"Europe only talks about radical Islam"

January 27th 2015 - In the wake of the Paris terror attacks, I interviewed Mustafa Ceric for ZEIT ONLINE. Ceric is the former Grand Mufti of Bosnia & Herzegovina and one of the most important Muslim scholars in Europe. A German version of this interview was published on January, 14th. 

DIE ZEIT: Mr Ceric, you have condemned the Paris attack in strong terms. You have also called it an attack on innocent journalists. There are a lot of people in the Muslim world who believe these journalists were not innocent, but guilty, because they ridiculed the Prophet Mohammed. What do you say to that?

Mustafa Ceric: I would like to postpone the question of innocence for now. We know from the Sira, the recorded history of his life, that whenever the Prophet was attacked and offended, these offences were not only more hurtful than the ones by Charlie Hebdo – but the Prophet did not issue any death sentences. As Muslims, if we want to express our love for him, we do this in our hearts. Of course, the caricatures are not OK. All Muslims feel embarrassed and uncomfortable about them. If Charlie Hebdo wanted to hurt Muslims, the magazine succeeded. If the magazine wanted to offer some kind of social criticism, if it wanted to make clear, that some Muslims have shortcomings – yes, of course, that is true, too. But my point is: You don't love the prophet and show it with a gun.

DIE ZEIT: Al-Qaida, to give just one example, has always argued that cartoonists have to die, when they ridicule the Prophet, because the Prophet himself set an example when he had Ka'ab bin al-Ashraf killed, who had ridiculed him. Is that wrong?

Mustafa Ceric: I don't accept this argument. These terrorists first decide to do something and then seek for arguments. You know what bothers Muslims more? Charlie Hebdo also ridiculed the Jewish faith, and at least one journalist was ousted for Antisemtitism. We want to know: How are we going to solve this puzzle? Or take Anders Breivik, for example. He killed over 70 people. He said he did it as a Christian. Did the media call him a Christian terrorist?

DIE ZEIT: Nobody denied that Breivik believed he was on a Christian mission.

Mustafa Ceric: Perhaps. But it did not lead to hysteria about Christian terrorism in Europe. Why, for God's sake, are the media always talking about „Islamic terrorism“? This is a double standard. What happened in Paris, is not „Islamic terrorism“. I would like to ask the media in Europa to apologize for using the term „Islamic terrorism“.

DIE ZEIT: So the perpetrators have nothing to do with Islam?

Mustafa Ceric: No, this has nothing to with Islam.

DIE ZEIT: If that is so, why did you sign a letter to the head of the „Islamic state“ terror group together with over 120 Muslim scholars, in which you tried to convince Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that his religious arguments were wrong? Clearly you addressed him as a Muslim!

Mustafa Ceric: There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world! When you talk about Islamic terrorism, you are including all of them. That is a verbal crime. Why do you not do the same with Christian terrorists? Or with Jewish terrorists, like the murderer of Yitzhak Rabin? Did anyone blame Moses for what that man did?

DIE ZEIT: But who is blaming the Prophet Mohammed for what the Paris killers did?

Mustafa Ceric: Everybody is blaming Islam!

DIE ZEIT: I find it confusing that you say the Paris attack has nothing to do with Islam, but argue about Muslim theology with the leader of the IS. So let me ask you: Does Paris have anything to do with Islam or not?

Mustafa Ceric: Does al-Baghdadi have to do with Paris?

DIE ZEIT: We don't know yet, but his school of thought is similar.

Mustafa Ceric: We don't know anything about the school of thought of the Paris attackers. I will put it this way: What happened in Paris is against Islam. And against Muslims! It is not acceptable. It is against the values of freedom, against the European values we all hold.

DIE ZEIT: Across Europe, there is a growing problem with young Muslims who are influenced by Jihadists. If you were to speak to a 17-year-old who is in the process of radicalizing and tells you he wants to kill cartoonists because they have ridiculed the Prophet and because the Prophet himself ordered the killing of Kaa'b bin al-Ashraf – what is your argument against that?

Mustafa Ceric: I would tell him that the Prophet has never killed for revenge or for any offence that he suffered. When the Prophet came to Mecca, he forgave the killers of his uncle Hamza. I would tell him: If you love the Prophet, the Prophet will love you for not killing anyone in his defence. The Prophet doesn't need revenge.

DIE ZEIT: According to the Quran, blasphemy will be punished by Allah after you die. There is no prescribed worldly punishment for blasphemy, correct?

Mustafa Ceric: Correct. And if Islam was the way these terrorists represent it, I don't think I would be a Muslim.

DIE ZEIT: As a scholar and a former grand Mufti, are you in competition with radical preachers in Europe?

Mustafa Ceric: Yes. And we need a broader approach to re-socializing and re-educating those who decide to go and fight in Syria and then come back. They need to understand that they are wrong. But the Muslim institutions are weak, they have little resources and many Imams have little knowledge. We need help by Europe's states to establish strong structures.

DIE ZEIT: Why is the radical theology of the IS and al-Qaeda so attractive?

Mustafa Ceric: Young people tend to be rebellious against established systems, that's one reason. But they are also giving them arguments without telling them about their responsibilities. They turn it into an adventure.

DIE ZEIT: What can be done?

Mustafa Ceric: For one, I believe Europe needs a Grand Mufti. We need a voice to calm down things. Not everybody will accept this office, but it will have an effect. But the European states are hesitant to support this.

DIE ZEIT: Muslims could do something themselves to establish that office...

Mustafa Ceric: But we are weak.

DIE ZEIT: In Germany, Muslim groups often find it very difficult to even agree with one another on a local level and on local issues.

Mustafa Ceric: This process is not easy. We need to structure Islam as an official institution. We need better teachers, better Imams, who are from here and not imported.

DIE ZEIT: But who is doing something about that?

Mustafa Ceric: I am fighting radical Imams every day. But even those who are trying to help are sometimes accused of being radicals. Who is an acceptable Muslim for Europeans? It seems like there is almost no acceptable Muslims for the governments or the media. We can't solve this problem alone. Europe complains about political Islam all the time. But Europe also only talks about political Islam.

DIE ZEIT: Should we distinguish between Islam and Islamism?

Mustafa Ceric: I think these distinctions cause a lot of confusion. The Paris attackers should be called neither. They are rebellious murderers. They don't know anything about Islam.

DIE ZEIT: But radical Muslims are often louder than moderate Muslims. They shape the image of Islam.

Mustafa Ceric: But they are not doing this on behalf of Islam! For me, they are destroyers of civilization.

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