A Friend of Pakistan
ByDr Akbar Ahmed
As Pakistan celebrated its 70th anniversary of independence, I received a letter from my friend Dr Haris Silajd zic of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In it he once again reflected his sensitive appreciation of Pakistan:"Great historic events are a cumulation of processes before the moment they take place and after, always touching millions of human beings, their lives, aspirations and hopes. The Independence Day is one of those epic moments in human history stirring emotions of pain and pride. I thought of you, your family and your country on that day...The hand you all have been dealt!"
Dr Silajdzic, and Bosnians generally, have a soft spot for Pakistanis, perhaps because of the support we gave during the Balkans wars "that changed the character of the war." For Dr Silajdzic, Pakistanis are a "noble" people. Perhaps the Pakistanis are sympathetic, he thought, because they too had suffered during the creation of their nation in 1947.
Several years ago, when I was in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, during fieldwork for my book and film project Journey into Europe about Islam in Europe I had several meetings with Dr Haris Silajdzic. I had first met him several decades earlier in London, where I had given him a copy of my book Living Islam, which he had translated into Bosnian. The accompanying film of the same name was also dubbed into Bosnian and plays annually during Ramadan.
Dr Silajdzic is the traditional European public intellectual, both a philosopher and national statesman; in his case he is also proud of his Muslim identity. He is fascinated with the human predicament, and is a published poet acutely aware of the world around him, and the pain, joy, tears and laughter in it.
For a man who has held the highest offices in his country, President and Prime Minister (twice), is possibly the last surviving founding father of the nation, and widely considered one of its most prominent living statesmen, I was struck by his accessibility and amazed that there was never any kind of security around him.
We discussed our admiration for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany's greatest literary figure who wrote a poem in honour of the Prophet of Islam (pbuh), and Maulana Rumi and compared them, and also talked of the purpose of life and its meaning, faith in an increasingly secular world, and the fragility of human societies. He returned to Goetheagain and again: "When I think of Europe in positive terms, what it aspires to be, I think of one word - Goethe." Dr Silajdzickept raising the question: "Why do we exist?" He said with awe:"We are a miracle."
Among his heroes is the figure of the anonymous and idealized Palestinian woman. In the most difficult circumstances, he said, she keeps the family together, her children clean, her posture dignified and never abandons hope for the future. Clearly, he saw an echo of what his Bosnians had suffered in this figure.
His view of contemporary Muslims was not complimentary though; he believed they were too obsessed with recreating the past. Dr Silajdzic warned, "Muslims must turn to themselves. Not to look outside or blame racism or colonialism forever. So some of them are adapting, some of them are not, but it's a big crisis and again coming at the speed of change, it's happening very fast."
Dr Silajdzic's pride in his European identity is matched by his anger and disappointment at Europe's indifference to the massive human rights violations in the Balkans in the 1990s.He recalled how European leaders like President Mitterrand of France had vowed not to allow a Muslim nation to exist in Europe.
Dr Silajdzicis proud that "in critical times we behaved in a civilized way like the last war between 1992 and 1995. We behaved under the threat of life and death, not normal circumstances, we behaved better than the others and that is recognized by friend and foe as we did hundreds of years ago when we protected weaker groups here in the Balkans because I believe that you are civilized if you protect weaker groups within your society. To me that is the test of you being civilized. During the Second World War, Bosnian Muslims protected the Jews that were part of this society for hundreds of years."
There was a hint of exasperation when he spoke of colonization and immigration: "If you pay a visit, you should expect a return visit. These guys are now paying a return visit to them, and some of them don't seem to like it. They don't even ask for their artifacts to be given back to them. You cannot go to the Subcontinent, take what you want, come back, and say, 'We have nothing to do with this.' That is not how this works. I'm talking about this wave of far-right. Some are saying, well these are foreigners, and so on. Who are you? Who are you?"
Just a few days ago, Dr Silajdzic read my column on interfaith harmony in Sicily in this paper and wrote:"You start with 'interfaith harmony' and come to 'a time when relations between religions are fraught', our time, like it was almost subconscious…. It is a precarious balance that must be restored considering the intensity of interaction of cultures in our time. You are doing your part."
(The writer is an author, poet, filmmaker, playwright, and the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington, DC. He formerly served as the Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland)
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