Accepting Difference is Key: It is important for us to define and start promoting shared values

Text: Marija Milenković

MUAMER ZUKORLIĆ, Member of the Serbian National Assembly, Chairman of the Committee for Education, Science, Technological Development and Information Society

Muamer Zukorlić speaks about his childhood, his choice to become a mufti, but also about the chances of maintaining stability in the Balkans.

How did your childhood influence your formation as a person; your attitudes and further development?

 — I was born and raised in a family with clear principles of spirituality, the tradition of a family that has its own tradition, a very large family that lived in the community. As a child I did not understand that well enough, but now I see that all of my capacity for communion and community, my ability to cope in complex systems, was in fact sown back then. My grandfather was most responsible for my education, because he was actually the most learned man in the whole area – he was an imam. I was in a position to from my early childhood to hear expositions from books on religion, history.

You studied in Algeria and completed your studies in just three and a half years. Tell us more about that. How come Algeria?

 — After completing primary school, I enrolled in the secondary Islamic school, madrassa, in Sarajevo. At the age of 15 I left my place and that was a special experience for me. This was a new hardening, both because of the ways and dynamics of life, but also a kind of challenges in the boarding school. The Arabic language was then my love and I wanted to study abroad. Islamic studies are unthinkable without the Arabic language, the Qur’an is in Arabic, like most literature, and I realised that I could not go further in familiarising myself with Islamic teachings without the Arabic language. I knew that I would master Arabic most successfully if I studied at some Arabic university. Then, like today, only children who had strong support from the system or financial support from their family could study abroad. I did not have those conditions, but I was very willing and, with three friends, we decided to set out “off the cuff”.

At the age of just 23, you arrived at the head of the Islamic community. What did the selection of you in particular for that position look like?

 — I completed my studies in 1993, right in the year of chaos in the Balkans and in Yugoslavia – there was war in Bosnia, a desperate situation in Serbia, persecution in Sandžak. My Algerian friend said to me, “Go, return to your people when they are in difficulty. If a tragedy occurs there in which you could lose your loved ones, then the meaning of your life with all of your titles is brought into question”. For me, that was a moral lesson and it was then that I decided to return. I already a one-year-old child and I sought to be allowed to teach in the madrassa in Novi Pazar, but I didn’t expect to receive much of a chance. However, I started teaching and was overjoyed. With the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the unified Islamic community also disintegrated, and the Mešihat Islamic Community of Sandžak was formed, and then it was necessary to select the cadre of this community and a mufti. We had two competing groups within the Islamic community and each had its own candidates. They were positioned antagonistically and could not agree on a candidate, so they decided to delegate someone who did not belong to any faction. I had only just come back from my studies and was the only one who did not belong to any group. I was shocked myself with the selection, but I’m also a person who has never run away from challenges. I was not conscious of what was waiting for me. Everything that to be built from scratch. Then I said, “I don’t know how long I will be the mufti, but rest assured that I will try to be proper for as long as I am”. It was very difficult, but it was a great honour, because that was a unique case in the history of that function. I didn’t think it would last, but for as long as 23 years I was the mufti. I was reselected many times, but in 2007 I became the chief mufti of the Islamic Community in Serbia. I am proud because we have the best system of the Islamic community in the wider region and in Europe, which realised that it could not be the same as those from the 19th or the 15th centuries, but rather that it must be an institution that will monitor the challenges of the times. I realised that the key to the success of the community was the education system. Thus we formed an independent madrassa, and after that two female departments, then 12 nursery schools, while we also formed a new gazette. After that we founded a humanitarian organisation. Then we established theAcademy, which grew into the Islamic college, but also into an internationaluniversity. We are the only Islamic community to have formed an international university. Faith is not something that is important in itself, or sufficient in itself, but is rather a value system the quality of which is weighed in the quantities of good that you produce for other people. The quality of your faith is not measured by the intensity of your ceremony, but rather the fruits of faith should be in society. That which people do that is good for their family, but harmful to others, is not charity but rather a particular interest that has something toxic within it, something that is not good. My perception of faith and goodness is that what you do must be good for all. That’s why I considered it good for us to enable students from Novi Pazar to study in their town, and not to pay for accommodation elsewhere. The lack of higher education institutions eliminated any chance of that area developing. The establishment of that university launched an avalanche of developmental events, an influx of residents, inflows of money… With that we rounded off the system and laid the foundations for a new Sandžak.

You are writing a book entitled “Ancient Bosnia”. What idea led you to write a book and can you tell us something moreabout its contents?

 — Until the age of 40 I avoided writing serious academic materials, because I considered that those who prematurely wrote about serious subjects were forced to abandon their stances after a certain time and change them. That’s because a man matures regardless of axioms and maturity is needed for you to reproduce knowledge and offer some of your insights to other people. For the last seven years I’ve been dealing intensively with different areas – ethics, political science, international relations… but the book, which is already printed, is an interesting material under the title “Ancient Bosnia”.  Following the traces of one question about the faith of old Bosniaks, I was particularly interested in the phenomenon that occurred in 1463, when Sultan Mehmed Fatih came to Bosnia and in one day around 40,000 families accepted Islam, while throughout the Balkans the Ottomans met with various forms of resistance. I didn’t stick exclusively to religious historiography, but rather extendedthe topic to ethno-genesis andto the culture and the language. Idid not stick exclusively to Bosnia, but rather also touched on the ethno-genesis of the Balkan peoples,and came to the excellent discovery that Balkan cultures and Balkan nations are substrates, i.e. that there are no ethnically pure Balkan nations. We are all crossbreeds. The only question is the extent to which we are substrates.

What would you highlight in particular for this region of ours, the entire Balkans; what are ourchances of maintaining stability? Do we have the same genetics and can we accept differences?

— We have to go a little deeper, which is why it was important for me to touch on the roots, ethnogenetically and culturally. It is important for us to define and start promoting common values. As small nations in the Balkans, witha very intertwined ethno-genesis and culture, we were for centuries the servants of various empires and there resides the root of our civilisational inferiority, because from Illyria – which was some 2500 years ago – to this day, we have never had our own Balkan empire, but rather we have been an area that he hasconstantly been occupied by various empires, and during that time we formed a servants mentality, which is very negative, because for one who is oppressed it is always easier to hit one’s own than someone else. There grows the virus of ethical opposition between Serbs, Bosniaks, Albanians and Croats. We must resolve this in the sense of perception in our heads, between the intellectual political elite, and set out with a new wave of defining and promoting those common values. We have much more in common than that which divides us. My basic political idea is the idea of reconciliation, which I have defined as the foundations of my political learning and action. Without sincere and embedded reconciliation, the Balkans does not have a stable future. Reconciliation should have two principles, the first of which is an equal relationship towards actual events, in particular crimes. Let science investigate where there is the possibility of a judicial prosecution, because we need the truth, even if it is bitter. That should also be allowed to unfold without spasms, without antagonism. A past that was marked by many crimes, sometimes of genocidal proportions, should not be our direction – studying the past should be our direction for the future, in terms of lessons learned. When it comes to political relations, reconciliation is based on compromise, and that is the second principle of reconciliation.

You collaborated with Zoran Đinđić and now you cooperatewith this government. Are there any commonalities in their politics?

— What they have in common is that they offered their hand to me and my people, which I experienced as being in good faith and friendly, as an opportunity for something we have awaited for years. This is that we have at the head of state an individual or group that will have the statesman’s capacity to, in their rhaetoric and practical functioning, prove to all citizens that this is their country. I can represent my people with dignity if my political engagement enables and helps them to be personally and collectively safe in this country, to not be treated differently because they are a minority and because they are different in religious or ethnic terms. This is our essential demand. With Zoran Đinđić I was met with a lot of understanding that had an incredibly positive dynamic, and as a result of that the International University of Novi Pazar emerged, as a project of understanding. With the arrival of Aleksandar Vučić inpower, we received a new chance with a somewhat reduced dynamism compared to that which happened in 2001 or 2002, but in the same direction. My compatriots in Sandžak and Serbia recognise that opportunity, with everything that burdens these relations, whether ideological, political, social or economic. On that basis I actually reached an agreement with Prime Minister Vučić on the inclusion in the ruling majority of two members of parliament from the political party to which I belong. We are moving forward, building a new future stone by stone.

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