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Mustafa Ceric


George Baumgarten

Bosnian Muslim Leader Speaks Out on Muslim-Jewish Relations :

George Baumgarten, United Nations Correspondent, May 4, 2012

Mustafa Ceric is the Grand Mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and hence the titular leader of Bosnia’s Muslim community. Educated in Sarajevo and in Egypt, he has long experience living and dealing with his Jewish neighbors. And he shared with them the experience of the Balkan War of the 1990’s, when all of Sarajevo’scommunities cooperated, during what became the longest, bitterest siege of the 20th century.
Ceric was born and raised in Visoko, on the northwestern fringes of Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital. He was educated there until he went away to Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Arriving there in 1974, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, he was exposed for the first time to both Islamic fundamentalism and Palestinian nationalism. Then he came to The U.S., to get a PhD from the University of Chicago, and was exposed for the first time to Jewish fellow students. These combined formative experiences had a great influence on him, and served to influence his outlook and worldview. He was particularly mentored by Robert Dankoff (“one of the best professors I met in my life”), a Jewish Professor there from whom he learned the Turkish language . Ceric also became the Imam of a local mosque in Chicago. After service among the Muslim community in Zagreb (Yugoslavia; now the capital of Croatia), Ceric went to teach Islamic Theology at the Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He returned to Sarajevo in 1993, just after Yugoslavia broke up, and as it began its tragic descent into bitter, fratricidal civil war.
     Yugoslavia (“South Slav state”) was a polyglot republic (originally, a Kingdom), put together by Western European diplomats at the Versailles Conference of 1919. Their committee on that territory created this country—which had never existed before—with little if any regard for its ethnic groups, much less their compatibility. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, Sarajevo—a city which sits in a valley surrounded by mountains—was besieged by radical, anti-Muslim Bosnian Serbs, with the help of the nascent independent Serbian republic to the East. The result was nearly four years of bloodshed, terminated only by the U.S.-brokered Dayton Accords.
     I asked Ceric (in an exclusive interview, by telephone to Hong Kong) what his experiences with Jewish neighbors had been, and how they had gotten along during the War and protracted siege. He told, first, of being at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, in the immediate aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War:
     “That was the issue in Egypt very strongly, about Sadat shifting from Russia… to the United States,  and to the West. I witnessed all these events”.    
He also saw and witnessed the “debate in the Egyptian community” after Anwar el-Sadat’s first, momentous visit to speak at the Knesset in Jerusalem in November, 1977. “From this point of view now”, he says, I think Sadat was one of the most important politicians of the 20th Century”. He noted also that the Mosque where he was serving as Imam in Northbrook, IL was one of the very few to hold a memorial service for Sadat, after he was assassinated in 1981.
     After marrying in the early 1980’s, he was advised by his father-in law—who had been imprisoned by Tito—to go to the United States. Thus, he ended up at the University of Chicago, from 1981 to 1986. It was after meeting Professor Dankoff there that he was able to read for the first time some of the “old Bosnian scholars”, from the Ottoman period. After receiving his Ph.D, he returned to Yugoslavia, and accepted a position as Imam in Zagreb (now Croatia). While in Zagreb, he maintained a close relationship with the U.S. Embassy, who sent birthday cards every year to his three Chicago-born children. But he quickly noticed that things in Yugoslavia were starting to come unglued.
     In 1992, Ceric left for Malaysia, to teach Islamic theology at the Islamic University of Kuala Lumpur. That very same year, Yugoslavia—and especially Bosnia & Herzegovina—exploded into bitter, fratricidal armed conflict. And Sarjaevo—which sits in a valley dominated by its surrounding hills—was besieged by anti-Muslim Bosnian Serbs and their supporters. Ceric was called back to Bosnia in the Spring of 1993, to take over as Grand Mufti, the spiritual leader of all Bosnia’s Muslims. He resided again in Chicago, but maintained his leadership of Bosnia’s Muslim majority community.
     It was when he became Grand Mufti that Ceric first made contact with Sarajevo’s Jewish Community, which is primarily Sephardic, and which dates from the early 16th century, shortly after their expulsion from Spain. It was at this time, also, that he first started to read accounts of the Holocaust, of which he vaguely knew, but of which he had never before read any actual histories. This informed his experience of what happened in Bosnia: “We had expected anything, but not concentration camps, not genocide”. A friend also gave him Ben-Zion Netanyahu’s book The Inquisition, which he read “like Christians reading the bible” (Professor Netanyahu, in fact, died at 102, barely 72 hours after my conversation with Ceric.). “That book has opened eyes to me”, he said. Reading further of the Holocaust itself, Ceric says “…I identify with these people, I belong to these people, in the pains and suffering”. He also visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, with Rabbi Arthur Schneier of New York’s Park East Synagogue. He says “...I could not hold my tears to see what was happening, and what was [the] Holocaust”. “I didn’t care about [the] Holocaust, it didn’t concern me…until it happens to me”. This coming July, Rabbi Schneier will be traveling to Srebrenica, Bosnia at the invitation of the Grand Mufti, to take part in the commemoration of the 1995 massacre there.
     Ceric tells how the community leaders in Sarajevo formed an Inter-Religious Council. Since the other leaders could not agree, a Jew was made its first President. Eventually, the communities learned to work together, and the Jewish Community “Benevolencija” (Community Council) would ultimately control all medical supplies coming into the city.
     The American whom he most respects, Ceric says, is Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright: “She made it easier for Clinton to make a decision to stop [the] War in Bosnia-Herzegovina. So I think…she is my hero, and I want this acknowledgement to be heard, all over the world”.
     Ceric tells how he visited Auschwitz, which of course changed him, as it does everyone who visits there. It was only afterward that he became aware of the 500-year saga of t
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