The Greatest Crime

A week ago I was in Sarajevo having a pleasant dinner with some academic colleagues from the university there. One scholar about my age asked my advice on how to be a productive scholar writing while raising young kids. I shared what I’d learned… kids need to sleep, and you need your time to work… Ferber method… work late at night, etc. Dessert was delicious. I was the man.

As the professor drove me back to my hotel I asked him about some details of politics in Bosnia, and this led to me mentioning the massacre of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica (where around 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were massacred by Serb forces in 1995). I asked offhand if any of those individuals who had carried out the killings had ever admitted to it. “Jonathan,” the professor said, “They videotaped it. You can go today to the video store in Belgrade (Serbia) and take out the videos.” I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. “In my home city, which is today in the Serbian part of Bosnia,” he went on, “You can go to the video store and take out the video.” I asked how people could be so sure and proud of doing something like that, that they’d record it on video. “Jonathan, when I was twelve, I saw all my family, my father and my uncles, all shot right in front of me. They were shot right in front of my house. The people who did it still live in my city.” I couldn’t think of what to say. All I could think of was that the guy I’d been dishing out parenting advice to… Well, now I was a worm. “When I go back to my home city to visit, I see them,” he told me. “They tell me, ‘Why did you come back? Don’t you know that we’ll finish what we started?’” I asked who had shot his family. “Jonathan, do you know that the person who shot my uncle was no one other than his best friend, his dragi, who was his friend for many years at work. Who was the godfather of his child.”

How Can You Kill Your Friends?

He couldn’t explain it. And I sensed that words were failing him. They failed me. Language is ultimately a system of trust and credulity that takes at least the assumption of relationship for granted. How can you use words to explain something that undermines the very notion of relationship into which you were born and that formed the architecture of your world? He tried. “What I can say is that, for years before the war started, the Serbian TV had said nothing but ‘You know, the Muslims, they are just hiding. Your friend, he is just hiding who he really is. When you turn your back, he’ll slit your throat.’”

So it had been for years, my friend explained. For years Serbs had seen news report after news report, film after film. How the lions in the Sarajevo zoo were fed Serbian heads (there were no lions in the Sarajevo zoo). How for centuries the Turks (as the Bosnian Muslims were called in Serb media) had massacred Serbs and taken their land. Amongst Serbian nationalists throughout the twentieth century, the message had never stopped, and it never changed. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s it intensified.1

Now, Serbs had been the victims of horrendous violence, genocide, in fact, during World War II (especially between 1941-2). Hundreds of thousands of Serbs had been massacred. But it had been at the hands of the Ustaša (ustasha), a fascist Croatian militia dedicated to creating an independent state of Croatia in Yugoslavia. (The Ustaša crimes led to the rise of the Serbian Četnik [chetnik] militias, dedicated to restoring the Serbian kingdom and purging it of Croatians and Muslims. Ironically, the Muslims of Bosnia were the only major religious group not to form fascist, nationalist militias and carry out genocide during the madness of the twentieth century).2 In the Serbian media, the violence of the past, real or imagined but always exaggerated or distorted in a drama of nationalist fury, was transformed into the very mural surroundings of daily life. A member of the Croatian Ustaša had once told a Serb friend of his, “You are all guilty for what happened during the time of the former Yugoslavia, and you will pay for it, everyone of you, down to the last.”3 And now those words of hatred and vengeance would be directed at the Muslims, the new villain, the old villain, all but the ones who had first said them.

The Crime So Easily Forgotten

As I listened to my new friend tell his story, I reflected on a theme I had never realized connected so much tragedy in our era. Killing is a terrible crime, and killing the innocent, killing civilians, is so much more terrible. And people do not easily kill children. They do not easily kill old women. They do not easily kill their friends as they stand before them, unarmed, terrified, unable to reconcile the face squinting over the gun barrel pointed at them with the horrible fate about to come.

What allows people to kill the unarmed, children, or their friends… in fact, what convinces them they have to kill and perhaps even fills their veins with the heady adrenaline of blood hatred is what has been studied so well but is so commonly forgotten: dehumanization, the process by which we are convinced that another human is, in fact, not human at all. They are an abstraction, so pushing a button to blow them up is bureaucratic. Or they are nothing, so slaying them means nothing. Or worse, they are monsters, so slaying them is a heroic act. We are used to seeing this in war. Enough HBO dramas and films have been made to remind us of how this intoxication destroys us from within, how resisting it redeems us. But we forget that conflicts rarely announce themselves with opening credits. They lurk around the corner of bad political decisions, when people think warfare is done for in our time more and peace is here to stay.


And that is when dehumanization occurs. In times of peace when we don’t expect to be brainwashed into shedding blood or looking away while others do it.

Egypt and the Rab’a Massacre of 2013

As I lay in bed that night in Sarajevo, I thought about how, almost exactly three years earlier, Egyptian security forces had massacred at least 1,150 civilians at the Rab’a al-‘Adawiyya square in Cairo. Human Rights Watch concluded that this had “likely amounted to crimes against humanity.” In the months and years since then, at least 41,000 people have been imprisoned in Egypt, with some reliable sources placing the number closer to 53,000. Rape and torture of those detained have been rampant.

The events in Egypt in the summer of 2013 were shocking but not as shocking as how joyously they were embraced by what seemed to many to be an astoundingly large portion of Egyptian society. Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian TV satirist, celebrated the coup and its bloody aftermath in a song & dance number sung to the tune of Old Macdonald. Eliding the mass brutality of the army’s liquidation of sit-ins and all opposition to the coup, Youssef sung that Morsi and his government had threatened the Egyptian people with ‘terrorism’:

So the people were happy
And Sisi played it right
The Brotherhood started whining
They sensed that they lost the throne
They had a sit-in in Rab’a and Nahda and Giza
And their chants were cute…

Even years later, re-watching this song & dance, I find myself speechless. The concern of millions of Egyptians for the loss of their hard-won democratic process are dismissed as ‘whining,’ the sit-ins as ‘cute.’ The massacres of Rab’a and elsewhere, the wanton killing of civilians and the baseless arrest and torture of thousands are all left unmentioned. The kitschy, awful song writes over it all. The violence brought to bear on Egyptian society is justified because of the Muslim Brotherhood’s “terrorism.”

And here is the rub. Though Youssef had fashioned himself a martyr for freedom of speech under Morsi, it was after Sisi seized power that his show was cancelled and that the comedian fled the country due to political repression of the media. There was no ‘terrorism’ carried out by the Morsi government. Nor was his government passing laws requiring women to wear the hijab or force non-Muslims to pay jizya. Nor were the Hadd punishments going to be enforced. Nor had the Islamist dominated parliament of Egypt passed a law allowing a husband to have sex with his dead wife’s corpse up to 26 hours after her death (!), as one of my Egyptian friends insisted had occurred. Nor had Morsi made himself an all-powerful dictator, as the then respectable Egyptian liberal Mohamed Elbaradei accused him when he claimed that “not even the Pharaohs had so much authority.” Was Morsi, who was so easily toppled and arrested, really the new Pharaoh? Or is that comparison more apt for the ruler who unleashed so much violence on the sons of his own nation that Elbaradei resigned from government and left Egypt?

Youssef’s song & dance came at the end of a yearlong campaign of demonization against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Like Serbian TV, the airwaves of Egypt during 2012-13 were permeated by ceaseless and vicious criticism of the organization and Morsi’s government. Like Serbian TV, the most virulent and pernicious of this diatribe had no basis in fact. And like Serbian TV, the result was that a significant portion of a population cheered the brutal massacre of civilians and the unprecedented repression that followed.

And how well it worked. The result can only be described as some sort of crazy-gas that turned otherwise prudent people into zealots out for Muslim Brotherhood blood. I remember well a friend of mine, a pious Muslim who an impeccable political conscience, coming to my house and telling me and my family that he wanted to “devote [his] life to destroying the Muslim Brotherhood,” to making sure that any mention of the Brotherhood was removed from “the pages of history.” I remember being so shocked because I couldn't remember hearing anyone say they wanted to devote their life to anything, let alone to deracinating an organization with such fury.

How We Forget

I have been asked many times why my Facebook icon is the Rab’a symbol (a hand with four fingers extended), the symbol that in the summer of 2013 quickly came to mean a stand of solidarity with those Egyptians who had stood for the democratic process against a military coup. And for those who had died or been imprisoned as a result. I’m often accused of being part of the Muslim Brotherhood or an MB sympathizer. I’ve never been either. What I do believe is that peoples should be able to choose the path their governments take, and that a country’s wealth and decision-making power should not be dominated by an elite more concerned with the political interests and lifestyle choices of Western powers than with the wellbeing and wishes of their own population.

As I pondered my conversation in Sarajevo, I came to realize why I had put the Rab’a symbol as my Facebook profile picture. I understood why I had never been able to take it down, despite all the flags and symbols of solidarity for numerous worthy causes that had come and gone on social media since the summer of 2013: The powers that first dehumanize and then kill or jail those they have demonized must then make us forget. We must not be allowed to remember how this process works, lest we raise alarm when its cogs again start in motion for the next crackdown, invasion or dispossession.

And so it was with Egypt. In the immediate aftermath of the Rab’a massacre, the Egyptian military regime made posting the Rab’a sign on Facebook or other social media illegal, punishable by five years in prison. It was then criminalized in Saudi Arabia as well. So I decided to make the sign my Facebook picture, for all those who were not allowed to in Egypt and elsewhere. And I keep it up because I do not want to lapse into forgetfulness. I do not want time, which is wont to wash away all memories, distraction or social pressure to make me forget how people can be driven mad with hatred and convinced that men like their fathers, women like their mothers, and children like their own sons and daughters are no more than meat for the sword.

1. See Cathie Carmichael, A Concise History of Bosnia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 132-33, 159.
2. Carmichael, A Concise History of Bosnia, 77. Although the SS division known as the Handschar (khanjar, dagger) was over half Muslim, they had been convinced to join the German army in order to defend their homes in Bosnia against Serb forces.
3. Carmichael, A Concise History of Bosnia, 79.
4. Cover image from Sam Keen, Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986). Second image from page 113.