25 years after Srebrenica: intolerance and xenophobia must never go unchallenged

Pic: Imam Qari Asim; Facebook

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide — an event in our history that is not often spoken about.

Srebrenica took the lives of more than 8,000 Muslims and is seen by many as the worst atrocity on European soil since the Second World War: forced deportation, torture, mass murder and systematic violence by Bosnian Serb forces to create a “Greater Serbia”.

I urge people to remember that no faith community is immune from persecution. In its 2018 Human Rights and Democracy report, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office stated that denial of the right to freedom of religion or belief was a “matter of increasing international concern”. We see this playing out with the rise of Christian persecution becoming more widespread worldwide as well as the continued rise of antisemitism. But now, more than ever, we see that those of all faiths and backgrounds can face prejudice.

A report by Tell MAMA, which records anti-Muslim acts, one year after the terrorist attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand — in which 51 died and 49 were injured — showed there was a 692 per cent increase in anti-Muslim hatred.

We see this within our media where there are often misrepresentions or generalisations about Muslims, with terrorism being the most commonly associated theme. Such negative portrayal of Muslims is then exploited to spread hatred towards one group over another. We cannot allow such prejudice to take place in our diverse and multicultural society.

We must remember that the Srebrenica genocide was in our lifetime: a brutal massacre of Bosnian Muslims on our doorstep because of their belief. According to the 2011 census, Britain is home to 8,000 people from Bosnia and Herzegovina, of which 66% per cent came during the war. Of this 8,000, about 5,280 are believed to have come to the UK during the Srebrenica genocide.

After the Holocaust we said never again would we allow ethnic cleansing and the systematic persecution of a people. But we have said “never again” too many times and have stood by and watched atrocities like the Srebrenica genocide play out.

The Jewish community knows all too well what it is like to face persecution. Earlier this year, we commemorated 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau: a tragedy that must never be forgotten. I was proud to come together with Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and  Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby to highlight the theme of standing together to tackle hatred in society.

More recently, Chief Rabbi Ephraim has also supported the charity Remembering Srebrenica and we have both spoken at the memorial event online. It is so reassuring to have the constant support and value of other faith leaders because whatever our faiths or experiences, it’s important we use these moments to stand together, shoulder to shoulder.

The potential genocide of Rohingyas and the systematic terrorising of Uighurs are further examples at hand. There are reports of “concentration camps” where more than a million Uighurs and other ethnic minorities are forcibly detained in China. Yet, the international community, by and large, remains silent in challenging the systematic campaign against freedom of religion and belief of Uighurs. The world must not fail them this time.

The genocide of Srebrenica is a stark reminder that intolerance can happen anywhere unless we learn to respect and appreciate our differences. With increasing levels of discriminatory manifestation that we have seen during Covid-19, we must remain vigilant against all forms of racism, bigotry and xenophobia. Such hatred has no place in our society.

The theme for this year’s Srebrenica Memorial Week is “every action matters”, which shows that doing something, no matter how small, really can make a difference. Doing nothing to stop injustice or persecution is not an option for humanity. We must all speak out if we see hatred, intolerance and racism.

During UK Srebrenica Memorial Week more than 1,500 activities were registered, despite Covid-19 restrictions. These activities took place in schools, council offices, police stations, community centres and places of worship — including lighting up bridges and libraries in the colours of the Srebrenica green and white flower.

As an Imam, it was humbling to see so many people pledging to stand together against hatred. My sermon, along with many others in places of worship, highlighted that genocide does not happen overnight. It begins when hatred, intolerance and xenophobia are left unchallenged.

Remembering Srebrenica provides us with an opportunity to reflect on our personal and professional lives, to show that those who raise a voice against prejudice, hatred of the other and racism, those who stand up and unite against hatred, can and will make a difference.

It has never been so important for people to be empowered to confront hatred in their communities and to build bridges that help create a stronger, better and more cohesive society.

Qari Asim is senior Imam at Makkah Mosque, Leeds, and chairs the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board. He is also deputy chairman of the government’s Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group and the independent adviser to the government on the definition of Islamophobia

Further details of the soon to be launched UK Freedom of Religion and Belief Forum have been unveiled by the Bishop of Truro Philip Mounstephen, in an interview with the Religion Media Centre