Through this journey, Allah Opened certain doors that I could only to go through them and the path opened up and led me to Bosnia.
Growing up in the 1990s with the issue of our identity of being a Muslim in the West with one foot in the east and one foot in the west with Islam as the unifying element in my identity.
In the middle of all this, the war broke out and Yugoslavia fell apart. Many Muslims in the West, but especially in the UK were shocked by it. It was only two hours away from London. Those people were totally integrated and mixed with their society but yet just because their names were Muslims they were killed like sheep. That had a very important impact on me and my generation of Muslims in the UK. It was a defining moment in our time where we saw the concept of ethnic violence.
We grew up watching the war closely. It was effectively the first internet war where people could see live what was going on, especially the siege of Sarajevo which was iconic and famous.
So, after the war ended in 1995 and the first flights started in 1997, I went over there in June and spent three weeks and traveled up and down the country. I wanted to see what the situation was like on the ground after seeing it in so much detail over three years. I have always had an interest in Islamic history. It was always on my bucket list to go to Yugoslavia to see Muslims there and in the Balkans.
It was shocking to see what a mess it was, knowing the amount of aid that was pouring in. Large aid campaigns were running all over the world for Bosnia. Seeing the mess the country was in inspired me to do something to help the community. It made me realize that there was a need to assist people who were affected by war. It doesn’t seem that it was done very well. I spent time with the UN during my first visit and different charities and NGOs and I felt that things were not going so well, considering the amount of money being pumped into the country.
I fell in love with the place and felt the sorrow of the people and communities that lived all together. Their society was broken by this ethnic war created by politicians. It was scary to see how easy it was to brainwash people and to divide society by creating a fear factor. It was never a war of Muslims against Croatians against Serbs but rather a play on ethnic differences for political power and gain.
I saw interesting people and learned lots of touching stories, as the war had only finished less than two years ago. I realized that this is where I would dedicate my life to helping people in need around the world.
I went back to London and resigned from my comfortable and well-placed job and I joined Muslim Aid as director of overseas projects, and with that the humanitarian field. Muslim Aid was one of the largest UK Muslim charities. It was set up by Yusuf Islam and he was there at the time. I saw that they had a vacancy, applied for the job and got it, although I was second choice. It felt like fate. I started working on the field and after going around the world for two years learning about different problems that faced societies and communities. Looking at floods, famines, wars, earthquakes and the humanitarian plights of people and the possible solutions.
I went on to do a Masters in post-war recovery studies. I was interested in the subject of refugees and people who live normal lives like everyone else. How their world gets turned upside down and they are forced to leave their safe and secure homeland, which they think they are coming back to, but they never do and what happens to that journey. So again, this journey, this human thread of a journey is reflected in Islam very strongly.
I realized that everything is about a journey. They say life is a journey. The human experience is reflected in a journey. When a refugee leaves home they are on a journey. In Islam, there is a very strong thread about travel and a journey. The ultimate journey is the Hijrah/migration of the Prophet, peace, and blessings be upon him from his birthplace Mecca to Medina. He was a refugee effectively. And of course, the most supreme journey is the Hajj/pilgrimage.
The experience of the refugee is fascinating to me. That’s how I chose the subject of my Masters, to understand the issues of displacement and refugees. Throughout this time, I was connecting to Bosnia and establishing a network of trustworthy friends. As I was looking at different projects to help the community, whether they were initiatives for returnees coming back to rebuild their villages and their homes, or small projects to large scale initiatives for medical health centers. I realized that nothing is really sustainable in that country because of the corruption and politics of aid.
I realized that the best way to help people is with other people, as they don’t have any agendas and issues. People like to help each other. When people see someone in need, they would like to do something for them, that’s the basic essence of humanity, no matter what their religion or background is.
So, I decided to create a company called Holiday Bosnia to do tourism and bring people to see the beautiful country, to learn about what people faced in the war; the real story of the war. I felt it was a good way to show the dangers of how a society can be divided and to show that people can all live together, whether they are Christian, Muslim or Jewish and Bosnia is a great example of that. People lived very carefully and tolerantly together. Yet, no matter how tolerantly and well you lived together you can be torn apart easily and that’s a scary thing.
I experienced this in my own background, coming from Pakistan. My own family went from India to Pakistan, where people used to live together before partition in 1947. After the partition, the previously closely connected communities could all be divided by a fear factor.
I created Holiday Bosnia and started bringing people to see Bosnia to enjoy it and see it for themselves. Because of my network in Bosnia, we are able to also do work with charitable activities.
My plans are to expand further to help young people get jobs so they can stay in the country and help develop it. We need to connect to youth of all backgrounds and ethnicities and to diffuse the poison that politicians are promoting so that they can see good role models from other countries.
It’s a journey that has taken over 22 years, and I don’t know where it will end, but Alhamduli Allah it has brought me into contact with so many wonderful people from across the world and that gives me hope that we can do something together.
I also speak extensively on the subject of Muslim style travel, where we can go and have a great holiday, and do something good. That’s how Muslim travelers used to be in the past. They used to learn, share knowledge with the rest of the world and help each other. They used to break down barriers of prejudice and have dialogue with people of all ethnic backgrounds. When people talk, they remove that fear and suspicion of each other. That’s how you can destroy the politics of fear.
We work closely with the communities at the grass-root levels. We like to get together with young people and bring them together with foreigners so that they can learn. They are stuck in a kind of vacuum is Bosnia and they like to learn what people are doing in other parts of the world. So, having a congregation of young people from Bosnia with young people from around the world would be ideal.
The poverty still continues and the need to help them is there. We have a lot of charity initiatives where we can send money directly to the needy families in Bosnia.
They are many lessons to be learned in Bosnia. We can learn about ourselves, about conflict and about the beauty of nature. It’s also about the word. Muslims used to travel in the past to spread the word/Da’wah. Islam would not have spread if it wasn’t for the Muslim sailors and travelers. They were the leading travelers going around the world in those days. When Islam was spreading.
Today, the role we have in Bosnia as Muslims is to break down the messages and perceptions in the media hypes. As we travel and meet non-Muslims, we can break down the negative images. Bosnia is an excellent example. When non-Muslims come to Bosnia, we show them the case examples. We show them the mosques, churches, and synagogues all together side by side. We tell them this is the traditional way that Muslims have lived in societies despite what the negative stereotypes are. We try to break that myth. We also tell them that one thousand mosques were destroyed in Bosnia. Demolished by dynamite and concreted over while not a single church was destroyed. They are surprised as that’s not their understanding of Islam. They ask why the Muslims did not take revenge and do the same types of action against churches that was done to their mosques. We say this is not Islam. Islam doesn’t permit this kind of behavior. We have a very important message to give as Muslims as people pass through Bosnia. Bosnia is a great place of the tolerance and beauty of the people’s character is a reflection of Islam. That is why Islam took a hold deeply in Bosnia. Because Islam is a religion of the heart.