The Srebrenica massacre reminds us that genocide starts with words of hate

After the hateful “Punish a Muslim” letters, we must learn from recent history: no society is immune from the consequences of dehumanising rhetoric.

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Genocide does not happen overnight. It often takes years, indeed decades, of animosity and hatred before it manifests.

Gregory H. Stanton of Genocide Watch describes in detail the process of how casual racism and discrimination can lead to mass murder in his Ten Stages to Genocide model. The message is that this process is not particular to any country or culture: under the right conditions, it can happen anywhere.

I was reminded of this recently when I paid my respects at the Srebrenica Memorial Cemetery in Potočari, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Potočari is home to the site of remembrance for the 8,000 men and boys who were systematically murdered because of their Muslim faith in July 1995. This was the event now known as the Srebrenica Genocide.

Fifty years after the Holocaust, after we all said “never again”, came Srebrenica – another genocide in the heart of Europe. I travelled there as part of a delegation organised by the charity Remembering Srebrenica, to learn just how a modern society, like Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s, could tear itself apart.

In the years leading up to the breakup of Yugoslavia, charismatic leaders like Slobodan Milošević and Radovan Karadžić exploited nationalist sentiments to gain power. By the time conflict erupted in the Balkans in the early 1990s, the population of Bosnia-Herzegovina had already been fed a diet of hatred and division.

As part of the delegation, I had a guided tour of Sarajevo, the capital. My guide was a survivor of the siege of Sarajevo, which lasted from 1992 to 1996 – the longest bombardment of a capital city in the history of modern warfare – and he described how his world changed overnight.

“I was just an ordinary European teenager, 19 years old, in my jeans and Converse, really into punk music. The next day, after the declaration of independence, the shelling started and ordinary Sarajevans were under attack,” he told me.

It is important to remember that no society is immune from the poison of hatred. Here in the UK, it is deeply concerning to see the way that religious and ethnic minorities are increasingly being targeted. Hate Crimes are on the rise in the UK with 29 per cent more incidents recorded in 2016-2017 compared with 2015-2016.

In recent weeks we have seen the vile “Punish a Muslim” letters being sent to people across the country. The letter includes a scoring system for inflicting terror against Muslims, such as 500 points for murdering a Muslim “using gun, knife, vehicle or otherwise” and 1,000 points for burning a mosque. It may be tempting to write this sort of thing off as some kind of sick joke, but no one was laughing last June when a terrorist attacked worshippers leaving a mosque in Finsbury Park.

Furthermore, four of my Labour colleagues, MPs from Muslim backgrounds, were sent “Punish a Muslim” letters attached to suspicious packages. The intent was clear: to intimidate people who follow Islam, and to divide communities.

It should be remembered that the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers. It began with words – the division into “Us” and “Them”, descending into stereotyping, dehumanisation, then violence. The spreading of fear we saw in Bosnia, when Muslims were stereotyped as “Islamic Fundamentalists”, has echoes of some of the fearmongering we see here today.

It follows that we ought to choose the words we use to describe others with great care and be watchful for the language of division. The rhetoric of “Us” and “Them” on display in the “Punish a Muslim” letters is dangerously dehumanising, and we need to call it out for what it is.

Clearly, more must be done to tackle hate crime. This is why, earlier this month, I asked an urgent question in the House of Commons about the government’s approach to dealing with terrorism from far-right groups.

Against a backdrop of rising intolerance and hatred, the work of organisations like Remembering Srebrenica, that seek to educate about genocide and honour those who lost their lives in Srebrenica, becomes all the more important. Since being established in 2013, the charity has taken more than 1,100 UK citizens on delegations like the one I attended. On their return, the charity asks delegates to become “Community Champions”, who bring their communities together and remind people of the consequences of hatred.

After meeting survivors of the Srebrenica genocide, and seeing first-hand where divisions in society can lead, I am determined to play my part in promoting tolerance and understanding. Will you?

Yasmin Qureshi is the Labour MP for Bolton South East and the Shadow Minister for Justice.