A Bosnian plea – ‘Italians, don’t give the peace prize to Ceric’

The decision by Italy’s Ducci Foundation to award Grand Mufti Cerić its peace prize for his contribution to reconciliation in Bosnia-Herzegovina has sparked a wave of protests from those opposed to his divisive and provocative statements.

By Stefano Giantin

His name is Mustafa Cerić. He is the highest Muslim religious authority in Bosnia-Herzegovina. A prominent Italian institution, the Ducci Foundation, has decided to honour him for his “contribution to peace and reconciliation” by granting him its peace prize next March, at Rome’s Campidoglio. But there is a setback – according to some Bosnian human rights activists, Cerić is nothing less that a fundamentalist, hidden under a fake image of tolerance.

This was repeated for Il Piccolo by Refik Hodžić, an influential activist for human rights and a leading documentary film-maker. Cerić “has been and is playing an increasingly important political role among Bosniaks, that often surpasses that of any politician”, explains Hodžić. “He is perfectly aware of that power and uses it often to present himself as a counterpart to the president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, in the continuation of wartime-like discourse of division and mistrust between Serbs and Bosniaks. Cerić uses populist rhetoric identical to Dodik’s, portraying Bosniaks as constantly under threat of repression and physical elimination, drawing on the suffering they endured during the nineties, and the Islamic Community and himself as their sole defenders”, illustrates the activist.

The actor, Fedja Stukan – one of the performers in Angelina Jolie’s latest movie, “In the Land of Blood and Honey” – is also fighting against the decision of the Ducci Foundation. Stukan, a Bosniak like Hodžić, is promoting an online petition to ask for the award to be revoked. Why? “Cerić has two opposite faces. One is his foreign policy, where he is a peace-preaching, and a peace-prize-winning Muslim leader. But in his own country, he is promoting everything but peace. He invites Muslims to hate the “godless”, and threatens them, very directly and publicly, with violence. These speeches increase the tension, which has now reached the top, minimising any possibility for reconciliation”, he says.

According to Stukan, several NGOs were threatened by Cerić, “such as the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, and the CNA (Center for Non-Violent Action), that put a real effort into reconciling war veterans from all three sides. These NGOs were publicly marked as ‘Islamophobic’”, continues Stukan. In this way, Cerić “gives an open hand to his followers to attack, and that is exactly what happened a few years ago, when there was an attempt to organize a Gay pride parade in Sarajevo. All guest and organizers were brutally beaten”.

Cerić is surely not the only culprit for increasing ethnic tensions in the country, “but his public statements around the issue of religious education in Sarajevo Canton – a decision was made by the cantonal government to make religious education a non-binding subject in primary school, currently it is on par with maths, language and science – overstepped the mark”, clarifies Hodžić. “He publicly threatened violence unless the decision was withdrawn, saying that the government will have a ‘Sarajevo Spring’ on its hands unless it backtracks and publicly berating the head of Helsinki Committee of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Vera Jovanovic”. She was speaking about the government’s decision in the context of human rights, but according to Cerić, “she had no business interpreting what Bosniak human rights are, as she serves the interests of Belgrade and those intent on destroying Bosniaks. This supposedly because she has a Serb name”. Although complaints about hate speech were made by several NGOs, no measures were taken against him at the time.

But who is Cerić really? A “radical”, as many activists state, or “the most liberal Grand Mufti in the world”, as his supporters depict him? “Grand Mufti Cerić’s call for Islamic Sharia law to be incorporated into Bosnia and Herzegovina’s constitution is one of the most divisive and illiberal statements of recent times; drawing sharp criticism, even from many moderate Bosniaks. In addition, prior to the terrorist attack against the US Embassy in Sarajevo last October, Cerić had failed to take sufficient steps to stem the growing influence of Wahhabism in Bosnia. Such instances severely weaken Cerić’s supposed liberal credentials”, explains Ian Bancroft, a commentator for The Guardian on Balkans and co-founder of TransConflict, an organization undertaking conflict transformation projects and research.

In relation to the peace award, Bancroft’s opinion is unambiguous: “As with Mufti Zukorlic in neighbouring Serbia, Cerić has too often undermined the separation of politics and religion. The latter has a key role to play in bridging inter-ethnic divides, but has instead often been employed for political ends. The influence of religion over Bosnia’s governing institutions continues to blight the prospects of sustainable peace. Rewarding Cerić’s will therefore be interpreted as a victory for those opposed to secularism”.

In the meantime, in Rome, an echo of the controversy reached the Ducci Foundation. “We based our decision for conferring the Peace prize on the judgment of our Scientific Committee. That is an unappellable judgment, that included all elements and aspects”, declared Ambassador Paolo Ducci, president of the Foundation, founded in 1999 in memory of his parents, Francesco Paolo and Annamaria Ducci. “Grand Mufti Cerić is otherwise a member of the World Conference of Religions for Peace, and last year received the Unesco Felix Houphouet-Boigny peace prize, together with cardinal Etchegaray”, he adds.

The controversies in Bosnia will not prevent the Foundation from awarding Cerić. “I don’t think that the Scientific Committee could rethink a decision taken long ago and fully motivated. On the other side – Ducci concludes – in certain delicate environments, such as Bosnia, there is comprehensible opposition and discord. And the Foundation, in the spirit of its institutional mission towards the promotion of intercultural and interreligious dialogue, will accepts critics and different opinions, as constructive elements of that dialogue that we endorse”.

The dispute in the Balkans, however, is not over. Even if the online petition collected until now contains only 900 signatures. It is because people are tired tilting at windmills, Stukan suggests. But he promises also that he will not give up in his fight, despite the heavy daily threats he is receiving.

Stefano Giantin is a journalist based in Belgrade. Since 2004, Stefano has covered the Balkans and Eastern Europe for several Italian newspapers and magazines, in particular for the daily Il Piccolo (Trieste). He has previously worked as a human rights expert and as a documentary filmmaker in Kosovo. His portfolio is available at www.stefanogiantin.net

This interview initially appeared in Il Piccolo on February 13th 2012 and is also available on Stefano’s website by clicking here.

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