By Karolina Płocha
During the Project on Peacebuilding, one of the participants shared an interesting reflection. She asked me whether I have ever noticed that when politicians, journalists and even human rights activists talk about Muslims in the context of Europe, they talk about “Muslims in Europe” and not about “Muslims of Europe.” She was right. I never paid attention to this particular difference, but her simple, yet striking observation tells so much about the approach of many Europeans towards Muslim culture and Muslims themselves.
In the discourse about Muslims and Islam (including the issues of migration and refugees), we so easily get caught into a narrative on some people from the outside, representing a “different,” “non-European” culture, whom we shall or shall not accept in “our” countries – whatever “European” or “our” actually means.
When in Bosnia, you can clearly see how ridiculous that narrative is. Bosnian Muslims ancestors have been living here for more than a thousand years, and their descendants have practised Islam for more than four hundred years. There is nothing to make them less “European” than Catholics, Orthodox Christians, or Protestants — nothing to make them Muslims in Europe, instead of from or of Europe. As clichéd as it is, there is nothing more natural than that people differ from each other, yet those differences do not really run along ethnic or religious backgrounds, but personalities, experiences, viewpoints, or socio-economic situations. Perhaps if those who create a public debate (including politicians, journalists, academics, etc.) noticed and accepted that fact in relation to Bosnian Muslims, they would also understand it in the wider context.
Sadly, things seem to be going the opposite way, both in Europe and the US, where nationalism, neo-fascism, and xenophobia are re-emerging. Thinking of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is such a dramatic example of what this deadly mixture of political cynicism, propaganda and ethnic/ religious prejudices may lead to, I am even more frustrated and scared about current European and US politics.
During my time in BiH, I was struck by the quiet, peaceful villages and towns, where lovely landscapes are combined with the ruins of houses destroyed during the war – present everywhere, constantly reminding you of what happened in the nineties. But, it’s not only the ruins that you can see. The remains of the Muslims’ homes are entwined with newly raised buildings, belonging to the survivors who keep coming back, either for holiday or to return for good.
This is another lesson from the history of Bosnia. Prijedor, the area deeply affected by the war, shows that while you can promote hatred, aggression and kill thousands of people, you can’t force them to stop calling that place their home. You cannot make them forget, you cannot prevent the next generation from identifying with the land from which you wanted to expel their parents and grandparents.
In many conversations that I had with the participants of the POP (many of us were foreigners), we agreed that perhaps we would never really understand this country and its political, cultural, and geographical complexity. Most of all, we might never understand the war, with all its horrifying, unbelievable details, including neighbors and friends killing and torturing each other. What we can do is to share information about this place and try to critique the popular, easy, western narrative on the “wild Balkans,” “ancient hatreds,” and genocide committed equally by all parties engaged in the conflict.
Finally, we can and we should remember that the long history of intolerance and violence is never really finished. Perhaps the only way to prevent future acts of violence is to get involved in public affairs, trying to live a life that goes beyond a comfortable, consumerist existence.