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Bosnia on Edge


The Balkans, Bosnia and the Muslim Brotherhood

October 9th 2012

Bosnia Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric
Mustafa Ceric

The Mufti of the northeast Bosnian town of Tuzla, Husein Effendi Kavazovic, has been chosen as the new Chief Mufti of the nation's Islamic Community.  He will replace Mustafa Ceric who held the position for 19 years. (BIRN, Sarajevo, 12-13 September 2012.) According to some Bosnian human rights activists, Ceric is nothing less that a fundamentalist, hidden under a fake image of tolerance. This was repeated for Il Piccolo by Refik Hodzic, an influential activist for human rights and a leading documentary filmmaker.

Although Mustafa Ceric has stepped down from his position as Grand Mufti of Bosnia, he is likely to take a major step up in the next few months. Youssef Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood's leading theologian is aging and must soon be replaced, and Ceric, born in 1952, would certainly be a more youthful replacement. Generally seen in secular Europe as a "populist" Islamic leader, Mustafa Ceric's ties to the Ikhwan are nearly as impressive as Youssef Qaradawi's. He is a member of Qaradawi's European Council for Fatwa and Research and participates in the U.K.-based "Radical Middle Way", which unites scholars representing the global Muslim Brotherhood. 

He is a member of both the U.K. branch of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists and the International Institute of Islamic Thought (both Muslim Brotherhood fronts). Like Qaradawi, Ceric has also shown a decided interest in the propagation of Islamic banking. Finally, and no less important than all the above, he cemented his Islamist reputation as an activist Muslim cleric during the war in the Balkans.

Blogsites that follow the activity of the international Muslim Brotherhood (the Ikhwan al-Muslimun) have noted the growing importance of Mustafa Ceric. Seemingly isolated in his Bosnia venue, he has still managed to acquire a substantial reputation within the Ikhwan, an Egyptian-dominated organization. No shrinking violet, Ceric himself now considers himself a leading figure in "European Islam", and a potential successor to Qaradawi when he chooses to step down. That the Bosniak just might succeed to a paramount leadership position in the Ikhwan is not as far-fetched as one would think.


The Muslim Brotherhood's own interest in the Balkans had its genesis in the pre-WWII Palestine dispute, and in the person of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. When the World Muslim Congress opened its second conference at Jerusalem in December 1931, two issues dominated: Palestine and the Caliphate. The Conference was dominated Shakib Arslan, a Lebanese poet who dominated the Islamist movement of the early twentieth century. Included among the 130 delegates from 22 countries were such disparate elements as Ikhwan members from Egypt and Bosnian Muslims (including Mehmet Spaho President of the Yugoslav Muslim Organization).

Arslan initiated ties with Bosniak leaders and spent the winter of 1934-1935 as guest of the Muslim community in Bosnia. And when the First Islamic Conference of Europe convened at Geneva in September 1935, Arslan served as its president and delivered an inaugural address calling for the restoration of the caliphate and an end to European colonialism. Muslim leaders in attendance included the Bosniak activist Huszein Hilmi Durics, a resident in Hungary who had personal contact with Arslan, and with other Muslim leaders including the Grand Mufti. Other unnamed Bosniaks were also included among the seventy delegates that spoke publicly at a conference which was the first small step taken by Muslims to influence European governments.

At the 1937 Arab National Congress held in Bludan, Syria, and attended by over 400 delegates, Haj Amin al-Husseini and Arslan took the lead in criticizing the Peel Commission report recommending the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab spheres. Among other topics discussed in depth was the support for the growing Islamist movement in the Balkans.


In the early nineteen thirties the Ikhwan al-Muslimun was still years away from creating its own "Committee for Europe, Russia and America." Nonetheless, thanks to the numerous students from the Balkans educated in Egypt, and the many Muslims then living in Europe, the aims and intentions of the Muslim Brotherhood were gradually absorbed.

Having been cast adrift following the collapse of both the Ottoman and Austro- Hungarian empires, Yugoslavia's Muslim community had been ignored and was often oppressed in the geopolitical jumble created following World War I. Thus, by the mid-nineteen thirties such Balkan communities seemed ripe for Ikhwan penetration. Eventually, the Grand Mufti Husseini assumed the role of Bosniak champion, and it was a task he would discharge with special zest.

By the late nineteen thirties the Grand Mufti and his Egyptian friend and Ikhwan founder Hasan al-Banna were in contact with Germany's Adolf Hitler. Following his failed attempt in 1941 to carryout a coup in British-held Iraq, the Grand Mufti made his way to Europe and to a continent at war. After a visit with Mussolini in Italy, in November Husseini was granted a personal meeting with Adolf Hitler in Berlin. After that meeting, German intelligence set to work to create an international broadcast service devoted to the dissemination of the Mufti's (and the Ikhwan's) anti-colonial and anti-Semitic message. The Germans then used the cleric to construct Muslim espionage cells in the Balkans. The Grand Mufti next supported the fanatical Nazi SS (Schutzstaffel) in the creation of a Muslim military unit, which was absorbed within the German army.

Eventually, the German Wehrmacht activated Muslim units in Bosnia-Hercegovina, Kosovo-Metohija, and Western Macedonia. Its most notorious success was the founding of the SS Handzar (Dagger) Division comprised of Bosnian and Balkan Muslims. To support the Handzar and other units, German intelligence founded imam and mullah training centers for clerics who would accompany Muslim units.

In Egypt, meanwhile, Banna and his Muslim Brotherhood marched in lockstep with the Grand Mufti. The influence of Hitler and Mussolini was already pervasive by the late nineteen thirties, both within the Ikhwan and the Egyptian army. The "Green Shirts" society, a fascist paramilitary group was founded in 1933, and its leaders worked in partnership with the Ikhwan. Several Brothers (including the young officer Anwar Sadat) would cooperate with the Nazis. Following the war, many Ikhwan (and military officers) who previously had a close relationship with the Muslim leadership in the Balkans maintained friendly relations with the Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia.


The life of Bosniak leader Alija Izetbegovic (1925-2003) followed a pattern common among the youthful educated Muslims of his generation. Born in Bosanski Samac, Bosnia, in 1925, Izetbegovic was from a wealthy family, raised in a multi-cultural society, and educated at a German school. Still, despite his cosmopolitan background by age sixteen he was different from his peers; a committed Islamist, he had already rejected the politics of the Yugoslavian Royalists, the disciples of Ataturk, and the Communists. And even though the Muslims of Yugoslavia were denied their own political party, at age fifteen he helped found the clandestine Young Muslims (Hiddaya).

The Hiddaya was a politico-religious gathering based on the Ikhwan al-Muslimin movement of Egypt. Some of its members had attended Al Azhar University in Cairo and had even joined the Ikhwan while living in Egypt. Its goal was the creation of a Muslim state in the Balkans itself. As Izetbegovic wrote in his book "Islamska Deklaracija" (Islamic Declaration): "Our goal: the Islamization of Muslims. Our methods: to believe and to struggle." In his mind there existed no possibility of coexistence between Islam and Western institutions. Distributed clandestinely, and first published in 1970, Izetbegovic would later admit that in his youth radical Islamists like Arslan had left an indelible impression that would last the rest of his life.

During WWII Europe's Muslim minority emerged from the shadows following the 1941 German invasion of Yugoslavia. Alija Izetbegovic welcomed the event and then reportedly served as a recruiter for the German Handzar Division -- the Croatia-based SS unit manned exclusively by some 20,000 Muslims. However, unlike many Handzar who fled to Western Europe following the end of the war, Izetbegovic and his lifelong friend and fellow Islamist Nedzib Sacirbey remained in Yugoslavia where they continued the organization of the Muslim community.

Izetbegovic was arrested in 1946 by the Communist government of Marshall Tito. Accused of publishing A Warrior and Servant of Allah, a journal whose policies differed little from those of the international Ikhwan al-Muslimun, he would serve three years in prison. But he would not be cowed. Years later, when Egyptian President Nasser asked after the Muslim leader, Tito replied that Izetbegovic was "more dangerous than the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt."(Islam Online, 2003).

Politically, Izetbegovic was the force behind the ephemeral Federation of Balkan Islamic States, an Islamist universe that included Muslim minorities in Macedonia, Bulgaria, Kosovo, and the inert Muslim majority in Albania. He argued that Islam could not possibly coexist with Western institutions, and thus Bosnia's Muslims were to eschew absorption within a multi-ethnic, Communist, and secular Yugoslavia.

Despite his Islamist views Izetbegovic managed to survive the long Communist dictatorship of Marshall Tito that ended with his death in May 1980. Shortly after that, Yugoslavia's new leadership had been greatly displeased when the Organization of the Islamic Conference, sensing a leadership vacuum, met in Cairo in August 1982 and laid plans to provide direct support to Muslim communities in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. Izetbegovic was then arrested in 1983 for distributing "Islamic propaganda," and he was sentenced to nine years in prison.

It is posited that Izbegovic's arrest resulted from a complaint lodged by Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian leader objected to a March 1982 trip to Yugoslavia undertaken by Hasan Nasir, son of the deceased Egyptian President Gamil abd al-Nasir and a budding political rival. Named (incorrectly) by Yugoslavian intelligence as the leader of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, Nasir had arrived in Yugoslavia accompanied by numerous so-called "Ihvans," or youthful members of the Ikhwan al-Muslimun. (Traditionally, many Ikhwan had applied to study at Yugoslav universities but they often preferred playing politics to taking a degree.)

In November 1988 Izetbegovic was released from prison, and by 1990 plans formulated in prison to create an Islamist party of Bosnia, were already well underway Simultaneously, in January 1990 the Bosnia and Herzegovina National Security Service branch reported the attempt by one Mustafa Kamel, a Gaza resident and student at the Faculty of Engineering in Zagreb, to form benches of the Muslim Brotherhood in Tuzla, Bosnia. That move, which included military training, was meant to enlarge the branch of the Eastern Europe Muslim Brotherhood and was supported by Izetbegovic.


In the early nineteen-nineties, at a time when Communist Yugoslavia began to implode, a revived Ikhwan in Egypt, the mullahs in Iran, the Islamists in Sudan, the Saudi Arabian royal family, and mujahedeen blooded in Afghanistan were all fanning the flames of a Balkan insurrection. Their efforts to influence events in Bosnia at a time the future of the Federated Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina with its large Muslim minority was openly debated in Sarajevo was hardly welcome in Western European circles. Izetbegovic was then considered something of a dreamer who could never possibly impose Islamist rule in the Balkans. It was thought that the region, given the unorthodox Islam practiced in Bosnia-Herzegovina itself, seemed just too European.

As conditions deteriorated, first in Slovenia and then in Croatia, Kosovo, and in Bosnia-Herzegovina itself, U.S. Ambassador to Yugoslavia Warren Zimmerman argued that Izetbegovic was no Islamist radical and instead both visualized and advocated the preservation of a multinational Bosnia. The ambassador had obviously misjudged his man because the destruction of the Yugoslavia state was well underway by 1990. In sum, Izetbegovic's time had finally come.

When internecine strife erupted in Bosnia, Izetbegovic was on hand to take charge of the Muslim community. In the months to come, when that community was faced with annihilation, he was saved by thousands of battle hardened "Afghan-Arabs" who, thanks to Al Qaeda operations centered in Peshawar and Khartoum, were financed by outside forces and made their way to the Balkans. By mid-decade the Islamist movement in the Balkans had fought the battle for Sarajevo to a stalemate and then survived the subsequent battles of attrition fought elsewhere in Bosnia itself.

After decades of struggle, Izetbegovic emerged in 1990 as President of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He would retain power after Bosnia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in October 1991. Although independence was secured by a plebiscite held in February 1992, Bosnia's ethnic Serbs opposed the vote and began an internal struggle whose warfare would last for the next three years.


Mustafa Ceric was an active Islamist cleric who first came to world attention when he helped support a number of charities active in the civil war in Yugoslavia. Prior to that time he was known to American Muslims as he spent the early nineteen eighties earning a Doctorate in Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago. He then served as Imam at the Islamic Cultural Center of Greater Chicago, returning toYugoslavia just as the nation was about to implode.

In 1987 Ceric he was serving as an Imam at the Islamic Center in Zagreb. In Yugoslavia itself he counted aamong his friends Dr. Fatih al-Hassanein, the: Yugoslavia-educated Sudanese Muslim Brother and founder of the Third World Relief Agency (TWRA). The TWRA was a bogus charity that would later be known for its arms smuggling operation and support of Arab-Afghans fighting in the Balkans. The TWRA would become a major player in the war in Bosnia.

In the late nineteen eighties Hassanein, while living in Yugoslavia, had joined the Islamic Council for Eastern Europe. He then joined with Ceric to jettison its chairman Jakub Selimoski, the rais ul-ulema (leader of the Muslim congregation of Yugoslavia - a title that dated from 1881 and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.) Selimoski, though a professed Pan-Islamist, was also a pacifist, and it was no time for pacifism in the Balkans.

Ceric and Hassanein, along with Hasan Cengic and Izetbegovic, were directly involved in the Popular Arab and Islamic Conference (PAIC), an organization termed the "Terrorist Internationale", and founded kin the Sudan by Sudanese Islamist and Muslim Brother Hasan al-Turabi in April 1991. They were also involved with CIRKL, a front organized by Osama Bin Laden and Sheikh Abdel Rahman that served as "the only link between the Bosnian Muslim political leadership of the time and its wealthy Islamic benefactors." (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/4283717.stm)

At the April 1991 PAIC conclave held in Khartoum the number of Islam's leading intellectuals who participated included Iakhwan members Rachid Ghannouchi of Tunisia, Sheikh Zindani of Yemen, Abbasi Madani of Algeria, Gaidar Jemal of Russia, and unnamed members of the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt, Jordan and Europe. Also present were Alija Izetbegovic and Mustafa Ceric of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The activity of the first PAIC assembly occurred on two levels: First were the open daily meetings about which very little was reported; they were followed by closed nightly sessions about which nothing was divulged. Indeed, the first great meeting of Muslim Islamists attracted little international attention, and its open sessions only received the most desultory coverage by Khartoum's captive press. And from PAIC I to the third and last PAIC general assembly held in 1995 there would continue a general ignorance of the movement's aims and objectives, especially as they related to Bosnia.

In response to an increasingly vicious war in the Balkans a secret meeting of jihadist leaders was convened at Tehran in February 1993. Bosnia's new Grand Mufti, Mustafa Ceric, served as spokesman for Bosnia president Alija Izetbegovic. Prior to his Tehran arrival, he was reported to have sought-out financial support in Malaysia, Sudan and Iran, and thereafter he would play a key role in the worldwide Muslim effort to provide men, arms and relief aid to Bosniaks. The February meeting at Tehran is considered a pivotal moment after which the Islamist movement united to provide Bosnia's Muslims with both arms and relief aid. Prior to that time a trickle of weapons had begun to flow through the Sudan to Bosnia, but what was needed was a flood of arms if Muslim Bosnia was to survive. The Tehran meeting provided what had been missing.

In 1993 Mufti Mustafa Ceric was named the Rais-ul-ulema of Bosnia. As for Izetbegovic, his victory in the Balkans would eventually be secured by the November 1995 Dayton, Ohio, Peace Agreement of November that guaranteed the survival of Muslim Bosnia. In truth, it was not only a triumph for Izetbegovic, but for the Jihadists, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Saudi and Gulf financiers who bankrolled the Muslim revolution. Both the Islamists and the Jihadists felt they had won a solid toehold in Europe from which to operate in Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo. Unfortunately for the Ikhwan, despite five years of fighting the Bosniak people were exhausted and seemed as heterodox as ever. And even though Izetbegovic's tenure would last through 2000, the vast majority of local Muslims rejected the trajectory of revolutionary Islamism that he and his Ikhwan allies had plotted. - Also in 1993 Mufti Mustafa Ceric was named the Rais-ul-ulema of Bosnia. As for Izetbegovic, his victory in the Balkans would eventually be secured by the November 1995 Dayton, Ohio, Peace Agreement of November that guaranteed the survival of Muslim Bosnia. In truth, it was not only a triumph for Izetbegovic, but for the Jihadists, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Saudi and Gulf financiers who bankrolled the Muslim revolution in Bosnia. Both the Islamists and the Jihadists felt they had won a solid toehold in Europe from which to operate in Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo. Unfortunately for the Ikhwan, despite five years of fighting the Bosniak people were exhausted and seemed as heterodox as ever. And even though Izetbegovic's tenure would last through 2000, the vast majority of local Muslims rejected the revolutionary Islamism of both he and his Ikhwan allies.

With the retirement of Izbetgovic, Mustafa Ceric continued his work in Bosnia. Following 9/11 he was "in the forefront of [those] crying discrimination" when the United States began to attack Bosnia charities for their support of Al Qaeda. http://www.mediareviewnet.com/BOSNIAs%20Islamic%20community%20accuses%20govt%20of%20discrimination.htm


While Ceric awaits events, his critics maintain that he is no different from other Ikhwan in that his speeches are Janus-faced. In English they are honey-coated while his sermons in Bosniak and Arabic breathe fire. As one critic has put it, "In his own country, he is promoting everything but peace. He invites Muslims to hate the "godless", and threatens them, very directly and publicly, with violence. These speeches increase the tension.... minimizing any possibility for reconciliation", He is said to have threatened such international NGOs as the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, and the Center for Non-Violent Action for their 'Islamophobia". ("Sarajevo Islamic Studies students slam Bosnian Islamic Community head," Bosnia-Hercegovina Federation public TV 60 Minutes current affairs program, on 24 November 2008; see BBC Worldwide Monitoring, 28 November 2008.)

The global media is reporting that the Reis-ul-ulema, Chief Mufti Mustafa Ceric, who led the Islamic Community for the past 19 years, will hand over the post to Kavazovic in November when his term of office expires. Few changes are expected in Bosnia as Kavazovic, appointed Mufti in Tuzla in 1993, is an Islamist and is known to be very close to Ceric. He studied Sharia law at Al Azhar in Cairo and is also said to be a Muslim Brother.

As for Dr. Ceric, despite his infrequent questioning of some of Qaradawi's rulings, the media that follow the Ikhwan al-Muslimun consider him the natural successor to the Egyptian-born ideologue. However, if the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leadership has someone else in mind it is acting with discretion, and for the time being it is keeping that decision to itself.

J. Millard Burr is a senior fellow with the Economic Warfare Institute, from where this article is adapted.

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