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August 18, 2005

Brendan Simms asks, why do British Muslims give the United States no credit for liberating Bosnia and Kosovo?

Posted by Brendan Simms

Why do British Muslims give no credit to the United States for its crucial role in ending the genocide of Bosnian Muslims? This is the question put by Dr Brendan Simms, Reader in the History of International Relations at the University of Cambridge's Centre of International Studies and author of Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia. Dr Simms argues that it is time to remind people that European Muslims were the first to benefit from the recent surge in Western interventions - now is not the time to turn our backs on an interventionist foreign policy.

Picture the scene. It is the early autumn of 1995. In London and in a number of capitals across Europe, a wave of suicide bombs brings carnage to the streets and the transportation system. To general shock the perpetrators turn out to be British-born Muslim extremists. It is generally felt by those in the know and by British Muslims themselves, that the attacks were criminal and irrational, to be sure, but an entirely predictable reaction to the continuing genocide in Bosnia. For some three years, Europe had allowed the Bosnian Serbs to murder, rape and expel Bosnian Muslims under the glare of the world's television cameras. Some said that the British and French governments were sympathetic to the idea of a Greater Serbia; the almost malevolent determination with which London and Paris upheld an arms embargo which disadvantaged the lightly armed Muslims seemed to admit of no other explanation. Now was payback time. Osama bin Laden, the hitherto little-known terrorist mastermind, made the connection clear in a series of statements claiming responsibility for the bombs. "We do not attack the United States, after all", he said, pointing to the valiant efforts which American leaders had made to lift the arms embargo and use NATO airpower to halt the genocide.

This, of course, is a fantasy. The genocide in Bosnia did happen, though. It was ended in September-October 1995 when Bill Clinton railroaded his European allies into massive airstrikes which, together with the advance of US-armed Bosnian and Croat forces on the ground, finally brought the Serbs to heel. Many in the British and other European establishments have never forgiven the Americans for being right about Bosnia. Most Muslims, in Britain and worldwide, have forgotten it, if they ever knew it in the first place.

For a long time, I saw the inability of the US to parlay its efforts on behalf of European Muslims which were in evidence again over Kosovo in 1999 - into credit within the wider Umma as a failure of American public diplomacy. But in the course of my own modest efforts at public meetings, in the newspapers, and the odd appearance on "Muslim" channels, I quickly realised that I was hitting a brick wall.

Most Muslims were simply not interested in hearing that the US government had been a staunch supporter of Bosnian Muslims. By the time I added that prominent American Jews among them Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz were leading protagonists of intervention on behalf of the Bosnain Muslims, they had switched off. Bosnia and Kosovo were simply subsumed into their broader narrative of Muslim victimhood. My interlocutors were neither stupid nor insincere, it was just that they were wired in such a way that precluded them from seeing the United States as anything other than the global foe of Muslims, and the catspaw of Israel.

In the case of present-day Britain, there is a further paradox. Many of the Labour supporters of the removal of Saddam Hussein such as Peter Mandelson, Peter Hain and had been strong critics of the inaction on Bosnia. Mr Blair himself was the most principled supporter of intervention in Kosovo, including the deployment of ground troops, if necessary. In that sense European Muslims have had no firmer friend than the Prime Minister, a fact acknowledged by the mainly Muslim Kosovar Albanians among whom he enjoys iconic status. Yet so far, not one of the hundreds of British Muslim and para-Muslim voices I have heard since 7/7 has ever suggested that Muslims should have particular reason to be grateful to Tony Blair. They too seem wired in a way that we cannot reach.

The principal problem seems to lie in the question of "Muslim" identity in contemporary Britain. To be sure, some British Muslims were concerned about Bosnia and Kosovo, but there was nothing like the passionate engagement which marked the debate on Afghanistan and Iraq after September 11. Unlike Bosnian Muslims who see themselves as Europeans of Islamic faith or cultural background or Kosovar Muslims who are Albanians first and foremost most British Muslims seem to be fixated on the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. For them, Israeli human rights abuses weigh far more heavily than the much greater crimes perpetrated by Christians against Muslims in Bosnia, or by secularist Arab regimes, such as Syria, against Muslims. For them too, the Baathist and Jihadi resistance in Iraq seems a more authentic phenomenon than the millions of Muslims who voted for the first time in free elections in January of this year. It is important to stress that these are elective affinities: if British Muslims wanted to identify with the first democratic government of Iraq, they could do so.

What is to be done? The answer, surely, is not to pander to Muslim "perceptions", or to lower our voices in the babel of recrimination which followed the London bombs. On the contrary, we should turn up the volume. We should remind ourselves and others that European Muslims were the first to benefit from the recent surge in western interventions, some of which were certainly on the wrong side of positive international law. We should (continue to) hold Israel to a higher standard than any of its neighbours, but not at the expense of its security. We should persevere with the project to democratise Iraq, where Shia and Kurdish Muslims face a terrorist threat which puts the events of 7/7 in the shade. In short, we should not change our policies, quite the reverse. As C.P Snow once said, the only way to deal with a paranoid man is to give him something to be paranoid about.

Dr Brendan Simms is Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies, Cambridge, author of Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia (Penguin 2001), and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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The whole article is based upon the assumption that the Bosnian Muslims have been saved due to military intervention of the US administration. The author should know that the US government had threatened Slobodan Milosevic before the outbreak of the war. In case that the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) engaged the civilian population, the US Airforce would perform direct air strikes against Serbia. The only issue that forestalled these strikes was the opposition of the United Kingdom, which resulted in the worst atrocities since WWII, predominantly performed against Bosnian Muslims. It was also the engagement of the UK that finally lead to the erection of the so called Republika Srpska, an entity founded on genocide and ethnic cleansing. From this perspective it's quite cynical to believe that Muslims in Britain should be content with Western interventionism due to US intervention in Bosnia.

Posted by: Karl-Heinz at August 23, 2012 11:22 AM
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