Stav Magazine recently posted an interview conducted by Enisa ALAGIĆ with the Chair of Education of BAI, Irfan Mirza.
Irfan Mirza's Interview
1. Možete li nam nešto više reći o sebi? Ko je Irfan Mirza? Čim se bavi?
Can you tell us something about yourself? Who is Irfan Mirza? What is your occupation?
I don’t think there is anything extraordinary about me. I work as a director at a technology company, where I run policy and regulatory compliance in the research division. I volunteer as the chair of education at the Bosnian American Institute, where I teach young people how to be strong and effective advocates for Bosnia and Herzegovina and their communities. I am married to a Bosnian and Herzegovinian, and we have 3 children, who are Bosnian and Indian, which is where I am originally from.
2. Odakle Vaše interesovanje za Bosnu i Hercegovinu i kakva je Vaša veza s BiH?
Where did your interest in Bosnia and Herzegovina come from, and what is your connection to BiH?
I was in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1992 to 1994 delivering humanitarian aid and I worked with refugees in Dalmatia. During my time there, I learned a lot about the people, their character, habits, strengths and weaknesses. I got to see domestic and international politics in full view, as a horrific genocide was unfolding in front of my eyes. I saw the reaction of the Bosnians and how their social fabric, unity, and structure were being torn apart by forces that were manipulating them from outside the country.
3. Koliko znamo, Vaša supruga je porijeklom iz Bosne i Hercegovine. Kako ste se upoznali i kada? Čim se bavi vaša supruga?
As far as we know, your spouse is originally from Bosnia and Herzegovina. How did you meet and when? What is your spouse’s occupation?
My wife is from Donji Vakuf, which also classifies me as a Vakufljanin (odakle žena?). During the war, she took refuge in Dalmatia, where I met her. I was doing work in the refugee camps and she was trying to start a school in the camp. The Croatian authorities didn’t allow children from some of the camps to go to school. Therefore, I offered to help by teaching English. In return, I asked for her help with the Croatian government bureaucracy to get humanitarian supplies out of Croatia and into Bosnia and Herzegovina. We worked so well together, and she was such a strong advocate for Bosnia-Herzegovina, that I quickly developed an admiration for her. Today, she is a highly accomplished computer engineer, who now helps and advocates for Bosnian and Herzegovinian students trying to get into the field. She also helped me immeasurably with the book, in addition to taking care of my family obligations while I completed my research.
4. Kakav je Vaš angažman bio za vrijeme rata u BiH i kako ste doživjeli rat na terenu?
What was your engagement during the time of the war in BiH and how did you survive the war in theater?
I came to Bosnia-Herzegovina just after the start of the war to deliver humanitarian aid. My first trip was to Sarajevo. To get there, I had to drive through hostile checkpoints and front lines in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. When I got to Sarajevo, the residents warned me about snipers and I saw mortar shells destroying everything when they hit. I was shocked that such a thing could be happening in Europe in 1992. I saw an army that was sworn to protect its citizens, the JNA, turn its weapons against its own people, the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This was a clear betrayal. I saw militant extremists (Bosnian Serb forces) take up arms against their friends and neighbors so they could carve out an entity that could be annexed by Serbia. I saw copycat betrayal from the HVO, who tried to spin off an entity that could be annexed by Croatia. I spent two years crisscrossing front lines, navigating hostile checkpoints, coordinating aid efforts of NGOs, delivering aid that others couldn’t, and I saw the war nearly every day that I was there. I took pictures and documented what I experienced. I took what I had learned out of the war to raise awareness and to ask governments for help.
5. Izučavate bh. historiju i držite predavanja na tu temu. Šta vam je posebnon interesntno iz historije BiH?
You have learned Bosnia and Herzegovina’s history and hold lectures on the theme. What specifically interested you in the history of BiH?
Most Bosnians and Herzegovinians have been taught an ideologically biased interpretation of their own history. The interpretation is far from factual and misleading. The interpretation leads to Bosnians and Herzegovinians being second class citizens in their own land. It is an interpretation that is fraught with deception, about Bosnians and Herzegovinians being descendants of Slavs, getting their language from the Slavs, acquiring their culture from those of early Slav societies. It is an interpretation that makes Bosnians and Herzegovinians subservient to Slavs. Believe it or not, for the last two decades, I accepted that interpretation, or at least the small part of it that I knew.
For more than the last two decades, I have immersed myself in the culture, background, and social aspects of the Bosnian and Herzegovinian people. When my youngest son was about 5 years old, he asked me about the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where they came from, who they were, and what they were like? To answer his questions properly, I got a few books and dissertations and began reading them. I came across a genetic study from 2004 that found Bosnians had genetic markers that placed their ancestors back to the last ice age. I read about humans from the Paleolithic era living in Bosnia and Herzegovina. These genetic markers persisted through the Mesolithic and Neolithic eras, and they are continuing even today. These scientific discoveries directly conflict with the traditional texts that I read. That spawned four years of research to understand and explain the historical inconsistencies.
I began a series of lectures, so I could engage Bosnians and Herzegovinians on the topic and get their feedback on my findings. Many Bosnians and Herzegovinians didn’t like what I had to say. It was upsetting to them. My findings overturned some fundamental beliefs they had about themselves. Bosnians and Herzegovinians belong to different genetic groups than their neighboring Slavs. While you speak a Slavonic language, you are mostly not Slavs. You are natives of Europe. Slavs came to the region thousands of years later from other parts of Europe. This fact alone forces us to rethink the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It also made me rethink how I was going to present my thesis. I had to write a narrative that told the entire history of the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina from the beginning of humans in Europe. That is the only way to explain what I found. That narrative is my book, The History of Bosnia & Herzegovina.
6. Napisali ste i dvije knjige o Bosni i Hercegovini i genecidu. Šta je Vaša motivacija za pisanje knjiga o BiH?
You wrote two books on Bosnia and Herzegovina and genocide. What is your motivation for writing books on BiH?
I have completed two distinct pieces of work on Bosnia and Herzegovina, and a third is underway. At the beginning of the war in 1992, I did some research and published a short book that explained some basic facts about Bosnia and Herzegovina and its people’s desire to become independent of a crumbling and exploitative Yugoslavia. I wrote about the breakdown of Yugoslavia, and about Slobodan Milošević and his tyranny. People in the US and Canada didn’t really know anything about the war. Most of them never even heard the name Bosnia-Herzegovina. My second book is The History of Bosnia & Herzegovina. A few years ago, I began developing a framework to explain the Bosnian genocide. That work turned into a book entitled “A Framework to Understand the Bosnian Genocide.” However, that book has been put on hold until I completed the history book.
7. Koliko je trenutno Amerika uključena u procese u BiH?
How much is America currently included (dedicated) to processes in BiH?
From my perspective, America’s involvement in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been a roller coaster (up and down). Starting with support of the arms embargo that skewed the military outcome in favor of Serbia, America was a reluctant participant in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s well-being. But your readers already know that. They also know America’s role through NATO in the final offensives of the war, and in architecting the Dayton Accords. I think it is time to refresh the US position and bring new perspective into the insufficient discourse that is taking place on Bosnia and Herzegovina. I recently met with former President Haris Silajdžić, who described how the international community sees the conflict as a result of “ancient hatreds” which is a terrible mischaracterization. They explain it as “ethnic conflict” implying that it cannot be resolved. These unhealthy attitudes persist in the US among policy makers and influencers. Somebody has poisoned the well of knowledge, and to correct this, your diaspora is going to have to engage. They must learn how policy works and influence it. They will need the skill to challenge the State Department and the various “think tanks” that are overflowing with ill-informed opinions and inadequate analyses about the region. At the same time, your diaspora cannot afford to turn a blind eye to what is going on in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They need to address the discrimination and segregation that has the potential to destroy the fragile nation. So, it is up to the diaspora to grow quickly and fulfill this obligation that they have to their country of origin.
8. Posjećujte li Bosnu. Koliko se promijenila od rata do danas?
Do you visit Bosnia? How much has it changed from the days of the war?
I have not visited Bosnia and Herzegovina as much as I would like. There is a Bosnian sevdah song called “Razbolje se sultan” where the Sultan is dying, and when his son asks him about his regrets, the Sultan says he doesn’t regret leaving his wealth or position. But he says his regret is that he is leaving Bosnia. I feel that way about not visiting Bosnia and Herzegovina as frequently as I would like. I was there in the summer attending Professor Francis Fukuyama’s Leadership Academy Development Workshop, which was sponsored by Stanford and the University of Sarajevo. I finally got a formal lesson on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s politics, but I was also able to deliver a lesson on the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Some of the academics were surprised to hear someone from America telling them their own history. I hope to have a Bosnian language translation of the book this summer. I think it will be good for the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina to read it, and to learn that the Serbian language is actually a variant dialect of Bosnian Slavonic. In the book, I chose two separate tracks to explain my findings on this very controversial topic.
On this last trip, I noticed a lot of change from the time of the war, of course. The shipping containers placed around Sarajevo’s major intersections to stop sniper’s from targeting civilians were gone. You could finally look past Ali Pašina džamija to the other side of the Miljacka. I was impressed by the fast-paced young people of Sarajevo. I was fascinated by the young entrepreneurs in Mostar, and the enthusiasm of the young people in Konjic. I was thrilled to see the Paleolithic engravings at Badanj Pećina in Herzegovina. I was ecstatic to visit the Zemaljski muzej in Sarajevo, and thankful for the repairs they are making. I was pleased to see the necropolis at Radimlja so well cared for. I became enamored with Visoko and its ancient sites, Mili-Arnautovići, Okolište, Donji Meštro, and so on.
However, I was lost for prose to describe Potočari. My heart broke when I saw the memorial to the genocide. I wrote a poem about it and posted it online. People back home cried when they read it.
My final impression about Bosnia and Herzegovina since the war is that there is a growing anxiety among the population, on all sides. Veterans are protesting in tents in front of the Federation Prime Minister’s office. People all over the country cannot make ends meet, meaning the money they earn is not enough for the basics of life. There are little to no prospects for the future. People are fed up with party-based politics, rather than an issue-focused or strategic political agenda. Some Orthodox in Republika Srpska told me they are fed-up with “Srbvstvo” and “Srbovizacija.” It doesn’t buy them bread or help send their children to school. Some Catholics in Herzegovina say similar things about “Hrvatizacija.” I get the feeling that people are starting to realize that “Serb” and “Hrvat” identities have been forced upon them unnaturally. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s history shows these are external constructs that have been imposed artificially on some vulnerable people within Bosnia and Herzegovina. Those people were easily manipulated and thrust themselves into a frenzy to become complicit in terrible crimes, such as genocide, rape, torture, and mass murders. Today, they are manipulated into glorifying convicted war criminals and celebrating instead of mourning the atrocities they or their family members committed.
I was happy to see so many educated people return to Bosnia and Herzegovina from abroad. But many of them are becoming disillusioned; their expectations are not being met. At the same time, I became concerned when I talked to so many young people who want to leave. They feel there aren’t many prospects for them in terms of professional development or even the fulfillment of basic economic needs. Yet I remain optimistic about the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The reason I am optimistic is that a large number of Bosnians and Herzegovinians have resettled in nations with very strong academic programs that teach a different type of thinking than in Bosnia and Herzegovina. These escapees of the war and victims of ethnic cleansing are your diaspora. They are learning from new and different experiences. When these experiences and ideas are brought back to Bosnia and Herzegovina and paired with the values and experience of those who didn’t leave, I believe there will be a difference that will catapult the nation into prosperity and stability. There are generations of new leaders that are forming abroad. The war may have taken them out of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but nothing can take Bosnia and Herzegovina out of them. Their genetic encoding will bring them back home. History shows that happened 16,000 years ago. I am confident it will happen again.
9. Naučili ste i bosanski jezik. Je li bilo teško? Imate li neke zanimljive situacije da nam ispričate vezane za bosanski jezik?
You learned the Bosnian language. Was it difficult? Do you have any interesting situations to share with us about (learning) the Bosnian language?
I wouldn’t dare to say that I “learned” the Bosnian language. That would be a disservice to the people who teach it. I just happened to pick up a street vernacular. One of my friends from Sarajevo calls it “Čaršijska dialekt,” something you pick up in čaršija. I heard Bosnians and Herzegovinians speaking, and over time, I tried to mimic them. By trial and error, mostly error, I picked up enough to start speaking. My vocabulary grew when I started researching the history. I had to read countless texts, articles, and publications in Bosnian. The bibliography to the second edition has more than 300 references.
However, my grammar is non-existent, which is why I cannot write. I don’t know how to fully conjugate, nor do I know your padeži. While I understand most conversation and many forms of humor, I still have difficulty with sarcasm and poetry. I first picked up the language from my wife and a lady who was in the camp with her.
In 1993, I delivered some humanitarian supplies to an aid warehouse in Bugojno, and the people running it asked if I would give an interview to the local radio station. I agreed and went on the air, live. The journalist asked me to speak in Bosnian, so I answered her questions using the only Bosnian language skills that I had acquired by listening to my wife and the ladies in the refugee camp. I started saying things like they would say, “Ja sam prošla kroz Vrbanje.” “Saznala sam u Splitu da je Bugojno pod blokada…” Turns out, the entire town heard the broadcast—I had a captive audience, they were under blockade—and they laughed their heads off, especially the children. The next day, the children were impersonating me. After the interview, they finally told me that the Bosnian language is not gender neutral like English. At the end, the journalist thanked me for bringing both the food supplies and laughter back to her town. I was honored that I was able to deliver both in the middle of a horrible war.
10. Šta želite poručiti ljudima koji žele da opstane ideja Bosne, kao zemlje i mjesta različitosti i suživota?
What would you like to tell people who would like to see the idea of Bosnia, as a nation, a place of diversity and coexistence?
Bosnia and Herzegovina has been a refuge for humanity for more than 24,000 years. From the first humans to walk into Europe through Bosnia and Herzegovina before the last ice age, to European natives who took refuge there after the last ice age, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a place that has given protection to its population from both natural and manmade catastrophes. In 800 BC, when the Ilyr migrated to the region, they settled in Bosnia and Herzegovina. When the Slavs escaped slavery in the 5th century, they found refuge in Bosnia and Herzegovina—that’s how they got there by the way. When the Avar attacked the tribes around Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 6th century, those tribes found safety in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the 7th century, the Khoro-athos marched through Bosnia and Herzegovina to settle in modern-day Croatia—that’s how the Croats got to their homeland. In the 9th century, when the king of Posavina, Ljudevit, had to make peace with the Slavs, he held the meeting in Bosnia and Herzegovina. When he was betrayed by the Slavs and had to escape his own kingdom, he escaped to Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the 10th century when the Dalmatians and Slavs felt threatened by the Bulgars, King Tomislav took his army to Bosnia and Herzegovina to fight Csar Simeon in the battle known as “bitka na bosanskim visoravnima.” When Cyril and Methodius went looking for a way to express the Christian liturgy in the local language, their students learned of a Glagolitic script known as Bosančica. When the Old Slavonic Church needed to expand its reach, it adopted the Bosnian dialect, so it could appeal to the masses. When the Jews were expelled from Spain in the 14th century, they found safety in Bosnia and Herzegovina. When the Croats and Serbs needed to make peace after the Second World War, Bosnia and Herzegovina was there for them. The story of the Sarajevo Haggadah from that time tells you clearly what Bosnians and Herzegovinians believe in.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is a land where its native kings protected religious freedom, such as Kralj Tvrtko I. Their belief in the diversity of the nation was so great that they resisted powers such as Rome and the Crusades that tried to homogenize them. In war after war against the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, we saw Bosnians and Herzegovinians defend with the same pattern of bravery, chivalry, respect for humanity, and the protection of the weak. In the last war, Serbian forces tried to strip away all those principles that Bosnians and Herzegovinians have upheld for centuries. But even the fourth most powerful army in Europe couldn’t break the Bosnian and Herzegovinian spirit. The country did not capitulate, and it has not given in to the wave of ultra-fascist nationalism that is again threatening it.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has been, and will always be, a multi-confessional nation, where religious differences are respected. The country celebrates 2 Bajrams, 2 Christmases, 2 Easters, Jewish holidays, and so much more. It is a sanctuary for believers of all faiths. The current wave of fascism that was thrust upon Bosnia and Herzegovina from outside its borders is only a passing anomaly. It is a short blip (breakdown) in the long and rich history of the nation’s people. At some point in time, all the residents of Bosnia and Herzegovina will realize that you are all Bošnjak, regardless of whether you are Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox, Jew, Roma, Buddhist, Atheist, Agnostic, or any other confession.
Your future is promising, even with the dysfunctional structure that Dayton created in your nation. The differences that are defined by Dayton are artificial, and as such, they have an artificial lifespan. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s lifespan dates back to the earliest days of natives in Europe, and it will continue. In the foreword to the second edition of my book, Dr. Silajdžić writes that Bosnia-Herzegovina is an “authentically plural society, that, even damaged, still reflects what a united Europe aspires to be.” And that is the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina, an authentically plural society. I am privileged to be a student of the lessons that can be learned from this society.