Four hours into meetings, and Mustafa Ceric is still holding court. The 65-year-old cleric is still clearly popular; the young and the old — and in all manner of attire — flock him to greet at a book launch at the Gazi Husrev Begova Library in the centre of Bascarsija.
Nearly everyone in the room wants to shake hands with him. Although dozens are waiting in line, Ceric is composed. Approaching those who are left behind after the talk, he asks about the health of each one.
Bosnia and Herzegovina experienced a genocide shortly before it was recognised as a country in 1995. The nation’s leading cleric, Ceric served as the Grand Mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1993 to 2013. He later ran in the 2014 presidential election as an independent.
The country is still recovering from the effects of the Bosnian War, a deadly conflict between Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and those of the Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat entities in early 1990’s. After enduring the Srebrenica massacre, are Bosnians optimistic?
MUSTAFA CERIC: People who have survived genocide are becoming more cautious and suspicious of the possibility of another genocide.
If you ask the Jewish people if they predict that the holocaust can be repeated, you will never get the answer ‘no’— even though they say "never again.” So after what happened in Bosnia — this “never again”— failed.
But we believe in God; we believe that God will decide in the end.
What we should do is to think and work as if genocide will never occur again, but we must prepare for the possibility of another genocide.
We have to work and we have to live as peace will be forever. But at the same time, we live as though war will happen again.
What are your views of Serbian President-elect Aleksandar Vucic — and his recent win?
MC: I am worried that all those who denied genocide can do it again. Serbian politicians tell us they are on the side of Bosnia, but we don’t see that.
Vucic is playing politics.
He hasn’t changed, and he’s not done anything to prove that he’s changed. He supported Republika Srpska [the pan-Serbian political group under the Serbian army during the conflict]. He does not admit to the genocide.
You cannot reconcile with words, but actions. He tells us sweet words, but we want to see sweet deeds to reconcile.
In September 2016, the EU accepted the country's membership application. But Bosnians remain concerned about escalating Serbian militancy. Do you predict any problems for Bosnia's EU bid?
MC: Bosnia will become part of the EU, because there is no peace in Europe if there is no peace in the Balkans. And there is no peace in the Balkans if there is no peace in Bosnia.
So Bosnia is key for the peace and security of Europe. The first World War started where? In Sarajevo. So Sarajevo is a second Jerusalem in the world — and the first in Europe.
Also, Bosnia reviving the genocide lawsuit against Serbia was a political manoeuvre, which tells us that Bosnians did not do their homework. We should continue working to make our case to the international community.
Terrorism experts say that Bosnian authorities have actively tackled threats posed by extremist elements. But the Muslim-majority country has been accused of being a new safe haven for terrorists, and a Bosnian version of Daesh's online journal has come out. Do you think that the group has found ground in Bosnia?
MC: I don't want to accept allegations of extremism. These are accusations aimed at suppressing us. If Bosniaks, who are majority Muslims, wanted to be terrorists [or join Daesh], they could have done this in 1996 when no one could say anything.
This means that Bosnia — in its spirit, in its soul, in its history — is not violent. Bosnia is a peaceful country. It is a peaceful land. People were called good Bosniaks, or dobri Bosnjani.
You don't have other nations that are called by such names — so there are no grounds for terrorism in Bosnia Herzegovina. It can only be because of some people who come from outside of Bosnia.
Throughout the war, you became known for your liberalism and moderation against a rising tide of hatred, inspiring a generation of Bosnians and Muslims abroad. But is multiculturalism and religious diversity in Bosnia and Herzegovina working now?
MC: Bosnia is defined by a spirit of multiculturalism. So if you want to define Bosnia, you say that Bosnia is the land of diversity.
Some say that Bosnia is the land of heretics. But Bosnia has its own identity, which is the core of multiculturalism and multi-faith diversity.
So if you ask me now, if there is a potential tension, I would say that Bosnia is like an ocean. When water is still, it does not move. It's useful for drinking. But when water is running, it becomes clear, clean and it is drinkable.
Bosnia is like a stream of water that is always dynamic, unpredictable and tense. And this is why it is lovable and unique. In Bosnia, you always have the potential of possible conflict, but at the same time you have the spirit of unity in diversity.
You ran in the 2014 presidential elections as an independent. What are your views of Bosnia's economic and political situation?
MC: If you compare Bosnia with other countries that experienced the war, like Lebanon, you will find that Bosnia is a miracle in terms of its recovery.
The economy is weak in Bosnia, but compared to what Bosnia went through in the war, I think Bosnia is on a good course for economic recovery. Political tensions will remain in Bosnia, as with other countries that have multi-ethnic states.
All in all, Bosnia is going through a historic process which cannot be defined easily — joining the EU and becoming a member of NATO is the way towards economic prosperity and political stability.