History is an open-ended book, constantly edited and re-edited by multiple authors and divergent interests. As academics, we are trained to examine history from multiple vantage points and pursue all available sources before a conclusive judgement is reached on a given topic or issue. In this sense, history presents the ultimate challenge since the engagement with the subject matter is contingent on a variety of subjective constraints that limits the ability to reach a finality on the subject matter.
For example, let’s take how we mark time and the basic use of a calendar, which is assumed to be neutral act but in reality is far from it, and is a highly subjective undertaking. Are we in the year 2016?
What measures or set of criteria are used to reach this determination? Marking history and using a calendar is a subjective act and is not at all neutral or an objective determination of the passing of time.
In the contemporary context, history has been marked by the terrorist attack of the 11th of September, 2001, a very important and horrific event causing the death of 2,996 innocent individuals. The terrorist attacks were experienced directly and indirectly by many people across the globe and is appropriately remembered yearly. However, from a global perspective, the marking of this horrific act as the singular signpost is problematic. Here, the 11th of September became an event endowed with a pre- and post-event marker not dissimilar to how the specific Gregorian calendar is situated and for sure is not at all a universal marker despite its vast usage.
Having travelled to Sarajevo, Bosnia, this past week, the issue of marking and erasure of history was on my mind throughout the visit. For Bosnia, the marking of history centers on genocide, and in particular, the Srebrenica massacre, which witnessed the slaughter of 8,373 Muslim Bosniak civilians in two days, July 11-13, 1995, while under U.N. protection. The Bosnian genocide was committed by the Serb Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) under the command of General Ratko Mladić, which took the lives of some 100,000 civilians, witnessed the systematic rape of 12,000-20,000 Bosniak women and ethnically cleansed and displaced 2.2 million people, mostly Bosnian Muslims. Critically, the genocidal crimes committed against the Bosnian Muslim population were witnessed and experienced by inhabitants of the country and by the world community alike. Here, the question must be asked, why is the Bosnian genocide not historically marked? Why is it subject to layered erasures and omitted from references as if it did not happen?
If the 11th of September is rightly marked and remembered for the massive attacks and the large human causalities, then surely the Bosnian genocide with multiple attacks over a four-year period and countless massacres should be a fixed point in contemporary history. As far as numbers, the Srebrenica genocide had almost three times as many deaths and surely deserves to be remembered. I am not situating one horrific act versus another, nor is it an attempt to measure who suffered most; rather I am interpreting how history is marked and unmarked as well as the erasure of some humans from global memory. Why is it that history becomes marked into pre- and post-11th of September but not pre- and post-Bosnian genocide? Could the victims’ religious background and othering on that basis rationalize the erasure and make it a forgone conclusion, as if it did not occur at all?
A similar case can be made by Iraqis, who have experienced the shock and awe campaign and the U.S. invasion that caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands and continues up to the present day. For Iraqis and the city of Baghdad, history is marked by the Mongol destruction of the city in 1258 and the 2003 U.S. invasion. In reality, the exact numbers of Iraqi deaths are unknown and a whole effort by the U.S. is afoot to obfuscate and minimize the reporting of civilian causalities. Why are Iraqi deaths caused by U.S. and allied coalition forces not marked nor accounted for in historical records as if they did not exist prior to their death? Why don’t we have a pre- and post-invasion of Iraq accounting of history?
In reality, history is subject to power dynamics and is written to reflect the victor’s narrative or those with the means to produce knowledge about it. The interpretation and engagement with what is written is already impacted by its developmental formulation. The “world” history is a Eurocentric enterprise and its subject is European men and women since they represent the mega narrative and civilization itself. At the same time, their victims are collectively relegated to a permanent sub-humanness. History is marked by what happens and what is deemed important to Americans and Europeans while suffering has meaning only when it touches the superior and the civilized but not the sub-human.
At the European Islamophobia Summit, Rt Hon Jack Straw, UK Foreign Secretary from 2001 to 2006 under Prime Minister Tony Blair, insisted on marking time in relation to the 11th of September and asserting the date as the most significant event that the attendees must mark in the current period. The audience at the summit was predominantly Muslim, and the opening session where Mr. Straw spoke was held at the renovated National Library. This was the site of the largest single act of book burning in Europe’s history with 2 million volumes intentionally targeted by the Serbs as an act of cultural and intellectual genocide directed at the collective heritage of the Bosnian Muslim population. Lost on Straw was that the people in the room travelled and accepted the invite to the conference because it was in Sarajevo and in remembrance and solidarity with the people’s marked history that is subject to constant erasure from European consciousness.
Precisely, the erasure was what we experienced from Mr. Straw at the summit. Adding insult to injury was Mr. Straw demanding from the stage that Muslim theologians needed to issue fatwas and speak out against Da’ish with the underlying assumption that either they are silent or collectively are supportive and responsible for what the terrorists are doing.
During the question-and-answer period, I made sure to challenge this collective assignment of responsibility and the unsubstantiated assertion that Muslim theologians are silent and to be faulted for what is underway in Iraq. I did mention that I was a party of a collective response by Muslim scholars directed at refuting Da’ish claims. Furthermore, I pointed out that every Muslim group of any level of standing around the world issued a statement — if not multiple ones — in response to Da’ish criminal and terroristic acts. Lastly, I put the question to Mr. Straw as to why he believed that Muslims, as a group, all 1.4 billion of them, should be held responsible for Da’ish and not Bush, Blair and himself for the invasion of Iraq and creating the conditions that gave rise to this terroristic enterprise. Mr. Straw’s answer to the question was not forthcoming and he swiftly shifted from lack of fatwas to blaming people for being confused as to what to do. While people’s confusion is not unique to Muslims, Mr. Straw problematizing it as the cause for Da’ish’s rise is wickedly cruel. Furthermore, Mr. Straw refused to admit any responsibility for the horror show in Iraq. On the stage and sharing the panel with Mr. Straw was Mahdi Hasan from Aljazeera English, who pressed him on the question by stating that Blair himself has accepted partial responsibility and if he would do the same, but to no avail.
The European Islamophobia Summit was a moment of marking and unmarking history. An event that should have been marked and written back into contemporary history — the local narrative of the Bosnian genocide — ended up in compounded erasures and shifting responsibility. Not to imply that all the presentations suffered from the same error; on the contrary, some great papers and speakers offered detailed accounting of Islamophobia at the European and theoretical levels. But the opening and some parts of the summit created problematic framing and wasted badly needed resources. What the Bosnian genocide provides is a stark contemporary example of the far-reaching consequences of Islamophobia. The Bosnian genocide provides an illustration of what happens when a process of de-humanization is set in motion and is coupled with a nativist and nationalist fervor. Death camps, acts of mass rape, ethnic cleansing and genocide begin with constructing an othering narrative that then gets to be affirmed through action. The narrative about Muslims in Europe and America should raise alarms for everyone concerned, and the Bosnian experience is an apt lesson that “never again” was not sustained.