The social construction of “Turks” in Bosnia, and the Srebrenica genocide: an interview with Emir Suljagić

CN: this article contains discussion of genocide and Islamophobia


Emir Suljagić is a Bosnian journalist, politician and scholar. In 1992, at aged 17, he fled the ethnic cleansing of the Drina valley to the last remaining Bosniak (Muslim) enclave, in the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica. Emir survived the genocide of 8,372 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, thanks to his employment as a UN interpreter. After the Bosnian war ended, he went on to serve as Minister of Education of Sarajevo Canton (2011-2012) and the Deputy Minister of Defence (March-December 2015). He is now the Director of the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial in Potočari, Bosnia. Following the recent publication of his article in the Journal of Genocide Research, entitled ‘Genocide by Plebiscite: The Bosnian Serb Assembly and Social Construction of “Turks” in Bosnia and Herzegovina’, Politika News (virtually) sat down with Emir to discuss his article’s findings, and the events that led to the genocide in Srebrenica.

In your article you discuss how the Bosniaks were dehumanised by Bosnian Serb ethnic nationalists through the reconceptualisation of Bosniak men, women and children as an enemy from within. Why do you think there was room for this discourse to flourish, and can scholars be sure of when this rhetoric started?

I think it’s possible to trace the rhetoric back to mid-late 1980s, and a group of Serb nationalist intellectuals. Initially, it was in relation to Kosovo, but was smoothly superimposed on Bosnia and Herzegovina and its Muslim population in later years. I believe a number of distinct Balkan Christian identities developed in some kind of binary opposition to Islam, or more precisely to the Ottoman Empire. The image of the foreign and Asiatic conqueror were most easily summoned in the imagination of the Serbian political class. Interestingly, the first months of the uprising in the Second World War, especially in Western Bosnia in the summer months of 1941 had a very strong “anti-Turkish” character. The question really, is not why the Serb elites, or a significant portion of Serb elites chose to dehumanise Bosniaks, but why they chose this particular current within the Serb nationalist mainstream narrative? My answer is that it’s cultural. 

Your article posits that Bosnia and Herzegovina’s vote for independence in 1992 was viewed by the ‘Serb political class […] as an attempt to restore the Ottoman Empire.’ Why do you think the ‘struggle against “the Turk”’ has become such an integral part of Balkan Christian identity?

Once again, much of the identity of Balkan Christians developed in interaction, but more importantly in opposition to Islam and the Ottomans. The struggle against the Ottoman Empire is an important element of their narratives of national liberation and emancipation. It is part of national cultures of Balkan Christians. Of course, this is not to say that it is always as salient as it was in the case of Bosnian Serbs and Serbs in general, I daresay, in the nineteen-nineties. Balkan Christian societies also have a long history of coexistence, cooperation and trade with Muslims. But I guess it tells us something about elites who are often thought of as capable of imposing themselves on society, somehow miraculously, out of a historical, political and, cultural vacuum. Elites also work from within the existing culture, drawing on the existing cultural and historical imagery. I guess the Bosniaks’ Islamic identity lent itself most easily to the process of constructing Bosniaks as alien, foreign and a mortal threat by very fact of their existence.

During the war, Bosniak women, children, and men were openly referred to as ‘degenerates’, ’halaša (scum)’ and ‘worms’, by Bosnian Serb politicians. Do you believe these politicians were constructing a new imaginary of the Bosniak people, or simply giving legitimacy to existing prejudice? 

It certainly did not come out of vacuum. It came from the way Muslims were talked about in family circles, from how Islam and Turks were portrayed in curriculums, and finally from systemic low-key discrimination that Bosniaks in particular were subjected to through a good part of the existence of the Socialist Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia, in the words of Marko Atilla Hoare was a South-Slavic ethnic project and Bosniaks were often viewed as an ethnic “fifth-column” as Cathie Charmichael puts it.  

Your article briefly mentions the role played by the Greek government in legitimising Serb ethnic nationalism during the war. How significant was the impact of Greek political and military support for genocidal crimes against Bosnian Muslims on the events of the war?

It is certainly a dark and shameful episode in Greek history, but we shouldn’t overestimate its military impact. A unit of Greek volunteers took part in the Srebrenica operation in July 1995, however I truly doubt its military value. More important, however, is the contribution of the Greek political class, especially the then Government and Prime minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis, to the normalisation of the genocide of Bosniaks. Mitsotakis himself echoed the views of Radovan Karadžić about the danger of a “Muslim state” in Europe under the leadership of Alija Izetbegović, in a speech to the Bosnian Serb Assembly in May 1993.  

Emir Suljagić survived the genocide in Srebrenica and is currently the Director of the Srebrenica Memorial Center

Does Europe have a problem with its attitude towards Muslim communities in the Balkans? 

I think that’s a little too general, but it is still interesting how many European political leaders in the 1990s, such as Francois Mitterrand or Mitsotakis, viewed Bosniaks through the lens of their heritage. Mitterrand actively prevented an early military intervention in the conflict and it remained not only the French, but also European policy in Bosnia and Herzegovina well into 1995. That alone, in my opinion, can account for the fact the EU, back then EC, used genocide as it was perpetrated as a negotiating chip to force the then Government of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina to accept the partition of the country.  

You survived the Srebrenica genocide and you have served as both Minister of Education (Sarajevo Canton) and Deputy Minister of Defence of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Do you have hope for the future of your homeland?

I do. Bosnia has a way of coming back. I’m sure we’ll come back.

Politika News would like to thank Emir Suljagić for his time. Readers can access Suljagić’s article here.

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Article Image Source: Flickr

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