News 17 May 11

Bosnian Muslim Leader Criticised Over Call for Protests

After the head of Bosnia's Islamic Community, Mufti Mustafa Ceric, called for riots inspired by the recent “Arab Spring”, NGOs have condemned what they say was hate speech.

Eldin Hadzovic
Sarajevo
Mustafa Ceric

Mustafa Ceric | Photo by FoNet

Ceric has publicly warned the Education Minister of Sarajevo Canton, Emir Suljagic, that he will face a "Sarajevo Spring", inspired by the recent uprisings in countries in the Middle East and North Africa, if he doesn't withdraw a decision to remove grades from religion classes from students' overall grade calculation.

Minister Suljagic on April 22 ordered all primary and secondary schools in Sarajevo Canton area to remove the marks that students receive in Religious Education from the overall grade average, which provoked strong reactions throughout all of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Suljagic defended the move by explaining that students who attend Religious Education classes end up with unfairly higher grade averages than those who do not. The classes are optional, and most students regularly receive high marks.

In response to Suljagic's decision, Ceric, speaking at a pilgrimage site in Blagaj in front of more than 30,000 people, said the move amounted to the “oppression and humiliation of Bosniaks”, who are mainly Muslims.

During the same speech, he argued that the minister’s place should be taken by, as he said, “someone who does not hate Muslims and Islam”. He also accused Vera Jovanovic, president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Bosnia, of hatred against Muslims.

“If you continue to discriminate against religious classes – which means that you will later do the same with mosques and medresas [Islamic schools], with our names, and houses […] – you will have a ’Sarajevo Summer’ on the streets of Sarajevo, I can tell you!” Ceric said in Blagaj on Saturday.

Numerous NGOs and members of civil society, including the PEN Centre, part of an international association of writers, reacted to what they called hate speech in Blagaj.

They condemned what they said were threats of violence, and “violation of constitutional order”, saying that Mustafa Ceric, as a religious leader, abused his position to destabilize the situation in Bosnia, and that his acts were indications of efforts to overthrow the legally elected representatives of Bosnian citizens.

“Hate speech is present in the statements of religious leaders not only to encourage and spread a message of violence throughout the Bosnian society, but also to create a society in which the interference of religious communities in the work of state institutions and public administration is acceptable,” a statement of the Sarajevo-based association Human Rights [Pravo ljudski] says.

For his part, the head of Ceric's office said that the Islamic leader was "emotional" when he gave his speech in Blagaj, and maintained that the call for protests was not a call for violence.

Muharem Hasanbegovic, the head of Mufti Ceric's office, didn’t want to say precisely when the protests in Sarajevo announced by Mustafa Ceric would take place, but he made it clear that the leader of the Islamic Community in Bosnia was serious about his warnings.

He told Balkan Insight that all depends on the official answer from the Sarajevo Canton Government, which is expected to take a stand on the controversy before long.

“Otherwise,” Hasanbegovic warned, “I can imagine a scenario with long-term consequences”.

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