What the Srebrenica Massacre verdict reminds us about religion's role in terrorism

A woman reacts at the Potocari cemetery and memorial near Srebrenica on July 10, 2015 after newly-identified remains of ...

A woman reacts at the Potocari cemetery and memorial near Srebrenica on July 10, 2015 after newly-identified remains of another 136 victims were buried. Photo: Matej Divizna/Getty Images

Even in a world at risk of becoming jaded by escalating terrorist attacks, the past couple of weeks have been particularly gruesome. Turkey, Brussels, Iraq, Pakistan; there's no guessing who will be next.

But buried amongst this bleakness was news of justice finally served. Last Thursday, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was finally convicted of genocide for his role in the slaughter of 8,000 Muslim men and boys known as the Srebrenica Massacre.

In 1995, at the height of the Balkan civil war, Karadzic, then president of the self-declared Bosnian Serb Republic, ordered his military to "create an unbearable situation of total insecurity with no hope of further survival or life for the (Muslim) inhabitants of Srebrenica." Following a months-long embargo on food and supplies, his forces swept in on July 6 and the carnage followed soon after.

Bosnian Muslim Habiba Masc lost her husband Sadija and her son Sadmir during the fall of Srebrenica in 1995.

Bosnian Muslim Habiba Masc lost her husband Sadija and her son Sadmir during the fall of Srebrenica in 1995. Photo: AP

From July 11-13, Bosnian Serb forces kidnapped thousands of Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men who had attempted to flee. Using UN equipment to track them down, they promised the men would not be harmed. Some Bosniaks surrendered while others were taken from a UN compound. Blindfolded, they were marched to their own graves all over the countryside. Many were tortured. 1000 are still missing.

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For ordering the worst war crime on European soil since the Holocaust, Karadzic was sentenced to 40 years' prison. Belated, yes. Incomplete, certainly. Nonetheless, coming when it does, the importance of this taste of justice must not be overlooked.

So accustomed are we to seeing today's major conflicts framed as the West versus Islam, we easily overlook the real nature of war and terror. But the Karadzic case reminds us that no religion or race has the monopoly on violence and none is above committing atrocities.

Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic makes an initial appearance at the International Criminal Tribunal in 2008.

Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic makes an initial appearance at the International Criminal Tribunal in 2008. Photo: Serge Ligtenberg

Karadzic's stated aim was to create an ethnically pure Serbian state, one free of Muslims. Leading up to the massacre, Muslims were rounded into concentration camps. Women were systematically raped.

How little Europe learned in those 50 years between the Holocaust and Srebrenica. And how little we all still learn if we fail to heed this timely message.

The belief that Islam itself is to blame for terrorism, that there really is something in this particular religion that compels otherwise sensible people go on a violent rampage for no reason other than ideology, is espoused by everyone from Miranda Devine to Bill Maher to Sam Harris.

Not only does this thinking ignore the global nature of violence, it instantly erodes the capacity to see Muslims as victims of it. Sure enough, shortly after the Brussels attacks, Poland announced it was "not possible" to take in the 7,000 refugees it had agreed to in a deal with the EU.

Divorcing the current violence from politics and history, we forget that religion is but one facet of cultural identity that people cling to to rationalise their political motives. As such, it will always be used in way that reinforces this identity and distinguishes one from the "enemy."

Islamist groups such as ISIS are not the only ones to use religion to further their own political causes at the expense of other religious and racial groups. We saw this in Srebrenica just as we see it now in the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar by radical Buddhists.

Yes, the terror attacks by ISIS and similar Islamic extremist groups "have something to do with Islam" in so much as they are committed by groups claiming to act in the name of Islam, but it is deceitful to imply that only Muslims use religion to justify violence. In looking for answers to terrorism in Islam itself, we have already forgotten that Bosnian Serbs and Croatians fought the Balkans civil war with pictures of the Virgin Mary glued to their guns.

There is no clash of civilisations. There is no Islam versus the West. What there is, is a global game of power and racialisation that is dominated by different groups at different times but that in some way or another involves all of us.

For just as UN and Dutch peacekeepers allowed Srebrenica to happen by failing to protect the Bosniaks, in some cases literally handing them over to their killers; the West plays a part in contemporary Islamist terror by providing weapons that end up in the hands of ISIS and Al-Nusra.

Of course, there are those who will insist on intrinsic white innocence and all-encompassing Muslim guilt. They will describe the violence of Muslims in detail while disguising that of the West in euphemisms like "the French military increased its activity in the Middle East," as if that too doesn't involve deaths of innocent people.

Such a worldview requires a staggering degree of cognitive dissonance. But then, cognitive dissonance seems to be what our relationship to the Middle East is based on.

Our leaders say they are fighting a war on terror but their strongest Arab ally is Saudi Arabia, a country that has spent more than $100 billion exporting extremist ideology across the globe and is currently using western-supplied weapons to pound Yemen into submission.

We tell the Arab people that we love freedom and scorn them for their lack of it, but the tear gas their dictators use to control them have 'Made in USA' stamped on the canisters.

We ignore the role the West plays in fostering the power and sectarian struggles in the Middle East; that we once supplied Saddam Hussein with weapons in his war against Iran, and did the same with the Mujahideen - who would morph into the Taliban - against the Russians.

But last week The Hague reminded us that everything is connected. There is no completely innocent party in all of this violence. The script has flipped and Radovan Karadzic, a white European Christian man will spend the remainder of his life in prison for the mass murder of Muslims.

And for the rest of us, there is no going back; the violence and terror will continue. If we want a better world, we must remember why.