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Ceremony of the Innocent: A Journey to Lands of BESA & Srebrenica

SARAJEVO – Norman Gershman, a Jewish-American photographer, documents first person accounts of the Albanian Muslims who helped rescue Jewish refugees in WWII in his 2012 documentary called BESA or the promise.

In one very powerful scene in the film you see Gershman, a Jew, sitting in a church pew, reciting the first chapter of the holy Quran, the Fatihah.

Bismillah Ar Rahman Al Raheem

In the name of God the most gracious the most merciful

Within those few seconds of recitation God’s mercy and man’s mission intersected and a path to our emotional restoration begins to unfold.

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The story itself is a celebration of the Albanian national principle of BESA, usually translated as faith or word of honor.

I along with a group of twenty five Muslim and Jewish women had the privilege of meeting with the family of Muslim Albanians that were featured in the film during one of our recent trip to the Balkans as part of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. The Sisterhood is a national organization of Muslim and Jewish women that work to combat negative stereotyping and prejudice.

We travelled to Bosnia to witness the aftermath of the Bosnian Genocide and get a first hand glimpse into the two major events that summed up its horrors; The Siege of Sarajevo and the massacre at Srebrenica.

Next we traveled to Albania to honor the only country in the world that opened its borders to the Jewish refugees during WWII.

The Muslim Albanians not only refused to turn over the Jews residing within the country’s borders but they provided them with fake documentation to protect them from deportation to concentration camps.

This remarkable gesture on the part of average citizens was sanctioned and supported by the state of Albania.

When we asked the President of Albania to explain what made Albanians risk their lives to rescue strangers he said that It was part of their ‘qanoon’ or constitutional law that “your home belongs to God first and your guests second.”

What differentiates Albania from any other nation at the time is the unromantic fact that without the sanction and protection of state power, the effort of the Albanian families may have not allowed the principle of BESA to lead to anything more than random and isolated acts of heroism.

Islamic Values

Besa means “keeping your promise” and taking care of those in need, even under difficult circumstances. It is the backbone of Albanian culture and at the heart of Albanians’ code of honor.

Besa means “keeping your promise” and taking care of those in need, even under difficult circumstances. It is the backbone of Albanian culture and at the heart of Albanians’ code of honor.

The Islamic national identity was not defined by the limitations it placed on its citizens, but rather on the values and protections it afforded them when they chose to act in good conscience.

It was their role as a government, as should be the role of all governments, to protect the innocent.  The government and people of Albania were united in a set of shared values, and that symbiotic relationship empowered the individual citizens to act as protectors.

This was in large part because they lived within the jurisdiction of government authority figures who were more committed to doing what was right as opposed to what was in their own immediate self interest.  Without governmental authority figures wielding the legalized use of force acting in defense of the innocent, no single group of individuals could have stood up against any aggressor let alone homicidal maniacs who embark on campaigns of extermination.


But when men unite to do evil, they almost always do so on the basis of some attribute to which they can take no credit or blame.

“Mothers of Srebrenica”

Our time in Albania was punctuated with hope but nothing could have prepared us for the horrors of hate. A conflict is never over until there is some poetic justice for its victims.

Forgiveness is only ever really redemptive when the crime is at least acknowledged. The ‘Mothers of Srebrenica’ as they came to be known,  lost their entire families to a massacre due to a breach of duty on the part of the Dutch battalion responsible for safeguarding the only safe haven for Muslims.

Hasan Nuhanovic, a Bosniak survivor of the genocide, acting in defense of the Mothers of Srebrenica, has spent the last twenty years campaigning for justice and has spent nine of those years in civil court battling the Dutch state for justice and an acknowledgment by the Dutch government that they handed over his family to be slaughtered by Serb forces.

When I asked Hasan to give us a personal explanation for what would drive men to so brutally and gratuitously murder in the name of hate,  he said, “Do not ask why, there is no reason why. If you give it a reason, you are making an excuse. There is no reason. It is just madness.”

His explanation or lack of one was reinforced by another encounter I had with a Bosniak who said that he thanked God that he was white, really white as he put it. “If I was even slightly darker, I would have been toast.”

Men who murder directly with no degree of separation between them and their innocent victims and who are motivated by hate are men who have reduced themselves to a single attribute and are attempting to ascribe a moral or political significance to their inherited characteristics.


When people unite in the interest of doing good, as they did in Albania, they never unite on the basis of some physical attribute they all share, they unite on the basis of a shared value. But when men unite to do evil, they almost always do so on the basis of some attribute to which they can take no credit or blame. It is the frightening reality of our time that we are seeing degrees of racism manifesting itself in our culture and politics everywhere in the world, even in places we thought were impervious to such madness.

If there is anything to be learned from the Albanian experience, it is that without a national commitment to universal human values no amount of good will on the part of isolated individuals can prevent hate from becoming a political force.

It’s time we accept that the values espousing love must be memorialized as part of our constitutional identities and not to continue to be nothing more than just a rallying cry.

And although we cannot over analyze such matters by offering practical explanation and solutions, knowing that insanity is impervious to both, it’s time we start to offer spiritual solutions to this ancient disease called racism.

Rather than wait for all the high minded academicians and politicians to dissect and offer up explanations and official apologies, we must exact our own form of poetic justice and perform our own ceremonies for the innocent through our art, our prayers, our lamentations, and our political activism.

And it is with this spirit in mind that we all marched in the rain with the Mothers who had lost so much more than any of us could possibly comprehend, and facing the rows upon rows of white stones marking the graves of their loved ones, Muslims and Jews stood in Sisterhood and performed our own ceremony for the innocent by reciting the opening chapter of the holy Qur’an, so that maybe their emotional restoration might someday unfold.

Bismillah al Rahman al Raheem