Thought Leader: Mustafa Ceric

March 27, 2012

CREDIT: European Council (CC).

As part of the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart spoke with Mustafa Cerić, formerly grand mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Cerić became grand mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1999 and served two seven-year terms. Before that, he was an imam in Northbrook, Illinois, and Zagreb.

MUSTAFA CERIC: [Remarks in progress] I think that the 21st century is the century of spiritual revolution. That spiritual revolution is different from the Industrial Revolution or informational revolution or bourgeois revolution. This spiritual revolution should be the revolution of coming to the basics of humanity.

"Revolution" means a circle from one point going around and coming back again to the initial position. I think we humans have left this initial position of our understanding of who we are and what we are supposed to do, and we are sometimes playing the roles of other creatures than human creatures. I believe in a fundamental coming-back to the human basics. This is why I believe in human fundamentalism or fundamental humanism.

DEVIN STEWART: So what are the basics?

MUSTAFA CERIC: The basics are the five values of each and every human being: the value of life, the value of freedom, the value of trust or faith, of religion or morality, the value of property, and the value of human dignity. These five values—you may call them rights—are the basics of human fundamentalism or fundamental humanism, that each and every human being must be aware of himself or herself. By having the awareness of the importance of my life, my freedom, my religion, my property, and my dignity, I become aware of these values that belong to others, too.

DEVIN STEWART: Where do people get these rights? Are they from God? Or do we even need to ask that question?

MUSTAFA CERIC: All the rights that we have are from God. They are gifts. They are not the mercy of anybody that is equal to us, and all humans are being equal. No one is superior over others. This non-superiority to others makes you human and also humane, and makes you humble before the fact that you are equal with others and that you have no right to exercise power over others, but to be a friend, to be a brother, and to be aware that what you possess as a human being is a gift of God.

This gift that we have that is light that is given to our body, which was dead, no life—as we say in Islam, as we are told in the Koran, when God has put his light or his soul or his spirit into the clay or body of a human, we become humans. This is why we have said that God asked angels to prostrate before the humans, not because of the clay, but because of this light and spirit. If we know that God is the light of the heavens on the earth, that means what makes us human beings is this light that is the gift of God.

DEVIN STEWART: You have talked about the five rights or values that are common to all people. You also mentioned earlier responsibilities. Can you tell me about our responsibilities?

MUSTAFA CERIC: Absolutely. We are the only living organisms on the planet that are capable of self-destruction. We are the only living organism that cannot survive on this planet automatically. We human beings don't know automatically or by instinct which food is poisonous, which is not. We have to learn it. All other animals know by smell which is good and bad for them. We have to learn.

Because of this, we have to rely on each other. Therefore, we have to be responsible for each other. This knowledge that we possess doesn't belong to us. We have to pass it to others. Our experience that we have, we have to pass to other human beings.

This is why we have this fundamental principle of ethics and morality that God likes those who help his creatures, human beings. By helping our brothers, you are proving that you are really a believer and that you are aware of God.

We have it in our tradition that if you know that your neighbor is hungry and you sleep at home without taking care of him, your faith is not valid. You have to prove it. In order for us to survive as a living organism, the only way that we can survive is on the basis of the morality, which means responsibility before God and before our fellow humans.

DEVIN STEWART: You talked earlier about the characteristics of the current era that we live in being one of a spiritual revolution, a revolution of spirituality. What would you say is the biggest challenge that we now face on the planet?

MUSTAFA CERIC: I believe there are four challenges for us that are over our heads. These challenges I would describe as four roads: from might to right, from slavery to freedom, from mythology to science, and from theory of state to democracy of state. Let me explain.

This civilization that we live in—you may call it Western civilization, but it is a global civilization that we all share—its characteristics are by these four roles, I would say. Humanity fought for centuries to explain and to adopt the idea that the inter-human relationship must be based, not on the might of the master, but on the right of common people.

So this road from might to right I think is a challenge now. We supposedly live in the time of rights, of human rights—of the right, not of the might. From the Magna Carta until now, we may say that we are aware of our rights. But I am afraid that in this civilization and these circumstances in which we live, this idea of right is challenged again by the might.

The second road is the road from slavery to freedom. We live in the time of freedom. Slavery was canceled not a very long time ago. But, still, the idea of freedom is everybody's idea. You know that Aristotle lived his life believing that some people are born slaves and some are born masters. But now we all know that this is not true, that we are all born free.

The third road is the idea of going from mythology to science. We cannot live on the idea of myths. We know that science is something that we all share. But unfortunately I am afraid that we are again challenged. Some people like to go to mythology, to imagination, rather than to base their judgments on the science.

The third is the theory of state. Even now, Plato's Republic on democracy and Al-Farabi, for example, the Muslim philosopher who wrote The Virtuous City and St. Augustine's book The City of God—all these books' political theories are Utopia or a theory of the state. From this theory, we come to the legistimial [phonetic] state, which is based on democracy. Democracy is the principle on the basis of which we organize societies.

But I am afraid that these four very important achievements of this civilization are now challenged. I am afraid that right is almost losing its power to might, that science is losing its power to mythology, that freedom is losing its momentum to slavery, in different ways, and that even democracy is somehow becoming a frustration for many. There are theorists who like to talk about an imagined society and theory of the state rather than to correct what is called the democracy that I think we have no alternative to. This is the best of all the bad systems that we know.

DEVIN STEWART: That's quite a roadmap, all these different roads before us. You're saying that on all four roads we are in danger of picking the wrong road. Is the thing that's pushing us toward the wrong road common through all four decisions? Is there a common challenge throughout or are they separate, four challenges?

MUSTAFA CERIC: I think we cannot talk anymore about societies or civilizations that are better or worse than others. We live in a global environment. We live in a global world. We are suffering almost the same shortcomings, but also we are enjoying the achievements of all these four roads, in a way. There are setbacks. That is obvious.

But what I think we are lacking today, and for the 21st century, is the idea of self-examination, a strong responsibility based on moral common ground, and ethical teaching. There is a difference between morality and ethics. Ethics is teachable and it's learnable. You can learn about good and bad. But morality is somehow a natural character that you are born with and that you inherit from your family, your community, and so on.

Our family is in danger, as you know. The families are not anymore as they used to be. Therefore, we wonder, where did we come with the morality as a basic for interhuman relationships? It is not enough that you are born and it is not a guarantee that by birth you are going to inherit moral values. You have to learn them. If you have the need to learn something, there is a need for teachers who teach what you need.

We have to provide the conditions to train and educate teachers of ethics and morality in the future. I am afraid that we don't have this approach. I think our universities are not anymore at the same time on moral questions and ethical questions. Our universities and the colleges are meant to make you successful in your business rather than in your lifestyle that you are going to live and to teach you about moral values.

I think we have to change that if we are going to save humankind and the human race. So it's not only teaching students about the facts of life; we have to teach them about the value of life and the value of what we have in the universe.

If we are just going to cut all the trees and use all these resources that we have, what is going to be left behind to our children? We become very much selfish. We become very much greedy. We want to enjoy more than we can even enjoy. In all things we are exceeding our ability, and sometimes we possess things that we don't need more than those that we need.

DEVIN STEWART: You mentioned earlier that Martin Luther King didn't say, "I have a complaint," but "I have a dream." Can you talk a little bit about the importance of imagination? How do you imagine a brighter future yourself?

MUSTAFA CERIC: If I may be frank, I want to tell you that I'm very much disappointed in today's intellectual engagement or intelligentsia across all the cultures. What I hear from the intellectuals—I wouldn't say secular, but I would say enlightening or intellectuals—they are just complaining, describing the catastrophic predictions, the dark perspective of humanity, and giving the analyses that are apocalyptic and so on. Of course, when you read, you're sometimes impressed how they are smart to see and to criticize and so on.

Compare them with all the intellectuals of the 17th, 18th century, who had the vision for the future. The result of that vision is what we are enjoying.

Having that in mind, I always admired the late Martin Luther King, who came to his audience and said, "I have a dream." Imagine that if he came and said to his audience, "I have a complaint." How many people would come to listen to him? None. But he said, "I have a dream."

I would advise my dear intellectuals of this age and time and place to give us some good imagination, especially to the young people, that they will have a brighter future than they have, that they should not bring their frustrations and pass them over to the next generations. I think we need people who have a dream, who have an imagination for a better future. I think God is there, he knows very well, and we should not interfere in his job. He is keeping this universe together. He makes balance.

What we need the most—the air. Then we need water. Then we need food. We cannot live without air even one minute. This is why we have the most. Then we have water. We have more water than food. Why? Because we need more water, but less than air. Then we have food.

When I was a teenager, water was free and music was for money. I didn't have money, so I didn't listen to music. But I did have water, everywhere, in rivers and—I enjoyed it. Today music is free and water is for money. A bottle of water is about $10 in some hotels. If somebody told me 50 years ago that water was going to be for money, I would have told him, "You're crazy." But if I tell you now that probably in 30 years the air will be for money and you will go shopping to buy a bottle of air and survive the next day, probably some people will say, "You are crazy."

But I want to give you information. Today in Japan, in some areas where radiation is very high, they are buying air for survival.

We humans, if we don't understand, if we don't change our attitudes toward the environment, and if we don't realize that we have the only planet on which to live—we don't know yet how to go to Mars.

Probably a future generation will find another planet, but at the moment this is the only planet we have. We have to take care of this planet. The way to make it is to correct what is in our heads, in our minds, in our souls. That is the reason why the environment is suffering, because of our corrupted souls and our corrupted minds.

DEVIN STEWART: I think we're heading up on almost half an hour, Dr. CERIC. But I want to give you an opportunity to comment on a couple of things.

You mentioned earlier pluralism and also some commonalities between religions. Do you want to comment about either one?

MUSTAFA CERIC: Yes. Pluralism is not any invention of anybody. Pluralism is there from the first day of human existence. We are not discovering any wheel here. We just have to adapt to the natural environment that we are supposed to recognize and maintain and support. That is pluralism of religions, pluralism of civilizations, of cultures, of languages, of races—everything.

I think it will be boring to live without all this colorful human race, with different approaches and so on. If God is tolerant of all this, what he has created, why should we protest and be intolerant to the fact that God has created? This is one.

The second: People always talk about how to deal with and handle the differences among the cultures, civilizations, and especially religions. I think the differences are not the problem; the similarities are. The similars have difficulty to adapt to each other.

I would like to refer to the question of the Abrahamic tradition, the Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Why cannot they share the space of Jerusalem? Because they are different? No. Because they are similar. From Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad—peace be upon all of them—they all came to this place and they left some blessings. But why do we have difficulty to share this space together and to share our similarities?

It is exactly because we are similar, because some people think that others are not enough similar, so they want to make them more similar. This is where we have problems.

So we have to learn how to live with our similarities rather than talk about how to adapt to differences. If you are different from me, I try to be kind to you and try to learn from you, but if you are similar to me, sometimes I think you are not enough similar, and then we get into trouble. May God save us from the misunderstandings of the similar.

DEVIN STEWART: And how about the positive role of religion?

MUSTAFA CERIC: Religion has been always the cause for good, but sometimes religion is used and misused for things that do not belong to religion. Religion can be a cause for creating civilization, culture, a good relationship among the people, but also religion can be a cause for stopping the development of the human mind and character and so on. It depends on how you, yourself, take religion to be a motivation for you.

I hope that we have learned so far that there is a difference between faith, religion, and morality. Faith is something that we all share. Faith is a trust. We cannot live on this planet without the trust in God and in human relationships. How can I get into an airplane without trust that the pilot is sane, that he knows what he's doing, and that he will fly me from New York to Istanbul tomorrow without any worry? This is a trust. I cannot check it. The idea of trust in my heart and in my soul is there. It is a gift of God. We all have faith in something.

The religion is organized theology. It is sometimes, unfortunately, made more to deepen the differences among the people than to close them closer to each other.

Morality is a common sense of all people who can distinguish right from wrong and good from evil. We have all this natural ability, in one way or another.

This is always what I'm trying to explain to people. We are all equal in faith, but we are different in religion and we are different in our moral behavior. You may be religious, but not necessarily moral. You may be moral, but not necessarily religious as others are. I know people who are very religious and they come to mosques and churches and so on, but in daily behavior they are not very moral. On the other hand, I know people who are not deeply religious, but when you talk to them, they will tell you exactly about the values of truth and lies, of good and bad, and so on.

This is why they say that in order for you to be a good person in the eyes of God, you have to be moral and then to be religious. But at the same time, religion can contribute to teach you morality if you are sincere about it.

But again, we are all equal in our faith.

DEVIN STEWART: Is there a common theme throughout all religions that you have seen?

MUSTAFA CERIC: Yes, absolutely. Religion is something that tells you that you have beliefs. Even those who are faithless have faith. Probably we can speak about faith of the faithless, meaning that even if you say that you don't believe, you are saying that you don't believe in a particular way of theology, but you cannot be a human being without a belief, without a trust, without a faith, without something that holds you together and keeps you going, relying on something that is higher than you, that is bigger than you, and that is taking care of you.

We are the most fragile living organisms on this planet. When a boy and girl are born, they need our care for years. But when you have a boy and girl in nature, animals, they immediately stand up on their feet, and they can run from a wolf or danger that they encounter.

We humans are very vulnerable. Because of that, we have to trust and rely on something, on somebody. That is God. That is the Creator. We came from somewhere and then we have to go back, to give our soul to who gave it to us, and that is God. In that sense, we are all religious, but in a different degree and in a different way. God made us to be different. He made so many religions in the world, and he will decide at the end about our destiny.

DEVIN STEWART: Very good, Dr. Ceric.