This weekend, I spoke at two commemorations of the Srebrenica massacre — one in Leeds (at the Makkah Masjid mosque) and one in Bradford (at the town hall) — marking the 19th anniversary of the cold-blooded massacre of over 8000 Muslims in the Bosnian civil war.
I visited Srebrenica three years ago. Like others in the area, the village is still marked by bullet holes, burned-out houses and ruins. The massive monumental cemetery, with some 8000 graves, is immensely moving.
The sight was a sobering reminder of how intolerance can trigger a spiral of hatred, descending into appalling violence. The chilling words of General Mladic, speaking of the Serb nation taking revenge for defeat in a 14th-century battle, illustrate the evil of ultra-nationalism.
Most worrying of all is that this happened in what was previously a well-integrated and seemingly tolerant society. Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Catholics and others lived side by side. There was a high level of mixed marriages. Sarajevo had hosted a successful Winter Olympics only a few years earlier. And yet…
Nor is this far away. It is just outside the European Union, itself founded on the imperative of ‘never again’. Countries that had fought each other for centuries in periodic warfare came together to find a better way of doing things. We can still have our rows — but across a negotiating table or a debating chamber. Our new motto is ‘unity in diversity’.
But the legacy of Bosnia reminds us that peace and tolerance, even in a well-adjusted society, remain fragile. Stable, peaceful relationships between states are good — but they are not good enough. Internal conflict driven by sectarianism, racism or misguided nationalism can poison society from within. We must stay vigilant against the first signs of such developments, even in Britain. Obviously poisonous influences like the EDL, jihadists and the BNP are already, thankfully, shunned by the overwhelming majority. But the more subtly poisonous messages from some of our newspapers, UKIP, and others, remain worrying.