It is more than a quarter of a century since Bosnia descended into a bloody conflict that claimed tens of thousands of lives. Since the massacre of 50 Muslim men, women and children in Christchurch, New Zealand, nine days ago, I have found myself wondering: is the world turning into a giant Bosnia?
The break-up of Yugoslavia — as the life imprisonment of Radovan Karadzic reminded us last week — was not the result of “ancient hatreds” mysteriously resurfacing, as was often claimed at the time (not least by the Foreign Office). It was the result of the spread of pseudo-history.
Pseudo-history plays an important part in justifying massacres by giving perpetrators the idea that their enemies are not quite human and that exemplary violence will accelerate their expulsion. The communist president of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, lit the fuse in 1989 with a rabble-rousing speech to mark the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. The watchword of Milosevic’s campaign was that the Serbs who lived in Bosnia and Kosovo were “endangered”.
The plan to partition Bosnia, hatched in March 1991 by Milosevic and his Croatian counterpart, Franjo Tudjman, was always genocidal in its intent. As Tudjman himself later remarked, there would be “no Muslim part” after the carve-up, even though Muslims accounted for about two-fifths of the Bosnian population. But it required pseudo-history to legitimise such large-scale “ethnic cleansing”.
One clue to Milosevic’s motivation lies in Yugoslavia’s prewar demographic trends. In Serbia the population hardly grew in the 1980s, whereas in Bosnia and Kosovo the Muslim populations increased by, respectively, 15% and 30%. Between 1961 and 1981 the Muslim proportion of the Bosnian population rose from 26% to 40%. It was upon the Serbian minorities’ resulting insecurities that Milosevic played.
The Bosnian War was marked by a string of exemplary massacres — what the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin called “propaganda of the deed”. In the spring of 1992 a group of Bosnian Serbs calling themselves the White Eagles unleashed hideous violence against the Muslims of Visegrad, who accossunted for three-fifths of the population. Thousands of men, women and children were killed, many driven to the middle of the historic bridge over the Drina and shot, their bodies thrown in the river.
This is the repulsive tradition to which the Christchurch killer, Brenton Tarrant, belongs. His 74-page manifesto, The Great Replacement, is a grab-bag of pseudo-history that casts Muslims in the western world as “invaders”, invoking past battles between Muslims and Christians.
The difference is that Tarrant did not need a modern equivalent of Milosevic to feed him this drivel. Unlike in 1992, it is now possible for a mediocre underachiever to educate himself by wandering through the wormholes of the internet, going wherever Google’s algorithms may lead — which is generally from Wikipedia to the most febrile conspiracy theories and then on to alt-right message boards such as 8chan. New technology (GoPro plus the internet) also enabled Tarrant to live-stream his slaughter of innocents on Facebook, confident that it and YouTube would be unable to prevent the resulting snuff video from going viral. If the Bosnian Serbs had been able to do this kind of thing, they doubtless would have.
Reflect on this for a moment. Within 24 hours, 300,000 videos based on Tarrant’s original recording were uploaded on Facebook, with a further 1.2m blocked in the attempt. Not for the first time, the combination of content moderators and artificial intelligence could not play whack-a-mole fast enough. There are a lot of sick people out there who want to see a “first-person shooter” game played with live ammunition and real, living, breathing, screaming, bleeding, dying victims.
In Bosnia retaliation followed aggression, creating a cycle of aggression. Can we now expect that to happen globally? I fear so. Within days of the Christchurch massacre a Turkish-born man shot three people dead on a tram in the Dutch city of Utrecht and a Senegalese-born driver tried to burn 51 children to death in a school bus near Milan. The gunman has admitted a “terrorist intent” in the former case; the latter act was intended as retaliation for drownings in the Mediterranean blamed by the perpetrator on Italy’s immigration policy.
In 2006 I published a book called The War of the World, warning that we might go down this road. But I did not expect to get to global Bosnia so soon.
In the aftermath of the Christchurch horror the bad-faith brigade has been busy trying to assign blame to anyone who has ever criticised Islamic extremism. This is precisely the kind of idiocy that Tarrant set out to encourage, as his semi-sarcastic manifesto makes clear. Let’s spell it out. Massacring people is always evil. It doesn’t matter who does it. They can be jihadists or white supremacists. They can be Maoists or Buddhists or Bosnian Serbs or members of the Provisional IRA.
As it happens, Islamists currently lead white supremacists by a large margin when it comes to the victim count. According to the Global Extremism Monitor, published by Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change, about 84,000 people — nearly 22,000 of them civilians — died as a result of violence by Islamist groups in 2017. The report counts 7,841 attacks in 48 countries, with Syria the country worst affected.
An alternative estimate comes from the US National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (Start). In 2017 there were 10,900 terrorist attacks around the world, which killed more than 26,400 people. The top three perpetrators were Isis (7,120 deaths), the Taliban (4,925) and al-Shabaab (1,894).
The obvious point — which makes a nonsense of the alt-right narrative — is that most of the victims of the jihadists were Muslims. The deadliest terrorist attack of 2017 was in Mogadishu, where more than 580 people were killed by a massive truck bomb. More than half of all deaths due to terrorism were in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. The representative act of violence last week was not in Europe but Pakistan, where a student stabbed a professor to death in Bahawalpur because the professor intended to host a welcome party for male and female students. According to one account, the murderer shouted: “I have killed him. I had told him that a gender-mix reception is against Islam.”
The average Muslim has more to fear from such fanatics than from white supremacists. As for “Islamophobia” — a cant expression designed to conflate criticism of Islam as an ideology with prejudice against Muslims — you will find much more in China than in the West. The Communist Party’s campaign to “deradicalise” the Uighurs of Xinjiang has led to the internment of up to 1m people in “vocational training centres”. As a result the population of the region’s capital, Urumqi, fell by 15% in 2017.
If you seek the Srebrenica of today’s global Bosnia, look no further.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford