[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Monday, 21 February, 2005, 12:19 GMT
Islamic encounters of the third kind
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News community affairs

Dr Mustafa Ceric: Came to prominence during Balkans wars
Is Islam secure in Europe? One of the continent's leading Islamic thinkers says the future direction of Islam may depend on it being so.

You may not have heard of him, but the Grand Mufti of Bosnia is the kind of person who gets to have tea with the Prince of Wales.

On a whistle-stop speaking tour of London late last week, Dr Mustafa Ceric spent a morning debating the future of Islam and the West with Prince Charles.

And it's Dr Ceric's track record of pushing the boundaries of what is publicly sayable among Muslims that leads to such interest in his views.

The Grand Mufti is the leading Islamic legal authority among Muslims in the Balkans - some of his supporters have even dubbed him "Islam's Nelson Mandela".

He represents that strand of the faith that clung on in Europe after the Turkish Ottoman empire rolled back from the frontiers of the West.

It's difficult to admit but Muslims [in the Middle East] now need to learn from Muslims in the West - the wise men of the Islamic east and the rational men of the west must meet - and then we will have moral men
Dr Mustafa Ceric
And so, with a European and Islamic heritage ("I am proud that Islam defines my European patriotism", he says) he is well placed to see where things are going.

He came to prominence during the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia by speaking out against those who used faith as a justification for violence.

Today he has an international reputation as a man of peace and is involved in efforts to counter fears about Islam in the United States in the wake of 9/11.

Rights and fears

Appearing in London to talk to British Muslims about their own fears amid security-related tensions, he says that they themselves may hold the key to the faith's future in the world. And London may be the arena where this Islamic identity is being formed.

So is Islam secure in Europe?

"We have two extremes of approach. One says that Muslims are not secure and that Europe is an anti-Islamic environment. The other extreme says Europe is a haven for Islam and Muslims," he says.

Early Baghdad thinkers developed Greek learning
Islamic Spain re-introduced ideas to Europe
European Muslims export ideas back East?
"I believe that the truth is somewhere in the middle because we are all in a process of learning.

"The West is learning about Muslims - trying to figure out what they are doing here in Europe and [asking questions such as] how should governments deal with this phenomenon."

"Well, we've been here for a long time - but the presence now is different to what it has been through history."

The difference, he argues, is that European-born Muslims are quietly embracing European notions of freedom and human rights. This can be seen no more clearly in the rise of young, professional - but religiously devout - Muslim women who challenge the idea that it's men who should have all the say.

But thanks to today's political and media climate, argues Dr Ceric, Muslims in the West need "freedom from fear and freedom from poverty" - both of which are undermining their position in the West.

"Europe is facing some kind of dilemma of fear [over Islam] and that Muslims themselves are seeking freedom from this fear.

"No-one knows where this process will lead - but if we are rational people we must accept the challenge of what I call the 'third encounter' between the West and Islam."

Moments of history

Dr Ceric says there have been two major historical moments when Islam and Western civilisation have met and changed each other.

Born in Bosnia
Studied at Cairo's top Al-Azhar University
PhD in the USA
Becomes Grand Mufti on return home
A grand mufti is a leading Islamic scholar
During the first, Islam's early Baghdad philosophers preserved and developed the learning of the Greeks. During the second, these ideas and more were sent back to Europe via Islamic Spain, sowing some of the seeds for the Renaissance.

But this third meeting is different because it has the potential to change the nature of Islam itself. If European-born Muslims look inside their faith for what are presented as Western notions of human rights and individual freedom, they will find them, he argues.

The challenge will be to convince other Muslims that these ideas are universal - and then western Muslims can export them back to the heart of Islamic society.

"They cannot do it at the moment, but if they are given this freedom [from fear and poverty], they will succeed.

"It's difficult to admit but Muslims [in the Middle East] now need to learn from Muslims in the West.

"The wise men of the Islamic East and the rational men of the West must meet - and then we will have moral men."

London at the centre

The problem he faces however is that there is enormous resistance of the West coming from the East. The UK and London, however, will play a vital role in negotiating this tension, says Dr Ceric.

Its leading mosques are full most Fridays and many British-born or educated thinkers are urging their congregations to take the best of the West and put it to good use.

Friday prayers: Thousands attended Dr Ceric's sermon
"London is well-placed because of its history," says Dr Ceric. "And British Muslims are more emancipated than other European Muslims.

"They know where they stand in this society - they have freedom to oppose the government, for instance, over the war in Iraq. London is a good place for us to discuss what this third encounter will mean."

This encounter does not mean giving up an Islamic identity, he says. This future Western Muslim identity will represent neither assimilation nor isolation, but co-operation.

He likens the process to that experienced by British Jews: at first outsiders, they later became part of the fabric of society but have defended their identity and world view. In turn, that world view influences decisions of the state and international relations.

But Dr Ceric says the question is whether or not European governments are helping Muslims along this path.

Paris got into bother over its ban on religious symbols in schools - and London continues to face community criticisms that the anti-terror laws criminalise Muslims. Throughout Europe's capitals there is an emotive debate over modern multicultural societies and whether they trap people into religiously closed communities and encourage division?

Dr Ceric says governments must essentially buy the trust of Muslims by institutionalising their faith - giving it state sponsorship through schools, official bodies and so on. Resistance is a "tribal mentality" that allows others to present Muslims as alien outsiders.

"Muslims don't like this idea, they think that governments would control them," he says. "But, my dear brothers, I say you are losing your sovereignty already if they [the police] are entering your homes and mosques.

"I say let them in today because if not they will come in tomorrow and the consequences are a long-term bad image for Islam."


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific