Bosnia was owned by Muslims than by Serbs before 1992. Schindler claims that ‘Ustasha’ means ‘uprising’ (p. 33), when in fact it means ‘insurgent’. He claims that Dzafer Kulenovic was made vice-president of the ‘Independent State of Croatia’ in November 1941 (p. 33); in fact, he was made deputy prime-minister. Schindler claims that during World War II ‘the Serbs of Bosnia and Croatia were also the only Yugoslav nation exposed to actual genocide’ (p. 60) – he is either unaware, or chooses to ignore, the work by two leading Yugoslav historians of the World War II genocide, the Serb Vladimir Dedijer and the Croat Antun Miletic, entitled Genocide of the Muslims,1941-1945: Collected documents and testimony (Svjetlost, Sarajevo, 1990), which provides evidence of the wartime Serb Chetnik genocide of the Muslims.


Schindler claims that ‘alone among Bosnia’s peoples they [the Muslims] had made no real contribution to Allied victory, and their collaboration with the Nazis had been unsurpassed’ – another fabrication, since nearly a quarter of all Bosnian Partisans had been Muslims; their readiness to join the Partisans compared favourably with that of the Bosnian Croats; their contribution to the anti-Nazi struggle was, for a nationality of their size, a significant one; and their readiness to speak out against Nazi crimes in 1941, and protect the victims of genocide, was virtually unparalleled in Nazi-occupied Europe. Schindler claims that the senior Bosnian Muslim Communist Osman Karabegovic was expelled from the League of Communists of Yugoslavia in 1972 for Muslim ‘exclusivism’ and ‘nationalism’ (p. 43); this is the opposite of the truth – Karabegovic was expelled because he was too much of a Yugoslav centralist; he would later become one of the most prominent Bosnian Muslims to support Milosevic. The text ‘Virtuous Muslim State’, published in Tuzla in 1993, was not the ‘SDA’s manifesto’, as Schindler claims (p. 95), but merely a proposal put forward by a senior SDA member from Tuzla. Schindler writes of the Bosnian Serb JNA officer Jovan Divjak, that he ‘sided with Izetbegovic and the SDA when war broke out. It was a decision he would regret.’ (p. 102). This is again untrue: Divjak never supported the SDA; he supported his country – Bosnia – in the war, and would never regret having done so. Nor is it true that the anti-nationalist Bosnian Serb journalist Gojko Beric had been ‘an ardent supporter of the SDA’ during the war (p. 310).


When all the rumours, unsubstantiated allegations and outright falsehoods are taken away, Schindler’s case against Izetbegovic and the SDA evaporates. We are left with a picture of a secular Bosnia-Hercegovina under an SDA regime that was undoubtedly highly corrupt and frequently brutal to its political opponents, but that supported the US-led ‘War on Terror’, arrested Islamist terrorist suspects and was essentially free of genuine Islamist terrorist outrages on its soil – certainly more free than the US, Britain, Spain or Turkey. The most that can be said for Schindler’s portrayal of Bosnia as a centre of global jihad is that, yes, some of the foreign mujahedin who fought in Bosnia would subsequently go on to engage in acts of terrorism and jihad elsewhere, some with the dubious benefit derived from possession of Bosnian passports – scarcely a free pass throughout the Western world, as anyone in the West who has Bosnian friends knows. In other words, none of the evidence presented here suggests that the global Islamist jihad would look significantly different today had the Bosnian war never taken place.


One other malevolent error of which both Deliso and Schindler are guilty is their portrayal of the Clinton Administration as being hawkishly pro-Muslim and anti-Serb. You would not know, from reading either of these books, that Clinton had enforced the arms embargo against Bosnia for the best part of the war; that he had come under massive fire from Congress for his unwillingness either to break the arms embargo or to carry out air-strikes against Serb forces; that he had forced the Bosnian Army to halt its victorious advance against Serb forces in the autumn of 1995, leaving half of Bosnia in Serb-rebel hands; that the Clinton-imposed Dayton Accords engineered the recognition of the ‘Republika Srpska’ incorporating nearly half of Bosnia, with a much smaller share of territory going to the Muslims; and that after Dayton, the Clinton Administration avoided arresting the Serb war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. Authors incapable of properly analysing Islamism are equally incapable of analysing US foreign policy.


After reading two such inaccurate, unscholarly, poorly researched and politically motivated works of propaganda, it actually comes as a relief to read a book that is merely very bad. Shaul Shay, unlike Deliso and Schindler, has no Balkan agenda or axe to grind; he is a former Israeli intelligence officer, and he genuinely comes at the Balkans from the perspective of someone primarily interested in radical Islam and the Islamic countries, rather than vice versa. His book contains some rather endearingly naive sentences, such as ‘Yugoslavia is [sic] a mountainous country in the northern Balkans’ (p. 19) and ‘Bosnia-Herzegovina is a mountainous country in the Balkan [sic] that is divided into two historical geographic regions – the Bosnia region in the north and the Herzegovina region in the south’ (p. 39); he elsewhere describes Bosnia as having ‘a Muslim majority and a Serb minority’ (p. 24).


Shay’s run-of-the-mill-first-year-undergraduate-quality potted history of the Balkans repeats some of the historical and other factual errors made by Deliso and Schindler, in particular at the expense of the Bosnian Muslims, and there are numerous misspellings of names (Alija becomes ‘Ilia’, Cengic become ‘Kengic’, Vojvodina becomes ‘Wivodena’ and so on). Having gone into the errors of Deliso and Schindler in detail, I’m not going to bore the reader further by listing Shay’s; his are by far the most innocent of the three. In fact, he appears to be the sort of person that books of the Deliso-Schindler variety might be written to target. If one simply ignores everything Shay’s book has to say about Balkan politics, then one can glean a few nuggets of information from it concerning the politics of radical Islam globally and of the Muslim states of the Middle East. But this is not enough to recommend this book when there are much better treatments of these topics available.


Radical Islam is a genuine problem facing Europe, and although it is actually less of a danger in the Balkans outside of Turkey than it is in Western Europe, this does not mean it is not a problem facing the Balkans as well. We need objective, scholarly analyses of the activities of Wahhabites and other radical Muslims in the Balkans if we are to understand and confront the problem. Unfortunately, this will not happen so long as writers simply use the issue to make propaganda to fight Balkan wars that, ultimately, have little to do with radical Islam.

This review was published last week in Democratiya.

Monday, 2 June 2008 Posted by | Balkans, Bosnia, Croatia, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide, Islam, Israel, Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia, Turkey | , , , , | 7 Comments

Israel’s sixtieth birthday should be celebrated with open eyes

Happy sixtieth birthday, Israel ! It should not be necessary to explain why today, formally the sixtieth anniversary of Israel’s independence, is worth celebrating for those of us who are not Israelis. The survival of a nation that has been threatened with destruction is cause for celebration. The fact that nationally conscious Jews have been able to exercise their right to self-determination, and establish a homeland that has successfully provided a safe haven for members of the long-persecuted Jewish people, is cause for celebration. And the fact that an Israeli nation exists at all is cause for celebration. This is not to say that the process by which the Jewish state came into being, or its actions since its birth, are without their moral ambiguities – far from it. But these moral ambiguities are not reasons why Israeli independence should not be celebrated; merely why Israeli policy needs to change. One day, it should be possible to celebrate Israel’s anniversary in the knowledge that the moral ambiguities are all in the past.

Israel’s critics point out that the establishment of the State of Israel involved the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians – for Palestinians, the ‘nakba’. This is true, but frequently taken out of context: Israel is no different from most of the world’s other nation-states, which are founded upon the oppression and ethnic cleansing of other peoples. Beginning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the emergence of a modern nation-state of England, Britain and the United Kingdom and their evolution over hundreds of years involved the colonisation, dispossession and forcible assimilation of the Irish, as well as an almost unrivalled programme of imperial aggression and expansion overseas. But there is no way that our English and British nationhood can be divorced from this heritage. The modern French nation-state was founded with the Great Revolution of 1789, an event that is widely viewed as marking the birth of modern politics, yet it quickly involved the genocidal or proto-genocidal persecution of the people of the Vendee, acts of massive territorial conquest and, under Napoleon, a failed genocidal project directed against the black population of Haiti. The US is founded upon the genocide of the Native Americans, without which it would not exist. Yet one could not expect the French not to celebrate the Revolution, or Americans not to celebrate Independence Day.

Israelis may feel it is unfair of me to compare them with great imperial powers. So it is – I cite these examples to dispense with the myth of ‘good’ Western nations vis-a-vis ‘bad’ others. In the moral ambiguities of its creation, Israel more closely resembles the nation-states of Central Europe and the Balkans – appropriately, since Israel is itself a post-Ottoman state many of whose citizens originated in Central Europe. Where these nation-states are concerned, who was the ethnic-cleanser and who was the victim largely depended upon who happened to win the war. This was the case with Israel and the Palestinians: had the Arabs won in the 1940s, the extermination and explusion of the Jewish population of Palestine would have resulted. Throughout the region of Greater Europe, the question of which nation was dispossessed was open to question; the fact that dispossession would take place was not.

Today’s relatively ethnically homogenous states of Poland and the Czech Republic are founded upon the massive ethnic-cleansing of ethnic Germans after World War II, involving millions of victims. The Balkan states – Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey – are all in their present forms, to varying degrees, products of ethnic cleansing. The Orthodox Christian states of Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece were founded upon the slaughter and expulsion of a large part of their Ottoman Muslim inhabitants, and ideed upon the slaughter and expulsion of other Orthodox Christians. Romania had a large Jewish population and an exceptionally anti-Semitic political culture that culminated in massive Romanian participation in the Holocaust and the post-war emigration of Romanian Jews. The establishment of the Turkish nation-state involved the genocide of the Armenians, followed by the expulsion of at least one and a quarter million Greeks (or Turkish-speaking Christians) – which parallelled the Greek expulsion of a smaller number of largely Greek-speaking Muslims. Most recently, the establishment of independent Croatia involved the exodus of 150,000 Serb civilians from the ‘Krajina’ region and the slaughter of hundreds of them. I am leaving aside here the question of the respective rights and wrongs of these cases, or of how blame should be apportioned – that the formation of modern nation-states involves a process of ethnic homogenisation accompanied by real horrors should be indisputable.

There is no point pretending, therefore, that the establishment of modern nation-states – Israel included – is without its profound moral ambiguities. Yet it is the modern system of nation-states upon which our system of world politics is built – we can no more abolish nation-states than we can abolish modern politics. Indeed, nation-statehood is the prerequisite for liberal democracy: dynastic states such as the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires and multinational ‘socialist’ federations such as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia had to give way to sovereign nation-states for Europe to become a continent of democracies. Perhaps even more importantly, the people of the world love their nation-states, which they consider part of themselves. Asking the Israelis or anyone else to renounce their national identity is a violation of the most dearly felt feelings of ordinary people.

What is essential for the transition to full, post-nationalist democracy, however, is for members of every nation to face up to the moral ambiguities involved in the creation of their national state. This is not a question merely of assuaging liberal guilt. The crimes involved in the creation of a nation-state poison the functioning of its democracy and its relations with its neighbours. This poison can only be purged from its body politic by a recognition of its crimes. Turkey’s difficulty in functioning as a democracy is closely related to its unwillingness to face up to the Armenian Genocide or to the existence of a Kurdish people within its borders – hence it cannot fully permit freedom of speech, as this would result in open discussion of the Armenian Genocide and open expressions of Kurdish national politics. Greece’s imperialistic policy toward the Republic of Macedonia today is not based on any genuine national interest, but is a product of a nationalist ideology that guided a century of Greek colonisation, ethnic cleansing and forced assimilation in Greek Macedonia, of which the denial of the existence of a Macedonian nationality was a necessary part. The US’s record remains far from perfect, but in the US there is at least full freedom of speech – hence the possibility for films such as ‘Dances with Wolves’, that portray Native Americans sensitively and as victims of white oppression, to reach a mass audience. The American public still needs to face up to the genocide of the Native Americans, something that would produce a healthier American democracy and more politically aware citizenry. But we are still a long way off from the day when mass popular Turkish audiences will watch films of the ‘Dances with Wolves’ variety about the Armenian Genocide, or Greek audiences about the colonisation of Greek Macedonia, or Israeli audiences about the nakba.

So far as Israel is concerned, its record of democracy and human rights concerning its own citizens compares very favourably with most other Middle Eastern countries, but very badly with just about any West European country, because its stage of national development more closely resembles Turkey or Greece than France or the Netherlands. The two deformations resulting from the nature of Israel’s birth are, firstly, a failure to embrace the concept of a multi-ethnic citizenry and accord equal rights to all its citizens regardless of ethnicity, resulting in suffering and injustice for Israeli Arabs; and, secondly, a continued policy of colonisation in the West Bank, resulting in massive suffering for the occupied Palestinians. These deformations are, of course, linked to the behaviour of the Arab states and the refusal of most of them to recognise Israel, as well as to the Palestinians’ own behaviour – but this is not ultimately a question of apportioning blame. Like every nation-state, Israel needs to develop a post-nationalist national ideology if it is to complete its national and democratic development. This means becoming a genuinely Israeli nation-state, i.e. a state of the Israeli nation; a state of the citizens of Israel – rather than simply a Jewish state in which non-Jews are second-class citizens. Jews would still form a comfortable majority in Israel, thereby guaranteeing Jewish national self-determination. But a Jewish ethnic majority can comfortably exist with a concept of citizenship blind to ethnicity – as all concepts of citizenship should be, from the US and France to Israel and the Arab states. And as the American and French models show, a concept of citizenship blind to ethnicity rests upon identification with the state’s legal borders – hence no colonisation projects directed against neighbouring peoples.

As a Croat, I am very pleased that the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is forcing Croats to face up to the crimes carried out in the course of their War of Independence. All Croatian children should celebrate this War of Independence, but they should also learn about its moral ambiguities – the crimes against Serb civilians and the parallel attempt, which thankfully was defeated, to expand into Bosnia. They should learn about Croatian resistance to the Nazis in the form of the Partisan movement, of which they should rightfully feel proud, but also about the Croatian Ustasha genocide of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies – and, of course, about Partisan atrocities. Above all, they should be taught that theirs is a multiethnic nation that encompasses Serbs, Bosniaks and others, who do not cease thereby to be Serbs or Bosniaks. One should be able to be an ethnic Serb and at the same time belong to the Croatian nation as fully as an ethnic Croat, without abandoning one’s Serb identity, just as one should be able to be an ethnic Arab or Palestinian and belong to the Israeli nation as fully as an ethnic Jew, without abandoning one’s ethnic Arab or Palestinian identiy.

When this happens, a national anniversary becomes something that everyone, regardless of ethnic background, can celebrate without reservation.

Thursday, 8 May 2008 Posted by | Balkans, Croatia, Former Yugoslavia, France, Greece, Israel, Kurds, Macedonia, Middle East, Palestine, Serbia, Turkey | 1 Comment

Edward Said and Kosovo

David Zarnett has written a devastating critique for Democratiya of Edward Said’s disgraceful record over Kosovo, about which I have been meaning to comment since it appeared at the start of this month. Some time ago, David wrote to me asking my opinion as to whether an article on Said and Kosovo would be a worthy endeavour; I remember expressing to him a certain scepticism as to whether Said had written enough about Kosovo to make an in-depth study feasible. I am sorry to say that my scepticism has proven unfounded and that David’s judgement as to the relevance of this topic has been entirely vindicated – Said wrote much more about Kosovo than he should have. I am sorry, because it means that yet another eminent left-wing intellectual may be added to the list of those prepared to denigrate the peoples of the former Yugoslavia and minimise their suffering, for the sake of the ‘higher cause’ of scoring cheap points against the US. Said was not, as I had imagined, someone who had simply added his voice casually to the ‘anti-imperialist’ chorus at the time of the Kosovo War in 1999, but a dyed-in-the-wool anti-American zealot to whom the question of whether the Kosovo Albanians would be able to live in their own country, or whether they would become the Palestinians of Europe, mattered absolutely nothing. Indeed, he was much happier with the idea of the Kosovo Albanians losing their homeland and becoming a diaspora than he was with the idea of the US intervening militarily.

The reason this is particularly shocking in Said’s case is, of course, because he was himself a Palestinian; indeed, the most eminent intellectual champion of the Palestinian cause in the Western world. Said perceived a parallel between the fate of the Kosovo Albanians in 1999 and the fate of the Palestinians in 1948; in an article published during the Kosovo War, he wrote of the ‘persecution, ethnic cleansing and continued oppression of Albanians in the province of Kosovo by the Serbian forces of Slobodan Milosevic’, before adding that ‘for Palestinians, 1948 was like this minus CNN: at that time 780,000 were evicted from their houses and property by Zionist forces. They remain a nation in exile fifty-one years later.’ But his perception of this parallel did not lead him to express the slightest solidarity with the Kosovo Albanians – on the contrary…

I do not wish to plunder Zarnett’s splendid article for quotes showing just how far Said was prepared to go in minimising both the suffering of the Albanians and the crimes of the Milosevic regime; I’d recommend instead reading the article directly. Suffice to say that Said used the term ‘Sunday school picnic’ in reference to the fate of Milosevic’s Albanian victims. A fate that was, in his opinion, similar to that which befell the Palestinians in 1948, only with added CNN coverage.

Thursday, 20 December 2007 Posted by | Balkans, Former Yugoslavia, Israel, Kosovo, Middle East, Palestine, Serbia, The Left | Leave a comment

The US and Israel: What does it mean to be a friend ?

On Sunday evening I had the privilege of attending a lecture given by Richard Perle at the Finchley Synagogue, on the topic of whether peace is possible in the Middle East. Perle has been one of a number of US officials who have promoted a progressive vision of US foreign policy. In an earlier era, a US overthrow of a hostile dictator would probably have been followed simply by his replacement with a pro-American dictator, yet it was thanks to the vision of Perle and other neoconservatives that the overthrow of Saddam was followed by the establishment of a democracy in Iraq. An Iraqi democrat who attended last night’s meeting gave his thanks to Perle and his colleagues, describing them as architects who had drawn up a beautiful plan, only to see it spoiled by mistakes during the construction. Perle gave his blessing also to the plea from an Iranian dissident, who was also present, that the US should support the democratic movement in Iran. He has been a principled champion of the defence of Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo from Milosevic’s aggression and tyranny and critic of Putin’s brutal repression in Chechnya.

In his speech last night, Perle highlighted not only the obstacle to Middle Eastern peace represented by traditional US foes like the Iranian and Syrian regimes, but also the threat posed by the regime in Saudi Arabia which, as he pointed out, spreads the poison of Islamic extremism across the globe. He criticised the British government for providing the red carpet treatment to Saudi King Abdullah during his recent visit. It is deeply ironic that neoconservatives like Perle have been so vilified by fashionable left-liberal opinion, when it is precisely they who have broken with the prevailing orthodoxy among Western policy-makers, that realpolitik requires the support of brutal dictators who happen to be friendly to the West. Neoconservaties like Perle are doing precisely what traditional leftists should be doing but in most cases are not: agitating against the dictators.

It was in his discussion of the Israel-Palestine question that I found myself disagreeing with Richard; not because I disagreed with his principles, but because I disagree with how he interprets them. Responding to a question from an American graduate student, who asked him whether the US really derived any benefit from the alliance with Israel, he responded that the day the US abandoned a friend to ingratiate itself with the enemies of that friend will be the day that the US loses all moral authority as a superpower, and that it will be perceived globally as having done so. Israel is the US’s friend, it is a democracy and a loyal ally, and the US should support its friend. If I understood correctly, Perle interprets this to mean supporting Israel in all its outstanding areas of dispute with the Palestinians.

I entirely agree that the US should support Israel. The question is: what does ‘supporting Israel’ mean ? What does it mean to be a friend ?

A true friend does not just support everything one does, even when one is not in the right. A true friend should be prepared to tell one when one is in the wrong and to dissuade one from a course of action that will lead one to harm. A true friend of Turkey would advise it to withdraw from Cyprus; a true friend of Serbia would advise it to give up Kosovo; a true friend of Iran would advise it to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons. If the US is to be a true friend of Israel, it is not enough just to support Israel against its enemies; it must also guide it away from a self-destructive policy.

Israel’s waging of a territorial conflict with the Palestinians in the West Bank is a self-destructive policy. Because while Israel is in the right in its determination to defend itself from neighbouring regimes or movements that seek its destruction, such as Ahmadinejad’s regime in Tehran or Hezbollah in Lebanon; while it is in the right to face down enemies that deny its right to exist; while it is right to defend its population from suicide bombers; in its policy in the West Bank, Israel is in the wrong. No amount of pointing to the crimes of the other side – great though they are – can hide this fact.

It is often, and rightly, pointed out by Israel’s defenders that critics of Israel, from the ranks of the Islamic world, the left-liberal intelligentsia in the West, and elsewhere, will single out Israeli crimes and misdemeanours for condemnation while ignoring the equal or greater crimes and misdemeanours of neighbouring Muslim states: Syria’s Hama massacre and promotion of the Lebanese civil war; Iran’s persecution of the Ahwazi Arabs; the genocide in Darfur; the brutal oppression of women and absence of democracy in Egypt and Saudia Arabia; and so forth. But it does no good to point out this hypocrisy and condemn all these crimes, and then to turn a blind eye to the utterly unjustifiable Israeli policy of colonisation and settlement building in the West Bank; the denial of human rights to the West Bank Palestinians; the attempt to squeeze them into an ever-smaller slice of their homeland.

The reason it does no good – leaving aside the question of morality – is that it is extremely damaging to us in our life-and-death struggle against Islamist terrorism and the dictatorships that promote it. In this struggle, the propaganda war is all important. A large part of our difficulties in Iraq stem from the fact that – unlike in Kuwait in 1991, Kosovo in 1999 and Afghanistan in 2001 – we did not win the propaganda war prior to our military intervention. It might once have been thought that the US was powerful enough simply to forge ahead with its preferred policy regardless of what the world thought, but that does not appear so feasible today. We are waging a struggle with the Islamists for the hearts and minds of ordinary Muslims across the world, and we cannot afford to be the bad guys anywhere at all. Because our enemies will always highlight our errors – Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and so forth.

It is, arguably, hypocritical when Muslims complain about the mistreatment of other Muslims in Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya and elsewhere while ignoring the persecution of Muslim populations by Muslim regimes, in Darfur, Khuzestan, eastern Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. But the problem is not that they are highlighting the plight of Palestians, Kashmiris and Chechens, but that they are failing to highlight the persecution of Muslims by other Muslims. Both Muslims and non-Muslims should be highlighting alike the plight of Palestinians and Ahwazi Arabs, Kashmiris and Sudanese, Chechens and Saudi Shias.

For better or for worse, the Palestinian question has come to assume tremendous symbolic importance in the eyes of many Muslims – and indeed of many non-Muslims. Objectively speaking, the oppression of Palestinians by Israel in the West Bank forms only a small part of the total oppression that is occurring in the Middle East. But symbolically, the Palestinian question has come to assume an importance out of all proportion to its objective importance in Middle Eastern geopolitics.

Our credibility in the eyes of world opinion, and particularly world Muslim opinion, rests disproportionately on our ability to deliver a just settlement to the Israel-Palestine dispute. Not a pro-Palestinian settlement, but a settlement that is just for both sides.

The Israelis and Palestinians are two great nations; equally worthy of freedom, independence and security. This has nothing to do with the awfulness of the leaderships of one or both of them. The fascistic, anti-Semitic nature of the Hamas movement, the suicide bombings, or the corrupt brutality of Yasser Arafat do not detract from the Palestinian right to national independence, any more than the massive war-crimes of Ariel Sharon, the anti-Arab racism of parts of the Israeli right or the pro-Nazi and terrorist past of Yitzhak Shamir detract from the right of Israel to security and self-defence.

I have yet to hear, let alone be convinced by, any Israeli justification for the existence of the West Bank settlements, or for exclusive Israeli possession of Jerusalem. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank may have made military sense when Israel was threatened with the conventional armies of neighbouring Arab states, but today the threat is different: suicide bombers, rocket attacks and potentially a nuclear strike. The occupation of the West Bank does not help Israel to defend itself from these threats, but it does massively alienate world opinion. Furthermore, Israel’s security rests on the sanctity of legally established borders; by questioning the sanctity of these borders in the goal of annexing West Bank territory, Israel is undermining the very institution that underpins its own territorial integrity. The occupation of the West Bank and the abuse of Palestinian human rights that this involves drives ordinary Palestinians into the arms of the extremists. The longer this goes on, the more danger there is of Israel eventually coming to grief at the hands of its enemies. And all for a few small slices of territory that, objectively, it needs less than the Palestinians do.

As an outsider with no personal emotional ties with either Israel or Palestine, any settlement that would award the Palestinians less than 22% of the territory of historic Palestine, or that would award all Jerusalem to just one of the two nations, would strike me as deeply unjust. No matter how awful the Palestinian leadership is, the Palestinian people deserve better than that. It is only through a just settlement – an Israel secure in its pre-’67 borders, an independent Palestine comprising the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and a Palestinian abandonment of the right to return to pre-’67 Israel in exchange for fair compensation – that a stable peace can be born. A peace that would undercut the appeal of Hamas and other extremists and remove this symbolic injustice in the eyes of world opinion while safeguarding Israel’s security.

If Hamas were to continue to attack Israel from the West Bank following an Israeli withdrawal, Israel would be in an incomparably stronger position strategically than it is today. Because Israel would be unquestionably and totally the good guy; it would lose its negative image in the eyes of all but the extremists; it would enjoy the sympathy of the whole world.

That’s something anyone would want for a friend.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007 Posted by | Islam, Israel, Middle East | Leave a comment