Today’s America reminds me of 1990s Bosnia and Herzegovina

The other day a shocking photo came across my Twitter feed. It showed a masked young man proudly holding his AK-47 while wearing a “chetnik” – Serb nationalist – insignia. Serb forces wore the same insignia while eradicating Bosniaks during the genocide in the 1990s.

I cringed not only because I was one of those Bosnian Muslims, but because this time, the young man was not from my past but from the present. He was not a bearded Serb soldier in 1990s Bosnia and Herzegovina, but an American man standing in front of a manicured lawn on a United States street in 2020. He was not wearing a soldier’s uniform, but a cheap Hawaiian shirt.

Some comments that followed treated him as a joke, mocking his kitschy shirt. But to me, this is no joke. To me, the image is clear evidence that the US has a serious problem with a growing number of people like the man in that photo, whose desire to obliterate non-white Americans is inspired by nationalist and Islamophobic ideologies that originated in the Balkans.

From 1992 to 1995, I saw my country torn apart. Family members were slaughtered, friends disappeared, women I knew were dragged to rape camps. I starved, my house was bombed. For nearly four years, Serbs tried to kill me and everyone I loved simply because we were Muslims. I know first-hand the horror that this kind of hate can bring. I survived and came to the US, where I thought I would be safe from genocidal ideas forever. Now, I am terrified by the parallels I see between today’s America and my homeland.

You may wonder what nationalist and Islamophobic narratives from the Balkans have to do with the rise of white supremacy in the US. Race is a more recent social construct, but religion has always drawn empires into wars. This is why American white supremacists flock to the Serb and Croat nationalist narratives premised on a long-held fear of Muslims. White supremacy needs an anchor in the past, and the Crusades serve that purpose with their imagery of bloodshed encoded into Western memory. They help white supremacists evoke a fear that power and land could be lost to the world’s fastest growing religious group, Muslims – Muslims like me, who they see as coming for them and their culture now.

This very view of Muslims as invaders delivered Laura Loomer, a self-proclaimed Islamophobe, the Republican congressional nomination in Florida’s 21st District where President Trump’s Mar-a-Largo is located. The majority of Americans already believe that “most Americans are prejudiced toward Muslim Americans”. In Europe, Muslims are less desirable as neighbours than any other religious group.

Slobodan Milosevic, later dubbed the “Butcher of Balkans” for his genocide against Bosnian Muslims, brilliantly leveraged this shared Islamophobia to justify killing ordinary people like me. In 1989, when he prepped Serbs for the wars he was going to initiate, he delivered an infamous speech calling for Serbs to unify in battle to protect their Serb identity and white, Christian Europe. The time and place for his speech were carefully curated – it was delivered at the main ceremony marking the 600th anniversary of the battle of Kosovo, in which the Muslim Ottomans defeated the Serbs and shortly thereafter conquered Serbian lands. The commemoration, which was taking place at an historical battle site, provided Milosevic with imagery that would help Serbs morally justify the mass killings of Muslims.

Like those who partook in the executions of ordinary Muslims in Bosnia, white supremacists in America today look at Muslims – along with Black people, immigrants, gays, Jews and all other minorities – through the imagery of the Crusades and see all minorities as an existential threat to their ethnic purity.

Trump has used similar tactics to stir up his base while ostensibly hiding his own motivations. He consistently depicts Muslims as an existential threat because, as he claims, Muslims hate Americans and the Quran is “a pretty scary thing“. His former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, believes that the US is in a continuous war against Muslims because of the “long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam”. Stephen Miller, another of Trump’s ideological underlings, equates Islam with fascism, calling it “Islamo-fascism”.

Borrowing imagery from the past has re-energised America’s white supremacists, as has their realisation that white people will be a minority in the US by 2045. The fear has trickled down to ordinary Americans, like the YouTuber who urges his 470,000 subscribers to prepare for civil war as bloody as the conflict in the former Yugoslavia where “hardly any men are left”. Or the Croatian-American white supremacist, Tomislav Sunic, who lectures American far-right organisations on the dangers of Muslims. Yet, over the last decade, seven out of 10 deaths resulting from terrorism in our country have been committed by Christians hoping to preserve white supremacy, not Muslims trying to build an Islamic caliphate. For white supremacists, the genocide against Bosniaks is a how-to guide for how a modern, diverse society can become ethnically – or racially – pure.

In my old country, Islamophobia crept into the police and army too. In the city of Prijedor, Serb authorities ordered Muslims to wear white armbands to help the police and army easily identify them for imprisonment, execution and torture. So, watching the American police kill Black people with no remorse is deja vu – a horror movie whose ending I never want to see again. Hardly a day goes by that I do not think of the Srebrenica Genocide where Serbs rounded up 8,372 Muslims into unmarked vehicles and drove them away to their killing fields – but I never imagined that I would see unidentifiable men in unmarked vehicles take civilians from American streets without any explanation, as has happened in New York, Oregon and, now, Kenosha.

To protect federal property, Trump argued he had to send federal officers to arrest Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland, but he did not send them to Michigan to protect Capitol Hill when it was stormed by armed white men. This demonstrates a racial lens through which Trump sees America. But, it also unveils the real purpose of the federal officers’ deployment: to ensure that Americans are desensitised to the use of a federal force against minority groups going forward. During the first presidential debate on September 29, Trump directed the far-right organisation Proud Boys to “Stand back and stand by.” One might wonder, stand by for what? But to a genocide survivor like me, the insinuation that more violence is to come is loud and clear.

A deciding moment in the genocide against Bosniaks was when the military stopped being our nation’s military and backed only Serbs. My city of Bihac was one of a handful that never fell into the military’s hands, which is why I am alive to write this. From where I sit, the US has moved through most of the steps of the societal disintegration that I witnessed in the former Yugoslavia: the emergence of the ideological narrative of one group’s superiority over the rest; the rise of a political leader who champions that narrative; the leveraging of media to build the alternative truths to morally justify killings of the subjugated groups; the spreading of hatred and escalation of racial violence that has even divided families at dinner tables.

The only question for the US that remains unanswered is whether its military will take sides should violence escalate. This November, whatever the outcome of the election, the military may be put to the test. Given that 90 percent of US army generals are white, I worry about what the outcome may be. More than 90 percent of the officers in the Yugoslav National Army were Serbs, and the few who were not were weeded out before the war. I still trusted the military to prevent the war because my Serb friends’ fathers and even my Serb uncle, who married into our family, were officers in it. But I was wrong. I underestimated how hatred can dehumanise “the other” in the eyes of those in power. Ultimately, what I thought would never happen became my reality. This is why now – as a Bosnian genocide survivor – I do not want to just warn Americans but I want to scream from the rooftops that if we continue to dehumanise each other and opt for hate over social cohesion, we will soon find ourselves headed to an abyss on a suicidal train with no return ticket.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

  • Amra Sabic-El-Rayess Author, professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College
  • Sabic-El-Rayess is the author of the recently published memoir “The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival” (Bloomsbury), about her experiences during the Bosnian war. She emigrated to the United States in 1996, earning a BA in economics from Brown University as well as two master’s degrees and a doctorate from Columbia University. She is an international expert on education, corruption and social transformations and a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College who studies how and why societies fall apart and what role education can play in rebuilding decimated countries.