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Bosnian Imam Brings Message of Hope for Religious Peace
WITH PEOPLE AS HE PERHAPS THERE IS HOPE
BOSNIAN / BOSANSKI
Actually, there was a widespread fear in the Croatian capital that the rampaging Serbs might move to take the city at any time. But it was exactly then that I met a man, either remarkable or crazy, who was going not AWAY from the fighting, but exactly INTO it.
I had been looking to interview Imam Mustafa Ceric, the leading cleric and voice of Islam in Bosnia, finally finding him as he was heading back to Sarajevo, the once-magical city now under incessant, day-and-night Serb artillery attack. A husky, good-looking man in neat Western clothes, the imam had a surprising history. He had returned to Bosnia from being head of the mosque in Northbrook, Illinois, and he had gained a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago after arriving in Chicago in 1981 not speaking a word of English.
"My message to the Western world is that we Bosnian Muslims want to live in Europe, and we want to be Europeans," he told me. "But after what is happening in Bosnia-Herzegovina, it seems that Europe does not want us." He then appealed to his "Christian colleagues ... to do something, anything, to stop the destruction of villages and towns in Bosnia-Herzegovina, to stop the concentration camps, the 'ethnic cleansing,' the random massacres of civilians, mostly Muslims."
I wrote at the time, and rightly so, that it was no longer unthinkable that his historically peaceful and tolerant 2 million-member community, formed under the five-century rule of the Balkans by the Ottoman Turks, might actually be wiped out as a people that winter.
The idea of an imam as president of the beautiful little country is such as to make people gasp. It has never been seriously considered before. Moreover, since more-or-less the end of the war in 1995, Dr. Ceric has become one of the Muslim world's most eloquent spokesmen for a modern, even tolerant "European Islam," and he may be one of the great hopes for ending Islamic extremism.
His well-recognized, stirring wisdom, if espoused worldwide as an antidote to al-Qaida and the Islamic State, could not only solidify peace in Bosnia and ease it into the European Union (his strong desire), but it might even begin to convince a suspicious world that Islam is, indeed, a peace-loving religion that can live happily with other religions. He is known in Bosnia for half-jokingly saying, "My sultan isn't in the East; my sultan is in Brussels."
But even his equally well-recognized and charming humor can only temporarily alleviate the horrible memories, including the more than 8,000 men massacred by Serbs in the village of Srebrenica in 1995, while U.N. peacekeepers stood haplessly by.
"The most difficult thing for me as mufti was to talk to the mothers of genocide," in effect, those mothers who had lost sons in Srebrenica, he told me. "If I asked them to overcome or forgive, they would say, 'No, we have the right to revenge.' So, I would tell them, 'Yes, you have that right, but think, if you forgive, God will forgive you.' There was not one revenge case in Bosnia.
"The physical pain was bearable," he went on, momentarily back in those years, "but the soul pain was unbearable."
Today, one finds a man filled with the energy of youth. His hope, so deeply tried, had endured through it all. By now, he has won every accolade imaginable (I'll mention only the UNESCO prize for peace) and led just about every international organization for inter-religious understanding and reconciliation through going back to the basis of one's faith??.
His speeches here -- at Georgetown University and the Woodrow Wilson Center -- were deeply consequential for our times, and unusually eloquent.
"Muslims today must come to the point of self-respect," he said, "so that the others may respect them as well, and they must know that today's world operates on the basis of mutual trust that requires much more time to build than to destroy."
In this world of "violence of genocidal proportions ... the greatest of all is the responsibility of religious and political leaders."
From Washington, Dr. Ceric went to the Vatican, where he met personally with the pope and presented him with a reminder of Srebrenica. With men like these, perhaps there is hope.