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A Conversation with Dr. Mustafa Ceric

Dr Ceric - the spiritual leader of Bosnia

Dr. Mustafa Ceric, 48, is the Reis-ul-Ulema - President of the Council of Ulema - in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

He graduated from the Medressa in Sarajevo and received a scholarship to Al-Azhar University in Cairo. After his schooling there, he returned to his native Bosnia, where he became an Imam. In 1981, he accepted the position of Imam at the Islamic Cultural Center and settled in the United States for several years. He learned English and earned a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in Islamic Theology. When he finished his studies, he returned to his homeland, left the ICC and became a practicing Imam in a learning center in Zabreb in 1987.

During the war with the Serbs and Croats, he represented the defiance, dignity and God-consciousness of the Bosnian ulema who lead their people in the face of international apathy and acquiescence.

This exclusive interview was conducted by the writer Nadeem Azam during a visit to London by Dr. Ceric.

Is there any experience or training in your life which you think specifically prepared you for this job?

Being born a Bosnian has been the greatest asset. We Bosnians have had to grow old overnight. We have had to learn in one day what some Muslim communities might never learn in centuries. I never grew up wanting to hold such a post - but perhaps I should have: Muslims must be fired by the desire to serve their Umma [community] in the best possible way and at the highest level possible.

Now that I have been blessed with such a position, one of my constant worries is whether I am good enough to be a role model for somebody who wishes and has the ability to serve the community more. So it is important for Muslim leaders - particularly Imams - to perform their tasks diligently, wisely and in a dignified manner because this is what Islam expects from them.

One of the subjects you lecture on is on man's obligations to God. What are our duties to our Creator?

Freud said that at the core of us, if we dig deep into our subconscious lies sex - everything is determined by sex. Muslims don't agree with that: as far as we're concerned, at our core lies our covenant with God. Human beings are innately born with it, but not all of us allow it to guide our lives. We have to discover it and that is our duty. Unlike Christians, we believe that everybody is born a Muslim and created free of sin. It is our duty to keep ourselves away from sin and give back our bodies to God in as clean a state as we received them.

But - and Muslims need to know this as much as any other people - human beings also have duties and obligations to one another. We have to respect one another's right. I would agree with Jean-Jacques Rousseau's statement that the social contract or aqd incorporates four basic rights: to the protection of life, religion, property and dignity. A just and equitable Muslim would respect other individuals' rights in respect to each of these.

The spiritual leader of the Bosnian-Herzegovinan Islamic community, Reis Ul Ulema Dr.Mustafa Ceric. What are your feelings about the future of Islam in Europe?

Not very good. The rise of fascism combined with an officially-sanctioned tendency to be unreasonable when it comes to discussion about Islam are bad omens. I am not a soothsayer but I can see the reality of a day when the treatment of a Muslim in Europe will be worse than that of serial killer: we are, I am afraid, on the verge of seeing a situation develops whereby it would be a crime to be a Muslim in Europe. The events of 11 September, 2001, have made things worse. May Allah protect us.

But having such feelings does not depress me. It actually should motivate us and make us even more resolute in our efforts. More importantly it should make us think of planning and organising. If the day comes - like it did in Bosnia - you might be unable to control events around you but you should at least be ready to do what is needed to be done by a Muslim at such an hour.

How do you envisage the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina?

We Bosnians believe in the power of God and in miracles. So what God ordains for us we are ready to accept. We believe the Almighty will give us what we rightly deserve - even though sometimes this would not be to our liking. We see in our present situation a Divine test from which the entire Ummah can learn and benefit, no, from which the entire Ummah has to learn and benefit. We've survived the war, but we could still perish, we could be attacked again once the UN forces leave.

The message of the four year-long war we fought is a simple one: that the Muslim community must always be vigilant and must always take their destiny in their own hands. They must never rely on anyone or anybody to solve their problems or come to their rescue; they must always rely on God and the faith, goodness and compassion within their communities. This is very important. Our strength will always be reflective of the strength of our communities.

The future of Bosnia is in the hands of God but we are doing everything possible as human beings to ensure that it is one that is the best for the Muslims. We are working on creating a strong community based on our faith. I would like to emphasise that one of the best things a Muslim can do for Bosnia is to learn from the events that took place there: learn that at the end of the day it is only your own that will be there for you. So however bad your fellow is he/she is part of you and you need to work together, to pray together and so on - and you must do it however painful or traumatic the experience. We must never be bankrupt of compassion for a fellow Muslim.

Strangely enough, one of the issues that has most widely been discussed among Muslims is the role of the ulema in Bosnia. What is your opinion on this subject?

Before answering any question it is crucial to first understand or define what do we mean or understand when we say 'the ulema'. Unfortunately there is confusion throughout the Muslim world about is an alim [scholar] and what their duties and obligations are. To a large extent the confusion is the result of the crisis of identity the Ummah faces. It might not be of a metaphysical nature but the crisis is definitely historical. By historical I mean that though we Muslims make claims of having a universal religion with one God, one book, one Prophet and one nation,unfortunately, on a functional basis, we have almost nothing.

At the end of the day it has to be admitted that for most Muslims Islam is merely a powerful emotion that is there in everybody but which nobody really knows how to practically channel. This is one of the most striking paradoxes confronting the Ummah: for while Muslims remain the most united religious community in the world because of the teachings of their faith, they are also the least organised in terms of their potential. So we need to mobilise and organise ourselves. Once we have done that we then need to re-examine the role of the ulema and put it into effective practise.

Will Bosnia remain a secular state or develop into a theocracy ?

As far as Islam is concerned, all countries belong to one of the following categories: Dar al-Islam, Dar al-Harb or Dar as-Sulh . Each and every Muslim should know the difference between the three groupings and decide which one they are resident in.

In the first category, Islam must be implemented to the furthest extent. Islam can never be implemented perfectly, but in dar al-Islam the government ought to try their best and continue trying; Islam is an ideal that people in nations in this category must strive for.

In a dar al-Harb state, non-Muslims form the majority of the population and Islam is not recognised by the legislature. Hence it cannot be implemented to any degree. This category applies to most Western states.

In the third, intermediary category, Sulh, the situation is such that Islam or the shariah cannot be implemented fully, but the government should endeavour to put it into practice as much as possible.

Bosnia is not in the first category, but the third. Therefore we are obliged to try our best to put Islamic legislation into practice, but it is unrealistic to expect us to implement shariah completely. That's what I want, of course, but it will not happen just like that.

Why is Bosnia hardly ever in the European media these days? And what did you think about their portrayal of the Bosnian war?

It is a good sign that Bosnia is not in the news any longer, because nowadays the only news you hear about Muslims is bad news. As we've seen with the stories on the trial of the two Saudi nurses, Muslims are invariably portrayed in a negative light; the reporting is heavily biased.

As for the coverage of the Bosnian war, we are glad that it dominated the world media like it did. It helped our cause. First nobody new Bosnia, now a billion Muslims know the name. We don't deserve this level of recognition.

I have also realized one thing, that Muslims are not good writers or journalists. Muslims like to participate in history but not write it. By covering the war, the non-Muslim media - the BBC, CNN and Sky News - have created a permanent record for history. Everything that happened is on tape. Nobody can deny it.

I remember one CNN report on Bihac in which they found bodies, tons of them, 100 to 200 metres deep, in a cave on the outskirts of the city. They were horrifying pictures. Through the medium of television the international community was able to see what had happened to this mass of Bosnians within minutes.

British Muslims live in a multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-faith society. As the spiritual leader of what the government still defines as a multi-faith state what advice can you give particularly on the issue of inter-faith dialogue?

Dr. Ceric meeting the President of the Slovenian Republic, Mr Milan Kucan in 1999. Dr. Ceric argued for the construction of a mosque where Muslms in Slovenia could practice their religious beliefs. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the principles of interfaith dialogue but they are a farce when conducted within a setting in which real power is in the hands of secularists who don't even believe in God. Under such circumstances interfaith dialogue becomes a tool through which the religious rights of one group - in most cases the Muslims - are slowly eroded. Muslims who want to meet with people of other faiths have every right to do so but it is wrong to accept much from such forums.

My advice is that everybody should stick to their faith and practise it and not attempt to deny others the right to do the same. People should also be honest and not allow themselves to be intoxicated by the occasion and give in to pressure to water down either their beliefs or what constitutes their basic interests.

If anybody decides to enter into any kind of dialogue my only advice then would be to do so as an equal and to be neither apologetic nor reactionary: Islam is the religion of God and it is the best way forward known to man. In it lies the salvation of humanity, dignity and all that is required for a creature to be classified as a human.

What is your expectation of British Muslims?

That they should work towards creating an exemplary community, united and organised in their efforts. The best thing a British Muslim can do for Bosnia is build a strong community in this country. This is because we live in a time in which all our actions and deeds have global implications. If you are strong, united and organised here we will naturally be strong, united and organised in Bosnia, Kashmir, Palestine, and the rest of the world. We should be like one body as the Prophet, upon whom be peace, told us. But it is useless if only parts of that body are functioning and others are not: we all need to get our acts together.

What do the Bosnian people need to survive?

The small jihad is finished quite a number of years ago now and we - some of us - survived the war. The Bosnian state is intact. But now we have to fight a bigger, second Jihad, that is an intellectual and educational one. We need to do our utmost to educate our children and help them gain knowledge about Islam.

We mustn't be obsessed with the past; we need to look to the future. You, the Muslim Ummah around the world, helped us with the lesser jihad, now we need your help with this intellectual one. We need money to build schools, libraries and madrasas and to employ preachers and Imams.

© 2005 Nadeem Azam and Azam.com, Inc., New York and London. All rights reserved. Legal action will be taken against any violation of copyright.

The above interview was conducted by the 1Lit.com literature portal.
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