Leader of Bosnia's Islamic Community Speaks Out
by Patrick Moore
Prior to the 1992-95 Bosnian war, about 44 percent of the roughly 4.5 million people in that country were Slavs of Islamic heritage, generally known in the West as Bosnian Muslims [Bosniaks]. They are to all intents and purposes linguistically and ethnically identical to their Serbian Orthodox [Serb] and Roman Catholic [Croat] neighbours, with whom intermarriages and religious crossovers are no rarity. Indeed in some Bosnian extended families it is possible to find members of each of the three religious groups. Traditionally some rich and powerful families deliberately arranged that members of each of the three religious groups were included in their ranks, in order to guarantee the family's position regardless of who was in power.
Under communism, Islam and other religions were kept under a tight watch. Former Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović and many of his friends were suspected of fundamentalist tendencies and were no strangers to the communists' prisons. But some prominent Muslims, including clerics, were often used by Belgrade for foreign-policy purposes, to promote good relations with the Arab world and Muslim countries farther afield, such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Following the collapse of communism, some politically compromised prominent clerics were edged into the background. The all-Yugoslav Islamic Community organization broke up along the lines of the new national borders.
A tolerant European Islam
At that time Mustafa Cerić became the reisu-l-ulema, or leader, of Bosnia's Islamic Community. He was born in 1950 and studied theology and philosophy in Cairo, taking his doctorate in Chicago. He has sought to portray Bosnian Islam as a tolerant, European Islam, open to both East and West, while remaining very clear about its beliefs. Nonetheless, many secular Bosnian citizens of all backgrounds, as well as religious Serbs and Croats, remain deeply suspicious of him, saying that he has quietly worked to put an Islamic religious stamp on Bosnia.
In any event, Cerić's public statements generally lack the anti-Western bias that some other prominent Islamic leaders from former Yugoslavia still retain from the communist period. At the same time, he has often noted that Bosnian Muslims acquired their Islam from the Ottoman Empire and not from Arabia, which places them in a different tradition from Islamic groups with their roots directly in Arabia. Cerić's frequent public statements can be found in the bi-weekly Preporod (Rebirth), which the Islamic Community publishes in Sarajevo, and on its website (http://www.preporod.com). In 2002 the Islamic Community's Educational Society put out a collection of his public remarks in a book entitled ‘Faith, Nation, and Homeland: Sermons, Talks and Interviews’ (Reisu-l-ulema Mustafa Ceric, Vjera, narod, i domovina. Hutbe, govori, i intervjui, Udruženje ilmijje Islamske zajednice u BiH, Sarajevo 2002).
On 16 April 2004 Cerić gave an interview to veteran German-language Balkan correspondent Erich Rathfelder for Berlin's die tageszeitung, in which he addressed some highly topical issues. He began by rejecting the idea of a ‘clash of civilizations’, saying that the world is moving towards freedom and democratic states based on the rule of law. ‘The world can thank Western civilization and especially Europe for this trend,’ he argued. If there is a crisis, he continued, it is because the Western world is not willing to share its values with others. In that context, he argued that: ‘there is probably no Muslim in the world who does not strive in principle for freedom.’ If the Taliban appear to represent different values, it is because they represent a tribal society, not because they are Muslims, he added. But Cerić sees prejudice in Europe toward the Islamic world as a whole. ‘We Bosnian Muslims are not recognized in Europe as a people.’ Instead, ‘Europe would like to view us as a tribal society.’
Cerić denies that there is a specific ‘Bosnian Islam,’ but argues that Islam in Bosnia has experienced unique developments in the course of the past 500 years. He calls the result ‘an Islam that threatens nobody and is directed neither against other peoples nor against its own society. We are for tolerance and civilized behaviour and reject the mentality of tribal society.’ Cerić notes that Jews and Christians also have their religious roots in the Middle East, adding that it should come as no surprise that Muslims, too, honour their own ties to that part of the world. ‘But we live in Europe, and I as a European Muslim would like to make my contribution to European civilization and be recognized accordingly.’
Where are the fundamentalists?
When Rathfelder asked him about the alleged wartime influx of Islamic fundamentalists from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East, Cerić responded that there are many more dangerous people from the Middle East in Germany, France, or Britain than in Bosnia. He noted that postwar Bosnia needs help and is in no position to turn down money from Saudi Arabia, which in any event remains an ally of the West. He charged that contributions amounting to $120,000 came from unspecified sources in Germany for the reconstruction of a Serbian Orthodox church in Mostar, whereas only Sweden has given money to help reconstruct the 1,000 mosques Cerić says were destroyed in the war.
But does Bosnian Islam have a particular contribution it can make to Europe? Cerić suggests that the Islamic Community and the institution of the reisu-l-ulema provide form and direction to the Muslim community of Bosnia, and that consequently he is not worried about its future. What he does worry about is Muslims in Western Europe, who are primarily a diverse mixture of immigrant communities. ‘The Muslims in Europe must develop their own unified [institution]. This is in Europe's interest. Our religious teachers should be educated in Europe and regard themselves as European Muslims,’ Cerić says.
And what about the United States, whose military and diplomatic intervention in the Bosnian conflict is often credited with having saved the Muslim side from military defeat and worse? In the 15 October 2003 issue of Preporod, a front-page editorial entitled ‘American Friends’ quotes Cerić as saying that the Americans are indeed the friends of the Bosnian Muslims, who should make this point clear to their Muslim friends around the world. The Americans remain Bosnia's friends, he adds, even if one would wish that the United States had a different policy in the Middle East. The editorial points out that the United States came forward with a donation of $1 million to make the proposed Srebrenica memorial centre a reality in 2003. Preporod also recalls the hospital visit of former US President Bill Clinton to Izetbegović in his final days, and quotes former US Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke as calling indicted Bosnian Serb war criminals General Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić ‘the Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein of Europe’.
This article appeared in RFE/RL Balkan Report, Vol. 8, No. 16, 23 April 2004