The Rev. Franklin Graham ought to visit Sarajevo. So, for that matter, should anybody else who thinks Islam “is a very evil and wicked religion,” as Graham said it was shortly after the September 11 attacks; or that it is extreme and violent, as the conservative Christian televangelist Pat Robertson said of the faith last year.
And while strolling the smooth cobblestone streets of the Bosnian capital’s Old Town, anybody holding such views might do well to stop in the city’s Central Mosque and listen to what Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric, leader of the nation’s 1.6 million Muslims, has to say. In his speeches, Ceric has been known to quote the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi as often as he cites the Koran. He has also led calls for an “Islamic avant-garde” to promote human rights and democracy; frequently celebrates the historic and spiritual links among Islam, Christianity and Judaism; and implores Muslims to be careful about using words like “jihad.” To Muslims, Ceric says, the word “may mean many good things, but to non-Muslims it means only one thing: violent actions against their faith.” For Bosnian Muslims to live among other religions in a small country, he says, is a sign of strength rather than weakness. “I believe neither the weak nor the aggressive will inherit the earth, but the cooperative,” Ceric said in a 2001 speech in Vienna titled “Islam Against Terrorism.”
Ceric is about as tolerant and ecumenical as religious leaders come. But his views are neither unique nor on the liberal fringe here. Rather, they tend to reflect and reinforce those of the vast majority of Bosnia’s Muslims, who make up 44 percent of the country’s 3.7 million people. Despite a genocidal war from 1992 to 1995, in which Muslims were the main victims, Islam in Bosnia remains an astonishingly broad-minded faith that has largely made its peace with other religions, the West, modernity, democracy and the separation of mosque and state. This has remained true despite an influx of fundamentalists during the war who–funded largely by the Saudis and preaching the strict Wahhabi form of Islam–have led efforts to radicalize the country.
Bosnian Muslims, who prefer to be called Bosniaks, never tire of pointing out that in downtown Sarajevo a mosque, a synagogue, a Roman Catholic cathedral and an Eastern Orthodox church sit within blocks of each other. “Islam, through the Koran, accepts all other religions, including Christianity and Judaism,” said Amel, a 22-year-old student.
At first glance, Bosnia seems an unlikely place to find such tolerance. The festering wounds and lingering mistrust from a war in which Serb and Croat militias waged a vicious campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against Muslims are still evident here. But due to centuries of tradition, and the strong leadership of people like Ceric, Bosnian Islam has managed to remain what many scholars call one of the most tolerant branches of the faith in the Muslim world. “All our experience in Bosnia is living with other traditions,” Rusmir Mahmutcehajic, a Sarajevo-based sociologist and author of the book Bosnia the Good: Tolerance and Tradition, told me. “This kind of epistemic modesty is the basis for the Bosnian experience. What we have is valuable.”