Interview with the Grand Mufti emeritus of Bosnia, Mustafa Céric

Following the important conference of 21 October 2021 on “European Cultural Districts” we had the opportunity to ask some questions to the Grand Mufti emeritus on the issues that emerged from the latter and there was no lack of insights on Afghanistan and migration.


On October 21, 2021 an important conference entitled “PorteAperte alle Culture  – Fratellanza e Civiltà” took place at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples.
Under the presidency of Dr. Lucio Minervini numerous scholars, academics and religious exponents have come together to launch an extremely important cultural project. Among the prominent personalities present at the conference was the Grand Mufti emeritus of Bosnia, Mustafa Céric who intervened fully supporting the project of dr. Minervini and promoting his personal project aimed at creating a humanitarian and cultural corridor between Afghanistan, Bosnia and Italy. The Grand Mufti emeritus has always been an active personality in the promotion of peace and democratic values as well as the coexistence of religions. In fact, he was awarded theUNESCO Felix Houphouet-Boigny Peace Prize and the Sternberg Prize of the International Council of Christians and Jews “for his outstanding contribution to understanding between faiths.” In 2007 he received the Theodor-Heuss-Stiftung award for his contribution to the spread and strengthening of democracy. The same year he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of Muslim Social Scientists UK. In 2008 he was awarded by the Eugen Biser Foundation for his effort to promote understanding and peace between Christian and Islamic thought. [1]Following the conference we had the honor and privilege of interviewing him not only on the issues concerning his intervention for the project  “PorteAperte alle Culture – Fratellanza e Civiltà”  but also on delicate issues such as the Afghan one and the management of migration flows in Bosnia.

The interview

During the conference you spoke of culture (intellectuality), physicality and spirituality as pleasures, do you believe that the concepts of “spiritual culture” can be a vehicle of union for different people?

“Yes, of course. I would like to compare what Mr. Lucio is doing regarding these open doors for all cultures. In the way to be compared to spiritual movement of Vatican, of Nostra aetate, of the second council of Vatican. Now, this is a religious aspect of the relationship between Christians and Non-Christians in terms of religion, faith and so on. What Mr. Lucio is doing with this project, is Nostra aetate in a secular context. So, laic. Why do we need now to revive this space for this secular culture? Because secularism is in crisis. Secularism has non-religious political concepts, was dominant in the second half of the 19th century and the whole 20th century until 1990 when the Soviet Union collapsed, as a patron of a force, secularism by state. So, secularism lost the states’ support, and then we had this eruption of religious discourse. Religion became the news of the day. Europe pretended not to have anything to do with religion, but Europe cannot be saved by the influence that is happening elsewhere in terms of religious movements, because secularism is not atheism. You have to distinguish between theological or atheism, and political secularism, so I advocate political secularism, meaning that the secularism is open for all religions to have the access to the states’ service. The religious secularism is not accepted, because it is not religious secularism. Secularism does not eliminate God and faith and religion, but secularism means division of labour and responsibilities, so everyone must know their responsibilities. In fact, religion is too important to be left to the theologians alone, and the politics is too important to be left to the politicians alone. The issue of war and peace is too dangerous to be left to the generals alone. SO we have to share: politicians need to work with religious people, religious people need to work with politicians, generals need to work with both religious people and politicians, for the sake of peace. This is also comparable to Sant’Egidio movement, but Sant’Egidio is within the Vatican religious circle. I am a religious man, but I am joining forces with a secular man, Mr. Lucio, and he will teach me about secularism, and I will teach him about religion. So, we can share together. Did you get the idea? Now we are overwhelmed with physical pleasure: everything is accessible to teenagers. Drugs, violence, pornography, pedophilia, everything is easily accessible on the social media. So you cannot absorb the pleasure, it just kills you. The second thing is intellectual pleasure: it means to have information. Now we have so much information that is garbage in our minds. We have to hire the people who clean the streets to clean our minds too. We are confused, we don’t know how to distinguish the right and wrong anymore, we have no feeling about justice and injustice. Now: have you ever heard of a poor man committing suicide in India? I was in India, you would never hear of a suicide of a poor man in India. But how many news about suicides among rich people? They are rich, they are famous, and then they kill themselves. Why? Because they are rich intellectually, physically, but they are empty spiritually. So, the spiritual pleasure is lacking. What is spiritual pleasure? It is the sense of truth, the sense of justice: you telling me the truth, me telling you the truth, and so we can share what is true. Trust: spiritual is trust, in God, in men, in your wife and so on. This pleasure is what we don’t have. Culture and faith go together. Religion is the background of culture, and culture is only shaping religious forms. There is a difference between natural faith and artificial religion. You are born with a natural trust in God, but then theologians shape your mind about religion. So, religion is artificial, formal. And faith, is what is natural. So, we need both. This is like Aristotle’s idea of matter and form.

Dr. Andrea Minervini: That reminds me the concept of Locke: you can’t trust an atheist, because he doesn’t have trust in anything.

Great Muftì emeritus: You have to believe in God. How can you trust anybody who doesn’t trust God? Berlusconi trusts God a lot (laughs).”

Speaking of “cultural spiritualism”, we know that in history (even recently) pure spiritualism has often been the cause of division and wars, do you believe that a more cultural spiritualism focused on the messages of peace and coexistence, common to all major religions, can lead to a slightly more peaceful world?

“This is an excellent question, because it is a follow up of what I said regarding the idea of natural faith and artificial religion. According to Islam, the first men were Adam and Eve, and Adam was created by God from earth. So, he was matter, not dead nor alive, until God put breath in him, spirit: with that, he became a man with the feeling of touch, sight, smell, and so on. Now, this spirit is a man, because men are not men by their physical structures. Men are what is in their spirit, heart, soul, mind. So, the heart loves ore hates. The mind thinks or doesn’t think. The soul and spirit are what makes the mind think and what makes the heart love or hate. SO, when we come to the origin of spirit there is no division, we are all the same and we all share the same substance of spirit. But, like in Aristotle’s philosophy, matter has no meaning until it gets a shape, so what theologians do is taking the heart and spirit to shape it according to their understanding of what is spirit, and there we come in differences. So, my shape of the spirit, is MY form (like my dress, my collar), but still we are the same with the substance or the spirit. I think this civilization in which we live today, somehow came far away from the substance, we now rely more on the form of the spirit rather than on the spirit itself. The idea of spiritual culture is not going forward to go to the Ocean, but it comes back to reset our spiritual capabilities. It is a step back, a reflection of the substance on the spirit, but not on the shape of the spirit, and the culture is the shape and the form of the spirit. This is why we have so many different cultures. But, this shape, this forming of culture is terminating. It is not everlasting: you go and see one piece of heart, but that’s not for you, what can you do? Did you get the real substance of what is in the shape? No. Because if you look at the shape you lose the substance. So, sometimes the cultural icons that we consider to be heart, they are not showing you the spirit, but they are removing you from the spirit if you don’t have substance in yourself. This is a process, and the culture itself is a process of shaping the culture in the spirit. And everyone, once shaped, finds themselves. So, the spirit cannot divide people, it can only unite people, but the shape will divide people. This is why we have the racial problem: God created us as human beings, black, white, whatever. But the substance is the same. God has imagined you to have the eyes that you have, the tallness that you have, the hands that you have. God projected you the way you are. We don’t know how many people are on earth, ok? But no person is the same as the other. So, we have billions of shapes. In Italy you produce shoes, alright? But you have limited the shape of shoes.”

The humanitarian and cultural corridor that you launched and of which you spoke during the conference is an important and fundamental project, to date is something already in motion for its implementation by the states involved? Can you tell us something more?

“Let’s agree on something: humanity is one, and we should repeat this all the time. Why is humanity one? Because God is one. And God is one because humanity is one. And the cosmos in which we live is created and run by the one, because if you have two gods, they will dispute each other. So, the idea of one is the harmony that we have. This is how philosophy came about: it is about the harmony of nature, so there is perfect harmony and humans are the only ones to disturb it. So, if we take this premise that humanity is one, in this case any pain of one human is hurting the whole humanity. When you are in pain, I am in pain. All this is in the premise that humanity is one in substance. In shape there are different elements, we are just parts of this substance of humanity as one. So, in this particular question how can we be more human, how can we work for humanity? There are three challenges that we are facing in the 21st century. The first one is climate change. We are hurting ourselves by our own hands, and we know that. We don’t even know how much nuclear power is being stored on the planet anymore, and we don’t even know who controls it. But one thing we know, is that there is nothing that the human mind created without using it. One day, somebody will use it, like the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They will for sure find the reason and the occasion. And this is not a problem of nature, this is a problem of humanity, there is something wrong with us. So, this is the most dangerous challenge that we are facing today. The second challenge is of course nuclear power and production. The third challenge is the hunger in the world. We have people who are dying because of overeating. If you go to McDonald’s you will see how people eat everything. Except, I really like your fish here in Napoli (laughs). But if you go look at the garbage, you will see how much food is being thrown out. On the other hand, you have people who are dying because of hunger as we are sitting here. The third element, I think, which is going to be the most difficult one, is the question of the availability of water. Water is going to be of strategic importance for wars. Wars will be fought because of water, bot because of petrol. When I was young, wate was free, but if I wanted to listen to music, I had to pay a ticket. But now, music is free, and I have to pay for water. So automatically we come to the question of air. Right now, we are breathing, and air is free, but you know that in Japan they are selling bottles of clean air? So, we are currently in the position to buy water because you can’t drink it from the nature. In my Bosnia, when I was a boy, I could drink from the forest or something, like in Italy. You can’t do it now. And one day we will have to go to the shop to buy litres of air. I wouldn’t like to live this era.

Dr. Andrea Minervini: This is a lot to reflect on. I think at the moment there is nothing concrete on our hands.

Great Muftì emeritus: We have no choice. We are not free anymore. See what’s happening in America, with all the storms and the fires, this is the result. In Spain, volcanoes are a regular, and they are bad for humans but they are good for nature.”

The letter you sent to the Taliban government deeply admonished them for their actions, did you receive a response?

“No, I did not receive the response, but I know that they received my letter. I didn’t get a response because they are too busy building the government or whatever, but I should probably send you the letter I sent them. It was published in Bosnia Widely and translated in Turkish and Arabic.”

“Sovereignty belongs to God” you said, which is a common point among Muslims, Christians and Jews, and the problem is who interprets God’s will. Surely it is a point on which we should all reflect but perhaps culture will prove to be the key to the common solution. What do you think?

“I said that we have (as Muslims, Christians and Jews) to reflect again, regarding the idea of Sovereignty of God, in comparison to the sovereignty of men. In the Middle Ages, the verbal claim that everything belongs to God, including the earth and the cosmos and men, was changed. The French revolution and the Renaissance and Humanism made people want to free themselves from God, and made people believe that they possessed our destiny and that they knew everything, and that the measure for what we do is reason. Especially in Europe, reason is above everything. Now, Talibans came and they said “We will run Afghanistan according to the idea that god is sovereign, not men, and we will apply this”. Theoretically speaking no theology can deny that. No one can say that God is not sovereign. That is on the metaphysical, transcendental, cultural and traditional level. And those who say they are right, well, even Rockefeller, the richest man, died. Berlusconi wants to live 150 years. I’m trying to say, this is a very difficult question for young people today: how are we going to redefine sovereignty? I personally have no answer. The Talibans are now challenging the whole world by saying that we forgot that God is sovereign. We will not talk about their behaviour, but on the other hand, if I may say, the West is making a big mistake by leaving the Talibans alone. I believe that the west must be present in Afghanistan on the spot, you have to have your embassies there, you have to witness, and you have to see how this is going to develop. The rules of civilization have always been in the East. In Europe, God never sent a prophet or messenger, no sacred book originated from here. All that we have in Europe CAME to us, from Moses, from Jesus, from Muhammad, from Christianity, from Islam. Our predecessor Christians had their own pagan Gods, but I don’t know why God never sent a prophet to Europe. Are we that good that we don’t need it? Are we that disastrous that there is no hope? I don’t know, you can judge that yourselves. We in the West have receive the spirit from the East. The sun is rising in the East, still. So, what was happening in Mesopotamia, in the Middle East, in Asia, affects us directly. Of course, you have technology, but you see, you can steal technology, but the problem is that no one can predict what is in human mind. When you get checked at the airport, of course I get checked about what is in my luggage, but you can never check what is in my mind. They have developed recently that you can pay by your touch, but, still, you don’t know what is in my mind and in my spirit. So, in that respect I think especially Europe (America is with us but it is far away) has the whole processes that we know about. Since the 19th century, all started in Europe. The good and the bad all started here: humanism, renaissance, fascism, imperialism. But also, Europe develops two principles: democracy (demos, rules, this is what the Talibans need to change a little bit) and human rights. As long as Europe keeps these two principles, I am in Bosnia as a Muslim, safe after genocide. At the end of the 20th century my people suffered from genocide. Europe failed to keep the claim “never again” of the Holocaust. It happened in my country. But after all what happened in my country, I believe that Europe, with these two principles, is promising not to go into the Dark Ages. Recently we saw in France of Le Pen, in Austria the right-wing parties, in Denmark they have been defeated, in Germany we have all these movements, but now the social democrats are a good sign in my opinion. In England you cannot predict what will happen with Brexit and everything, but still I think that after this crisis and after the experience with Trump (who was isolating the USA from the rest of the world), we are coming back to normality, even though it is very fragile, therefore the idea of opening doors to all cultures is a great idea, it is strategically really important, and I hope that my friend Lucio Minervini will live long with a good health, but he smokes cigars, and I would like him to quit, because his health is of international interest. But, you know, when I was smoking, the most difficult people to deal with were the ones who asked me to quit (laughs). Please don’t hate me now. Anyway, I am optimistic, and I am positive young people will change the world. And keep in mind what Bernard Shaw said: rational people don’t change the world; irrational people do change the history. Crazy people go on the street, and they shout, getting killed, but normal people sit at home and watch from the window how the world is being changed. So, I like to be crazy sometimes but still I like to be normal (laughs).

Dr. Andrea Minervini: We must stay in the middle. I agree with your point, especially when you said that you can’t predict what’s in our mind. I criticize sometimes the international relations theories. You can take Biden for example and say that he’s a liberalist. But you can’t predict what Biden is going to do tomorrow when he wakes up. What if he decides to destroy Russia? We don’t know that.”

In Europe and in the world the “walls” both as a concept and as a construction are increasing, will culture and spirituality be enough to regularize and reverse this anachronistic trend?

“Have you heard about the French philosopher who was born in Algeria and had Jewish origins, Jacques Derrida? The core of his philosophy was based on the destruction from the construction. He believed that you need something to destruct in order to construct. He has the point, especially today. So, there are things that have been developed during this last century, that are making our life on one hand easier, but on the other hand harder. So, we have to be smart enough to see what are the things that we should change. I wouldn’t say destruct, so remove. In this time of moral, economical, political, ideological crisis (even the pandemic) you have to be creative, in the sense of changing some previous habits that you have, and adapting new ways of life. Then, you have to change and remove those things that cause crisis. Now, who’s the one who can decide what is wrong and what is right, in our reflection on why we are in crisis and how we can overcome it by removing the obstacles? So, the challenges before us, I think we have no problem today due to all this communication. We have now the tools for communication more than ever before. But people have never been more removed from each other than today. This is a paradox. When I go home to my grandchildren, I don’t communicate with them because they are too busy with technology. So right now we have to teach each other how to communicate again. Because, what is life but sharing? You can have a mountain of gold, but if you don’t have anyone to share it with, what’s the meaning of that? The biggest challenge of the search of the meaning of life is this one.”

The “Balkan route” of migrants sees Bosnia as one of the most important access points for access to Europe. The news that comes to us from Lipa and Bihać tells us about continuous Pushbacks of the Bosnian authorities. Can you tell us what the situation is like and what are, if any, the measures you are putting in place to support refugees?

“The question of immigrants who come to Bosnia is the best reflection of the Bosnian land, because Bosnia is the last state in Europe to be overwhelmed by the immigrants, because of the 4-year war. Don’t forget Sarajevo was under siege 1425 days, which is three times longer than the siege of Stalingrad by the Nazis. There is no family that wasn’t affected by loss, in Sarajevo 1600 children have been killed. What is Europe doing, pushing immigrants who are coming from Greece, Syria, Iraq. There are many who are not coming because they are escaping war zones as they claim, they just want to come to Europe. And now, pushing them to Bosnia, and teaching us humanitarian lessons, ok we want to be kind, but this is a paradox to us. Europe is putting Muslims coming from other Muslim countries in zones where other Muslims live, assuming you have to take care of them just because you are both Muslims. For example, Dodik (a Serbian politician) put the line saying that the immigrants should go just where Muslim villages are. But how can the poor help the poor? Croatia (so, EU) is very harsh on the immigrants. They are violating them, pushing them physically to go to Bosnia. But they don’t want to stay in Bosnia. When they come to Bihać, which is a very small area where we had the war between Bosnians and Bosnians, there are almost no people left. The majority went to Austria because they had no job there. These immigrants come with their families, but they have nothing in their hands. You have these agencies who are helping them, but they cannot stay in Bosnia, so they are in a Limbo. With all my due respect for Europe, it is a shame to put the burden of the refugees on Bosnia after the genocide that Europe itself didn’t stop. We are suffering because of internal affairs, and now you give us immigrants just because they are other Muslims and we have to take care of them. I mean, first of all, we don’t even know their identity. Who is going to check? And why are you putting the hot spot in Bosnia, in order to have the excuse to say “you are terrorists”? This is not fair. This is my protest.

Dr. Domenico Nocerino: Do you think they would let them pass more easily if they were Christians?

Great Muftì emeritus: I don’t think it is a matter of faith. First of all, many of the people who are coming are not Muslims, and their religion doesn’t matter. They are human beings and they need to be taken care of. And then they should be asked why they are coming. Who could live his birthplace to go to the unknown without a proper reason? They are risking their own lives, and they are sent to Bosnia, just because they are Muslims. This is chauvinistic and racist. We are not responsible for what is happening in Syria, Afghanistan and so on. The West is very much responsible. It is a fight of the “Big Guys”, and they are putting us in the front lines like puppies. We are just gains in the hands of the big powers. What was especially ugly was what Serbia stated: they don’t want them because they are Muslims. And then we are accused that we invited them to Bosnia to increase demography so that we can fight. This is crazy. They are also accusing us of giving them passports so that they can be fighters against Serbia. Where is Europe in this? I mean where is the great Germany, France? I don’t say Italy, because I saw on television: not because they are or they are not Muslims. They come from everywhere. Morocco, Algeria, Africa. When we saw plays of soccer, like Inter and Roma, everybody wanted to become like the ones who were playing. These players came to Europe and worked hard and became top players and everybody wanted to come to Europe to become like them.”

Interpreter: Aurora Minieri



Foto copertina: Grand Mufti emeritus of Bosnia, Mustafa Céric