Asking difficult questions about the past and present

Book title:
Muslims and the Making of Modern Europe


Emilie Greble

Oxford University Press

Guide price:

“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 indignation. “It is not a challenge for the EU to integrate two million Muslims,” ​​replied Bosnian Co-President Šefik Dzaferovic, “because we are ethnic Europeans who have always lived here, and we are Europeans”.

Far-right political leaders in Hungary, Poland, France and elsewhere continue to deny this historical fact, instead peddling the long-held myth that Islam and Europe are incompatible. In this fascinating new book about Islamic communities in the Balkans between the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the Iron Curtain, Emily Greble shows how this idea ignores that “Muslims have been part of modern European history from the beginning”. .

For centuries, large Muslim populations lived in southeastern Europe, but after the Treaty of Berlin in 1878, millions found themselves in newly independent nation states or the Christian empire. Austro-Hungarian. Throughout imperial and nationalist Europe, Muslims were perceived as “categorically unassimilable”, the antithesis of “citizen” and “European”: a renunciation of Islam was still necessary to obtain citizenship in France and in his empire until 1946.

In the Balkans, however, Islamic communities were already deeply woven into the social and economic fabric. The region becomes “a place where fundamental questions about the relationship between faith and citizenship are being worked out”. Exploring debates over identity, Sharia, religious education and political Islam, Greble shows how Balkan Muslims helped shape how modern European society approached ideas of citizenship, rights of minorities and secularism.

Instead of using the lens of the state to explore its subject, Greble approaches
from the perspective of Muslims themselves, describing their efforts to negotiate a place in changing states and societies that often sought to exclude them. We learn that Abdulah, a businessman from Podgorica, was imprisoned for refusing to choose between exile and support for the new Montenegrin army; Dzudiza, a peasant from Serbia who burned down her husband’s house in his Sharia divorce petition; and Hasan Rebac, the Serbian Muslim politician who denounced the “Asian and medieval mentality” of conservative Islam.

Greble shows how deeply varied Islam in south-eastern Europe was, with long debates between those who sought a voice in the modern state and those who feared their religion would be destroyed by the especially after millions were displaced by the Balkan Wars, World War I and the creation of Yugoslavia in 1918. Muslims, wrote the Bosnian Grand Mufti Dzemaludin Cauševic, had been “completely deprived by this new era”, and had to modernize to adapt, in particular in the emancipation of women: “We cannot deal with Europe”, he writes, “if we do not prepare half of our people.” Muslims challenged, compromised and adapted, shaping their society in the process.

Muslims could have been a hundred times native to this land. but they continued to be treated like strangers who had to be gotten rid of in any way possible

Hostility from state and society, however, has also caused a revival of Islamic conservatism, with many clerics focusing on reinforcing old traditions (such as the veil and banning usury) and fighting for independent religious schools and courts. As one Bosnian newspaper put it, “Spiritual enlightenment and betterment are more important to 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 seemed increasingly ‘rigged’ against Muslims who were still presented 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 manner of the enemy”.

“My children don’t know what an Arab is,” wrote Dzafer Kulenovic, head of the Yugoslav Muslim Organization, desperately, in response to claims that Muslims belonged in the Middle East. “Muslims could have been a hundred times native to this land,” Bosnian religious leader Mehmed Handzic wrote, “but they continued to be treated as outsiders who had to be gotten rid of in any way possible.”

The Axis invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941 seemed to these leaders an opportunity to regain greater Islamic autonomy, and many aligned themselves with the Croatian fascists and their Italian and Nazi allies; the SS even formed a Bosnian Muslim division, topped with a fez bearing the skull. But many clerics and activists were appalled by the fascists’ genocidal war crimes and tried unsuccessfully to find a “return to Islam” space between the Nazis and the Soviet-backed followers (with whom many Muslims also fought). Tito’s communist Yugoslavia would dismantle much of Islamic religious society, and Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo would face attempted genocide when that state eventually broke up.

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 key players in the tortured modernization of Europe. It also raises important questions about the persistent reluctance of states around the world 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 the past and the present.

Dr Christopher Kissane is a historian, writer and host of the Ireland’s Edge podcast

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