Yesterday, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel died at age 87. An accomplished author who knew the power of words all too well, Wiesel chose to devote his life to furthering the art of the written word. His short novels, Night, an account of the tragic events of Wiesel's time at Aushwitz and Buchenwald during the Holocaust, and Dawn, a novel about the loss of innocence in the struggle to free Israel from British rule, had a profound impact on me as a young adult in high school and college. Both novels played a role in my decision to become a bridge builder between Muslims and Jews around the world. I also read Wiesel's novel The Judges, semi-existential modern-day parable about how to respond to evil and the perversion of what exactly is "good" by many seeking power, one summer after a particularly morally-challenging semester in college. Needless to say, Wiesel had a profound impact on me as a young American man.
But it was Wiesel's outspoken insistence that we Americans save the lives of Muslims being massacred in the tens of thousands by Russian-supported Serbian forces in Bosnia that left the deepest impression on me as a human being.
During the two decades leading up to disintegration of the multi-ethnic, religiously diverse Yugoslavia, Yugoslavia's government were firm supporters of the Palestinian cause, and broke ties with Israel following the Six Day War that were not re-established until 1991. Yugoslavia's ruling strongman, Tito, was a major supporter of Arab nationalism, especially as Arab nationalism from the 1950s until the 1990s was fervently anti-Islamic. Yugoslav policy was to repress Islam among the Bosnian population of Yugoslavia, promoting secular nationalism. As a nod to keep Bosnia's Muslims from completely turning against their government, Tito publicly and firmly supported the Palestine Liberation Organization, then led by Yasser Arafat. The PLO would not recognize Israel's right to exist until after Yugoslavia collapsed, and would carry out horrific acts of anti-Semitic violence across the globe with Yugoslav-provided weapons and armaments for several decades.
Upon Tito's death and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bosnia's Muslims called for independence on the ground that their religious freedoms and cultural identity had been forcefully repressed under a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. Croats and Muslims in Kosovo demanded the same right. Serbia launched a multi-pronged war and mass-extermination campaign against all who opposed their continued rule within a new Serbian state that sought to dominate non-Serbs. Given that Serb nationalists blamed Bosnians and their Islamic faith for centuries of nominal rule by Ottoman Turkey in the recent past, Serb forces focused their efforts on exterminating Bosnia's Muslims first and foremost.
In 1993, while the Clinton administration was fully engaged in trying to save Bosnian lives, our post-colonial European allies were not. The result was a divided NATO, coupled with crushing negative public opinion for another foreign intervention (we were disastrously engaged in Somalia at the time) weakened our country's ability to do much of anything to bring an end to Serbia's reign of terror. As a result: 250,000 Muslim lives would be lost before America would bring its full force to bear to end the Bosnian Genocide.
But on April 22 of that year, at the grand opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., Elie Wiesel ditched his written remarks and instead made a plea to America to end its isolationism, and save the lives of Bosnia's Muslims. That is to say: Wiesel reached out to save Bosnian Muslims from annihilation on the principle of Never Again should any people be subject to the horrors of a genocide. Wiesel's morality and commitment to what was right, and his public siding with the voiceless cause of Bosnia's Muslims remains a virtuous act that will forever bless his name and memory.
Elie Wiesel was a literary giant who shaped my personal identity and sense of social justice had passed away. He was more than just the author of "Night", "Dawn", "The Judges" and countless other stories about morality and principle in our world. Wiesel was a man who acted upon his beliefs for the sake of others.
May God grant Elie Wiesel peace in the hereafter, as he championed peace and justice for all in the here and now.