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Analysis: The Imam's New Clothes

Reisu-l-ulema Mustafa Ceric (file photo) The Sarajevo political weekly "BH Dani" has published a stinging and probably unprecedented attack on the leader of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Islamic Community. This is unlikely to be the end of the matter in what appears to be the latest chapter in the conflict between that country's clerical and secular forces in a sometimes ill-defined postcommunist media environment.

In its 30 September issue, "BH Dani" ran an article by its director and noted independent journalist Senad Pecanin, who accuses Reisu-l-ulema Mustafa Ceric, the head of Bosnia's Islamic Community, of behaving as though he were a witch doctor and treating Bosnia's Muslims like a primitive tribe under his control.

The point of departure for the article was the recent campaign leading up to the 2 October local elections, in which Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Serbian Orthodox clerics openly campaigned for their respective nationalist parties. In the Muslim case, this was the Party of Democratic Action (SDA). Pecanin wrote that clerics from all three religions behaved like tribal leaders displaying a "primordial social instinct" to mark and defend their respective territories.
Pecanin says that Ceric's main ambition is to succeed Izetbegovic as the undisputed leader of the Bosnian Muslims.

But it was for Ceric that Pecanin had his sharpest words, arguing that the Reis took it upon himself to speak in God's name to tell the Muslim faithful how to vote. Pecanin argues that the Islamic Community and Muslim clerics in general were wrongly used for political purposes, which reflects Ceric's "absolutist methods for administering the Islamic Community, as well as his own personal ambitions." Pecanin adds that Ceric has been linked to the SDA since its founding in 1990 and that the late President Alija Izetbegovic and other leading SDA politicians helped Ceric win election to his current post in 1993.

Pecanin says that Ceric's main ambition is to succeed Izetbegovic as the undisputed leader of the Bosnian Muslims. The journalist adds that Ceric has involved himself in matters that even Izetbegovic shied away from. These include naming the head of the national soccer team and sacking a judge who dared probe too closely into the role of the SDA in the Bosnian secret service.

Perhaps the most serious aspect of the attack is not the article itself but the magazine's cover ( Next to the headline "I, the Great Imam," it shows eight identical pictures of Ceric wearing only his turban and a loincloth, talking into a mobile phone with a number printed over his head. The allusion to a newspaper ad for a telephone sex line is reinforced by different captions over each of the eight photos, some of which read "only for women," "for gay men," "do you want to know a secret," etc.. This is apparently a reference to Ceric's successful efforts to ban ads for telephone sex lines from the Sarajevo daily "Dnevni avaz."

Attacks on Ceric and other Muslim clerics in Serbian and Croatian publications are nothing new, but Pecanin's article -- and the magazine's cover -- are strong stuff coming from a Sarajevo weekly, even from a highly independent one. The article might now trigger a discussion of how far the media should go in dealing with issues such as the abuse of religion for political purposes. There is bound to be some sort of response to Pecanin in the media from Ceric or from conservative Muslim writers, and the Sarajevo rumor mill suggests that at least one Muslim organization is contemplating legal action against "BH Dani." (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 September 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 23 April and 24 September 2004).