“Karadžiću, vodi Srbe svoje vodi Srbe svojeee…” sang Tomas joyfully as we were entering the bus in a working-class suburb of Bratislava. A member of radical right’s Kotlebists – The People’s Party – Our Slovakia (Slovak: Kotlebovci – Ľudová strana – Naše Slovensko, ĽSNS), infamous for glorifying World War Two collaborationist leader Jozef Tiso and his staunch anti-Roma rhetoric, Tomas does not speak a word of Serbian. Known in the nationalist online circles as ‘Remove Kebab’, the song Tomas was singing praises Radovan Karadžić, Bosnian-Serb leader during the wars of the 1990s and a convicted war criminal. The ‘Remove Kebab’ (also known as ‘God is a Serb’) song is an output of the war propaganda depicting Karadžić as a person at the helm of the defense of the Serb people against the ‘invaders’ – ‘Ustashas’ (Croats) and ‘Turks’ (Muslims from Bosnia and Herzegovina). The music video of this song created the base for a variety of anti-Muslim memes, particularly popular in far-right online circles, although virtually unknown in the former Yugoslav countries. As a meme, ‘Remove Kebab’ is most often used as a nativist sneer aimed at migrants, but even the local Muslim communities. The actual music video of the ‘Karadžić song’ features three soldiers: the singer, Željko Grmuša; the trumpet player, Nenad Tintor; and an accordion player, Novislav Đajić. Đajić was later sentenced to 5 years in prison for killing and torturing 14 people (there were accounts on 27) victims in two villages in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the war. The song became particularly notorious after Brandon Tarrant, the Christchurch shooter played it on his way to the killing spree in 2019.
Knowing that ‘Remove Kebab’, a meme long considered a humorous way of depicting the ‘culture wars’, particularly gaining prominence in the refugee crisis, has exited the online domain, becoming a motivation for mass murders, was disturbing yet not an entirely surprising finding. The tragic event in Christchurch prompted me to contact Tomas and ask about his two cents on the song that he once so eagerly sang. His response was somewhat emblematic of the many alike occurrences in which I dared to question the humor of my nationalist respondents: “Tarrant had clearly taken it too far”. Yet, what is the standard of taking things too far? The moment of using convicted war criminals as poster boys, or that the joyful music is accompanied by lyrics that essentialize ethnicity in the most direct of all ways? If ‘Remove Kebab’ is to be considered as an instance of dark humor (after all, the Hitler jokes are still around), does it hint to anything substantial about the Yugoslav conflicts, beyond the Ustashas – Chetnicks (Serbs) – Turks trichotomy?
The answer to this question is rather clear. Because of the innate tendency of humor to simplify, the complex historical processes which led to the breakdown of Yugoslavia are presented as culture wars fueled by some ‘ancient hatreds’. This is why ‘Remove Kebab’, a meme that originated elsewhere, does not ring too many bells in The Balkans. While usually connected to the “Karadžić” song, ‘Remove Kebab’ is a reference comprising a number of singers of Serbian war songs with anti-Muslim references. While there are many ones who were famous as singers before or in the aftermath of the war, like Bora Đorđević or Lepi Mića, at least three of them have become the internationally-recognized symbols of the Remove Kebab ‘movement’: Perica Ivanović (songs such as Serbian shells are guided by god’s hand) Baja Mali Knindža (I don’t like you Alija [Izetbegovic, then-President of Bosnia and Herzegovina], because you are a Balija-Muslim, or Stop pashas and Ustashas)Miro Semberac (The time has come for the Serbian revenge, all the Mosques are flying in the sky) and Roki Vulović. Even though Vulović’s songs lack explicit references to the ethnic/religious dimension and instead focus on the ’emancipatory’ heroism and the struggle for freedom and self-dependence, his music videos show combat footage of his unit, “Semberska” infantry brigade of the Republika Srpska Army. The music in Vulović’s songs is perhaps the only one you could possibly listen to without having your ears bleed: a rather complex mixture of turbofolk and rock themes, with detailed rhythm section paired with the accordion and guitar, some of Vulovic’s music videos are filmed in choppers, thus showing the meticulousness (and immense funds) invested in creating and advancing the propaganda machine.
Indeed, the euphemistic nature of the ‘Remove Kebab’ internet references to genocide and ethnic cleansing point to the ambiguity of discourse, but also to how framing of war references may alleviate some of the blatantly hateful content. Amid the rather unambiguous message of these memes, these are not entirely unidirectional. A (relatively weaker) online counterforce to the ‘Remove Kebab’ symbolism, venerated by the pro-Assad forces in Syria or even some of the Polish and Chinese soldiers, is the ‘Kebab Strong/Defend Kebab’ meme. Featuring Mahir Bureković, Bosnian folk singer, Kebab Strong is constructed as an antithesis to the online hegemony of the Christian far-right and the ‘Serbdom’. In his songs, Bureković praises Mujahedeens as “Turkish sons” who bravely fought for Bosnia in the “Mujahedeen battalion” formed by Arab volunteers. In online circles, its existence figures as a leveler of hate, allowing the participants in the debate to appear neutral while acknowledging both sides as humorous. This is precisely what enabled Tomas to claim his impartiality, purporting the ability to take ‘self-criticism’, and perhaps also to realize the absurdity of insisting on such Manichean struggles beyond the imaginary boundaries of humor.
It was exactly the Manichean element that made me realize why it took me so long to come across ‘Remove Kebab’ and ‘Kebab Strong’, coming from the Balkans and speaking the same language (taken literally) as Željko Grmuša or Mahir Bureković. The scenic and unfortunately well-established depictions of frequent political turmoils as some eschatological battles of the retrograde forces and the enlightened, westernized citizens (usually knee-deep in corruption), have long become the dominant interpretation of events in this region. Yet, this Balkanism could never account for the ‘messy’ nature of any war, let alone a complex interplay of events, actors, and interests that wiped off a country and hundreds of thousands of its citizens from the face of the earth during the 1990s. It could never account for those who were operating in the grey zones of the war as profiteers, or those who did not play along the preordained ethnic rifts. It could also never account for the rather questionable role of the international community and neighboring countries in both assuaging and aggravating the situation. Humor rests on an ability to condense, simplify and act as fast food imminently capturing the attention of listeners and provoking their reaction. The mere reference to kebab instead of ćevapi (The Balkan variation of the food) points to the desired audience, but also the fact that this meme did not originate in The Balkans. To the radical right and beyond, kebab serves as the amplifying factor, a common reference of a (rather eclectic) culture. The existence of a dichotomy around kebab, be it its removal or defense, allows those referring to such jokes to hide behind the Poe’s law at the expense of the post-socialist, Balkan realms. The problem is, pointing to the troubling popularity of such memes in the radical right online community without daring to examine the context in which such simplified accounts were produced, perpetuates the ignorance about The Balkans and its recent history, often tempered under the vague and rather useless explanation, “It is too complicated.”
Balsa Lubarda is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and Doctoral candidate in Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy, Central European University. See full profile here.
© Balsa Lubarda. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).