Six years after my dad was killed by a racist, I tried to understand how a Muslim genocide took place on Britain’s doorstep

The story of Srebrenica leaves me terrified that it would be so easy for some to ignore the kind of bigotry that has fostered hate on the streets of Britain

Maz Saleem
Monday 29 April 2019 14:35 BST
Thousands march to remember Srebrenica victims

It is six years since a terrorist brutally murdered my father Mohammed Saleem and carried out three mosque bombings in the West Midlands. Since then anti-Muslim hatred seems to only have grown worse.

Hate crime more than doubled in the wake of toxic campaigning against Muslims, migrants and refugees during the EU referendum campaign. It has helped to make the threat from Islamophobia very real.

The Conservative party should take some of the blame, and not only for the tone of its so-called hostile environment and evidence of the views of grassroots members.

The bigotry and racism come from the very top. Boris Johnson’s despicable “letterbox” comments regarding Muslim women wearing the niqab led to more attacks on Muslim women for the way they look and dress.

It is outrageous that divisive rhetoric from politicians can lead to violence and hate on our streets and my fear about where this all ends prompted me to travel to Bosnia, to try and understand the most recent genocide against Muslims on European soil.

It is now nearly a quarter-century since anti-Muslim hatred lead to the massacre of Srebrenica. It was one of the most brutal episodes of the 1992-1995 inter-ethnic war in Bosnia that claimed 100,000 lives. It is a genocide still denied by the majority of Serbs today. This was ethnic cleansing of Bosniak Muslims on a huge scale.

In Srebrenica alone, more than 8,300 men and boys were killed, rounded up by the Serb army, murdered and dumped in mass graves. Entire families were wiped out. There are still over 1,000 bodies that are yet to be found today.

Mass murder, expulsion and systematic rape was committed against tens of thousands of innocent Boniak Muslims simply because of their faith.

I met many extraordinary survivors on my visit who lost family members but the one that left the most powerful impression was Nusreta Sivac, now a Bosniak activist for victims of rape and other war crimes and a former judge. She has been a key person in helping achieve recognition of rape as a war crime.

Nusreta was sent to the concentration camps used to imprison, torture and kill Muslims as part of the genocide in Bosnia. Hundreds and thousands were made refugees overnight and forced out of their homes. Tens of thousands of Muslim women were imprisoned and repeatedly raped by soldiers.

The genocide against Bosniak Muslims took place only a two-hour flight from the UK, and it plays heavy on my heart that anyone would try to deny this genocide and want to eradicate this part of history. It leaves me terrified that it would be so easy for some to ignore the kind of bigotry that led to my father’s death and which has fostered hate on the streets of Britain.

The horrific events in Sri Lanka and in New Zealand must make us recognise that intolerance and hatred in any form must be challenged at every given opportunity.

The New Zealand terrorist was inspired by Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadzic. Srebrenica has inspired the far right across the globe. Norwegian white supremacist terrorist Anders Breivik mentioned Bosnia over 300 times in his hate manifesto.

The Bosniak Muslims were white Europeans, just like their non-Muslim neighbours. They spoke the same language as their non-Muslim neighbours. They wore the same clothes and led the same lifestyle. Yet, a drip feed of propaganda provided the conditions for them to become, seemingly overnight, the victims of a horrific genocide while the world stood by and watched.

I’m not suggesting that anything like Srebrenica could happen here, but it is still clear that the UK government approach to the rise of far-right extremism has been appalling. It simply wasn’t taken seriously, perhaps until the murder of MP Jo Cox.

My father’s murder was met with silence. But the Conservatives have relentlessly introduced measures that stigmatise and silence Muslims and Islam. They are blind to the effect this has on the ground.

Instead the government, in the past at least, has funded right-wing think tank Quilliam, which has perpetuated anti-Islam rhetoric. Meanwhile, schools, the NHS, employers, institutions and landlords are encouraged to spy and report people they suspect of being “illegal immigrants” to the police and the Home Office which may lead to deportation.

Support free-thinking journalism and attend Independent events

Islamophobia doesn’t exist because Muslims don’t integrate with their neighbours or because people don’t understand Islam. Islamophobia exists because the state and its allies have allowed it to exist. This is the reason that Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – or Tommy Robinson as he styles himself – has gone from dreary thug to far-right celebrity with mainstream platforms on the BBC and other channels to preach hatred.

The British government needs to tackle rise of the far right head on, and it should hold social media platforms to account for emboldening Islamophobia online, which has lead to effects offline at street level and in the school playgrounds.

During the genocide in Bosnia, the Serbian state ran a mass media campaign that portrayed Muslims as a violent threat by spreading propaganda; exaggerated and false information of religious based attacks against the Serb people.

Today in the UK the fear that all Muslims are “terrorists” has been fuelled by inflammatory reporting and commentary on terrorism. The false claim by The Sun newspaper that one in five British Muslims supported jihadi groups like Isis was only one egregious example. The result has been that a worryingly high percentage of British people think of Islam itself as a threat.

On the anniversary of my father’s death, it is depressing to know that my niece has had her hijab ripped off at her school. A new generation is preparing to suffer. Children are being told – even British-born ones – to “go back where they came from”. The hatred so systematically created and disseminated must now be systematically dismantled.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in