Accessibility links

Breaking News

Interview: Bosnia's Grand Mufti Defends Religious Freedom

Grant Mufti Mustafa Ceric
Grant Mufti Mustafa Ceric
Mustafa Ceric, the grand mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina since 1999, has won international recognition for his efforts to promote communication and understanding among the world's many religions. In his own country, however, Ceric has sparked occasional controversy through actions and statements that some critics say have increased tensions among Bosnia's ethnically and religiously divided citizens.

RFE/RL Central Newsroom Director Jay Tolson spoke with Ceric on the eve of July 11, the European Commemorative Day for the victims of the Srebrenica massacre -- recognized officially by most of Europe but not by Bosnia, where the atrocity took place in 1995.

RFE/RL: Thank you, Your Excellency, for meeting with us today. In response to the genocidal massacre at Srebrenica in 1995, the European Parliament adopted July 11 as a day of genocide commemoration. As you know, all European nations are observing this day. But Bosnia is not. What do you think that says about conditions in Bosnia today?

Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric: I would like to use this opportunity to say thank you to all the members of the European Parliament for recognizing the pain of the victims of genocide in Srebrenica. The victims of genocide in Srebrenica know that we cannot change the past. But they appreciate the fact that the members -- 565 of them -- did raise their hands and told the whole world that [they] are sorry for what happened in Srebrenica....

As to the members of the state of Bosnia who did not even [make] one statement on the occasion of the 11th of July, it is shameful for all of them. Of course, those members who are from the Federation would say that the Serbian members of parliament are responsible. But I don't think they bear all [responsibility]. All of them bear responsibility. It is a pity that they put this on the parliament [agenda] only on the eve of the 11th of July.... But this is not a big surprise for us.

We have lived for 14 years with this defiance and this denial of genocide -- which is the most difficult stage of the genocidal processes. Genocide has many stages. So the final stage is denial of the genocide after accusing the victims of genocide that they are responsible for what has been done to them.

RFE/RL: Tensions between the major religious groups in Bosnia-Herzegovina don't seem to be diminishing significantly. You sit on an interfaith council that includes leaders of the Catholic and Orthodox Christian communities. But so far, can you point to any successes in bringing about greater harmony and tolerance among the major religious confessions in Bosnia-Herzegovina?

Ceric: I appreciate your observation, which is correct to a great extent. But I would also remind you about all the difficulties that we have -- and don't forget that the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia was a very painful process and Bosnia-Herzegovina paid the highest price of all, even though Bosnia-Herzegovina did not have any ambitions to [secede]. Bosnia-Herzegovina didn't want war and was wishing to stay together with the state of Yugoslavia.

Despite all of this, I can tell you that Bosnia-Herzegovina in the postwar recovery has the record for speed and a level of reconciliation that you don't find in any other part of the world that has the same experience.

The problem of Bosnia-Herzegovina is not inside the communities of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Our problem is always imported from outside when one group is encouraged to go against another group. And then the group in Bosnia-Herzegovina is encouraged to somehow overwhelm the other group.

Bosnia-Herzegovina would be one of the safest countries if our neighbors would not interfere in our affairs -- if they would allow us to develop our own neighborly relations. But when, for example, Belgrade or Zagreb or other sources of influence encourage one group and try to realize their own interests in Bosnia-Herzegovina, then we are in trouble.

I think we have achieved through the Inter-Religious Council many things. We have written together a law on freedom of religion that was passed by the Bosnian parliament. Last year, we started issuing at the end of the year an annual report on human rights in Bosnia-Herzegovina -- especially regarding the violation of religious human rights.

RFE/RL: Some -- including many Muslims in Bosnia -- would say that tensions have been exacerbated internally, including by you and your office, for example, by encouraging religious education in public kindergartens. As I understand it, this religious education would not be a neutral academic education but would actually be, in effect, catechism or instruction in a particular kind of religion -- Islam in this case. Aren't you breaking one of the foundations of public-sphere secularism that is essential to religious tolerance when you encourage practices like that in public schools?

Ceric: You have only one perspective of that particular problem. This perspective is not correct and not based on the facts and it is not well attended. First of all, there is an accord between the state of Bosnia and the Vatican in which the right of religious education in kindergarten is explicitly stated. This is the law. This is the accord. You should go to the state of Bosnia and the Vatican and ask why they signed this.

In the law of freedom of religion that we have proposed and that was passed by the parliament, it is also explicit that children have the right to religious education from kindergarten through high school. This was passed by members of the parliament.

Now we have only one party -- the ex-Communist party -- that cannot tolerate tolerance of religion. They are still living in their nostalgia for putting religion in what they call the private sphere. But if anything in this world is public, it is religion. My strongest argument against this kind of Islamophobia -- I would call it Islamophobia because they are only concentrating on Sarajevo; they are not speaking about what is happening in Mostar or Banja Luka. They are only concentrating on Sarajevo because it is, as they call it, Islamic education. And they are afraid of Islam. And this is a kind of Islamophobia that we are witnessing all the time.

So who is going to teach our children about religion; are we going to teach them according to our Bosnian tradition of Islam? We have to take care of our children from kindergarten through all the process of education -- according to the program that is acceptable to this state, together with the Islamic community -- so that our children know who they are, and when they are grown up, they don't need to listen to others who come tell them that they are wrong. They will have the arguments to defend their own tradition -- an Islamic tradition based on daily Bosnian experience.

RFE/RL: It is fine for children to receive religious education outside of public schools or in religious schools. But once you have children receiving religious education in a public school, then you are having, in effect, state-supported religion. And that is different from the American variety of secularism.

Ceric: This is a subject that should be the topic of public debate. And we should be clear what we want to achieve. I think that as we have to teach religious people to be tolerant toward atheists, we also have to teach atheists to be tolerant to those who are religious....

I am a citizen of this country. All the parents are citizens of this country. They are paying their taxes to the state. And if they say, "You know, I want my children from kindergarten to high school to be educated the way I want them to be educated. And I want you to provide them only with the right for religious education. It is not compulsory religious education." So this is a free choice. If you don't want to study religion -- if you don't want to go to religion class -- [you are not obliged].

RFE/RL: Muslim scholars around the world are engaged in a hugely important discussion, about the meaning and purposes of Shari'a. There are vastly different conceptions of what the word Shari'a means, ranging from a narrow code of laws and punishments based on very literalistic readings of the sacred texts to a far more capacious understanding of Shari'a -- of its being an ethos that informs the spirit of the laws.

What is your conception of Shari'a, and to what extent can this conception be brought to the laws of a country like Bosnia? What role should Shari'a play in family law, criminal law, or other areas of law?

Ceric: We are at the beginning of the debate about Shari'a. I am very glad that many authors now are writing about Shari'a from all perspectives. By this activity Shari'a has a chance to survive, I believe. The understanding of Shari'a will be modified. It will be put into the context of our experience of modern times, I believe.

But Shari'a is not a privilege of Muslim law. You have a Shari'a of Moses and a Shari'a of Jesus and a Shari'a of Muhammad. The Koran says that if God wanted you to be one nation, he could make it. But he made many Shari'a for you and many ways to approach the truth. But you have to [take part] in good deeds. So no one has a monopoly on truth. And no one has a monopoly on the Shari'a.

What we as Muslims are observing is that Christians and Jews, or a majority of them, somehow have made many compromises at the expense of the Shari'a of Moses, Jesus, the Prophet Muhammad and so on. And Muslims are insisting more on this principle of the Shari'a than other religious groups, including the Christians and Jews who have adapted very much their religious attitudes to liberal thought. They are very much secularized and very much enlightened, even though those who brought enlightenment to us were very religious people.

I think religion is the source of enlightenment -- probably a new enlightenment, the enlightenment of the enlightenment. Because I think people misunderstood the enlightenment [as] anti-religious. And this is why we came now to a moral crisis.

Shari'a is more than a particular understanding of a group of people. There are certain things that are not changeable and not negotiable in Shari'a -- like the 10 Commandments. These are the "usul" [fundamentals], which cannot be changed. Nothing to negotiate about. When we come to the "fiqh” [jurisprudence], or understanding of Shari'a, we have so many [different] understandings. So the "fiqh” is not Shari'a.

RFE/RL: Precisely, that is the problem. Many people right now, heavily influenced by the Saudi religious establishment -- the Wahhabis or Salafis or whatever you want to call them -- basically confuse "fiqh" with Shari'a. But that view of what Shari'a is has been spreading around the world faster than intelligent theologians like yourself can resist.

So most people outside of the Muslim tradition, when they hear the word Shari'a, they think of hands being chopped off. They think of these things because they look at Saudi Arabia, or they look at Afghanistan under the Taliban, or other places where, again, unfortunately, Wahhabi-backed theologians are teaching their version of Islam.

We do not hear theologians like you coming out very clearly saying, "This is not what Shari'a is. This is not how I see it being applied -- even in predominantly Muslim countries. I certainly don't see how it would work in a country like Bosnia, which is a religiously mixed society."

But why don't we hear that clarity? And let me ask specifically, do you see Shari'a in any of that narrow sense of the word creeping into Bosnian Muslim society through the Wahhabi influence?

Ceric: First of all, Shari'a in Bosnia-Herzegovina has a consultative role. We are here for consulting, if somebody asks us, and basically for more on a moral and ethical ground than on legal or court grounds. Bosnia-Herzegovina had Shari'a laws until 1946, when all the Shari'a courts were closed. And now we have state courts -- secular, if you like.

Of course, you may have some form of the moral background for the law in Bosnia-Herzegovina that is based on Shari'a as a part of custom. But Shari'a law is not the state law. Whether we are going to have some individuals who will be influenced by the ideas that are coming from the interpretation of the Shari'a from that part of the world -- yes, it is possible. We have many students who are studying all over Muslims countries, including Saudi Arabia and even Iran and Egypt.

But the mainstream of the Bosnian understanding and of the Ulama [legal scholars] that are raised and educated here -- I am not afraid that we will lose our continuity in our understanding of "fiqh" or Shari'a or the way we are approaching the whole issue.

RFE/RL: The global world which Muslims may or may not join does operate, at the moment at least, according to a conception of universal human rights. Do you see Islamic principles -- and particularly those that derive from Shari'a – as compatible with universal conceptions of human rights?

Let's be even more specific -- freedom of religion. Is a Muslim free to leave the faith, to choose another religion? In other words, to commit apostasy? As you know, many leading theologians have issued different fatwas on this question, but where do you stand?

Ceric: There are certain things that came with Islam that are the most radical reforms in religious thought. One of them is freedom of religion. And Islam is a problem for Muslims who are not recognizing this. This is one of the most revolutionary or most radical reforms of religious thought in the history of mankind: "There is no compulsion in religion."

The context of this verse was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, in Medina. When he came to Medina, all the heads of the tribes wanted to come as early as possible to the Prophet -- to be close to him. So one of the tribal heads was with his son, who was a Christian of the Syrian type of Christianity. The father forced his son to accept Islam -- [even though] he didn't want [to convert to Islam.] So [the tribal leader] came to the Prophet and said, "You know, last night I have beaten my son because he did not want to become a Muslim. So he became [a Muslim] after I beat him." And on that occasion, this particular verse came to the Prophet -- "There is no compulsion in religion."

You know, Islamic civilization is too great to be paranoid about individuals who will leave their camp.... So I don't think that this is an issue for that.... But I think what we have here is not about religion. It is about political issues between the Muslim world and the West. Muslims live in fear of colonization by the West because the West feels very powerful and the sources of energy that you have are basically in the Muslim lands.

RFE/RL: How would you assess U.S. President Barack Obama's Cairo speech?

Ceric: I think that this is the most important speech so far in Muslim-American relations and in the West-Islamic relationship. In Ankara, [Turkey], I think he was testing how far he could go. In Cairo, I think he opened his soul -- his heart -- and I am very glad that I lived this moment to see the president of the United States make such a speech there.

Muslims, I think, are not yet aware of the importance of this speech. And I think that as time goes on, his speech is going to be a cornerstone for the 21st century. It will be quoted. It will be studied. It will be analyzed.

And one of the most important things that Muslims did not hear from anyone [else] in these last two centuries is there. He said that American values and Islamic values are the same -- which are the respect for human rights and respect for human dignity. To hear that from a president of the United States whose predecessor was saying that the Muslim world was almost an axis of evil... not all of them, but, you know.

The language that we have heard from [George W.] Bush and Barack Obama is like the difference between heaven and Earth. So this is why I said in my letter to Barack Obama that when he said [in Cairo] that one speech cannot eradicate the years of mistrust between us, I said to him, as it is in the Bible, "In the beginning there was just the word." So you always start with the word.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.