Type
Essay
Category
Memoir
Refugees

Feature | A teleology of folding, and of dying

Written over the course of 2019

A Brief Onomastic Note:

For years, nobody called me by my name. In Brisbane, I was jen; in Melbourne people called me ana. It was a neat split, my name folded into a recognisable shape, the unnecessary syllables and foreign letters turned in against themselves and shushed. It is a recent thing to have claimed the full breadth of myself. Dženana. That’s what people call me now: in Bosnia, my place of birth; in Glasgow, where I’m studying; increasingly, back home in Melbourne, in Brisbane. I stopped offering the folded envelope of my identity months ago and yet still, to hear my name said aloud is a particular thrill; almost sensual, like new touch. The intimacy of it takes my breath away. I glow at its gentle syncopation, the shallow sigh of its vowels. My name is Persian for beloved. Where I am from, it identifies me: Bosniak, and: Muslim.

A History of Genocidal Intent

I came to Australia with my mother Abeba (‘abby’) and my sister Aida (whose name is hard to anglicise and is paled through the violence of mispronunciation. She turns from eye-i-da to ay-da, a whole syllable lost in the exchange). We came as refugees from the Bosnian war, the largest post-holocaust genocide in European history. It was a civil war, yes, a result of the break-up of Tito’s Yugoslavia after his death. But it was a war of extermination, too, in which Bosnian Muslims were rounded up into concentration camps, tortured and killed. Women were raped in the belief that the offspring born to Muslim women and fathered by Orthodox Serbs would be, necessarily, Orthodox Serbs themselves. There were camps set up for extermination, camps set up for rape.

The war played out on TV screens throughout the nineties: skeletal men with crumpled eyes peering through barbed-wire fences; buildings shelled and falling in on themselves; flinching bodies running across bridges under sniper fire; corpses thrown and folded into mass graves. Over half the Bosnian population were killed or made refugee in the five years of fighting between 1992 and ’96. In total, the war left over 100,000 people dead, 2.2 million displaced, 20,000 women raped. And the world watched it.

Genocide, though, is not only the systematic and public murder of a people. It happens in ways that are less violent, in ways that are insidious and banal and couched in terms like protection, safety, assimilation — terms that bar inclusion and terms that force it. I think about this often, and increasingly, since I returned to Bosnia three years ago. The woman I have become — Westernised, atheist — does not easily fit there. She does not remember the correct way to greet people on Bajram and stumbles over her wa-alaikum-salaam, she forgets to say allahimanet and rolls her eyes when her aunts tell her inshallah. These were words that once rolled over her tongue smooth as pearls, just as precious. We may have survived the war, but the part of us that made us targets in the first place could not survive Australia.

It is no secret that Australia is familiar with systemic cultural destruction. It is a country founded on genocide, maintained on a system of quiet discrimination. Look to the massacres committed in the name of colonisation. Look to the attempt to ‘breed out’ Indigenous Peoples, to the Stolen Generation. Look to the rates of Indigenous incarceration, the rates of Indigenous deaths in custody, the number of Indigenous children — even now — being taken from their families. Look to the destruction and commodification of sacred Indigenous sites.

The shift in recent years has not been from racism to acceptance, but rather from overt state violence to a quieter and more insidious kind. We are no longer worried about the racial purity of Australia, no longer acting under the auspices of the White Australia Policy. Instead, we are worried about safety, security, the economy. The fact that it is still People of Colour we are keeping out, the fact that it is People of Colour we are imprisoning in atrocious conditions offshore, that is just coincidence.

A Lesson in the Value of Whiteness

In 2016, I was volunteering at the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre in Melbourne. At the time, the Federal Government had introduced a new ‘fast track’ processes, ostensibly to deal with asylum claims more quickly. In fact, the process pushed asylum seekers to complete a sixty-page, all-English document that would be the sole basis of their claim and which could not be altered. People who had been waiting years for their claim to be processed were suddenly given three months to provide all their documents, and to find answers to questions designed to trip them up. Incorrect answers were grounds for claim dismissal. It was a process intended to reduce the number of successful asylum claims, and it worked.

Standing in line for the community lunch one day, the man behind me sighed heavily. I turned and smiled at him. He was middle-aged, slightly shorter than me, dressed in jeans and a grey polo. Long day? I asked and he shook his head. Stress, he told me. All this, you know? He waved a hand that at once took in the room we stood in and the new government policy. I worry, he said. I worry what will happen to us. I tried to tell him that it would be okay. That I was a refugee too and that one day, this would be over; that in a few years he’d be standing where I was, reassuring someone else. He smiled, accepting my assurance with grace, even while we could both see the obvious difference between us.

Between 1992 and 1996, Australia took in around 40,000 refugees, almost 50 per cent of which came from Former Yugoslavia. The remainder came mostly from Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Afghanistan. It is telling that, despite a genocidal war taking place in Rwanda around the same time (1994–96), Australia did not accept any significant number of Rwandan refugees, most of whom were displaced into neighbouring countries. It is no stretch to suggest that the reason so many more Bosnians were permitted to settle was because we were European and white, that is to say, we had high ‘settlement potential’.

4,643 Bosnians arrived in 1995, my mother, sister and I among them.

When we came to Australia, Bosnian refugees were not welcomed, a fact reflected and magnified in the attitude towards Muslim, non-white, immigrants today. In response, and especially after 9/11, Bosnian Muslims supressed their points of cultural difference. Whiteness is consumptive not just in its appropriation of resources and cultures, but in its definition of whiteness, too. It is a fluctuating concept — as Irish and Italians elders know — and a concept flexible to new groups insofar as those groups can be utilised in the exertion of power over the Other(s).

Bosnians were all too happy to step into the fold. As Colic-Peisker wrote in his study ‘At Least You’re the Right Colour: Identity and Social Inclusion of Bosnian Refugees in Australia’, Bosnian refugees read themselves into Australia’s white hegemonic narrative of identity. They distanced themselves from other (non-European) refugee groups and also from Australian Muslims, preferring to foreground their European identity instead. Colic-Peisker calls this a ‘socio-psychological mechanism of ‘advantageous self-identification’ or ‘self-inclusion.’’ Closeness to the ‘white’ and ‘Western’ ‘standard Australian self’ would prevent against racist prejudice. Divergent practices had to go.

A Personal Enumeration of Instances of Folding as External

1.

The first Australian school I went to was in Perth. It was a public school, of course, in a low-income suburb full of refugees and new immigrants. Every morning started with a recitation of the Lord’s prayer. The children would close their eyes and put their hands together and I would hold mine open before me, in the position of namāz that I was familiar with. Our father who art in heaven, the class would intone while I recited the prayers my mother had taught me under my breath.

I did not know the prayers well. I could recite one set and I didn’t understand what I was saying; it was in Arabic, after all. I said the words my mother told me when she tucked me in, words that I repeated compulsively when I woke, terrified, in the night. Euzu billahi mineš-šejtanir-radžim, Bismillahir-Rahmanir-Rahim. I understood them in the same way children understand the word hallowed, which is to say that I knew only that they were important and that they were talisman. My eyes closed in prayer, I was startled by my teacher’s hands on mine, bringing them together. She did this five mornings and then I learned.

2.

We moved to a different housing commission flat the following year and my new school was whiter than the last. Mrs Oliver was my grade two teacher and she did not like me. Once, in my broken English, I asked what the word ‘bitch’ meant and she gave me detention. Another time, she refused to let me go to the bathroom until I could ask in ‘good English’. I peed in my chair, hot urine running down my legs and under my desk. I sopped it up with my jumper and blamed the wet patch on the floor on, of all things, a cat. I think a lot about Mrs Oliver, her red hair and freckles, her wide Australian vowels, the curl of her lip.
3.
At another new school, I was told to sit outside while the other children made Easter cards, painted eggs. Again when Christmas rolled around and pipe-cleaner and cellophane turned to decorative bauble. I was not given an alternative activity and for a while I watched through the window, remembering how my sister had played Mary in her grade one school assembly at our first school. How mum had dressed her in thin blue and white cloth and how sweet she looked, standing proudly beside Joseph. We had worn extravagant hats made from paper and paddle-pop sticks in the Easter Parade that year. I was ten and too young to wonder at the arbitrariness of this inclusion/exclusion. The following year, our class made up Dreamtime stories and my teacher liked mine so much she made me read it to the class.

4.

We were at a Macedonian friend’s place when 9/11 happened. Or when we heard that it happened; when the footage rolled across the TV screen in an endless stream of fire and rubble and that body, falling. Andrea and Alex, around our age but foreigners to the war that had rent our country apart, didn’t understand why my sister and I hid under a table as we watched the planes fly into the towers; but they hid along with us, turning it into a game of make believe. For weeks after at school, kids would tell me that my uncle was Osama bin Laden and that the FBI was going to get me. They ran away when I walked across the undercover area at lunch, screaming and laughing hysterically, hiding behind trees and support beams and shushing one another theatrically. It seems utterly ridiculous now, unbelievable, even. I cannot imagine what it would have been like had there been any Arab children in my class, any girl who covered her hair.

5.

Brisbane was where the fold happened — my name neatly sliced and made anew. It had always been painful watching teachers try and sound it out, but I grew used to the pattern of it. The long pause and stutter preceding the fumble. The final syllable would often fall away, the first letter ‘Dž’ split apart. zena? denana? de-ze-nana? Dženana, I would say and they’d nod, That’s a nice name. That’s unusual. Where are you from? In Brisbane a respite came. The same pause, and fumble, my same embarrassed assistance. je-na-na…jen-ana…jennn… how does jen sound? It sounded like a password and I held it close to my chest. When other teachers paused before my name I spoke quickly. Just jen, is fine and seeing as no one asked what it was short for, how to pronounce the fullness of it, the new name fell out of my mouth again and again. My family, in accordance with my demands, learned to call me jen too.

6.

There was an Islamic high school near the one I went to, and I remember once asking Mum if I could go there instead. She said no, told me I would have to wear a hijab and that was reason enough to drop it. It wasn’t just that Bosnian Muslims tended not to cover and that doing so would feel foreign to me; it was the fear of being marked by it. White and accent-less, I escaped the vitriol flung at those who were visibly other and I did not want to give that up. At my school, there were two Black girls who wore the hijab. They got asked if they were circumcised; asked if there would be 72 virgins waiting for them when they died, or if they’d be the virgins. There were two Bosnian Muslim girls, too. They knew not to cover, but they still had accents and their names could not be folded and we did not speak.

7.

My boyfriend in Grade 12 was from a catholic family, the kind that went to mass on Easter and Christmas and said grace before they ate. They had a crucifix with the suffering Jesus pinned opposite their front door and the first question his father asked me was what religion I was. By now, years into my Australian-ness, I had an answer for this, practiced to off-the-cuff. My mum’s Muslim, but my dad’s Catholic. So I guess I’m confused. Queue laughter. He did not laugh. At dinner, I mumbled my way through grace, and mumbled my way through every grace after that.
Once, a year in, we ate while A Current Affair played in the background. His mother tsked as the reporter lambasted Coles for force feeding us Islam through their halal chickens. I offered a defence: at least the animals are killed more humanly; halal meat does not know it will become meat and that is kinder, no? His father is a withering look, his mother averted eyes. Yeah but they say prayers over it and shit, says his brother.

8.

When I moved to Melbourne, I tried to reclaim my name, but it didn’t work out. I got a job at a swanky fine dining place on Collins Street and it was the same stutter and stumble, my blushing help. The manager looked at me and performed the same trick as before, but in reverse. She called me ana and for a time I liked it. ana with the long ah alluded to Eastern Europe but did not specify me. I changed my resume to reflect it, wrote ‘ana’ next to my name on the rolls that got passed around in my uni seminars, made my parents learn the change. Introduced my new self. Folded, again.

9.

When I worked as a waitress, people often asked me if I was from England. I had an unusual Australian accent, they said, classy. It is true that I don’t speak with the accent most common in Perth or in Brisbane where I spent seven years a piece. I have some hybrid thing, picked up from TV and packed so tightly into my mouth that no other sounds exist. I used to roll my eyes at my mum who, when speaking with people outside the family, would put on this strange posh tone, vaguely European and inflected with the Queen’s English. But at least her tongue knows her voice, can speak through Bosnian and English and across the bridge of both. My tongue forgets and forgets promiscuously. It is an unconscious thing, the way my tongue demands inclusion, tries to slough off its singularity.

A Synopsis of Racist Intent

It cannot be emphasised enough that the understated coercion of my assimilation was a pale thing in comparison to that faced by Muslims of Colour or those who dress to faith, or People of Colour more broadly. I remark it only to show Australia’s unyielding, indiscriminate hunger for sameness; to provide context for my abandonment of identity. Perhaps also to excuse myself for the same.

But there remains the fact: like other Bosnian refugees, I was protected by my whiteness, by my Europeanness. The 2016 Islamophobia in Australia Report showed that there were 243 instances of Islamophobia between 2014 and 2016 alone. Almost 80% of victims were hijabed women: easy targets rendered so by their visibility and presumed demureness. Most incidents were verbal assaults and threats, but almost 30% of them also included physical harassment. Unsurprisingly, 98 per cent of perpetrators were Anglo-Celtic, most commonly male. Unsurprisingly, too, even though half of these incidents occurred in crowded spaces, nobody intervened in 75 per cent of cases.

These are not 243 isolated incidents. They are the result of government-sanctioned racism. What other description is there, when our government has let a man stand up and defend the right to ‘be a bigot’? When a man spewed hate for Muslims and felt comfortable enough to use the words ‘final solution’ against them in our parliament? And in the backdrop of all the furious rapprochement and ministerial wrath that followed, Muslim refugees and refugees of colour are wasting away in government-run offshore detention ‘centres’. Reports from these camps are stomach-churning. Men have been denied medication because they refused to move to a new, unsafe, prison. Children grew sick and stayed sick because the government refused to bring them to Australia for treatment. Men set themselves on fire, sewed their lips shut in protest of their treatment. People were given pitiful slices of white bread and meat, reported to be pork, to eat. I cannot help but see the comparisons and I will not shy from making them. We were denied medical treatment and (force) fed pork in our concentration camps, too. The arbitrary distinction we make is that the Serbians were trying to exterminate us. While we Australians are merely trying to protect our country, our way of life. We occlude our reason for detaining these refugees under the lie of national security, but these children aren’t a danger; the only risk they pose is to white hegemony, to white power.

I know that this is a controversial statement. When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called the American immigration centres ‘concentration camps’ she was accused of degrading the memory of holocaust victims. I am not trying to be controversial. Concentration camps are the mass internment of a group of people without trial, based solely on their identity. These have existed before the Nazis, they existed after the Nazis, they exist now. What is degrading to the memory of holocaust victims; what is degrading to the memory of people who died in our concentrations camps, is that we still see fit to house people like that.

A Disordered Account of Folding as Internal

I am the best kind of refugee. Mostly obviously, I am white, and therefore no threat to white hegemonic power but an easily appropriated extension of it. I am, too, culturally assimilated — I may have been born Muslim, I may have escaped the genocide of my Muslim brothers and sisters, but I am myself an atheist and thus no offensive addition to the ‘multicultural melting pot’ that is Australia. Of course, I was not always an atheist, nor always a-cultural. But this is what Australia demands of you: shed your old skin, assimilate. People of colour face a particular bind here; assimilation is demanded while also refused — you must be like us, but of course, you cannot be one of us. You cannot shed your skin. In that sense, what Australia demanded of me was simple, a trick easily performed. My sister did it; my mother, with her prayer mat stowed in the wardrobe, her Kur’an wrapped in embroidered cloth, did it.
I was not ashamed of my religious background per se. It set me apart from what I recognised as a deeply racist country and I turned to it to differentiate me from the great mass of white Australia. But I was always quick to explain: We’re not like other Muslims. Quicker still to enumerate the ways that Bosnians were different, always leaving the matter of which Muslims we were different from unspoken, implied in the offhand. I would recount how we didn’t cover, how we drank and smoked and swore with gusto. I would bring us into the fold. Bosnians are Muslims like Australians are Catholichahaha.

While I could hold in my heart the contradictory way that Bosnian Muslims were Muslim, the contradictory way that Christians were Christian, I was suspicious of other Muslims’ variations.

Before I moved back to Bosnia, I became frustrated at a white-appearing woman who wore a headscarf ‘incorrectly’ and complained to a friend. My words were hot poison. I was horrified at myself even as I spoke, but my friend was understanding in that gentle way of people who know you are wrong, and know, too, that you are hurting. He suggested that perhaps in this woman’s culture, this was an acceptable way to wear a headscarf and I conceded in grumbling. Months later, when I have returned to Bosnia, I message my friend and apologise. I am ashamed of my bigotry, my internalised Islamophobia, ashamed at the way my confusion and fear, my jealousy of this woman’s ease in her identity has manifested into such bitterness.

In Australia, Muslims come from at least seventy-five different ethnic backgrounds, each with their own interpretations and practices, but it wasn’t until I returned to Bosnia that I realised the truth of the spectrum of Muslim-ness. My mother’s side of the family is agnostically Muslim; they do not fast, they drink, they dress in short skirts and low-cut tops. My father’s side is more religious. They don’t cover, but they don’t drink either. They fast for Ramadan and mumble prayers before long car-rides. They fold me into their faith, gently explaining aspects of Islam they assume me not to know. In Bosnia, my atheism is irrelevant. Kafir or no, culturally, I am Muslim. I cannot be but otherwise; there was the war, after all, and when that was over, there was everything else.

I did not — I do not — know how to reconcile myself to Islam. I cannot make myself believe in Allah; but neither can I deny the truth of my heritage, the truth of what my family went through because of that heritage, the truth of the thousands of people tortured, raped, and killed because of the accident of birth that named them, like me, Muslim.

A Literary Flashback

The Christchurch white terrorist attack leaves me shaking. I curl, foetal, around my phone and watch the reports drop one by one into my twitter feed, compulsively refreshing the page even as I feel my chest fill with stone. My shoulders curl around my sternum, my toes into the souls of my feet. It has been a long time since I’d had a nightmare about the war, but that night they come in streams; I shout myself awake three times before I am too exhausted to sleep. I message my mother and she tells me she is having panic attacks; it is hard to breathe. We know what men with guns look like, know the smell of blood and panic. Know what it means to be marked by faith for the slaughter. Know too, what it means when shelter turns to horror. Those fifty people were supposed to be safe, safe in New Zealand, safe in their mosque.

My body is a narcissist and I resist it. In the days following, I am appalled at the intensity of my reaction, at the way my body refuses to recognise that this trauma is not my own, that this is other people’s suffering. It has been over twenty years since the end of our war. In the immediacy of the event, I post something about it, and about Bosnia, on twitter and spend days regretting it. I am ashamed to feel this way and do not want to detract from the people who are most affected — those killed and their families, those Muslims who are marked by colour or dress for the vitriol and violence that comes with renewed vigour after the attack.

Ali Kadri, a spokesperson for Islamic Council Queensland, says attacks on mosques doubled. He describes a mosque in Logan having its gate rammed immediately after. He describes how people have thrown beer bottles at the mosque in Holland Park — the only mosque I’ve ever been to in Australia — during Friday prayers, how they have smashed in the car windows of mosque-goers and left threatening notes.

I am embarrassed, too, at my presumption to speak, to draw parallels where I have only ever highlighted differences, to include myself where I have relinquished any claim to be.

A Panoramic View of Genocidal Intent

After Christchurch, I become obsessed with reading about violence against Muslims around the world. I am anxious and cannot sleep: my nights grow long, grainy-eyed and hallucinatory; images flicker against my bedroom ceiling — my own memories interpolated with scenes from the news I can’t stop reading. I am scrounging for facts to somehow understand what is going on but there is no sense to this, only euphemism, only prevarication, only quiet turning away.

I read about the Rohingya in Myanmar, whose living conditions the UN has likened to Nazi concentration camps. The Rohingya need permission to travel, to marry, to have children, to go to hospital. Children cannot go to school. There are reports of abduction and torture, rape. In 2017, the Myanmar military razed Rohingya villages and killed thousands of people, forcing 800,000 across the border to Bangladesh. There are now only 400,000-500,000 Rohingya left in Myanmar, compared to the 2 to 3 million in 2012. In June this year, the Myanmar government blacked out telecommunications across nine Rohingya towns.

I read about the slow genocide of Palestinians who have lost almost all the land initially given to them under the 1948 partition, and who are forced to live in ghettos and show papers when crossing arbitrary borders within their own cities, who are even forbidden from walking on certain streets. Shelling and bombing have become facts of life and the targets are often innocent —a hospital, a kindergarten, a nine-year-old boy.

I read about the violence and murder committed against Muslims in Modi’s India, whose horrific beatings and deaths at the hands of angry mobs are frequently filmed and put online. Last January an eight-year-old Muslim girl was kidnapped, held captive in a Hindu temple, drugged, repeatedly gang raped, tortured and killed. Police believe this was part of a plan to drive the nomadic Muslim Bakerwal community out of the Kathua district in Indian-administered Kashmir. Two government ministers took to the streets to support the perpetrators. This August, India took control over Kashmir, mobilising troops into the streets, putting politicians under house arrest and shutting down telephone networks and the internet.

I read about the Uighur in China, who live their lives on land confiscated from them by the government, under mass surveillance, forbidden from expressing their Muslim identity. They are subjected to digital surveillance, including facial recognition technology, and the compulsory collection of biometric data like voice samples and iris scans. There is open discrimination, with companies specifying ‘Han only’ in job adverts, banners calling on ethnic unity, bans on practising religion. Government officials have referred to the Uighur as ‘weeds’ and ‘tumours’. Up to 1.8 million people are detained in internment camps, with some reports suggesting that the number is as high as 3 million. Prisoners are forced to drink alcohol, eat pork and chant communist slogans. Deaths in the camps have raised fears of torture. The Chinese government says they are being educated in order to combat religious extremism. They say Islam is a ‘mental illness’ to be cured. There are plans to build ‘boarding schools’ for Uighur children. All this is part of what China is calling ‘the People’s War on Terror’, a recycling of terms that implicates the West in what is the most comprehensive system of population control and oppression in the world.

I read about attacks against Muslims in West. It is the same thing everywhere. Bombing, shooting, stabbing, rapes and car attacks — in Germany, in France, in the UK and the US. In Australia there are anti-Islam rallies; women attacked at shopping centres and on public transport; Muslim schoolgirls expelled from a careers fair for their ‘threatening’ attire; mosques defaced. Australia produced the terrorist who killed fifty innocent people in Christchurch.

These direct attacks are accompanied, in all cases, with a far-right push against Muslim immigration and religious practices and government support for their demands. Switzerland banned the construction of new minarets in 2009. France banned the burqa in 2010. Trump banned Muslim immigration in 2017.

A Comment on Nomenclature

Names are important here too. We fold the word Muslim into the corresponding ethnicity, secreting it into a wider ethnic designation, occluding what makes the victims victims. It was a fold in the reverse in the Bosnian war, a way to keep space between the perpetrators and those that watched them. We were named for our religion, even when that religion was, at best, incidental. Our war was — still is — spoken of in terms of Muslims, Croats and Serbs. It was never Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs, which would render the situation incomprehensible to those not familiar with how Bosnians and Bosniaks differed. Nor was it Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Christians which would have made more taxonomic sense but would have rendered the Christian West in moral cahoots. The current trend of referring to Muslim groups by ethnic identity alone is a dissembling — it conceals religion as a source of oppression and thus allows the West to ignore the extent of anti-Muslim sentiment across the world, and to ignore the way that the West encourages and perpetuates that sentiment.

Another Controversial Comparison

On twitter, I see a poll by @ahnentreu which asks, ‘If today there is a Holocaust but this time it’s the Muslims they throw into the ovens, and you have the opportunity to save one or two, will you do it?’ Eighty per cent of respondents say no. The comments are vile. It is soon after Christchurch and the post leaves me shaking, furious and afraid. I message a screenshot to my partner. He is German and sees what I do not: the twitter handle isn’t a random jumble of letters, but Nazi vocabulary. Die Ahnen — the ancestors; treu — faithful, loyal. He tells me that any German who saw that name would know immediately what kind of account it was. I can almost see him shift in his seat, his brow furrow.

The post highlights the way that Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism are born from the same source: racism is racism and racism has always been a way for those in power to maintain it.

My partner, like most Germans, is sensitive to comparisons between the treatment of Jews and Muslims; he does not want to diminish the great horror of the Holocaust by comparing it to anything else. I understand this instinct but I don’t agree with it. The Holocaust was the culmination of a history of racism against Jewish people (a racism, which, to be clear, is continuing) and by refusing to recognise the similarities between the treatment of Jews then and Muslims now, we risk similar harm to others. We know through experience, through seeing what has happened before and applying that knowledge to the present. An unwillingness to do this does not honour victims, it guarantees them.

Elsewhere in the world, the rhetoric is different but has the same effect. We relate everything to the Holocaust and comparatively, it pales. The horror of what is happening to Muslims around us now is diminished, because it is not as bad as what has been done before. Bosnia, Kosovo, Myanmar, India, China, Palestine, as compared to the Holocaust. Our discourse sets Jews and Muslims (and indeed, all minorities) in a sick competition of oppressions or endured cruelties, and only distracts from the fact of hegemonic power and indifference.

I was on a date once and because I am white and because I do not wear the hijab, he said to me: Palestinians are terrorists. He said to me: It is in their religion. He said to me: They deserve what they get. I told him that I was Bosnian, that I was born Muslim, even though I didn’t practice; I told him about the war and genocide in my country. He said to me: Yeah, but SIX MILLION Jews died.

What does it mean if we hold up the worst of humanity’s atrocities as the measuring stick for all future actions? Rather than a lesson, we take these horrors as a means of deflection. Anti-Muslim sentiment pours from our newspapers, radios, TVs, computers in a vitriol that should taste familiar. Yet we beg a difference. How many street attacks, ‘re-education’ camps, ghettos, murders, need there be before the comparison holds? Of course there is a difference. There are many. The most horrifying is that now we know what lies at the end of the road, yet we do not stop.

An Inexhaustive List of the Many Parallels Between Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism

1.

In both cases, the myriad interplays of religion and culture are compressed into one, rendering for each a stereotype to direct hatred at, and to fold everyone into. Muslims are essentialised as fanatics, sexists, homophobes, just as Jews are essentialised as misers, weaklings, super capitalists or communists. In the public imagination, the image of the greedy, scheming Jew now sits beside the Arab terrorist, AK-7 in hand, suicide vest strapped on.

2.

Both groups are seen to be infiltrating our society, Jews from up on high in the echelons of Hollywood, big business and government, and Muslims creeping in from down low, spreading their extremism to the uneducated masses.

3.

Both too, are seen to have a political allegiance outside of their country and are thus treacherous by nature. Jews favour some mystical Zion to their actual home country and Muslims are loyal to ISIS (and before that to al-Qaeda or the Taliban). The same could, of course, be said of Catholics with regard to the Vatican, or of Christians to their Church; but it isn’t.

4.

They are caricatured in similar ways: hook-nosed men with hunched shoulders and shifty eyes, swarthy, hairy, ugly. Jewish women invisible by virtue of womanhood, Muslim women hyper-visible by virtue of the wrong kind of womanhood.

5.

In Charleston, men marched with Tiki torches yelling Jews will not replace us, while in Europe, a right-wing conspiracy theory, ‘the great replacement’, claims that white Europeans are being discouraged from getting married and having children as part of a plot to replace them with non-white Muslim migrants and refugees. The theory is an obvious descendant of Nazi ideology about Jews taking over Europe through miscegenation, and indeed, some white supremacists believe that ‘the great replacement’ is a Jewish plot too.

6.

Both groups are targets of racist propaganda by governments manoeuvring for control. For Jewish people, this history extends all the way back to the birth of Christianity and the Church’s struggle for control over Europe: Jews as Christ-killer. It continued as Christian faiths refused to involve themselves in moneylending, requiring States to encourage Jewish people to perform the work, which was necessary for the running of the Church-supported State but which both Church and State continued to demean: Jews as greedy misers. In the 19th and 20th centuries, as Jews rapidly urbanised and experienced increased social mobility, resentment of their success combined with nationalist sentiment and the eugenics movement to make them scapegoat for the failure of capitalism to lift everyone out of poverty: Jews as inferior, Jews as traitor, Jews as cheats.

While anti-Islamic sentiment was rife throughout the 19th and 20th century, when Western powers used it as a tool for their colonial agendas in the Middle East, 9/11 saw the rise of a more dangerous form of Islamophobia. In the wake of the attacks, the West turned violently against the Middle East in a series of wars ostensibly fuelled by the danger of nuclear weapons and Islamic terrorism but more truthfully intended to protect our oil interests. The Muslim Terrorist became a political tool to justify the violence, and later, to justify increasingly strict surveillance and immigration laws in Western nations.

A Defence of My Stance

To ignore the comparisons is to ignore how oppression is still being perpetuated. Bosnia, Kosovo, Myanmar, India, China, Palestine, are not the holocaust. This is true, but it does not diminish the horror of what is happening; it merely contextualises it within a history of suffering, and a history of Western indifference framed as impartiality.

Here is a story about impartiality:

When Serbs started shelling the Srebrenica enclave on the 6 July 1995, Dutch peacekeepers stationed there requested UN air support. It did not come, but the Serbs did. By the afternoon of the 11th, General Ratko Mladić and his army had control of Srebrenica. Refugees fled to the relative safety of the Dutch positions, hoping for protection by proximity, maybe. The Serbs moved among them, and among the peacekeepers, freely. Men were killed, women raped. It happened in public but no one stopped it. In the evening, Colonel Karremans was filmed drinking a toast with Mladić during the negotiations about the fate of Srebrenica’s civilian population. On the 12th, peacekeepers deported women and children to nearby Muslim-held territory. They handed over 5000 men and boys to be taken ‘for interrogation’ and then they left. Over 8000 men and boys were killed, the streets littered with corpses, many of them disfigured and missing noses, ears, limbs. Later, the bodies were bulldozed into mass graves. It took two days for ‘Safe Area Srebrenica’ to turn into a massacre site.

In 2002, a report into the Netherlands’ failure to act during the massacre caused the entire Dutch government to resign. In 2005, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in describing the massacre, wrote that the UN had made ‘serious errors of judgement, rooted in a philosophy of impartiality.’ In 2010, thousands of shoes, collected from Bosnia were stacked in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, to commemorate the dead. They were stacked in Berlin, rather than the Netherlands for a reason. This is a reminder to the world: You knew what was happening. You could have stopped it. In Germany, it had taken seven years for the Nazi concentration camps to become death camps. Seven years of the West’s failure to act.

We have forgotten this, though, and so when we talk about what is happening now, in slow increments, we do not see the link. We are quick to defend, to dissemble. It is not the same thing, we say.

On a recent episode of Q&A human rights lawyer Diana Sayed called for the Australian government to take action against the China for its treatment of the Uighur. She called for sanctions, not war, but the response was unanimous: No. The other panellists shifted in their seats, prevaricated, offered excuses. Sayed was to the point: What you’ve all virtually said on the panel … Is that Muslim lives don’t matter. The panel refused this indictment. That is not the reason. The reason is: there is no point in Australia taking action; acting alone wouldn’t make a difference. What they mean to say is: but we benefit from our trade partnership with China. What they mean to say is: but there’s no oil here. What they mean to say is: but there’s nothing in it for us.

And then there is still Myanmar, still India, still Palestine. Still the hatred and bigotry rampant in the West, in Australia. We might claim impartiality, might claim that we cannot act. But our silence gives licence. Our inaction is permission. And anyway, our impartiality is a lie extending the length and breadth of Western colonialism and continuing now. There is no impartiality when our governments actively spread anti-Muslim propaganda to further political goals.

An example: In October 2001, the Howard government invented a lie that asylum seekers making their way to Australia by boat had thrown their children overboard, turning refugees into unfeeling monsters. The lie was used to deflect from the government’s refusal to allow 433 rescued refugees (predominantly Hazaras from Afghanistan) to enter Australian waters on the MV Tampa. It was just before the election and the Howard government used an image of children next to another, actually sinking boat to vilify Muslim asylum seekers and secure its victory.

An example: Trump used anti-Islamic sentiment (and anti-Mexican, and anti-other) to win the 2016 US election. ‘I think Islam hates us,’ he said; ‘We have a problem in this country, it’s called Muslims,’ he said; [speaking about Syrian refugees] ‘They could be ISIS… This could be one of the great tactical ploys of all time,’ he said; Muslims watching the 9/11 attacks ‘were cheering as the buildings came down,’ he said; ‘They’re sick people,’ he said.

A Personal Enumeration of Instances of Unfolding

1.

I visit Bosnia for the second time in my life in 2017. It is my first visit as an adult and alone. I arrive in time for Bajram (our word for Eid) and on the first day, we wrap loose scarves over our heads and follow the other villagers to the cemetery to pray. I do not know what I am doing and watch from the corner of my eye, brushing my face with my palms when everyone else does, feigning mumbling under my breath. I am glad to leave, to unwind the scarf from my hair and replace my long sleeves with a t-shirt.

2.

I greet my family and neighbours with a handshake, a kiss on each cheek and the traditional ‘Bajram barećula’, but keep forgetting the correct response, and mumble something incomprehensible if someone greets me first. I make my cousins tell me how to say it over and over, but even after I can parse my tongue around ‘Allah razi olsun’, I rush to speak first: Allah is an awkward shape in my mouth.

Traditionally, children are given money on Bajram and I delight in slipping my younger cousins ten and twenty marks for their bajram banka, delight in the shy ‘hvala’ they gave me, in the understated ritual of it. We had celebrated Bajram in Australia but we stopped when I moved out of home. At the time, it felt inconsequential that I didn’t return to Brisbane to celebrate — I didn’t have the money to fly home for Christmas or birthdays either — but now I am devastated at the fact of my mother with no one to kiss on each cheek in turn, no one to reply ‘Allah razi olsun’ to.

3.

The war is long over but Sarajevo is full of bullet holes, Mostar a city of shattered walls. Much has been rebuilt, of course, but the ground is still uneven with shell craters, and homes and shops stand abandoned. After a while, I learn not to see the damage, to skim over signs warning against landmines, to step nimbly over broken stone. I cry only sometimes: at the hotel where my father proposed to my mother, now a concrete shell slowly falling down the side of Trebević; in front of a bullet-ridden apartment block where an unknown woman once grabbed my sister and I and ran us into the safety of her home when the bombs began to fall; in Jablanica where I cannot remember which basement I was taken to, and where I feel stomach-sick and whirling every time I pass through.

4.

The Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide in Sarajevo is full of fragments of the horror. A little girl’s shoe, a bloody baseball bat, pieces of a burned and shot up bus in which dozens of people were slaughtered, photos of skeletal men covered in bruises and photos of the tiny, bloodstained rooms they were tortured in. There are anecdotes pasted on the walls and I grow nauseous reading them, I sweat. There are stories about mothers and daughters raped in front of one another, about a father and son forced to have sex with one another for their captors’ entertainment. There are stories and stories and stories about firing squads and live burials and torture. The museum is always quiet and sometimes the tourists cry.

5.

My father keeps alcohol in his dishwasher which otherwise gets no use. He does not drink but keeps beer and rakija in there for me, and for guests. My neighbour tells me he used to drink but stopped when he got in contact with me, some twenty years after we had escaped the country. It is his thanks to Allah. Sometimes now, he will cook local river trout for dinner and I will bend my vegetarianism to eat with him, and he will bend his not drinking to have half a radler with me and we will laugh at the flexibility of our beliefs.

6.

My mother’s family comes from the next village over from mine and my cousin and I amble up one day. He takes me to the mosque our many-greats grandmother built, a small white square with a shrinking minaret, surrounded by overgrown apple trees and blackberry shrubs. He tells me that before communism, ours was a family of Imams. He takes a puff of his joint and coughs. Then, during communism, we were doctors, he says, taking another puff. And now we are no ones. He laughs, offers me the joint.

7.

I visit family in Blagaj, a sleepy town near Mostar where a Sufi Tekija was established centuries ago and which thrums with tourists from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the summer. I am stopped twice on the street, old men clasping my hand and smiling warm and sweet as figs in the sun. They ask my cousin who I am, who she has brought from America this time. I stand out in Bosnia, my tattoos and piercings and hipster-inflected dress giving me away: I am assumed foreign. My cousin explains me, tells them I am my father’s daughter and their eyes become smiling crescents. Mashallah, they say. My Bosnian is still shaky but I can rough out what they tell me and my cousin fills in my gaps: how each man took shelter with us during the war after escaping or being released from a concentration camp. I do not know the words for this in any language and only nod. Mashallah, they say again.

8.

I am helping my aunt make pita, kneading dough and rolling it out across the table while she supervises, laughing at my frustration when a new hole appears in the pastry. We sprinkle cheese and spinach over the sheer expanse of it, roll it into thick tubes and gently fold them into the tepia. My aunt hums with satisfaction as I go to wash the sticky dough from my hands, but her voice calling me back from the bathroom is low and stern. We do not bring food into the toilet, she tells me, turning the tap at the kitchen sink. It is haram. She offers me soap and pats my shoulder with a floury hand. You will learn, she says, voice soft again. Later, we are sitting on her couch folding washing when the Ezan starts. She drops the towel she is folding into her lap and stills my hands with the two of hers. We do not work during the call to prayer, she tells me and then, when the muezzin has fallen silent, she smiles. See, you are learning.

9.

When I arrive in Bosnia this year, there are white vans and blue tape cordoning off sections of land around my village. A sign has gone up fifty metres from our house: the Norwegian and German governments are supporting landmine discovery and deactivation in our area. My village is tiny and growing abandoned. Half the buildings are empty and many, destroyed in the war, stand slowly decaying on either side of the one road that connects each house to the next. The war has been over for so long but the fact of it remains, and will not fade.

10.

This year, too, the drive from Sarajevo to my home village is peppered with walkers — men, women and children, on a yearly pilgrimage to Srebrenica to mark the anniversary of the massacre. There is a day of remembrance and I watch the proceedings on TV, and I cry listening to the Imam pray. Thousands of people bend over prayer mats and over grass, scattered between rows and rows and rows of white grave markers. In the days following, there is a constant stream of news about the massacre, about the new bodies exhumed this past year, about the conditions of the camp. I watch footage of women and girls marching away from the town, kerchiefed and hollow-eyed, knowing what will happen to their men and boys left behind. I watch footage of men digging up bodies, bones and clothing messed in disordered heaps beneath a few feet of dirt. I watch footage of General Mladić handing out sweets to the boys in Srebrenica, telling them to not be afraid, hours before his army killed them. I watch footage of Serbian officials denying the massacre, then denying that it constituted genocide. I watch footage of world leaders prevaricating over what to do with ‘the Bosnian problem’.

A Crisis of Identity

I do not know where to stand when I write about this. I do not know how to claim identity, nor which identity to try and claim. In Bosnia, I am Muslim. In the West, I am not. My assimilation has saved me from stares, comments, physical attacks, the unending abuse that visibly Muslim people endure. But it has taken away something, too. At times I think I have over-corrected: my atheism is a thing of steel; it does not permit spirituality, faith, sometimes it does not permit hope. It was a compromise reached with genocide but it left me stranded outside my culture, disconnected from a sense of community.

There is so much of Islam that has become ossified in my mind, forced into a caricature of itself, as if religion and culture aren’t always evolving, as if they are some stagnant and backwards things that I— Western! Educated! Liberated! —could never find resonance with. I have learned to look at my faith with distain, and what a specific horror that is. To share in the distain of people who would have killed me for the strength of theirs. To cast aside the thing that others are still being killed for, because the accident of my white skin means that I can.

In Glasgow, my friend Josh is Jewish but does not believe. He eats pork and has never been to synagogue, and though he tells me his nose is Jewish, it could as well be Slav for all I can see. His Jewishness is more than a matter of faith or stereotypic appearance, he says, and his lack of the two did not prevent the racism he faced in school. We laugh over this, the bizarre fact that somehow everyone knows your religion in school, even when you don’t practice, even when you hardly know it yourself. We joke about the dumb things kids did, exchange anecdotes in playful one-upmanship. I tell him about being called Osama bin Laden’s niece, he tells me about a song his friends wrote which contains the lines ‘Gas chamber, gas chamber, what do we have to pay?’ He asks if I want to hear it, but the thought makes me sick.

Josh and I spend a lot of time talking about what it means to identify with a religion when you don’t practice it. When I ask why he considers himself Jewish, he shrugs. Because the Holocaust happened, he tells me. Because of everything that happened before that. I press him on this over Whatsapp months later.

‘I’m Jew-ish — not Jewish. I don’t keep kosher, I certainly don’t ‘do’ Israel, I didn’t get a bar mitzvah, I can’t speak Hebrew, and I’m shite with money. Jews aren’t a race, religion, or ethnicity; they’re something else, and fuck knows that actually is, but I can’t help but say I am Jewish. ’Cause I am, and if I were to say otherwise that wouldn’t be right, would it?

Jews are Jews. What that means I couldn’t really tell you, but if I were to say, no I’m not a Jew, I’d be denying my difference, my identity, and my heritage. And although inheritance, heritage, family, and identity are all loaded terms, they cling to your skin and won’t let go.’

I worry that I have folded myself into a shape that will not fit Islam, but one that cannot stand without it. The fact of my Muslimness is the reason for everything that’s happened to me since I was two — my entire life spiralling out from that war, from the fact of which side of that genocide I was on. There is no way to conceive of myself without it, no way to exist without having first existed as a Muslim. I wonder, can you be Muslim in the same way you can be Jewish; without God but in the presence of community?

In the face of persecution, people turn to their faith. This is well documented and it is not surprising. It does not happen because people suddenly believe in a God that they didn’t believe in before, it happens because they believe in a community whose parameters become so clear, so tangible, when under attack. In the face of such determined Islamophobia today, I feel compelled to claim my place in that community; I cannot do but otherwise. I do not stake my claim on the basis of belief, but on the basis of knowledge. Like Muslims around the world, I know what it means to have faith weaponised against you, to live in fear because of it. And I know too, what it means to have the world turn away.

A Final Word When Words Run Out

It took until August 1995, a month after Srebrenica, for the world to intervene in the Bosnian conflict. Almost immediately after NATO began air strikes against the Serbs, they surrendered. That knowledge is an empty pit inside me. How quickly it was over, how easily it could have ended, had anyone cared enough to stop it. The massacre inspired international outrage, but this is not the only reason NATO acted. Elections were coming up and President Clinton needed to get rid of the bad press that Bosnia was making. He was much quicker when tensions flared up in the Muslim enclave of Kosovo, his decision to act following quickly on the heels of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Now, as then, Muslim lives are useful to the West insofar as they can be used to support Western interests. But now it is not in the West’s interest to act, not in its interest to speak out against China, Myanmar, India, Israel. There is nothing to be gained in protecting Muslim lives because Muslim lives are no longer worth protecting. We have turned Muslims into the enemy, conjured monsters where real people once stood. I have been turned into an enemy too; a little girl with a piece of white bread in a camp, somehow a grave risk to Serbian national security.

The war in Bosnia was not about religion, it was not about race, though both have been claimed as sources of Serbian anti-Muslim sentiment. In some versions of history, Bosnian Muslims were Serbs who betrayed their Orthodox Christianity. In others, we are descendants of the Ottomans who controlled the Balkans from the 14th century to the early 20th. But these are justifications, not reasons. Before the fall of Yugoslavia, Croats, Serbs and Muslims lived in secular communism with no difference in education, income or social status between us. Religion was mostly inconsequential. Indeed, many Serbians protested the war, even taking to the streets and marching against their nationalist government. Many fled from conscription or abandoned their posts instead of fighting against people they knew to be no different from themselves. But such defiance, in the face of governmental power and international indifference, can do little to prevent the inevitable.

The war was about what all wars are about: money, land, power. Islam was only brought into it to justify the means, and Bosniaks only became meaningfully Muslim when Bosnia attempted to leave Yugoslavia, when politicking required an ‘other’ for Serbia to fight against. As Yugoslavia came apart, Serbia began a propaganda campaign, reviving old myths and rivalries to justify war. Croats were referred to as ‘Ustaše hordes’ and ‘Vatican fascists’, and Bosniaks as ‘Mujahedin fighters’, ‘fundamentalist’, ‘Turks’ and ‘warriors of Jihad’. News stories circulated that Bosniaks were feeding Serb children to animals in the Sarajevo zoo.

Afterword

On his way to murder fifty innocent people, the Christchurch terrorist played a song from the Bosnian war — ‘Karadžiću, vodi Srbe svoje’ (‘Karadžić, Lead Your Serbs’). It is a nationalist anthem, a piece of propaganda created during the war whose accompanying music video features marching Serb soldiers and Muslim men in concentration camps. It warns that Serbia is under attack, warns us [the Ustaše and the Turks] not to touch their country. Warns us, too, to beware, the wolves are coming. The song celebrates Radovan Karadžić, Supreme Commander of the Bosnian Serb army and the man who ordered the Srebrenica genocide.

The song has other names too. ‘Bog je Srbin i on će nas čuvati’ (‘God is a Serb and he will protect us’) and, more recently, since becoming a far-right meme: ‘Remove Kebab’, a rechristening that decontextualizes the song from our war and makes explicit the racism inherent in Islamophobia. The murderer referred to himself as a ‘kebab removalist’ in his manifesto. In it, too, he cited Karadžić and the ‘Serbian struggle’. His manifesto is called ‘The Great Replacement’, and it is a tissue of regurgitated rhetoric about the risk we pose to Western security, to Western ways of life. It is bitter, and all too familiar.

Krenuli su vući, čuvajte se
The wolves are coming, beware

 

 

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Dženana Vucic is a Bosnian-Australian writer, editor and 2020 Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow. Her essays and poetry have been published in Overland, Meanjin, Stilts, SAND, Kill Your Darlings, Going Down Swinging, APJ, Plumwood Mountain, the Australian Multilingual Writing Project, Rabbit, and others. She has been shortlisted for the 2019 Deakin Nonfiction Prize, the 2020 Nillumbik Contemporary Writing Prize and the 2020 Woollahra Digital Literary Award. She tweets at @dzenanabanana.

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