A Bridge Builder or a Closet Fundamentalist?
Only if the dialogue between the major world religions of Christianity and Islam can be maintained and intensified is there a hope of avoiding misunderstandings and misinterpretations on both sides in future, so the Christian-oriented Eugen Biser Foundation is convinced. The letter published by 138 Islamic dignitaries on 13 October of last year, "A Common Word between Us and You" was a milestone along this road, says Heiner Köster, the vice-chairman of the foundation's board of trustees:
"The Eugen Biser Foundation regarded the open letter from Muslim scholars as an important initiative for inter-faith dialogue. Mr Ceric is one of the signatories of the open letter. And we were unanimous that it would be a very good choice to involve him as an award-winner."
"He knows both worlds"
The Munich-based foundation is not alone in this assessment. The Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric is always one of the first names to crop up when it comes to relations with Islam in Europe and how to further integration of Muslims into European society. He is regarded as an important bipartisan factor for Europe, as the German journalist Jörg Lau emphasises:
"I see him as a bridge builder. He has the intellectual faculties for the job; he studied at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, but he has also been a theologian and philosopher in Chicago. He knows both worlds."
In Europe and particularly in Germany, Mustafa Ceric is has honours and praise heaped upon him like no other Muslim scholar or Islamic dignitary. He has previously won several awards for his efforts towards developing dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe. At times it even seems as if Ceric is regarded as the embodiment of a new "East-West Divan". It is no coincidence that he was one of the leading Muslim dignitaries recently received in the Vatican by Pope Benedict XVI.
Bosnian Islam: open and tolerant
Bosnia's Muslims are generally regarded as tolerant and open. They have practiced a peaceful form of coexistence in a multi-faith and multicultural society for centuries.
"As the head of this community, Ceric is very much aware that Islam has to open up towards Europe further, that it mustn't cut off its roots to the Arab world of course, but at the same time has to become something genuinely European. To such an extent, I'd refer to him as a reformer," says Jörg Lau, an expert on Islam and editor for the renowned weekly DIE ZEIT.
Ceric very much cultivates this image: "Dialogue, or rather a culture of dialogue, is the most important thing for Europe today. What Europe needs today is a programme, a long-term strategy for promoting and maintaining the culture of dialogue between the various religions, cultures and peoples," Ceric states.
Reformer or Islamist?
In many parts of Europe, however, Islam still encounters scepticism or is even seen as a threat. The religion is still lumped together with political Islam or presented in stereotypical forms. Misunderstandings and conflicts are almost inevitable under these circumstances. For instance, Ceric is also accused of calling for the introduction of Shari'a law in Europe and questioning the democratic constitutional order in the European People's Party's journal European View (12/2007).
Several months ago, he felt obliged to write a letter to Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel, among other things setting out his clear conviction in democratic principles.
Yet Ceric not only faces criticism in Europe – he is also a controversial figure at home in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Speaking with a forked tongue?
In liberal and middle-class circles, he is accused of speaking with a forked tongue: endorsing dialogue abroad while making conservative and uncompromising demands at home, which – as his critics see it – aim to undermine the secular character of the state and gradually end the separation of state and religion. There is an understandable reason for these objections, according to the journalist Jörg Lau:
"It would be better if he didn't have to get involved, but in this highly politicised situation in Bosnia – a very hate-filled situation over the past decades – he had no option but to become political himself. The things he is accused of, for instance not taking a decisive enough stand against the fundamentalist influences coming to Bosnia from the Arab world, are certainly matters of concern," says Lau, continuing:
"But he has also said: we rely on foreign aid here, and we sometimes have to accept help from people and powers from whom we would rather not take help. If Europe was to give us more support we could go without this aid and draw clearer lines."
Ceric's basic principles: a European contradiction
At the same time, the contradiction in which Bosnia-Herzegovina and its Grand Mufti are involved is also a European contradiction. Noted comparative theologians see the same basic standpoint in Ceric as inherent in the Catholic and Protestant churches in Germany, for example.
Within their own religious communities, turning back to traditional and often conservative values strengthens the sense of belonging; identity is often sought through drawing dividing lines and excluding others. Strengthened in this way, the religions are then prepared to go out into society, endorsing multi-faith and multicultural coexistence.
Mustafa Ceric acknowledges this contradiction when he points out that Bosnia-Herzegovina is not an island in a European sea:
"The culture of dialogue in Bosnia-Herzegovina is simultaneously the culture of dialogue in Europe. What happens in Bosnia-Herzegovina is not a specifically Bosnian phenomenon. We are only a reflection – for better or worse – of today's Europe and today's world."
© Deutsche Welle/Qantara.de 2008
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire