Sarajevo. In the city that was wounded, died and then rose again, a conversation with Mustapha Ceric´, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia. From the ashes of the war of the 1990, which are not yet completely out, was born a new generation of Muslims who are able to take on board a centuries-old tradition of a living and conscious tradition and to face up to today’s challenges with pride.

Interview by Maria Laura Conte and Michele Brignone

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:44:04

Sarajevo, a city of many faces. The thin Ottoman mosques of the old city lean towards the elegant Hapsburg buildings while in the background are laid out in rows the blocks in the style of real socialism. The last to arrive are the imposing constructions wanted by the Gulf countries but which merely rival the thousand banks of international finance. Here and there stands out a scare from the bloody war of the end of the century. The problems and contradictions of this city are essentially the same as those on which depend the destiny of Europe: ideological totalitarianism, peace and war between cultures and identities, inter-religious coexistence and dialogue, the public role of faith. Oasis chose to discuss all of this with an exceptional figure of European Islam. You have lived and studied both in Bosnia and abroad. Therefore you are in a good position to evaluate the tradition of your country. Do you think that Bosnian Islam has a peculiar profile? Before answering your question about the possible differences between ‘Islams’ and the profile of Bosnian Islam, let me make a distinction between Islamic principles and Islamic models. Like other religions, Islam rests upon some principles which are accepted by all Muslims wherever they are. Muslims are united by their faith in monotheism, in the Koran as the last revelation of God and in the afterlife. These are the principles. Then ‘Islams’ are different in applying these principles. This is why we can refer to different interpretations of Islam or different models of applying the same principles. If one accepts the difference between principles and models, we can speak of a Bosnian model of Islam. Principles are unchangeable, but by new knowledge, by new experiences and according to the environment in which we live, we can change the interpretation of the principles. So what does the Bosnian model of Islam consist of? I would say it has three basic characteristics: first, the fact of finding itself in a multicultural society where it coexists with other religions in a coherent way. The second characteristic is an original approach to the interpretation of the Koran and the Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad based on the experience of Bosnian ulema. The third is that Muslims live in Bosnia in an open society and their attitude is determined by this openness, which is ratified by the institutionalised interpretation of Islamic doctrine. The important thing is that any new challenge posed to the interpretation of the principles has to undergo a institutionalised and collective debate: the guidance of the life of believers does not depend on individual judgment but on the whole Islamic community and on Islamic Institutions representing it (like the Reis al Ulema e.g.). You have talked of the difference between the principles of Islam and its various applications. During the last war, Middle Eastern groups referring to other ‘models’ of Islam arrived in Bosnia. Do you think that their presence is a betrayal of the traditional Bosnian model? This is a legitimate question. Every tradition can be defined in very different ways, but there is no static tradition. Every tradition is dynamic and vibrant, just like a language. Our Islamic tradition is moving too, but without abandoning its basic principles. Not even Communism with its aggressive secularisation was able to eradicate them. I may understand your concern about the future of Bosnian Muslims, but the point is: will genocide be repeated or not? Instead of focusing on what will happen to our tradition, we have to be concerned about what will happen to our lives. Those in Srebrenica who were killed on 11 July 1995 were typical traditional Bosnian Muslims: why were they killed? They were not exposed to any influences from outside, because there were no Mujahedeen there... Because of this particular experience, we have a new generation of Bosnian Muslims who did learn the lesson, and are well aware that you cannot rely on foreign hands for protection, but only on God and your faith in Him. The more convinced of your identity you are, the more you become tolerant. This is a lesson I have learnt in Bosnia: tolerance is a sign of strength, intolerance is a sign of weakness. If I know who I am, I am not afraid of you, on the contrary I am curious to know you as a different person. Now young people are different from the young people at the time before the war. They are more aware of their religious roots and their faith, they are more consistent in their practice, but at the same time they are mature enough not to be manipulated from outside by anyone that does not understand their own Islamic tradition. The experience we had will not change the way we are as Muslims in Bosnia Herzegovina, just the opposite. We belong both to Islam and to Europe. Islam gives us the spirit and Europe gives us the mind. Can these two things work together? Yes, I think they can work very well. You just referred to Srebrenica. Do you think that it is possible to forgive each other? Yes, it is possible to forgive, provided that those who seek forgiveness admit their sins. You cannot forgive if someone does not ask your forgiveness. You know the statement of the Old Testament: ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’; you can find the same in the Koran. But the Koran adds that if you forgive it is better for you (Cf. Koran 5:45). During the genocide of Srebrenica, one single family lost two hundred members: no one single act of revenge came from them. This means that they did receive and did understand the message of the Koran. When someone asks me about this, I answer that he has the right for revenge, but if he forgives it is better for him. What do you think European Islam and Europe itself can learn from the Bosnian model? First we have to ask what Europe wants. Europe is facing a new phenomenon: the phenomenon of Islam within its borders. Many people refer to the Christian roots of the European identity, but I think we should consider a fact: Europe has always been open to the influences of different cultures and Christianity is just one of the aspects of this development. Actually, none of the religions that spread in Europe, including Christianity, originated in Europe. So we are in that sense equal and the European Christian tradition does not give Christianity a priority. Islam is a challenge for Europe as Christianity was in the past. As for the Muslims, their challenge consists in the fact that they arrived in Europe as immigrants seeking economic opportunities rather than preaching or having in mind the spread of Islam, but, as time went by, they became more aware of their Islamic identity. Europe has to cope with this phenomenon and does not know what to do: first because Muslims are not organised into any institution able to speak on their behalf, but above all because Europe, or better to say the tradition of Enlightenment, compels people to live as if God does not exist. When the Muslims started to speak about God and faith, when they started to pray in the streets, Europeans were shocked, not because they hate Islam, but because they do not know anymore what a religious experience is. I think the legitimate question is what Europe should do to make easier the integration of Muslims into society. European integration is two-ways and this is a long process. Can Bosnia be a model? I do not know exactly, but I can say that both Muslims and Europe should look at the Bosnian experience to understand what they can keep and what they have to reject. Of course Bosnian Islam has proved it can survive in the European environment without losing its own identity. We are neither assimilated nor isolated as some wished to do: we are just integrated into European civilisation with the strong feeling of belonging to Islam as a religion and to European society as citizens. In your Declaration of European Muslims you stated that ‘Europe is a good place for Muslims themselves to discover the power and beauty of the universality of Islam’. What do you exactly mean by this statement? When you live in a national state in the Middle East, you have one single perspective of Islam. But when you come to the West and see Pakistanis, Turks, Arabs, and so on attending the same mosque you become more and more aware of the fact that it is Islam, and not nationality, that unites Muslims. Do you mean that Muslims have the opportunity to rediscover the principles of Islam as well? You are right… and create a new model of a European kind. You have mentioned the tradition of the Enlightenment: in the opinion of many contemporary intellectuals, even Muslim intellectuals, Islam needs to be reformed in accordance with Enlightenment principles in order to be integrated into European society. What is your opinion about this? Islam is already the greatest reformation of religious thought in the history of humankind. Let me give you three basic proofs of what I am saying: first of all the Islamic proclamation of the principle that there is no compulsion in religion; then the protection of women’s rights: I do not want to enter this debate, but the fact that in the seventh century Islam proclaimed against the will of those arrogant Meccan lords that women had the right to share the inheritance of men and that they are created with the same substance as men was a great revolution; finally the abolition of the institution of priesthood by Prophet Mohammed, making everyone equally responsible before God, equally entitled to earn God’s mercy. Of course, Muslims are now going through difficult times, especially as regards their place in history. If one lives in the West, one may legitimately wonder when Muslims will be ‘enlightened’. But history shows that Muslims contributed to European humanism and the Renaissance in a decisive way. Just think of the works of the Muslim philosophers in the twelfth century, of Ibn Rushd and his rationalism... But how can the historical contribution you are talking about have repercussions for the present situation? In spite of all their present difficulties, I think that Muslims are today knocking at the door of the West with certain moral principles that the West has forgotten in the same way as in the past, in the twelfth century, they knocked at the door of Europe recalling the rationalism that Europe had abandoned. The West must go through a spiritual revolution. The economic collapse now underway is not a matter of financial crisis: it is a moral crisis. I think that the West is guilty of seven great sins: wealth without work, education without morality, business without ethics, pleasure without conscience, politics without principles, science without responsibility, and society without family, and we can add one more: faith without sacrifice. Now, what is the solution? Just change the ‘withouts’ into ‘withs’. I don’t think we can isolate any civilisation or any faith and then ‘enlighten’ it. We live in a global world, where the interchange of ideas, including those that pertain to enlightenment, is a challenge both for the West and the Islamic world. But I am convinced that Muslims have preserved, compared to other religious groups, a higher sense of morality, even though they are not very capable of articulating it and making the rest of the world understand them. But more specifically: do you think that Muslims could accept the notion of faith as a private affair? I have been living under this conviction for decades. My first answer is that even he who does not believe in God has to believe in something. So why should some beliefs have the right to express themselves publicly and others not? But more specifically, can you take your mosque, your church, home? Can you cancel the churches and mosques from public squares? This is one of the paradoxes of secularisation: it compels believers in God to live with a dual personality, one at home and another to exhibit when they are outside. Of course this is a challenge for me: my speeches and my preaching have to be acceptable both in the mosque and in the public square. If I was two-faced, if I said one thing in the mosque and one thing when I am outside the mosque, I would be a hypocrite. And hypocrisy can create a conflict first of all in your own self and sometimes with others. This is why I think that people claiming they have the monopoly of public life just because they do not believe in God are wrong. Let me be clear: politics are too important to be left to the politicians alone; theology is too precious to be left to the theologians alone; the issue of peace and war is too dangerous to be left to the generals alone. We live in a world where there is no separation. As a religious man I have to be aware of what is happening in my city, in my country, morally, politically, economically. I am part of society, you cannot isolate me. And those who do not attend the mosque must be aware of what I say in the mosque because it can be good or bad for them too. Do you mean that we should think over the Enlightenment paradigm that has governed European public life for the last two centuries? The question is: did the Enlightenment help religions? Of course it did: religions benefitted more than anybody else from the critiques of the Enlightenment. They permitted religions to purify themselves from those elements that have little to do with revelation. But we should stop considering the Enlightenment as a bible. We need to ‘enlighten the Enlightenment’, that is to say we need to provide it with the morality it is now lacking. In this respect we are living the most interesting time in the history of humankind, because we have experienced both religious and unreligious thought and now we have to decide whether we want to restore the covenant with God or whether we prefer to rely on the worn-out ideas of the philosophers of the XVIII and XIX centuries, which cannot provide the answers to the questions of the present age. Exactly in the present age, the discoveries of science and the impact of technology on life raise crucial questions about the conception of man and the fundamental aspects of his experience (birth, love and death). What is your opinion, as a Muslim believer, on this phenomenon? First of all, life is a gift of God. We are not the possessors of our life. Anyway it is not easy to answer your question. I recently had a debate with some scientists about the possibility of creating life in laboratories. I told them that they are not creating anything, they are just disturbing creation by their own intervention. In ancient Egypt the pharaoh used to force his people to acknowledge him as a god; now we have many candidates to replace God. But I think that scientists who are trying to imitate God will be very soon disappointed by realising that after all they are just passing through this world and will not leave any trace. I believe we have to show humbleness and humanness and to feel satisfied with how God created us. Another crucial issue in our societies is the relations between majorities and minorities. It is not just a matter of a balance between cultures and identities but it entails the distinction between fundamental rights and other rights. It is a very complicated matter. First of all it is not pleasant to be a minority in any circumstances, whatever the rights they give you. This status can be easier in the presence of reasonable people understanding each other. Basically it should not be a matter of a majority or a minority but of how you explain your position. You may feel discriminated against because you cannot achieve what others achieve but you may be satisfied with what you are. Neither majorities nor minorities can earn it all. What I wish for Europe is that we understand that our diversity is a privilege that makes our lives interesting. We have to seek unity and learn from each other. We Muslims have many things to offer to others, but we have also many things to receive. Others can make our lives more and more meaningful. There is in Bosnia an interreligious council of which you are an active member: what goals are you obtaining by this common work? This interreligious council was established in 1997, it is made up of the 4 traditional religious communities in Bosnia (Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox, Jews) and has a strong symbolic meaning. Its most meaningful achievement, has been, I think, the drawing up of the new law on religious freedom that was adopted by the Bosnian parliament. But it also carries out a very important activity, which I hope will be maintained in the future: an annual report on the situation of human rights in Bosnia Herzegovina, where any case of abuse or violence against churches, mosques, cemeteries or any other place of worship is indicated. You attended, as a leader of the Muslim delegation, the First Seminar of the Catholic-Muslim Forum that was held in November 2008. What did you draw from that experience? It was the most interesting dialogue I have had in my life. It was very honest, open and also very useful. The first two days were difficult: we, Muslims and Christians, complained to each other about mutual misunderstandings and at some moments we were about to leave. But at the end of this debate we realised that if Martin Luther King had said: ‘I have a complaint’, no one would have listened to him. But he said ‘I have a dream’. This is why we decided to focus on our common ideals and common values. Finally we left the Vatican with a very clear communiqué where we expressed our commitment to continuing dialogue. I must say that the Pope Benedict XVI with his presence and his quotation of the prophet Mohammed at the end of his speech showed us his humbleness and his willingness to talk with Muslims. There is a English saying: ‘kindness kills’: if you want to win somebody over be kind to them. Being humble is not a defeat it is a victory. So you think that Muslims and Christians can find an agreement on the basis of some common values … The religions of the Abrahamic tradition are united by the ten commandments which are the basis of the relationship between God and men and between men. I think they can be summarised in five values: life, faith, freedom, property and dignity. These five values constitute a common ground between Muslims and Christians and they can allow the construction of the common good.