From Srebrenica to Gaza - How Systematic Dehumanization Leads to Genocide | Blog

Published: July 8, 2024 • Updated: July 8, 2024

Author: Dr. Omar Suleiman

بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْمِ

In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.

We must recognize the daily, routine dehumanization that leads to genocide.
The genocide that occurred in Srebrenica 29 years ago this week, when some 8,000 mostly Muslim Bosniaks were killed by a Serbian nationalist militia, was the largest genocide Europe has seen since the Holocaust. It didn’t come out of nowhere: In the three years leading up to the genocide, an estimated 100,000 people were killed, 80% of whom were Bosniaks, one of three ethnic groups who called the fledgling state of Bosnia and Herzegovina home.
But in July 1995, Bosnian Serbs troops slaughtered Srebrenica’s men and boys before burying them in mass graves, raped an untold number of Bosniak women, and removed an estimated 23,000 women, children and elderly, putting them on buses and driving them to Muslim-controlled territories.
It was the horrific climax of a disgraceful war. The international Muslim community mobilized, and the shame of the genocide prompted the West to act. A NATO-led bombing campaign led to the cessation of the Serbian murder machine.
Now, as we commemorate the 29th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, Gaza enters its 9th month under Israeli bombardment as a new genocide unfolds. Nearly 38,000 Palestinians have been killed, mostly women and children, with another 87,000 injured. How do we reflect on the murder of thousands of Bosniak Muslims, while working to end the ongoing genocide in Gaza? How do we avoid “statistical numbness,” one where casualty counts, past and present, are merely numbers, absent souls?
The hypocrisy of a post-WWII rules-based world order that fuels a genocide in Gaza today also gave way to the genocide in Srebrenica. At its center is the dehumanization of the Muslim, apart from race, geography, or identity. Despite their location in Europe and their Caucasian identity, Bosniaks were demonized, dehumanized, and consequently assigned for slaughter precisely because of their Islam.
Post-World War II decolonization had already normalized the Third World Muslim victim of Africa and Asia, but in Europe itself, only a few decades separated from the Holocaust, the citizens of the world’s most prosperous region told themselves that they had left the savagery of the past behind. Insert Islam, however, and the Bosniak Muslim is transformed into a natural casualty.

Simply put, would the genocide of Srebrenica have been possible if the victims weren’t Muslim? Or did it prove that being Muslim alone potentially disqualifies one from being considered European or even human?

These questions about Srebrenica are especially relevant now, at a time in which Gaza faces famine and genocide, and in a 21st century defined by futile wars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan that have resulted in thousands of unnamed and unknown casualties.
What does it mean to remember? What good is remembering without pause, reflection, and internalization? It’s important to frame the genocide of Srebrenica—and now Gaza—primarily through the lens of personal accountability. In looking inward while reflecting on atrocity, we interrogate our efforts. How are we working to end the current genocide, while commemorating a previous one? This process converts remembrance from a ceremonial annual ritual to a transformative exercise of self-accountability.
When I visited the Srebrenica Memorial Center, I was chilled to the bone by the sheer number of graves, most of them containing bodies of Bosniak Muslims recovered from mass graves. They cover the ground as far as the eye can see. In Srebrenica, the air itself seems to bear witness to the bloodshed. Statistical numbness is impossible. Every grave is important. The difference between one casualty or two, much less 8,000, is the difference between night and day.
At the memorial center, the shoes of the victims remain on display, each pair a reminder that we must humanize the statistics and bring life to the virtual. Every human being who once stood in those shoes had tried to escape the horrific cruelty of their tormentors. The victims thought of ways to run and hide, and dreamed of walking freely without fear. They were children, parents, spouses, and siblings. But to those who massacred them, assembly line-style, they were less than insects.
Remembering genocide means remembering that it can only happen with systematic dehumanization of a people. Just as Bosnians were dehumanized and systematically killed, so too are Palestinians today. All around us in media and culture, Palestinians are synonymous with evil. Their casualties are merely collateral. It doesn’t happen in one day; it takes sustained neglect and systematic dehumanization.
We are inundated with the news of Gaza’s casualties every day, on our phones, televisions and computers. Over 10 killed here, 25 killed there, 700 killed there. Srebrenica should have been never again, and without proper remembrance and reflection, the cycle of empty condolences and endless anniversaries continues.
A prior version of this blog was written for and published on Religion News Service: https://religionnews.com/2023/07/11/why-do-we-remember-srebrenica/
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