Interview with Mustafa Ceric

"The West Does Not Want to Share Its Values"

Reis-ul-Ulema Mustafa Ceric is known to be a mediator between Islam and Christianity. In an interview with Erich Rathefelder, however, Ceric says that Europe could have avoided the problem of fundamentalist Islam in Bosnia, if it had defended Bosnian Muslims in the ethnic cleansings

photo: AP
Reis-ul-Ulema Mustafa Ceric of Bosnia

​​The Islamic world watches sympathetically as insurgents in Iraq defy the USA. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict fans the emotions, and radical groups like Al-Qaida are in their element. Has the battle of the cultures already begun?

Reis-ul-Ulema Mustafa Ceric: I completely reject this notion. The path we are on is a different one. We are experiencing the development from slavery to freedom, from the law of the jungle to a democratic state under the rule of law. The world can thank western civilization for this development, especially Europe. The legitimization of the state, that is, democracy, is one of the greatest achievements ever.

But now these values are no longer tied to western civilization, they are values that others accept and claim for themselves. What is happening now actually represents a crisis of western civilization, which obviously does not want to share these values with others.

But there definitely are tendencies in Islam that completely reject these values.

Ceric: We must make a distinction between the principles and the models. Surely there is not a Muslim in the world who does not aspire to freedom in principle. In the west, the model of western democracy and human rights functions on the foundation of a long historical evolution. In the Islamic world, though, this is not yet the case.

We are seeing a migration of Muslims from east to west; Muslims are seeking contact to the western world. During the Middle Ages the movement was in the other direction, with western thinkers seeking contact with Islam. In other words, the fundamental tendency in Islam today is an opening toward the west, but in the west many are met with rejection.

The Taliban and Al-Qaida must see that somewhat differently.

Ceric: Of course, the Taliban come from a region where tribal society still persists. This kind of mentality does not grasp the universality of Islam. On the other hand, the west wants to keep the Muslims down at this level. In Europe we Bosnian Muslims are not recognized as a nation. Europe prefers to view us as a tribal society.

So there is a Bosnian Islam that differs from the Islam of Indonesia, Afghanistan or Arabia?

Ceric: I wouldn't use the term "Bosnian Islam". But there is a Bosnian experience of Islam. Over the course of 500 years, Bosnia developed an Islam that does not threaten anyone, neither antagonizing other peoples nor attacking its own society. We are committed to tolerance and humanity and reject the tribal mentality.

In Sarajevo there is a tradition of coexistence with Christians and Jews. Just as differences can be found between Catholics in Poland, Austria or France, or between them and other Christian churches, there are different forms of Islam.

But isn't that the same thing as asserting that a Bosnian or European Islam exists?

Ceric: If Arabs use Islam to further their national goals, then we in Europe can do the same thing.

The Bosnian Muslims
After the Bosnian kingdom finally fell to the Turks in 1463, a large part of the Slavic population chose to convert to Islam. At that time Bosnia had served as a refuge for many persecuted Christians who criticized the Pope, above all rejecting the church hierarchy. With its decentralized structure, the new faith appealed to this consciousness. Also, Muslims were not required to pay taxes.
Before the 1992-1995 war, Bosnian Muslims represented 44 percent of the total population of 4.5 million Bosnians, with Orthodox Serbs making up 33 percent and Catholic Croats 18 percent. The rest belonged to smaller groups or chose not to define themselves by nationality. According to estimates, 180,000 Muslims lost their lives in the last war.
Ever since the founding of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia after World War One, the status of this population group has been subject to debate. Were the Muslims a nation among the other nations of the South Slavs, the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes? Or were they merely a religious community? In Communist Yugoslavia the constitution of 1974 recognized the Muslims as a nation. The Dayton Agreement gave international confirmation to this status. Since then, the Muslims of Bosnia have officially called themselves "Bosniaks".

If an Egyptian has the right to be a patriot for his country in the name of Islam, then we European Muslims can also be European patriots in the name of Islam. That does not mean forgetting the Orient – that is where the sun rises. All great religions look to the Orient; as always, it is a point of "orientation". Jews, Christians and Muslims all have their roots there. But we live in Europe. As a European Muslim, I want to make my contribution to European civilization and be automatically recognized as such.

For the Europeans, the issue is whether the values of European society, specifically the role of religion in a democratic state, is recognized by the Muslims too. For you, the litmus test is Bosnia itself. The war, and especially its aftermath, brought Islamic extremists into the country, fundamentalists from Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabites. They built more than 100 mosques and religious centers and are secretly propagating something like an Islamic society. You can't tolerate that, then, can you?

Ceric: Europeans tend to attach too much significance to these people, forgetting that Karadzic and Mladic committed great crimes against Bosnia's Muslims in Srebrenica and elsewhere. Europe should be ashamed of what happened, and that it was allowed to happen. If we Bosnians are being lumped together with the terrorists now, it is partly because Europeans feel guilty about us.

Yet after the end of the war no revenge was taken against the perpetrators in Bosnia, even though there would have been plenty of reasons for it. We behaved in a civilized fashion. During the war we had to accept all the help we could get because Europe did not move to defend us against aggression. That is why the so-called Mujaheddin came to the country to offer us their solidarity. So that is the responsibility of the Europeans as well.

Also, you need to ask what Wahhabism actually is. There is a political and a religious Wahhabism; the political form was created by the west to defeat the Ottoman Empire. Saudi Arabia is still the ally of the west. Ideological Wahhabism, the theology, is alien to us Bosnian Muslims. We have a different understanding of state and society. The Bosnian Muslims will not change in that respect, you can be sure of that.

But the money from Saudi Arabia also goes to influence politics.

Ceric: Believe me, there are far more people like that in Germany, France or Great Britain than here. Germany donated 100,000 euros to rebuild the Orthodox church in Mostar, but so far no European country aside from Sweden has contributed any money toward rebuilding mosques. Remember, nearly 1,000 mosques in Bosnia were destroyed in the ethnic cleansings, including the famous mosques in Foca and Banja Luka. We accept money from Saudi Arabia to rebuild them. Are we supposed to say, Europe doesn't like you, so we don't want any money? We are poor, we can't manage it alone, we need help from outside.

The institution of the Reis-ul-Ulema was established after Bosnia was annexed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 19th century, and it is unique in the Islamic world. You are the religious leader; at the same time, your institution originally meant being a political representative of the Muslims of Bosnia. Two years ago you proposed establishing the institution of the Reis-ul-Ulema on a Europe-wide basis. Would this be a step toward institutionalizing Islam in Europe?

Ceric: Correct. I live for the day when Europe's Muslims will have the chance to be successful and make their contribution toward a united Europe. I am not concerned about our future as a religious community in Bosnia, more so about the community in Western Europe. Here we have the Reis-ul-Ulema, the highest religious authority, while in Western Europe there are hundreds of Islamic groups with a wide range of different views.

We in Bosnia have a long, firmly established tradition. In Western and Central Europe there are immigrant societies whose members may have lived there for three or four generations, but are still quite fragmented all the same. That is why I believe the Muslims in Europe must develop a unified representative agency. That would be in Europe's interest. Our religious teachers ought to be trained in Europe and regard themselves as European Muslims. That would also mean accepting the values of European society regarding freedom and the rule of law and continuing to develop them.

Interview: Erich Rathfelder

© TAZ/Qantara.de 2004

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

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