There are not many Muslim politicians in the world who openly admire Israel. In fact, Emir Suljagic, an author and former member of the Bosnian Social Democratic party, may just be in a minority of one.
To understand why, one word helps above all others: survival. Mr Suljagic evaded death during the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in July 1992 thanks to a piece of good fortune that echoes many near-miss tales from the Holocaust.
When he was 17, he fled the ethnic cleansing taking place in the Drina Valley and took refuge in Srebrenica. As the town fell to Serb forces and the round-up of Bosniaks began, Mr Suljagic encountered none other than the Serb general, Ratko Mladic.
Mladic asked Mr Suljagic who he was, upon which he produced his identity card. The general looked at the card and let him go, only because was a UN-employed translator.
In his book, Postcards from the Grave, Mr Suljagic wrote of his bemusement at having been spared, a clear case of survivor’s guilt and one that can be found in the accounts of many who lived through the Holocaust. Most other members of Mr Suljagic’s family were killed.
Today, Mr Suljagic speaks with the lexicon of a survivor. While he stresses that what happened to the Jews during the Second World War was on a scale far beyond the attempt to wipe out Bosnia’s Muslims, Srebrenica has become the symbol of a long battle for the survival of a people and, just as that struggle is not over for Israelis, nor is it over for Bosniaks.
“Like Israel, we are a small group in a hostile environment. Like Israel, our neighbours would be happy if we ceased to exist. We are still fighting. Look at the recent comments of the Serbian president, Tomislav Nikolic, who denied that a genocide was committed in Srebrenica,” he said.
Mr Suljagic has led a campaign to encourage Bosniaks who fled Srebrenica during and after the war to return there in order to register their residency. This creation of ‘facts on the ground’ will ultimately solidify Bosniaks’ claims to their homeland in future land disputes. For Mr Suljagic, such a move amounts to “becoming Israeli”, by which he means that, by securing territory, they have a chance of guaranteeing their future.
The relevance of the Holocaust for the Bosnian Muslim public was apparent at last month’s memorial to commemorate the 17th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre.
New York Rabbi Arthur Schneier, whose entire family was murdered at Auschwitz, was invited by the Grand Mufti of Sarajevo to speak at the event.
“I personally know the pain that you have endured and that you continue to suffer. I am a survivor of the Holocaust,” he told the audience.
“The reaction was unbelievable,” he said, adding that the Muslim crowd mobbed him after the speech.
For those who are having difficulties understanding Israel, the story of Bosnia’s Muslims should be recommended reading.