Six Questions for Mustafa Cerić
by Stephen Schwartz
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Mustafa Cerić is the chief religious authority for the Bosnian Muslims, with jurisdiction for all of his co-ethnics of Islamic faith, in communities around the world. His historical title is reis ul-ulema, or "chief scholar," but in recent times he has taken to calling himself "grand mufti," indicating status as an arbiter of Islamic jurisprudence. Islamic law, however, does not function as a common standard in Bosnia-Hercegovina, and the assumption of his new title has an air of self-aggrandizement.
Mustafa Cerić has changed otherwise in recent times. He long advocated for a specifically Bosnian Islam, meaning an indigenous variant of European Islam that would cooperate productively with Christians and Jews. He issued a detailed argument for this praise-worthy stand last year, titled "A Declaration to European Muslims". The document quoted the American political philosopher John Rawls to define the context in which, according to Cerić, Bosnian and other European Muslims wished to live: "the principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association."
Cerić stated, at that time, "Muslims who live in Europe should realize that freedom is not a gift given by anyone. Muslim freedom in Europe must be earned… It is in the West that many Muslims discover Islam in a totally different way from how it exists in their homeland, because here they meet their fellow Muslims from other parts of the Muslim world and thus begin to appreciate the diversity of Islamic experience and culture… Muslims who live in Europe have the right, nay the duty to develop their own European culture of Islam."
The organization I helped found, the Center for Islamic Pluralism (CIP), supported Cerić's initiatives, in events that even drew the involvement of American diplomats in the Balkans. Cerić continues to employ a mellifluous rhetoric in his many visits to the West, including his visit to the U.S. Tomorrow, Tuesday, May 22, when he is scheduled to deliver a talk at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, titled "The Art of Tolerance." Bosnia's top political leaders will also come to the U.S. capital this week.
I must admit an affection for Mustafa Cerić. He gained a doctoral degree at the University of Chicago, producing an excellent dissertation, Roots of Synthetic Theology in Islam, dealing with the work of the Muslim author Abu Mansur Al-Maturidi, who died in the 10th century C.E. I am an adherent of Al-Maturidi's Islamic outlook, and partly thanks to the inspiration of Cerić's work, I paid homage at the small and elegant tomb of Al-Maturidi in the ancient Central Asian city of Samarkand in 2003.
But in the year since Cerić published his comments addressed to European Muslims, a new counter-offensive by the Saudi-financed radical Wahhabi cult, which inspires al-Qaida, has swept through the Balkans. Cerić, who previously pressed for an Islam rooted in local traditions and legitimate in Europe, has suddenly become attentive to the demands of the Arab powers. His changed attitude is expressed in statements about the future of extremist foreign "mujahidin" now living in Bosnia-Hercegovina.
Before the end of the Bosnian war 12 years ago, Saudi and other Arab "mujahidin" had gone to Bosnia to try to turn the local struggle for self-defense into a terrorist campaign, and to Wahhabize the Balkan Muslims. With the war over, several hundred of these interlopers remained in Bosnia-Hercegovina, but kept a low profile. They knew that the majority of Bosnian Muslims did not like the rigid style of religion the foreigners represented, and, more significantly, nobody believed the "mujahidin" had made a serious contribution to the Bosnian army's military objectives. Finally, the Arabs and their allied invaders were accused of atrocities, by the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia at The Hague.
The latter item, and the revival of Wahhabi blandishments in the Balkans, made the continued presence of the "mujahidin" a serious issue. Bosnian state authorities are now examining the probability that most of the itinerant combatants abused the hospitality extended to them, and they now face deportation to their home countries, including Algeria and Syria. But suddenly and aggressively, Mustafa Cerić has leapt to their defense. According to BBC World News, he blames the investigation of the "mujahidin" on discrimination, saying "They are being expelled because they're Arabs, because they're Muslims, and they came here to help us."
By these comments, we can assume Mustafa Cerić has decided that "the art of tolerance" in Bosnia-Hercegovina must first be applied to the benefit of foreign Islamic radicals. But how does Cerić now propose to fulfill his affirmation, early in 2006, that for Bosnians and other Muslims "Jews and Christians are People of the Book and so all Jews, Christians, and Muslims should learn how to share their common spiritual roots and their common future hopes without prejudice"?
Unfortunately, Cerić has also shown a regrettable "tolerance" toward Arab-financed extremism in his relations with a questionable body called the European Council for Fatwas and Research. This organization is headquartered in Dublin, even though Ireland has a very small Muslim population. It claims to guide all Muslims in Europe, but it is headed by a Qatar-based fundamentalist, Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who, among other nefarious things, defends suicide terrorism. Of its 33 members, 12 are based in Arab and African countries, including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, while the rest represent immigrant communities, mainly Arab, in Western Europe. Cerić happens to be its only indigenous European Muslim member. It makes little sense to have Saudi clerics – of whom there are four on the council – participating in a body which is to lead European Muslims. I had seen Cerić as a token moderate on this council, but must now ask if he has not completely surrendered to its absurd, fundamentalist orientation.
Cerić's commitment to "tolerance" and mutual respect as he previously enunciated these principles is in further question, mainly because of articles published in the Preporod (Revival), the official Islamic religious weekly produced under his control in Sarajevo. As I indicated in my FSM column last week, "Judeocentrism", Preporod published an attack on me and CIP employing "Judeocentrism" as a hateful and insulting term. Earlier, the paper published, as a series, the disreputable pamphlet of two American professors, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt against the pro-Israel and Jewish organizations in America. So now we know that the "tolerance" of Mustafa Cerić extends to those who campaign against Jews.
Use of "Judeocentrism" as a slur suggests six essential questions that should be presented to Mustafa Cerić during his visit to Washington this week:
These questions must be answered if Mustafa Cerić is to retain any credibility with those who have supported him in the past, Muslim and non-Muslim, and finally including many Bosnians as well as Americans.