His Eminence Dr Mustafa CERIC‏

Abdool Magid VAKIL

Regarding His Eminence Sheikh Professor Dr Mustafa Ceric
Grand Mufti of Bosnia Herzegovina

I commend the International Institute of Islamic Thought for the overdue initiative, and am most hounoured to contribute to this volume of essays and testimonials celebrating the examplary and extraordinary achievements of Dr Mustafa Ceric, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina, on the occasion of His Eminence´s sixtieth birthday. May God Almighty bless him and reward him, and long guide and assure the fuitfulness of his words and actions, Ameen.

Dr Ceric is not only, and justly, regarded as one of the most influential Muslim figures and voices of global Islam, but more specifically and especially identified with the development, maturity and growing consciousness of European Islam, having been described as a “guiding light for Islam in Europe”. But his name is also indissociable from that of Bosnian Muslims and our consciousness of their recent history and plight. In keeping with the spirit of this volume and with the intention of its editors, I will circumscribe my brief words here to the way in which these two aspects have most closely touched and related to myself personally, and to the context of the Portuguese Muslim community which is my own: the rooting of an European Islam and its interfaith dimension, and the encounter with the tragic realities of the Bosnian atrocities when of the arrival of around 140 refugees, the vast majority women and children, and mostly Muslims, in Portugal.

I.

I first met Dr Mustafa Ceric some ten years or so ago, at one of the European Islamic conferences in Paris, but by reputation, as a defender of European Muslims, for his strong committment to inter-religious and also intra-religious dialogue, and for having played an instrumental role in the unification of Bosnian and Serbian Muslims, my acquaintance with his name preceded our personal meeting by some years. In my experience at international meetings since then, I have been proud to find in him a Muslim who is forthright in the representation of the noblest and most beautiful expression of Islam and our ummah.

Dr Ceric’s engagement and commitment to inter-religious dialogue, indeed, to the recognition that there is ‘no alternative’ to interfaith dialogue, ‘especially in Europe that is by definition multinational, multiethnic and multireligious’, is well known. But I would recall here an examplary intervention I heard at the European Meeting in Graaz in July of 2003. In this still so markedly post 9/11 context, it was particularly significant that he emphasised the mutual and reciprocal nature of the demands of mutual understanding, namely, that ‘there are things about Europe that Muslims ought to know and there are things about Islam that the Europeans should respect’. The balance is the recognition of both commonality and difference. ‘Here is a key challenge for all of us’, as Dr Ceric enunciated it: ‘how we can learn to live with the plurality of religions and how we can build our capacity to overcome the fear of the stranger who claims to believe in God, sometimes quite similar to our own belief, but yet not the same, and sometimes quite different, but still similar to our belief’.

As Dr Ceric went on to state, on this occasion he had had explicitly in mind the People of the Book, Jews, Christians and Muslims; but in the universe of intermingling faiths which is the daily reality of life in so many of our global cities, one may go further, and in my own context I have usually added midfulness and open hearted engagement with the followers of other faiths, namely Hindus, Sikhs, Budhists and Bahai, and of those of no faith, be they agnostics or atheists. A case in point, was the project of the Charter for Compassion which in 2009 Karen Amstrong had approached many groups worldwide and namely the European Muslim Network with an appeal to spread it in each one’s country across Europe. As a member of the European Muslim Network I was given the mandate to promote the message of the Charter in Portugal, and in my capacities both as President of the Islamic Community of Lisbon and President of the Abrahamic Forum of Portugal, I was able to organise a large gathering at the Lisbon Central Mosque where all of the above were represented alongside the followers of the three Abrahamic religions (and on the Christian side ecumenically inclusive also of the minority Protestant Churches, Seventh Day Adventists, and Mormons). In addition to the various passages of our Holy Book which refer to the Followers of Abraham which I normally quote, I also mentioned, as I often do, that in the Qur’an it is said that ‘to all (believers and non believers) the bounties of God will not be denied to anyone’. This is the beauty of the universality of Islam. Among the precedents to this event I may also refer the choice of the Lisbon Mosque to host the broad inter-religious meeting in reception of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s visit to Lisbon in September of 2007, of which the Dalai Lama on this occasion said: “Today, a gathering of spiritual friends from several of the world’s major religious traditions took place, and I greatly rejoice that all those present met together with such connections. In particular, I was extremely happy and pleased that this meeting could happen in an Islamic place of worship. To all of you spiritual friends, with my wishes and prayers for your good health and successful activities, the Buddhist monk, the Dalai Lama. 07/9/16.”

‘Europe’, Dr Ceric has affirmed, ‘is not the continent of one faith, but of many faiths’, and ‘the notion that Europe is exclusively Christian is incorrect both factually and historically’. We often hear speak of the Judeo-Christian Heritage of Europe, but it is rather more correct to speak of its Judeo-Christian-Islamic Heritage. It was in the Islamic Al-Andalus that during the Dark Ages of Europe the foundation was paved for the splendours of the Renaissance which followed. And while under Christian rule the Inquisition cast its shadow of persecution over the whole of the Iberian Peninsula, and Jews and Muslims were forcibly converted or expelled from Spain and Portugal, His Eminence reminds us of the contrast offered by the fact that ‘the great Khalife Abd al-Rahman III of Europe/Andalusia appointed Hasdai bin Shaprut, the Prince of the Andalucian Jews, as his foreign secretary!” Can we forge a future which learns from this past? ‘My dream’, His Eminence went on to say, is ‘that the rulers of today’s Europe remember such an example of European history so that one day, I hope very soon, a native European Muslim, for instance a Bosnian Muslim, may become the foreign minister of the European Union’. But Dr Ceric recalls also other lessons from the past. In contrast with what happened in Spain and Portugal, at the other end of Europe, ‘the Catholic Monarch Francis Joseph I has not only shown his tolerance towards Islam in Bosnia and Hercegovina, but also he did not spare his time and energy to help the Bosnian Muslims to make further progress in their endeavour to adapt to the European life with their strong Islamic identity.’ And concluded with a challenge before us, and the ‘hope that the European Catholics are as proud of their historical Monarch Francis Joseph I who had helped the Muslims of Bosnia survived the very complex Balkan history as the European Muslims are proud of their Sultan Mehmet Fatih the Magnificent who had saved the Franciscans of Bosnia by his famous Ahdname’. With what pain we contrast such visions with the only too recent memory of the tragic events of Balkan history, the genocidal, ethnic cleansing, rape, sexual abuse, and persecution of the Bosnian people, the harassment of Imams and students of Madressas, forced conversion, and opression tantamount to the attempt to eradicate Muslim life and culture in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The duty falls on all of us to promote understanding and correct distortions. His Eminence’s call to responsibility is clear in this regard: ‘We expect from the European media, the European governments as well as the European public to free the European Muslims from the collective guilt for each and every Muslim individual who might have done wrong somewhere.[…] It is very disturbing for us to repeatedly read in the Euopean media and to hear from some European politicians and even academicians, the inappropriate attributes, such as intolerant, primitive, uncivilized, terrorist, etc of Islam, the Qur’an, and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). We believe that it is neither fair to blame Moses [peace be upon him] and the Torah for Jewish individual wrong doings, nor it is right to blame Jesus [peace be upon him] and the Bible for the mischievous of some Christian individuals’. But this too, is a mutual obligation and reminder. As His Eminence also said, ‘I will not forget that some media in the Muslim East tend to present Europe and the West in general as the world of Godless people, the world of immorality, drugs, etc. No, that is wrong because neither the Muslim World in the East is terrorist nor the Christian world in the West is infidel. We are all human beings capable of doing good and evil at the same time, I hope that this Conference will make us aware that it is better that we do well to each other’.

Trust and belonging are the building blocks of our common future. As the President of the European Commission, Dr José Manuel Durão Barroso, has said ‘today Islam is a part of Europe and one should not see Islam as a phenomenon external to Europe. The presence of Islam and of Muslims in Europe is already significant. Islam is therefore an universal religious phenomenon which has also a Western, European face. And that face, is increasingly visible.’ ‘The Muslim presence in the West, and in particular in Europe is today a reality. Its status as the second religion in Europe and of Europe is an undeniable reality. Already two generations of Muslims were born here and see it as their native land and that of their children. Islam is their religion but they embrace the culture and citizenship of the countries in which they are integrated. However integration does not mean dissolution; it means transformation: transformation by the values of the societies into which they are inserted, and of those same values thorough the contribution which they brought as carriers of their own ethical principles and spirituality, simultaneously akin and different’.

Though from different lines, we can perhaps find the same foundation of trust and belonging echoed in the words of His Eminence where he states that all will “have a clear meaning in my mind if I am allowed to trust my homeland Europe and if I can tell my son that he should not worry for his future because Europe is equally trustworthy place for Jews, Christians, Muslims and others to live in’.

II.

The realities and plight of the Bosnian Muslims in 1992 reached us in Portugal in a very personal and direct way with the arrival in Portugal of the Bosnian refugees, mainly women and children, and of these mainly girls, fleeing the ethnic and religious war, persecution and genocide in their homeland. The refugees were accommodated in different towns but mainly concentrated in the greater Lisbon area. Working together with some NGO’s and with many volunteers, the Islamic Community in Portugal made every effort to welcome and support these refugees. From 1992 and until 1997, 80 of the 142 refugees were repatriated back to Bosnia, and others were sent to different countries to be reunited with their families. Among those who were heavily involved in this humanitarian work, I would like to mention our brother Haneef Mahomed who was the coordinator of the assistance to the Bosnian Refugees within the Islamic community and also another member of the Community Mr Iqbal Tarmahomed. One should also mention some sisters like Tahera Tarmahomed and Rosária (Jamila) Vakil, and the families who put at the disposal of this humanitarian work their vacant apartments in a total of 15 to give shelter to these refugees. Those apartments were duly equipped with brand new stoves, refrigerators, water heating system and washing machines, kitchen appliances and so on, all provided by the Muslim community. In this respect it should be referred that there was also generous support and funding provided by the World Muslim League (Al Rabita Al Jamia Al Islamia) from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as its Deputy Secretary General, Dr Amin Al Attas, who happened to be visiting Lisbon at the time, promptly volunteered to cover significant expenses related to lodging, providing food, namely fresh Halal meat, besides medical and health care, school costs, transportation, and other logistical support.

Among the hospitality and the efforts made by young Muslims and other members of the community to make our Bosnian brothers and sisters feel at home after the traumatic experience they all went through in their homeland, it is only right to mention also some warmer and more joyous social gatherings, and in particular one Sunday afternoon at the Lisbon Central Mosque when 750 people were invited to participate in a catered event when some small presents were given to all our Bosnian guests. From such experiences of warmth grew affection after war and inhumanity. To this are testimony the letters exchanged by young Bosnians refugees with and about the friends they made in the countries where they were received, such as in Portugal, where they were made to feel at home. (One such collection of letters, from Tatjana Ibraimovic to her several friends, was published in Italy under the title “Scrivere per non dementicare Una ragazza in fuga dalla Bosnia” (Writing not to forget A girl in flight from Bosnia).

Lastly, from among the many who contributed to the Mission of assistance to the refugees, of those outside the Muslim Community I would like to mention Dr Rui Marques, a young MD who, having dedicated significant time and effort to the Bosnian refugees, decided to dedicate himself to further work of humanitarian assistance to immigrants in Portugal. Dr Marques has devoted his life to selfless work of assistance, having, for example, spent a year with his family in East Timor during the transition period until its independence, and was for a time appointed as Portugal’s High Commissioner for Immigration and Ethnic Minorities. Dr Marques wrote a book called Esperança em movimento (Hope in movement) where among other things there are some referenced to the experience of the Bosnians refugees in Portugal from among which I would like to cite one.

In this book he mentions that around the beginning of 2007 when he was the High Commissioner for Immigration one day he was advised by his secretary that a young lady by the name of Sabina Karamehmedovic was waiting to meet with him. When she saw him she addressed herself to him in fluent Portuguese and said: ‘I am the daughter of Vesna. Do you remember?’ Though he became rather emotional he hid his emotion and received her with a smile. She was Sabina, one of the children, 12 years old at the time, who had come to Portugal back in 1992 as a refugee, and had joined the program organised by the Students Forum for the Bosnian Refugees under the title “To Grow in Hope”. She was now back to see him after 15 years! She had come to Portugal with her mother when she was 12. Now she was already an Architect and a Portuguese citizen. Sabina, her sister Dragana and their mother Vesna represented an example of successful integration of refugees. They were initially settled in the Northern part of Portugal where they cannot forget the way they were received by the local people of Soure where they lived and Dragana referred with thanks to the effort and kindness of the local community to help them settle in, and also the kind assistance from her teachers in going out of their way to give her the necessary extra coaching to help her in learning the Portuguese language. Eventually, after overcoming the many obstacles which he faced, their father Fuad had managed to join them. The sad and tragic memories of the war have not gone away. As he said in a TV program where the family were interviewed: ‘A person tries to forget, I never thought that a human being was able to act in such a way towards another human being… but it is the war’. But a return to Bosnia is for him completely out of the question, for as he said, ‘That is no longer the country where I lived. My family is out of the country. I have friends spread over the world. I have been there but it no longer says anything to me. They were able to destroy us’. The family now lives in Coimbra, in the centre of Portugal, and are well settled there. For this family, the Karamehmedovic, hope was named Portugal. This experience in itself, Rui Marques, says, made all the effort of the Mission Grow in Hope worthwhile.

Of my own personal experiences of the work of the task force set up to assist the refugees — which, included, beside some elements of the Islamic community also elements from the Jewish community, institutions of the Catholic Church, the Red Cross and others — there is one in particular which marked me deeply and unforgettably. The first of the refugees I met and greeted at their arrival in a Youth Centre in the outskirts of Lisbon was a lady, for as I mentioned, most of them were women and young girls. In the course of attempting a conversation and in an effort to connect, I asked her, ‘You are a Muslima?’. Her reaction of visible fear was of course one that was more than natural from someone who had just survived a context where such a question could mean the difference between life, or death, rape, mutilation or torture. This was a barbarous reality of war so far from the comforts and security of our ordinary lives that I had not given my question a second thought. It is a reality and a memory only too present to Bosnians, but which the outside world easily forgets and needs to be reminded of, for the inhumanities that we are capable of against each other must not be forgotten lest we should repeat them.

But I would like to close on a more hopeful note, with the recollection of a more recent encounter with Muslim brothers and sisters in Bosnia when I visited Sarayevo some time ago for one of the meetings of the European Muslim Network, and besides Prof Ahmet Ali Basic and sister Sehija Dedovic — incidentally just recently appointed as the General Secretary of the EMN —, met a group of other sisters who guided us through the excellent social and welfare work being developed in Bosnia for present and future generations.

May God help us all in deepening our feelings of humanity and really wish for others what we wish for ourselves.

I close with the universal prayer which I offer in my engagements in inter-religious dialogue:

God, You are the source of life and peace; Praised be Your Name for ever; We know it is You who turn our minds into thoughts of Peace; Hear our prayer in times of crisis; Your Power changes hearts; Muslims, Christians and Jews remember, and profoundly affirm, that they are followers of one God; Children of Abraham, brothers and sisters, Enemies begin to speak to one another; Those who were estranged join hands in friendship; Nations seek the way of Peace together.

Our Lord, Strengthen our resolve to give witness to these truths by the way we live. Strengthen our will to evidence these truths through acts.

Lord of the Worlds, You are the Creator of the Universe and of all Humanity, of the children of Abraham and of all men and women, whatever their Faith and also of those who have no Faith or religious belief.

Give us:

Understanding that puts an end to strife;
Mercy and Compassion that quenches hatred; and
Forgiveness that overcomes vengeance
Empower all people to live in Your Law of Love.
Ameen.

21st December, 2011
Abdool Magid Abdool Karim Vakil
President of the Comunidade Islâmica de Lisboa
President of the Forum Abraâmico de Portugal
Member of the European Muslim Network (“EMN”)
Member of the Comissão da Liberdade Religiosa (the official Committee for Religious Freedom)

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