By coincidence, I was thinking about Serbia when I received word of the arrest of Ratko Mladic, the notorious leader of the Serbian extremist forces that devastated Bosnia-Hercegovina in the Yugoslav war of 1992-95.
On May 26, I was sitting in a hotel room in Nazareth, having just visited the Basilica of the Annunciation and engaged in a spiritual Sufi exercise: I walked along the walls of the Basilica reciting Islamic blessings inaudibly. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is considered by Muslims to have been the greatest of all women, an item of belief largely unknown to Westerners. The Quran states, "O Mary! Allah has chosen and purified you, selecting you above all other women" (Quran 3:42). Islamic scripture dedicates an entire surah, or chapter, to her -- number 19. From the Sufi perspective, honoring Mary in Nazareth epitomizes traditional Islam.
The television was on in my room but I paid little attention to it until Sky News, the mediocre Murdoch-owned channel, announced the Serbian detention of Mladic. The boss of the ultranationalist militia, really a rabble in arms, had been hidden in Serbia by his official sympathizers for 16 years, since the end of the Bosnian war.
But why was I already thinking about Serbia? In the previous two days I attended a Sufi conference in Baqa al-Gharbiyya, an Arab town split by the so-called "Green Line," separating the West Bank from Israel. The event, held at the Al-Qasemi Academy, an Islamic teaching institution supported by the Israeli authorities, brought together experts on Islam and Sufism, including Muslim clerics and professors, and Jewish, Christian and perhaps agnostic scholarly commentators. Al-Qasemi was established by Khalwati Sufis, members of a group widely represented in the Islamic world, and I presented a paper on Khalwatism in the Balkans. My commentary included invocation of Muslim martyrs killed at a Khalwati Sufi center in the Kosovo town of Rahovec, as a consequence of the Serbian aggression there, in 1998. During combat between the Serb army and the Kosovo Liberation Army, frightened residents of the town had taken refuge in the Sufi structure. But the beloved shaykh Myhedin Shehu, the best-known Sufi teacher in Kosovo, was murdered by the Serbs, along with 150 people. The depravity of the Serbs in Rahovec had an echo of the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, Bosnia, in 1995, for which Mladic will be tried if he is indeed transferred to the international tribunal in The Netherlands.
Khalwati Sufism is named for the practice of khalwa, or contemplative withdrawal from the world with meditation on and recitation in praise of Allah almighty, the God of Jews, Christians and Muslims. Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him and his noble family, first received the Quran while in khalwa at a cave on Mount Hira, known as Jebel al-Nur, "the hill of light," near the town of Mecca where he was born. The Quran also says of Mary, "she had chosen seclusion from her family, but was visited by a divine messenger in human form ... who told her, I come from Allah to announce the gift to you of a holy son." Mary protested that she was a virgin, but was told that Allah had decreed "it is no difficulty for me; your childbirth will bring forth a sign and mercy to humanity" (Quran 19: 17-21).
My trip to the Al-Qasemi convocation was my second visit to Israel -- my first was in 2006. The Muslim scholars in Baqa al-Gharbiyya emphasized khalwa and its expression of the solitude experienced by believers and, most particularly, by Sufis. But I saw other messages in the conference, as well as in the exposure of Ratko Mladic in the Serbian village of Lazarevo. Jesus had come as a mercy, but Mladic had been merciless in his cruelty, and the victims of Srebrenica had died abandoned and alone, even when they were slain in groups. Serbian authorities declared that the handover of the accused would free their state from its ostracism by the world, and their leader, Boris Tadic, as shown on television, used the occasion to attempt a new isolation of the independent Kosovo Republic, by claims of a "blood libel" against the Kosovar Albanians. The Serb leader accused the Kosovars of harvesting organs from Serbian captives during the 1998-99 war. These charges are old, have been shown to be groundless and should not be heeded.
But of equal significance, while khalwa by Sufis is voluntary, Israel and its Jewish, Muslim, Christian and other citizens are continuously pressed into a quarantine by its foreign enemies. As a Muslim and a Sufi, I perceived all these aspects refracted through the examples of Mary and Muhammad, of the Khalwati Sufis and of the dead at Srebrenica and Rahovec.
The Al-Qasemi symposium epitomized the contrast between hostile rhetoric against the Jewish state in global media, and the manifest civility between Israeli Jewish and Israeli Arab citizens, the latter including both Muslims and Christians. I repeatedly told my co-participants that such a meeting could not take place in the Balkans, although the latter region has been "pacified," unlike the Middle East. Bosnian Muslim and Albanian Muslim scholars seldom meet together, regardless of their common religious heritage; Bosnian Muslim and Albanian cultures are slighted in the Serbian higher-education apparatus. The situation in Israel, however, presents a diametrical opposite to such divisions; Muslims work as professors and graduate students in the Jewish-founded Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Bar-Ilan University and the University of Haifa. Distinguished Israeli universities have generously-financed and authoritative programs in Islamic and Arab studies.
As thrown into relief by the bright light of the Mladic case, many in the West appear eager to certify the apprehension of a strutting, undisguised terrorist as proof that Serbia should be welcomed into the community of responsible European and international states. Their enthusiasm for the Belgrade government is as fervent as their often-expressed distaste for the state of Israel. Serbs are congratulated for the fiction that Mladic was "arrested on a tip," while Israel is accused of "apartheid" in its dealings with Arabs.
But official Serbia clearly protected Mladic, just as Pakistan's military sheltered, beyond doubt, the late Osama bin Laden. Yet Israel investigates conscientiously every assertion of human-rights violation brought against its authorities, including its defense forces. Serbia, in tandem with Russia, has been an ally of the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. When the democratic nations took measures to prevent Gaddafi from a wholesale slaughter of his own people, Serbian media reveled in propaganda for his regime. But Serbia will, it seems, be speedily rewarded for a charade of justice in the Mladic affair, and Israel will be disfavored further by Western media and academia.
Israeli Arabs have never been subjected to an attempt at genocide such as the Bosnian Muslims and Kosovar Albanians suffered at the hands of Serbia in the 1990s. Israeli Arabs need no armed protection from the international powers, and the pretext of their assistance through terrorism and other aggression backed by Arab despots and by Iran is contemptible. Still, Serbia will be embraced, while more efforts are made to isolate Israel through the so-called "boycott-divestment-sanctions" (BDS) campaign.
The reality behind the Mladic case -- that Serbia shielded him until he became an unarguable liability for Serbia's "European future" -- is obvious in the detail that he was supposedly "tracked down" at a farmhouse owned by his cousin Branislav Mladic. Is it credible that Branislav Mladic would have successfully concealed the butcher of Bosnia? Of course not, no more than it is believable that the Pakistani military and political elite did not know Osama bin Laden was living in the military-dominated zone of Abbottabad near the zone of Kashmir controlled by the Pakistani army.
Headlines in European media were explicit: The Independent of London proclaimed on May 27, "Serbia celebrates crucial step toward EU membership." The front page of the International Herald Tribune, the global edition of The New York Times, on the same day promised, "With arrest, Serbia makes big leap in quest to join E.U." The IHT's style mimicked the ambiguous, if not openly disinformational nature of Serbia's account of Mladic's immediate fate: the Belgrade authorities had "captured" and "seized" him, after "years on the run."
I write these words from Amsterdam, en route to Sarajevo, and something must be said about the role and sensibilities of the Dutch in the grim epic of Srebrenica and the case against Mladic. The crime of Srebrenica was enabled by the passivity of the 450 soldiers of "DutchBat," a contingent from The Netherlands assigned to protect tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims crowded into the so-called "U.N. safe area." The Dutch have felt shame at that historical reality, and on my arrival in Holland from Israel, the day after Mladic was "found," ordinary Dutch people expressed their remorse to me.
I have dear Bosnian friends who lost family members at Srebrenica, and I pray for their dead. I was in the Balkans, although not on the territory of the former Yugoslavia, when Srebrenica occurred, and have never forgotten my sense of outraged helplessness, and my own guilt that I could neither go to Srebrenica to report on it nor take any measure to help prevent, or at least, to resist it. Flying from Vienna to Bucharest, I had looked from the windows of a jet airliner at the sky to the west, over Bosnia, and noted the contrails of military aircraft. Somehow, I knew something evil was afoot, and within days my fears were confirmed. I heard that the first men and boys killed at Srebrenica were separated out for execution because they carried tespih, the prayer beads favored by Sufis. I carry tespih with me always, in memory of the Balkan atrocities visited on Muslims, as well as in remembrance of Allah.
When Israel and Ariel Sharon were accused of complicity in the 1982 Lebanese killings in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, the Israeli authorities determined that the Jewish state bore "indirect responsibility" for the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians, and branded Sharon with "personal responsibility" for failing to prevent Lebanese Christian militia from carrying out their bloody work. No such verdict has ever been entered against the Dutch commander at Srebrenica, Thomas Karremans, videotaped after the mass murder lifting a glass of brandy in a toast with Mladic. Srebrenica survivors and relatives of the dead signed a legal complaint against Karremans, but the world has ignored it. At Srebrenica, Bosnian Muslims who served as assistants to DutchBat were put to death with their compatriots. After the Bosnian war, I assisted Dutch investigators in a "royal inquiry" on Srebrenica. Unlike the Israelis, the Dutch authorities washed their hands of the matter by qualifying protection of the Bosnians in Srebrenica as a difficult, if not impossible, mission, and in 2006 the Dutch authorities decorated their military veterans of the disgraceful episode, honoring them for their conduct in bad conditions.
Dutch newspapers treated the "discovery" of Mladic with relief. De Telegraaf, the largest daily in the country, carried a one-word headline: "Gerechtigheid," meaning "Justice." The paper quoted socialist politician Frans Timmermans, calling Srebrenica an "open wound that now may heal," but it also referred to "the nightmare" suffered by ... Dutch soldiers. Still, bad dreams did not kill the Dutch, as the fantasies of Serb fanatics killed the Bosnians.
Trouw, the name of which means "True," a daily that originated in Dutch anti-Nazi resistance propaganda, seemed detached, with the headline "Mladic down, Serbia approaching the EU."
Trouw, Het Parool, or "The Password," another Dutch daily with a Resistance legacy, and the liberal De Volkskrant (The People's Journal) reproduced the image of the feckless Karremans drinking with Mladic. Het Parool quoted a telephone interview elicited from Karremans, who expressed his happiness at the news, by a Dutch television station.
The distinguished NRC Handelsblad, a daily with a business orientation and a history in Rotterdam, admitted, "Srebrenica destroyed the Dutch self-image." The paper stipulated, "The Dutchbat mission ended the Netherlands' view of itself as a practical, generous, tolerant, international mentor."
The Hague will now be the site of the Mladic trial, presuming his Serbian acolytes do not find a way to prevent his handover. But another headline in the London Independent seemed definitive: "The damage inflicted by Mladic is more than his trial can repair." Mladic, DutchBat and a pusillanimous U.N., in the bloodbath at Srebrenica, contributed greatly to the current crisis between the world's Muslims and the world's powers. While Israel, which educates and promotes its Muslims of talent, is subjected to calls for a boycott, Saudi Arabia, which produced al Qaeda, Pakistan, the sanctuary for bin Laden, the Netherlands, whose soldiers stood by while the innocent were annihilated at Srebrenica, and Serbia, about which few words can express the depth of its ignominy, are absolved.
Even after the death of bin Laden, rational arguments may be advanced for the impossibility of holding the Saudis and Pakistanis accountable. The Netherlands is a leading Western country and, notwithstanding its qualms of conscience, will doubtless not be further challenged. But what possible advantage can the world gain by granting Serbia membership in the EU? Let Israel be Israel, and let Serbia continue to be punished for its long history of aggression. That would be justice, without double standards.