The Balkan Umma and the Making of 'Euro-Islam'

Dr. Ina Merdjanova, Director, Center for Inter-religious Dialogue and Conflict Prevention, Scientific Research Department, Sofia University, Bulgaria

March 11, 2008
Some European capitals have witnessed an emergence of radical Islam movements from the ultra- conservative Wahhabist from the Arabian Peninsula and Deobandi from Pakistan. A fair number of US officials are worrying about the possibility of radical Islam emanating from Europe, rather than the Middle East or Pakistan - as the conventional wisdom would otherwise dictate. There is a form of European indigenous Islam which dates back half a millennium or more, to the presence of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, which in various ways is different than the more radical Islamic movements elsewhere.

Dr. Merdjanova began her presentation by giving a brief historical and geopolitical overview of Islam in the Balkans, emphasizing the heterogeneity of this community. Merdjanova pointed out that while Muslim presence in Southeast Europe dates back to the 10th century, when various Asiatic tribes settled in the area, it was the Ottoman conquest of the Balkan Peninsula in the 14th and 15th centuries that brought the massive expansion of Islam to the region, thus adding to the long-term coexistence of various other faiths and traditions, such as Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism and Judaism. She noted that the rise of nationalism at the end of 19th century and the carving up of new nation-states in the Balkans brought an end to the Ottoman Empire and impacted overwhelmingly the Muslim communities there. They suffered various forms of discrimination and emigrated en masse to Turkey.

Islam, as all other faiths, was suppressed under Communism. After the end of the Cold War, Islam reemerged throughout the Balkans and many Islamic schools were reopened and new social, cultural and economic associations established. More importantly, political parties representing Muslim populations appeared in the region.

Recent dynamics of Islam in the Balkans, she added, cannot be discussed without taking a look at the larger regional and global geopolitical dynamics. Most Muslims in the Balkans are Sunni, but Sufi Islam is also represented by a number of tariqas (religious brotherhoods), such as Bektashi, Rifa'i, Halveti and others. Approximately eight million Muslims in the Balkans are divided ethnically and linguistically with the main communities being Albanians, Slavs, Turks and Roma. They are predominantly rural in countries like Romania, Bulgraria Greece and Croatia where they do not make up the majority and urban and rural where they either make up the majority or are very close to it, such as in Albania or Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Dr. Merdjanova presented a table of historical and recent political developments concerning Muslim communities in the Balkans. In Albania, she pointed out, the Muslim community had the most difficult time recovering from Communism because religion was heavily oppressed there; in Bosnia there was a liberalization religion in the late 1960s and consequently Muslims were able to rebuild their educational and social institutions, which was conducive to the construction of a national identity based on Islam.

In Bulgaria, the trajectory of development was different, she argued. There was heavy restriction of religion during Communism in addition to promotion of ethnic identity for the Turkish population at the expense of their religious identity. Assimilation policies led to Muslims, such as the Pomaks, Tatars and Roma, changing their names in 1960's - 70's and of the Turks in the mid 1980s. A reversal of these assimilation policies took place in Bulgaria after the fall of Communism, and Muslims are now represented politically, with their own political party – Movement for Rights and Freedoms.

For Muslims in the Balkans, the attachment to the local, national Muslim community has been primary to the attachment to the global umma. The idea or umma in the Balkans has been only occasionally mobilized as a political identity and as an alternative political order. After the end of the Cold War, Muslim political parties in the Balkans did not form an explicitly Islamic, let alone a pan-Islamic agenda. Merdjanova pointed out that, Even Alija Izetbegovic's party, the Party of Democratic Action, never advocated the establishment of an Islamic state. This is important to note when fundamentalist trends and radicalization of Islam in the Balkans are being invoked.

With the democratization of the Balkans various Islamic governmental and non-governmental organizations channeled money for Muslims in different Balkan counties, while competing for influence over the local communities. Many Muslims performed the annual hadj (pilgrimage) and/or went to study in Islamic universities abroad. However, according to Dr. Merdjanova, transnational Muslim interaction did not strengthen Muslim unity under the framework of the umma. The collision of different interpretations of Muslimhood brought up the realization that the Muslims in the Balkans are Muslims in their own way, adding that they are eager to emphasize that they are European Muslims. Balkan Muslims command a plurality of identities and are hardly over-determined by Islam. They do not even speak with one voice, she pointed out, and different interpretations of Islam compete not only between, but also within Muslim communities in the region.

Merdjanova pointed out that an important aspect of Muslim transnational interaction is related to the wartime experience of Bosnian Muslims, where Muslim countries provided support in the form of money, weapons, humanitarian aid, diplomatic initiatives, military instructors and combatants. An estimated 4 -6,000 mujahedeen arrived from Afghanistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to fight alongside their Bosnian faith brothers during the war between 1992 and 1995. The term jihad was unpopular in the Muslim mainstream in Bosnia. While the fighters from countries like Saudi Arabia saw the war in Bosnia as an opportunity to die as martyrs for the faith, the Bosnian Muslims saw the war as a means to liberate their country and didn't necessarily want to die in battle.

The conflict in Kosovo did not garner as much attention on the part of the wider Muslim world, Merdjanova pointed out. The influx of various Islamic non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from outside who tried to impose their version of Islam in Kosovo provoked outrage in local Islamic leaders. The former head of the Islamic community in Kosovo, Rexhep Boja stated that they don't need to be taught by outsiders what Islam is, since they have been Muslim for six hundred years and they will cling to their own Islamic culture and tradition. The collision of different interpretations of Islam even spilled into debates about mosques architecture, especially when it came to mosques that have been built or rebuilt with Arab money. The Saudi-financed mosques, with their stark style are strikingly different than the local traditional Ottoman style mosques, which are highly decorative. Authors like Stephen Schwartz, she noted, have even described the competition in Bosnia and Kosovo as a "mosque war."

In the discourse of European Islam, which covers both Islam in the Balkans and in Western Europe, she emphasized some very divergent trends. Western Europe is home to about 15 million Muslims and there are about 8.4 million Muslims in Southeast Europe, however the communities differ between, but also within themselves in terms of language, culture, traditions, socio-economic status and ideology. Muslims in Western Europe are minorities that are politically underrepresented; there are less than 30 members in parliament of Muslim background in all of Western Europe, and they are still striving for integration. Contrast this to the Balkans, where Muslims can be majorities in some countries, such as Albania and Kosovo, they have organized political parties almost everywhere in the Balkans and to a considerable extent have become integrated into the society.

Despite the differences between the two communities, Muslims throughout Europe are involved in the process of building "European Islam." Dr. Merdjanova posits that although vaguely conceptualized, this notion of European Islam has been a reoccurring theme of the political vocabulary in all parts of Europe. While appropriated at different levels, many European governments have perceived it as a potentially unifying project which can redress the two dominant European political approaches – assimilation in France and multiculturalism in Northern Europe in dealing with immigrants.

Dr. Merdjanova further explained that, according to some authors, the construction of a European Islam is important for west European Muslims and aims to better integrate them into society, particularly given widespread hostilities against them. The growing awareness of being European by birth yet profoundly different than the largely secular European environment inevitably demanded a new self-identification. Because of this, the debate on Euro-Islam is an attempt for the alignment of those Muslims in Europe who refuse to be disembodied by the European context. The project of Euro-Islam, however vague at the present time, adds a certain constructive and positive image of Islam, as a religion of peace and tolerance, she argued. This counters the post-9/11 images of Muslims as terrorists, she added. Balkan Muslims in turn claim a representative status for "their" Islam invoking their six century presence on European soil.

Dr. Merdjanova concluded the discussion by cautioning that there are important drawbacks and barriers to the formation of a pan-European Islam. There are enormous cultural and socio-economic divisions between Muslims in Western Europe and those in the Balkans. Also, there is no uniform understanding of what European Islam is. Some authors have cautioned that the project of Euro-Islam could empower radical Muslims who are better organized politically. For the time being, the growing popularity of the discourse has neither amounted to broad Muslim support nor gained social weight. Whether Euro-Islam will remain a talismanic sketch, or turned into a coherent and commanding project is still far from clear and depends on various socio-economic and geopolitical factors.