Ukraine & Bosnia: The Future of Multiculturalism in Europe

Ukraine & Bosnia: The Future of Multiculturalism in Europe

CBNA’s Executive Director, Selma Porca, attended a virtual forum at Yale University titled “Ukraine & Bosnia: The Future of Multiculturalism in Europe”. Ms. Porca was one of three speakers invited to share their perspectives. The other two speakers were Yale PhD students in the East European Studies department. Ms. Porca aimed to provide a Bosniak perspective. The transcript of her speech is below:

By: Selma Porca

Thank you so much Fawzaan for the introduction and for providing a platform for us to discuss this very pertinent and imperative topic today. It is my privilege to be here to share one Bosniak’s perspective. I want to start off by wishing all those observing Easter, Passover and Ramadan, happy holidays.

As Fawzaan mentioned, my name is Selma and I am the Executive Director of the Congress of Bosniaks of North America, a non-profit, non-partisan organization which seeks to articulate and represent Bosniak interests and promotes positive aspects of Bosniak cultural, historical, ethnic, and religious heritage, ​​in the United States and Canada. The Bosniak people understand better than most what Ukraine is going through today. We stand in solidarity with the Ukranian people and many of our communities in the United States and all over Europe have organized protests to show their support to Ukraine and to democracy.

As Fawzaan mentioned, I was born in Bosnia and came to the United States as a refugee after my family was forcefully expelled from Banja Luka for being Bosniak Muslim. We lived in a number of refugee camps and eventually ended up in Sarajevo which was under siege. I entered the city through the Tunnel of Hope which was the only way people and resources could get in and out of the city. The Tunel is now a museum and one of the symbols of Sarajevo’s epic resistance.

The photos and videos coming out of Ukraine bring back memories of Sarajevo under siege. Except, while Kyev is being provided with high grade weapons to resist the Russian invasion, during the siege of Sarajevo, Bosnia was under an arms embargo by the UN. While the Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats were aided by troops and arms arriving from Serbia and Croatia, as they were not subject to the arms embargo, Bosniaks who were the victims of the aggression were not given a chance to defend themselves. They fought under an arms embargo and defended Sarajevo for 1,425 days, the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. Sarajevo never fell. The Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina turned the tide of the war in a way that no one expected. Their resistance was legendary. The question is, why was it necessary? Why is it that Bosniaks were left alone to fight a war for 3 years, that eventually resulted in genocide?

Here is one perspective, that was presented to The United States Congress in 1995, and I quote “I respectfully suggest, were it not Muslims this time who were in the rape camps, were it not Muslims who were being exterminated as part of this new phrase “ethnic cleansing”, that the world would have behaved differently.” These are the words of then Senator, now president Joseph R. Biden. Then Senator Biden further elaborated that the reason why 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, was because they were Jews. The world turned a blind eye, just as they were doing in Bosnia. He shortly after goes on to say something that is chillingly foretelling – “Let me be presumptuous enough to go on a little more to what I think the next history lesson will be. The Soviet empire has collapsed – the good news. The bad news is that all of the ethnic hatreds, all of the ethnic fighting, all of the atrocities that occurred 100 years ago and 40 years ago are now uncovered again. There are 25 million Russians living outside the border of Russia, in the Ukraine, in the Baltic countries, in Kazakhstan. There is a war in Armenia, in Georgia, and almost all of it is based on ethnicity.”

Then Senator Biden goes on to say that unless the United States steps in and helps Bosnia, that this is the start of the collapse of the Western Alliance and that it will spread war in Europe in the next decade. He was very pessimistic about Europe, because in his opinion “there is no moral center in Europe”.

What is the cause of this lack of moral center in Europe? Why is it that so many generations have seen persecution on European soil, driven by ethnicity? In order to understand the future of multiculturalism in Europe, I think we need to reflect on some of it’s past.

Bosnia was a multi-confessional and multi-ethnic country, that embraced diversity centuries ago. There are many examples of this throughout Bosnia’s history going back a thousand years. I will only share a few with you today, to try and paint a picture of Bosnia’s struggle for diversity and multiculturalism and Europe’s resistance.

The first example I wanted to share has to do with the events which unfolded following the issuance of the Alhambra Decree in Spain in 1492. When the Catholic Monarchs of Spain ordered the expulsion of practicing Jews from its territory. At the time, Bosnia was a self-governing province of the Ottoman Empire, which did not discriminate against the Jewish people. Bosnia became a safe haven for Shepardi Jews who to this day live in Bosnia and have a rich 500-year-old history. Similarly, a large Roma population has lived in Bosnia for over 600 years.

With all this diversity, there are not a lot of places in this world like Sarajevo. A city that is often called “Jerusalem Pico” or “Little Jerusalem”. It is one of the most multicultural cities in Europe where you can see a Catholic Church, an Orthodox Church, a Mosque and a Synagogue within blocks of each other. Wandering through Sarajevo’s old town, the city’s history and multiculturalism are evident in its architecture. It’s like walking through time. The city is a living example of tolerance.

How is it then that a country that has always been proud of its diversity, ethnic and confessional, had a genocide committed against its Bosniak Muslim majority in recent history? Could it be that multiculturalism and diversity are seen as a threat in Europe? Was the attack on Bosnia in the 90’s a symptom which signaled the spread of nationalism around the world today? Even within Ukraine, there are far right groups rising that are threatening to further de-stabilize the country. Ukraine’s foreign minister and defense minister have both said that the greatest risk the country faces is internal destabilization under the threat of a Russian invasion. The risk came into focus last fall when President Zelensky accused Democratic Ax, one of dozens of right-wing groups that represent a potent political force in Ukraine, of planning an armed protest on Kyiv’s Independence Square as part of a coup plot.   

All the while, Europe is dealing with an influx of refugees from the Middle East. The fabric of European society is changing and it’s changing fast. This is a recipe for a rise in tensions and a fear of the “other”. Factions within Europe whose popularity has increased over the recent years are using fear and “othering” to express concerns that their culture is disappearing, which explains the election of far-right politicians across the continent. One of them being Hungarian Prime Minster Viktor Orban who stated last December “I am doing my best to convince Europe’s great leaders that the Balkans may be further away from them than from Hungary, but how we manage the security of a state in which 2 million Muslims live is a key issue for their security too.” The “state” he was referring to was Bosnia of course. This resulted in many Bosniak leaders denouncing the Prime Minister for what they considered to be Islamophobic and racist statements.

Interestingly, when we really think about it, Prime Minister Orban’s argument falls apart at the outset. The people of Bosnia have lived where they are today since the last Ice Age. They are not invaders or someone to be feared. Before the Ottoman invasion, they referred to themselves as Bosniaks and were originally made up of people who followed Catholicism, Orthodoxy and the Church of Bosnia, which was labeled as “heretical” by the other two. In the 14th century, we saw the arrival of the Ottoman empire and a wide acceptance of Islam in the region, followed by the arrival of the Roma people. In the 15th century we saw the arrival of Jewish migrants who found a home in Bosnia. Yet, Orban chose to use the term “Muslim”, as if to erase the rich, multicultural history of Bosnia that all Bosniaks are proud of. Even when Bosniaks were discriminated against, persecuted, expelled and systemically exterminated, they did not go avenging all the blood that was shed. Even though over 600 mosques were intentionally destroyed by the aggressor during the war, the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina did not destroy a single church. I believe it is clear what the threat is when the facts are considered. Given its history of sheltering those in need, which is elaborate, Bosnia has been and still is Europe’s long lost moral center.

While Middle Eastern refugees are being shoved into slums around Europe and are seen as a threat to the current world order, Bosnians, see their arrival as a test of humanity. Time and time again, locals provided shelter and food to those in need. Once again, Bosnia is rising to the challenge, despite the political and economic crisis it is in, to be a shelter for the oppressed and to stand on the right side of history. Without regard to the religion, ethnicity or race of those arriving at their doorstep.

Europe’s treatment of Ukranian refugees, on the other hand, has been very different from that of those coming from the Middle East. Ukrainan refugees are being welcomed with open arms in Europe, as brothers and sisters, and rightfully so. But we have to ask ourselves why the treatment of Ukraninan refugees is so different from those coming from the Middle East? One group is majority Christian, the other majority Muslim. One group is mostly white, the other is mostly North African and Middle Eastern. Although, did you know, in the US census, there is no way for a person from the Middle East to identify other than white? A problem of identity erasure in and of itself that Middle Eastern communities are trying to raise awareness around.

It would appear that Europe’s discriminatory treatment comes down to religious, cultural and racial bias. This would explain the rise of far-right nationalism around Europe. We see history repeating over and over. The symptoms are the same. Those who are different are labeled as the other. The use of terms “them” and “us” which leads to discrimination and eventually dehumanization. Once a group is viewed as no longer equal, it is easy to persecute and exterminate them because the majority has been de-sensitized to their suffering. This is happening to brown and black people and to Muslims around the world today. We’ve seen it at our own doorstep, evident in the Black Lives Matter movement.

How can we be optimistic about the future of multiculturalism in Europe, when we are grappling with systemic racism in our own country? What is it that we are so afraid of? These are questions each of us needs to answer for ourselves and we need to do it fast. There will come a time when we will be asked to choose a side in this battle that is being led around the world today. We need to ensure that we stand on the right side of history and in order to do that we need to elect leaders who will move the world forward, past islamophobia, past antisemitism, past racism and hate. Unless the people of Europe fight with all their might for a democratic and free Europe, I fear that we will see another global conflict and I cannot imagine the devastation that would follow.

Thank you very much for your time today.