“The challenge with Bosnia,” Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán commented in a recent speech on EU enlargement, “is how to integrate a country with two million Muslims.” In Sarajevo, there was outrage. “It is not a challenge for the EU to integrate two million Muslims,” Bosnian co-president Šefik Dzaferovic replied, “because we are native European people who have always lived here, and we are Europeans.”
Far-right political leaders in Hungary, Poland, France and elsewhere continue to deny that historical fact, instead peddling the long-standing myth that Islam and Europe are incompatible. In this fascinating new book on the Islamic communities of the Balkans between the retreat of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the Iron Curtain, Emily Greble shows how that idea ignores that “Muslims have been part of modern European history from the beginning”.
For centuries, large Muslim populations have lived across southeastern Europe, but after the Treaty of Berlin in 1878, millions found themselves living in newly independent nation states or in the Christian Austro- Hungarian Empire. Across imperial and nationalist Europe, Muslims were seen as “categorically unassimilable”, the antithesis of “citizen” and of “European”: a renunciation of Islam was still required to gain citizenship in France and its empire until 1946.
In the Balkans, however, Islamic communities were already deeply interwoven with the social and economic fabric. The region became “a place where foundational questions on the relationship between confession and citizenship were being hashed out”. By exploring debates over identity, Shari’a law, religious education and political Islam, Greble shows how Balkan Muslims helped to shape the way modern European society addressed ideas of citizenship, minority rights and secularism.
Instead of using the lens of the state to explore her subject, Greble approaches
it from the perspective of Muslims themselves, charting their efforts to negotiate a place in changing states and societies that often sought to exclude them. We learn of Abdulah, a businessman in Podgorica who was jailed for refusing to choose between exile and supporting the new Montenegrin army; Dzudiza, a peasant woman in Serbia who burned down her husband's house in her demands for a divorce under Sharia law; and Hasan Rebac, the Muslim Serb politician who decried the "Asian, medieval mentality" of conservative Islam.
Greble shows how Islam in southeastern Europe was deeply varied, with long-running debates between those who sought to find a voice in the modern state and those who feared their religion would be destroyed by it, especially after millions were displaced by the Balkan Wars, the first World War and the creation of Yugoslavia in 1918. Muslims, Bosnian grand mufti Dzemaludin Cauševic wrote, had been “caught completely off guard by this new era”, and had to modernise to adapt, not least in the emancipation of women: “We cannot deal with Europe,” he wrote, “if we do not prepare half our population.” Muslims challenged, compromised and adapted, shaping their society in the process.
Muslims could have been native to this land a hundred times over. but they continued to be treated as aliens that one should get rid of in whatever way possible
The hostility of state and society, however, also provoked a revival in Islamic conservatism, with many clerics focusing on reinforcing old traditions (such as veiling and bans on usury) and fighting for independent religious schools and courts. As one Bosnian journal put it, “Spiritual enlightenment and improvement is more important for our people than some empty politics.” But minority rights were a low priority for the authoritarian nationalism of the 1930s, and the idea of national citizenship increasingly seemed “rigged” against Muslims who were still portrayed as “a community apart”.
Yugoslav authorities drew up plans for the “resettlement” of Islamic communities and Serbian newspapers wrote that Muslim schoolchildren were being educated “in the enemy fashion”.
“My children do not know what an Arab is,” Dzafer Kulenovic, leader of the Yugoslav Muslim Organisation, wrote despairingly in response to allegations that Muslims belonged in the Middle East. “Muslims could have been native to this land a hundred times over,” wrote leading Bosnian cleric Mehmed Handzic, “but they continued to be treated as aliens that one should get rid of in whatever way possible.”
The Axis invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941 seemed to such leaders an opportunity to regain greater Islamic autonomy, and many aligned themselves with Croatian fascists and their Italian and Nazi allies; the SS even formed a Bosnian Muslim division, replete with a fez bearing the death’s head. But many clerics and activitists became appalled by the fascists’ genocidal war crimes and tried unsuccessfully to find space “back to Islam” between the Nazis and the Soviet-backed partisans (with whom many Muslims also fought). Tito’s communist Yugoslavia would dismantle much of Islamic religious society, and the Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo would face attempted genocide when that state eventually broke apart.
By reorienting our perspective, Greble reveals how vital it is to see Muslims as part of modern European history rather than outside it, how they were never “relics of a non-European past” but instead vital actors in Europe’s tortured modernisation. She also raises important questions about the continued unwillingness of states across the globe to “accept the existence and possibility of Muslim citizens”, from toxic political discourse in Europe and America to brutal persecution in India, China, and Myanmar.
This important book asks difficult questions about both past and present.
Dr Christopher Kissane is a historian, writer and host of the Ireland’s Edge podcast