Conversation with Prof. John Cox

Conversation conducted by: Harun Karčić

Holocaust-denial has been combatted, in part, by reaching out to other communities and finding allies who have the moral clarity and decency to take a stand. I think that knowledge of the Holocaust, and opposition to Holocaust-denial, stems from various sources, though. There is no doubt that racism helps explain why U.S. and European audiences can feel greater sympathy for “white” victims than for Cambodians, Rwandans, or Rohingya Muslims or Uighars in Xinjiang. But one might expect, then, that a European people like the Bosniaks would find greater, sympathy, and so on. But your question makes me think a little more deeply about this and to realize that Jews (and Holocaust educators) are the only ones who’ve had much success in countering genocide-denial in the United States and/or Europe. I suppose that the principal reason for this is that Europe and the West were built upon genocide. Western institutions and media have found a way to turn the Holocaust into a story that does not implicate the entire Western tradition nearly as deeply as it should, and can even be a story with a “happy ending”.

John Cox

Dr. John Cox is professor of History and Global Studies at the University of North Carolina Charlotte and director of its Center for Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Studies. Cox is currently editing a book on genocide-denial, to be published in 2020, and completing 2nd edition of his 2017 book To Kill a People: Genocide in the Twentieth Century.

Prof. Cox, you have been studying and teaching genocide and Holocaust studies for many years. How studied or rather under-studied is the genocide of Bosniak Muslims in western academic circles?

Among genocide experts in the U.S., Europe, and Australia and Canada—places where the study of genocide is well-established and strong—this genocide is certainly well-known, and far beyond debate. Alongside the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, and the genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda, it is seen as one of the principal examples of genocide in the modern world. 

But beyond the small world of experts and scholars of genocide, it is much less well-known and understood. Even among historians of twentieth-century Europe (who are often over-specialized, with little knowledge outside their own narrow research interests) the Bosnian Genocide should be better known. I and others are attempting to remedy this.

And among the broader public, there is very little awareness of the genocide of 1992-1995. This ignorance is unfortunately not unique. Few of my students have heard of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, much less any other such tragedies other than the Holocaust. Yet I think that widespread ignorance about the genocide of Bosniaks, in large part, a legacy of the disgraceful conduct of U.S. politicians and diplomats during the 1990s. 

I never meet anyone who says “Oh yes, I remember Rwanda. As I recall it was very complex, with atrocities on all sides, but it wasn’t a genocide.” If someone knows anything at all about Rwanda in the ‘90s, then they know a genocide occurred there. In contrast, if an American remembers anything about the Yugoslav wars, then they will dimly remember, erroneously, that the bloodshed resulted from “ancient hatreds” and that “all sides were more-or-less equally guilty”—because they remember hearing this from Clinton, his Secretary of State, and others, including much of the news media. 

Only in the last two months, since returning from Bosnia, I have spoken with several friends who despite being well-educated also believed that “it was a big mess, it’s hard to assign blame,” etc. For the record it should be stated that all genocides are complex and contain tremendous moral ambiguities, and invariably they occur in times of war or revolution, with criminals and victims on all sides. One can point to killings of Hutu civilians by Tutsi-led forces, the suffering of many Turks during World War I, or the expulsions of hundreds of thousands of Serbs by Croatian forces in August 1995 and other atrocities against Serb civilians. But that does not change the fact that systematic genocides were carried out against Tutsi, Armenians, and Bosniaks.

You recently visited Bosnia and Herzegovina, travelled extensively through the country and met people of different ethnicities. What are your impressions on war, genocide and the lionizing of war criminals? 

Yes, I had the pleasure of spending a month in your country, mostly in Sarajevo. I also drove down to Mostar and into Croatia, and traveled up through eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, including large parts of the land stolen from you (the so-called Republika Srpska), to Srebrenica. I was accompanied by a friend—a new friend, to be more precise (I made a lot of friends in my brief time there)—who has worked for 20 years with the Missing Persons Institute.

My most immediate impressions were of a beautiful land, full of wonderful people and possessing a rich culture and history. And I quickly developed an appreciation for ćevapi as well as rakija, and for FK Sarajevo and FK Velež Mostar (both of whom won championships while I was there! And I attended Sarajevo’s game in which they secured the League title.). 

One thing that I always noticed, in conversations with Bosniaks: their desire to live in the sort of multi-cultural, multi-religious society that once existed. The attachment to the concept of merhamet—which reminds me of the convivencia of Islamic Spain—was genuine and poignant, because of what was lost. As in Spain, this semi-utopia was never fully attained, but the quest represented the best in humanity: to live together in peace irrespective of differences, and beyond that, to learn from one another. That is, not to merely be “tolerant.” I was often reminded of something a Bosniak survivor said twenty years ago: “While the others were preparing for war, we still believed in a dream”—the dream of the egalitarian, pluralistic society that Yugoslavia was supposed to be. 

I encountered less edifying sights and impressions driving through the RS. I was appalled but not completely surprised to encounter a giant mural of Ratko Mladic while driving through the town of Gacko, which like so many towns in eastern Bosnia once had a large Bosniak majority but is now inhabited almost exclusively by Serbs. Below, I’ll comment further on the contrasting impressions I gained.

Hard borders do not exist between the two political and administrative entities but clear borders are very much present in the mental geography of many. What were the major social, economic and political differences you felt in the two entities?

I will admit that this impression is superficial—after all, I do not speak the language, and spent only a few weeks in BiH—but I gained a sense of the distorted, warped perspective that comes from a refusal to confront the crimes committed in your name, and the willingness to embrace racist mythologies. These things poison one’s soul, and the soul of a society. Of course not all Serbs believe the foolish and racist propaganda of Dodik, Cvijanović, et al., just as there were white South Africans, white Americans, and non-Jewish Germans who believed in equality. (In each case, not nearly enough such people, but they did exist.) But I fear that many of the Croatians and Serbs who reject nationalism and racism left in the 1990s, or changed their outlook. Meanwhile, many younger Serbs are being educated in the spirit of nationalist mythology. I saw some teenagers kicking a football on the field near Srebrenica where hundreds of Muslims, trying to flee to Tuzla, were killed on the 13th of July 1995. They either didn’t know or care, or perhaps even believed the massacre was warranted, I suppose.

Another strong impression and contrast: I was struck by the rather generous attitude that many Bosniaks expressed, that such people were not necessarily to be judged too harshly. “They are being tricked and exploited by their leaders,” many people said, who like Milosevic or Dodik (or Trump, or fascist politicians in Europe) will abandon their followers when it serves them. 

There have been many attempts by Croat and Serb nationalists to rewrite Bosnia’s war history, to present all sides as sharing equal guilt and to present Srebrenica as an isolated, municipal-level genocide. How dangerous is such revisionism and can genocide ever be an isolated, ad hoc incident?

It is very dangerous, primarily because denial is “among the surest predictors of genocidal massacres,” as genocide expert Gregory Stanton concluded. “The perpetrators of genocide dig up the mass graves, burn the bodies, try to cover up the evidence…. and often blame what happened on the victims.” This is precisely what we in Serbian denial, which has its foundation in 600 years of a strange nationalist mythology that rests on victimhood. 

The brief sensation caused by the Scorpions videotape exemplifies this. In 2005, a video was revealed that clearly showed executions of civilians, accompanied by laughing and joking and so on, carried out by the “Scorpions” Serb paramilitary unit. “Serbia is deeply shocked,” said Serbian President Boris Tadic. “All those who committed war crimes must be held accountable” he declared and it seemed time, finally, for an honest confrontation with the past. But no, a new interpretation quickly took hold, which went like this: “Once again, we are being unjustly maligned. We only see a few people being killed; where are the so-called 8,000? And anyway, these were undisciplined, rogue soldiers; it wasn’t part of a plan,” etc. etc., exactly the logic that is employed by genocide-deniers everywhere.  

Jelena Subotic wrote that for the most part “what Srebrenica represents in the Serbian public memory today is an irritant, a yet another piece of evidence of anti-Serb propaganda…. Srebrenica, in Serbian public remembrance, is then mostly about the Serbs.”

Many elements of Serb denialism have parallels in other parts of the world, although not always in such extremity. If George Orwell were alive today, he would surely have many countries in mind—my own, at the top of the list—when observing that “The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.” One would never know that the U.S. committed genocidal crimes in Vietnam, not to mention many other lands; and like Serb nationalists, narcissism and delusions of victimhood are rampant.

But let me try to convey the most shocking and outrageous things I witnessed. The buildings at Rogatica, which look like the barracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau and that were used as concentration camps; the football pitch at Nova Kasaba where hundreds of men and boys were massacred on 13 July 1995; the warehouse at Kravica, today still full of bullet holes: I visited all these places and never observed any effort to cover up the crimes. To me, this is shockingly brazen and shameless, the indifference and impunity. Indeed, it is reminiscent of lynching photos from a century ago in the United States. Young and old white folks, including prominent community members, smiled for the camera with no fear of public rebuke or of legal consequences.

This goes beyond denial, into the realm of celebration and  “triumphalism.” I had some idea that this existed—I had read about the large welcome party for a murderer named Krajisnik in Pale, and was aware that such people as Arkan’s widow is a beloved celebrity in Serbia. And having studied the Holocaust and other genocides and not been confined to a life in the archives, I didn’t think I would be shocked very easily. But I will never forget, nor be able to fully describe, the experience of walking into a warehouse in Kravica where 1300 Muslims were massacred in July 1995 and where no effort at cover-up has been made. To the contrary, a contemptible memorial to “Serb victims” stands a few hundred meters away.

(Photos with captions that I compiled driving between Sarajevo and Srebrenica.)

Celebration of racist atrocities and murderers is unfortunately not unique. In Italy, Rodolfo “The Butcher of Ethiopia” Graziani and many other fascist leaders are memorialized, and in my own country the landscape is disfigured by monuments celebrating racism and slavery. But in the context of BiH, with the denialists and perpetrators lurking just over the mountains, it is somewhat more ominous.

Genocide denial among many Bosnian Serbs, but Serbians alike, is widespread. What, in your view, can Bosniak Muslims learn from European and American Jews when it comes to combatting genocide denial?

Holocaust-denial has been combatted, in part, by reaching out to other communities and finding allies who have the moral clarity and decency to take a stand. I think that knowledge of the Holocaust, and opposition to Holocaust-denial, stems from various sources, though. There is no doubt that racism helps explain why U.S. and European audiences can feel greater sympathy for “white” victims than for Cambodians, Rwandans, or Rohingya Muslims or Uighars in Xinjiang. But one might expect, then, that a European people like the Bosniaks would find greater, sympathy, and so on. But your question makes me think a little more deeply about this and to realize that Jews (and Holocaust educators) are the only ones who’ve had much success in countering genocide-denial in the United States and/or Europe. I suppose that the principal reason for this is that Europe and the West were built upon genocide. Western institutions and media have found a way to turn the Holocaust into a story that does not implicate the entire Western tradition nearly as deeply as it should, and can even be a story with a “happy ending” (the defeat of Nazi Germany. And barely any American seems to know that the Red Army entered Auschwitz as well as Berlin and that the USSR lost 27 million people). 

But among leading institutions in the U.S. and most of Europe, there is little interest in honest accountings of the genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Guatemala, or elsewhere. Better to shroud them in vague tales of “ancient hatreds” and “atrocities on all sides,” and to sometimes invoke the Holocaust as a justification for invading Iraq or some other cynical purpose. And of course the Bosnian Genocide is especially embarrassing to the European and American leaders who were complicit in it. [During the never-ending siege of Sarajevo, Czeslaw Milosz wrote, “It is revealed now that their Europe since the beginning has been a deception, for its faith and its foundation is nothingness.”]

Nonetheless I always find that students and other decent people, when they begin to learn about Bosnia, want to learn more and will help educate others.

In the past decade, a number of Western journalists and researchers have been interpreting increased adherence to Islamic norms and values among Bosniak Muslims as a sign of conservativism and even radicalism. What are your impressions on Islam in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the way Bosniak Muslims practice it?

Sadly, some commentators will interpret any display of Muslim faith as worrisome and „radical,“ with no understanding of the huge gulf between religious and cultural practices between, for example, Bosnia and Saudi Arabia. As someone who attended Catholic church in my youth and who is not deeply religious, but has tried to learn anything of value from Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and other traditions, here are a few impressions:

I had the fortune of spending nearly the entire month of Ramadan in Bosnia, leaving the day after Bajram (Eid al-Fitr). Benefitting from a favorable exchange rate as well as a research grant, I had the fortune of staying in a lovely hotel up near the Žuta Tabija overlooking Sarajevo. I often walked up to the Tabija to join the hundreds of people who brought their families each evening to await the firing of the cannon at sundown (and thus the end of the day’s fast). This was always a beautiful and moving experience. I also got acquainted with some people at the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque who took me and some others inside—unlike some tourists, I didn’t want to tromp around while people were praying—and I visited other mosques (as well as synagogues) in Sarajevo. As I would have expected, having known many Bosniaks here in Charlotte—which has a large Bosnian population—I found an open, welcoming atmosphere everywhere I went.

I also had an interesting conversation with a Bosniak who works at the Iranian Cultural Center (right by the Eternal Flame, for those familiar with the city). She told me about her conversations with Saudi diplomats who, when they stop at the Center, are liable to notice a book of Rumi poetry on display that adorned with an image of a woman on the cover. “That is ‘haram’” (forbidden) one Saudi diplomat said, to which she retorted, “your monarchy is haram’!” 

On my last night I had coffee in a restaurant above the Tabija with Mirsad Hadžikadić, whom I’ve known in Charlotte long before he stood for president. He spoke of the beauty of looking down and seeing mosques, synagogues, and Christian churches, all together, with music or the sound of communal prayers floating up the hills. 

These are the sorts of impressions that give me hope the future, despite the challenges and dangers Bosnia faces—challenges that you do not face alone. There are many around the world who, like me, have come to know and love Bosnia and its people and who will stand with you.