Croatian president’s Islamophobia masks historical revisionism

Grabar-Kitarovic’s Islamophobic statement in not an instance of misspeaking or a gaffe to be written off.

August 12, 2019 18:30
3 minute read.
People attend a national gathering to protest antisemitism and the rise of antisemitic attacks

People attend a national gathering to protest antisemitism and the rise of antisemitic attacks in the Place de la Republique in Paris, France, February 19, 2019. The writing on the sign reads: "Antisemitism, islamophobia, racism - not in our name". (photo credit: REUTERS/GONZALO FUENTES)

During a state visit to Israel on August 29, Croatia's President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic was quoted as telling President Reuven Rivlin that Bosnia “was very unstable, and had in some respects been taken over by people who have connections with Iran and terrorist organizations. The country is now controlled by militant Islam.”

The statement caused a stir in Bosnia and Herzegovina with condemnation coming from different segments of the society. Sven Alkalaj, the Bosnian ambassador to the UN and a member of the country’s Jewish community, was quick to denounce the statement as “unfounded” and “irritating.” Bosnian Jewish historian Eli Tauber added that her statement sought to “diminish Bosnia and Herzegovina before the European public.” Bosnian Croat member of Presidency Zeljko Komsic quipped that it was not Bosnia and Herzegovina that was unstable but the Croatian president herself. Dragan Mektic, an ethnic Serb and the Bosnian security minister, responded by stating that Grabar-Kitarovic had earned a reputation for “stupid remarks” in Croatia, but was now also doing the same while on trips abroad. Greer Fay Cashman’s article in The Jerusalem Post on July 31 has since had the sentence on militant Islam removed.

Grabar-Kitarovic’s Islamophobic statement in not an instance of misspeaking or a gaffe to be written off. In fact, the latest statement follows a pattern that the Croatian president established not long after assuming the top political office in her country. Elected president in 2015, Grabar-Kitarovic has positioned herself in a completely unwarranted and unfounded paternalistic approach to Bosnia and Herzegovina. While frequently publicly proclaiming support for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Grabar-Kitarovic has perfected the use of “alternative facts” in the Balkans. She has particularly aimed to tarnish the image of Bosnians both at home and abroad. Three recent examples illustrate this point.

In late 2016, Grabar-Kitarovic claimed that “thousands” of ISIS terrorists were returning to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mektic had denounced the statement as false. In March, Bosnian investigative outlet Zurnal uncovered a false-flag operation conducted by Croatian intelligence in Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to Bosnian journalist Avdo Avdic, the operation sought to recruit Bosnian citizens from the Salafi community for the purpose of portraying Bosnia and Herzegovina as a hotbed of terrorism. The latest case was her statement during the visit to Israel. Following strong reactions from different segments of Bosnian society, Grabar-Kitarovic responses have also followed a pattern: first a denial, then a claim that she was misquoted, followed by a new controversial statement to sideline the previous and a subsequent customary statement on her support for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

While honing her skills in tarnishing the image of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Grabar-Kitarovic’s own record on her country’s past has drawn criticism. Efraim Zuroff, head of the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, points out that Grabar-Kitarovic’s record on Croatia’s World War II past is problematic. Zuroff notes three cases: (1) Grabar-Kitarovic was photographed in Canada in 2016 with Croat emigres and the fascist Nazi-era Ustase flag, (2) Grabar-Kitarovic in 2018 during a visit to Argentina spoke how Croats after World War II found “space of freedom” in that country and (3) the Croatian president is fond of the controversial music band Thompson. Similar criticism of Grabar-Kitarovic was aired by the Bosnian security minister.
Rather than dealing with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Grabar-Kitarovic should be paying more attention to her 9-5 job: president of Croatia. With the rise of far-right politics and discourse, Grabar-Kitarovic could spend more time trying to stem the tide of historical revisionism in Croatia. The best way to start would be with her own clear and unequivocal condemnation of revisionist politics.

The writer is an associate professor at the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Sarajevo.

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