By Akbar Ahmed
Based in Sarajevo, Mirnes Kovac is a leading Muslim journalist and author in the Balkans who recently edited The Siege of Islam, a volume of interviews with leading Muslim and non-Muslim intellectuals on relations between Islam and the West. Mirnes, who graduated with a degree in Islamic theology from the University of Sarajevo and subsequently obtained an MA from the University of Sussex, has since 2005 been working as editor and journalist of the Preporod Islamic News Magazine, the oldest Islamic news magazine in the Balkans. He is a regular columnist for the Huffington Post and Al Jazeera Balkans contributing opinions and analyses on Balkans and Middle East issues. He has also translated 15 books by prominent authors from English into Bosnian that deal with Islam and Muslims, Muslims in the West, inter-religious dialogue, terrorism and other issues.
Most recently, Mirnes published One, which lays out, page by page, Biblical sayings with matching Quranic ones on the opposite page on subjects such as peace, compassion and unity, published by the Inter-religious Council of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The book won five lions (one gold, one silver and three bronzes) at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, the largest festival of creative ideas in the world.
As a Muslim he is very concerned about the turmoil in the Muslim world and also concerned about the precarious situation in Bosnia itself. He referred to Bosnia’s “three visions” – the parallel narratives and histories of the Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims – regarding what occurred during the 1990s and who was to blame. The Dayton Peace Accords, he argued, which ended the war in 1995, did not go far enough in addressing the root problems of the conflict and healing the wounds it created.
“The problem of these three visions of Bosnia,” Mirnes believes, “is that we didn’t have processes that Germany had after the Second World War. We did not have the process of de-Nazification.” Yet these three peoples – the Bosnian Muslims, Croats, and Serbs – had “lived for centuries together,” and perhaps this history of coexistence motivates him to promote pluralism, acceptance, and coexistence.
Mirnes is also proud of his European and Muslim heritage. “As a Bosniak, as a Bosnian Muslim, I feel I don’t have any other country where to live. This country defines me and I’m defined by my faith, by my religion, which was brought here by the Ottomans… I think Islam in this context is a very much strengthened by the experience of Europe.” There is a “story that Islam was brought by the sword,” he states, but this is not accurate. “It was deep in the identity of these people.” Mirnes showed his appreciation and pride in his Ottoman history by naming his son Fatih, after Sultan Mehmet II Fatih who brought Islam to Bosnia. “I named him after the Sultan who brought the light of Islam into this land.”
Since Europe has problems that involve the Balkans, Mirnes hopes that Europe, as well as the United States, remain engaged in the region. Yet he fears that Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea could be a harbinger of things to come, noting that Crimea, like the Balkans, was part of the Turkish sphere of influence but is considered crucial by Russians to their interests and identity. He compared this to how the Serbs associate Bosnians with the Turks. In that context, Mirnes said, the slaughter of Muslim Bosniaks at Srebrenica was seen as “revenge” against the Ottomans. “According to some Serbian historians,” Mirnes noted, “the hatred of Islam and Turks was a defining feature in creating Serbian national identity and still it is.”
“The problem here,” Mirnes said, “is that we in Bosnia, have the problem of these dangerous rhetorics and narratives. And we have a problem facing our past. If you still have institutions and high politicians that are denying genocide, you are on the way to repeat that evil in the near future. And that is my greatest fear.”
Mirnes is worried about where the future might lead: “The whole world, and especially Europe, should learn the lesson of Srebrenica, and commit itself again that it will not allow genocide to ever happen to anyone anywhere in the world. That is my hope.”
When he read my article, Mr Jinnah and the Rohingya, in this paper recently, he wrote, “Yesterday after Jumah Prayer our Islamic community held action in all Mosques in Bosnia and Bosnian Diaspora to collect money for Rohingya Muslims. We expect at least one million dollars to send to refugees. Grand Mufti also formed the Board for helping Rohingya Muslims. As people that suffered genocide we feel this as obligation!
May Allah protect this people – Salams”
Yet all the problems of the world have not clouded his generous heart. When I requested Mirnes for a blurb for my new book he sent this: “Of all the scholars I have studied, the work of none is quite so uniquely characterised as that of Akbar Ahmed by what traditional Islamic scholars called looking at the world through ‘two eyes’ or Dhul Aynan the capacity to see the exterior and the interior, the spiritual and the physical, the emotional and the scientific which enables the accurate and fair understanding of different perspectives. He brings the same quality to his project on Muslims in Europe, and he makes me especially proud as a Muslim European.”
(The writer is an author, poet, filmmaker, playwright, and is 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. He tweets @AskAkbar)