Mohammad Farrae was a participant in an immersion learning trip to Bosnia Herzegovina in May of 2022. Led by the Ansari Institute's Executive Director, Mahan Mirza, the program included fourteen students from Notre Dame who were drawn to Sarajevo to study “Religion, Identity, and Peace and the Periphery of Europe.” The experience was made possible thanks to generous financial support from the Nanovic Institute for European Studies and an important on-the-ground partnership with Peace Catalyst International (PCI). The Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion provided additional financial support.
وَلَا تَقُولُوا۟ لِمَن يُقْتَلُ فِى سَبِيلِ ٱللَّهِ أَمْوَاتٌ ۚ بَلْ أَحْيَآءٌ وَلَكِن لَّا تَشْعُرُونَ
“And say not of those who are slain in God's cause, "They are dead": nay, they are alive, but you perceive it not” Quran – Chapter Baqarah, 154
As I walked through the Srebrenica genocide graveyard, I was unsure of where to look. All of the graves had the same design, the same Quranic quote mentioned above, the same color, and there were rows and rows of them. Some of the graves were perched on top of a hill, some just lay flat on the ground. The only difference between one tombstone and the other was the name and the birth year. Often I would find the same family name being repeated for 4 or 5 graves. I started to notice the year of birth and death and it felt unreal to read the same number (the year of death) over and over again, as if by design. I did the math. They were all between 10 and 15 years old. I began to question the world we live in.
“How can you be so calm while experiencing all of this?”
My roommate asked me this question once we got back. I wasn’t calm. I was shaken to the core. However, I came to a few realizations that, in a way, began to settle me down.
While applying for graduate programs in the US, I was worried about the potential racism that I might experience. On top of my brown color, when you add the fact that I am Muslim and have a beard, concerns around Islamophobia made me slightly fearful. On arrival to the States, however, I can count very few instances where I felt treated differently because of my name or the way I look (I understand I live in a bubble on campus, but still). And yet, no matter where you look, on a broader scale, you see that Muslims around the globe are discriminated against and oppressed.
In terms of major geopolitical news that took place during my time at Notre Dame, the Israeli brutality in Palestine, the chaotic US exit from Afghanistan, and the ongoing Russian aggression towards Ukraine stand out. And while these events are not the same, what we can compare is the reaction of the world to all these events. As a Muslim, I felt I was living in two different worlds when the Russia- Ukraine war broke out and we saw immense empathy, support (political, military, economic) that just did not exist when the issue was related to Muslims. For me it was baffling to see the difference. In my mind, perhaps the unfortunate events of 9/11 offered an explanation to this variation in global reaction.
However, when you talk about genocide in Bosnia of white skinned, tall Europeans, inside Europe, after what happened in Germany, and in a pre-9/11 era, you understand how deep the divide between the western world and Islam is. The complacency of the “West” in allowing the genocide to continue for years shows how attitudes towards suffering varied as per the victims’ religion even then.
This realization to me felt liberating. Muslims across the globe constantly have to ‘defend and explain’ their religion. It becomes exhausting to tell people that Islam is a religion of peace and to say, “that is what the word actually means.” You see Muslims trying to explain this to Westerners on individual and global scales, trying to disassociate themselves from the violence of extremists but failing to succeed. I now know that I can and will continue to portray the positive side of Islam, but I have low expectations in terms of how I might change others’ attitudes and fears towards Islam.
At the graveyard, while I was praying in my heart for the forgiveness of those that had passed away, I was reminded of our belief that those who are martyred in Islam are considered to have a guaranteed route to Jannat (heaven). And, I thought to myself, those who died did indeed die tragically, but those who survived experience the real test. How do you begin to deal with the loss of multiple family members? How do you begin to think about forgiveness? And for those who are aggressors: How do you even forgive yourself for the misguided actions you might have taken?
While struggling with these questions, I found peace in my faith. Allah asks in the Quran:
“Do people think that they will be left alone because they say: "We believe," and will not be tested?” Chapter Ankabut, 2
So, I realized that being Muslim would mean that I will always be tested. The test of discrimination and Islamophobia is just one of many tests of this seemingly unfair world. While we might not be able to “fix” the world, we can try to navigate it as best as possible.
It was incredible to see how Bosnians have navigated such complex socio-political dynamics in the last thirty years. Contrary to perceptions abroad, I found immense character, safety, and love in Bosnia, not just towards us outsiders, but also towards each other. Bosnians' resolve to move towards a more peaceful, integrated, and prosperous society was extremely encouraging. Moreover, all the individuals and organizations committed to shaping this new world are an inspiration to me on how to build something beautiful out of adversity.