Photo: Ammar Asfour, The Eye in Islam

The Bosnian experience of Islam in Europe

Patterns, challenges and perspectives

Never before has Europe saw, both at the intellectual level and in the media, more talk about the need of adjustment, finding and establishing sound relationships that will provide safe and peaceful future to all Europeans. Some key factors need to be established in order for this prospect to become reality: TRUST, RESPECT and SINCERITY.

Contemporary Western experience of Islam “Islam is essential part of modernity. The contrast between Western and non-Western societies needs to be resolved by creating a new Western Islamic thinking and culture, that will enable Muslims to live in the West without any sense of contradiction,” observes one of most prominent Muslim intellectuals in Europe, professor Tariq Ramadan reviewing the state and challenges of Muslim presence in the Old continent.

Never before has Europe saw, both at the intellectual level and in the media, more talk about the need of adjustment, finding and establishing sound relationships that will provide safe and peaceful future to all Europeans. Some key factors need to be established in order for this prospect to become reality: TRUST, RESPECT and SINCERITY. “Unless Western civilization intellectually and socially, politically and economically, and the Christian church theologically, can learn to treat other men with fundamental respect, these two in their turn will have failed to come to terms with the actualities of the twentieth century,” warned Canadian scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith in the late fifties. Those claiming “European” to the exclusion of their Muslim neighbours need to evolve their attitudes and stance and overcome fears driven by prejudice. However, its up to Muslims to also take their part of shared responsibility by clearly defining their inclusion and belonging to this evolving Europe.

The history of Islamic civilization is congested with examples of adaptation and accommodation of the composite Islamic system to the space and time, i.e., to the conditions in which a new religious system found itself. That adaptation was always complex and (intellectually) guarded process. However, there had always, within the Islamic thought, from the earliest days when the Revelation to Prophet Muhammad was still descending from the Heaven, existed distinction between essential or core issues and those of more marginal importance – those that can be reconciled with the Islamic ideal and circumstances of time and space. There is an ever increasing presence and acknowledgment, and recently even propagation, of the idea within European circles that its culture and tradition is not to be viewed as grounded in exclusively Judeo-Christian religious tradition.

A more inclusive idea is promulgated that has more realistic approach which looks at European roots as tripartite – in terms of Judeo-Christian-Islamic basis of European culture and tradition. Muslims should recognize and greet and find a way “how to know” to support this. Nevertheless the worries of today’s Muslims need to be understood. They are in delicate situation and dilemma: How to reconcile their inner religious concepts with those prevailing in the outside world. This is what integration as such requires.

European Islam as framework

Islam is a universal religious system applicable in every time and place – therefore – it is important not to think or view Islam and the West as two separate, monolithic terms: “I am Muslim and European, does not in any sense mean these two identities are in contradiction!” Islam has always been ingredient part of European history, culture, art and it is integral part of Europe’s present and future. This fact is impossible to ignore even if exclusivist circles aspire to do. How actually the idea of European Islam stands today?

European Islam is a framework which, if viewed from the point of relevant Islamic concepts, fits today more into the conditions of common interests (maslahat al-ammah) and steadfast creative worldview (ijtihad) than other ideologies adapting to the processes of globalization. This choice has much more to promise than other questionable concepts present with some Muslim groups and individuals. It is too common to find certain groups or individuals who do not accept the realities but want to change it according to their own often “unreal” wishes. While, on the other hand, Islam had always been the religion of realism, reality – with a realistic view toward both this world and the Hereafter.

In the context of this debate, Muslims must move from the periphery of European intellectual arena and enter into its centre, because the issue of European Muslims today is not to be left aside or to some opportunistic and voluntaristic circles, not to mention, the crudeness of media. One of the most present, but still least understood terms, about which we hear all the time is globalisation.

This phenomenon threads on our shared society from a political, economic and religious point of view. We need to stress, in line with our theme, that globalization, even though extremely illusionary concept, but very present in one way or another, has to be approached and treated in particular in its most realistic appearance, which is economy. We need to evolve from apocalyptic views of these phenomena, ones that are rather common, especially within some Muslim inteligentzia that present it as a dangerous anti-Islamic process. In the West there are many thinkers who see these phenomena as cause of disturbances in various segments of society, culture and values.

French play-writer Guy Debord, in his book Society of Spectacle (1967) stresses that modernity reached its end in terms of usable function in service of capitalism. “In the West we are entrenched in societies of spectacle and illusions, and our duty is to fight against misrepresentation and wrong images of the world.” The understanding of the processes of globalization is crucial for European Muslims in the context of their actual momentum as well as to use its positive side – As for Bosniaks they never in their history had better vantage point to use these processes for the goodness of its people, Muslims and humanity in general.

Challenges ahead for Muslims in Europe

Today one dangerous trend is present which can be traced back to 2004 and 2005 bombing of Madrid and London whereas intensive steps are taken within European countries to set the debate about Islam in Europe towards the blurry venture of resolving global terrorism. Unfortunately this debate has its heavy burden which ballasts the dialogue as well as the position of European Muslims, especially those of non-European origin. In this regard Muslims must prove capable of facing the problem, understanding the challenge and fears of their non-Muslim environment, and recognizing the responsibility for actions toward resolution in order to avoid the worst scenario – confusion and distrust on all sides.

Nowadays, a large number of initiatives are open toward this direction in Europe, and it seems that total confusion and disorder prevails on all sides regarding the debate. There is evident competition among the various levels of these two blocks for first row positions at the fora which distorts the very idea and spoils the quality of the exchange by putting together least competent elements to discuss crucial issues important for both Europe and its Muslims.

The institutionalized representation of Islam is now established idea promulgated by some Bosnian circles gathered around Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric. According to this block the idea is to be promoted, notwithstanding pessimism and suspicions, to the extent that some project it as utopia. However, the pattern we have today in the organizational structure of Islamic community of Bosnia and Herzegovina is proof that the situation is moved from ground zero level. For if we stay in a pessimistic mood of thinking we are at the brink of falling into the opposite state of dystopia that lead to widening gap between aforementioned agencies. The process of institutionalized teaching and representation of Islam in Europe has begun before us, and to be part of the solution let us give this idea a chance. 

Otherwise, the situation stays stalled. Therefore, European societies and Muslims within them, especially Bosnian Muslims as native Europeans, will have to find ways of resolving today’s inflammatory climate. This climate has two very important factors to be taken into account: inside elements that make relations within Europe tense (such as terrorism, provocations – cartoons and anti-Islam movies, and other kinds of islamophobia); and outside elements – various political problems in wider Muslim world (wider Middle East) instantly delivered before us by today’s fast means of communication and affect the general climate. Muslims in Europe must build a kind of “defence mechanisms” to uphold those potential situations, especially when their pro-active and balanced engagement is needed in situations when the causes of problems are outside Europe.

Europe and institutions

From the prospective of political theory, the question of European Union is something very concrete, but theoretically very illusory: “The European Union is still most illusory and unreachable concept of all subjects of study among social sciences (humanities). It is not state, nor an international organization. It is unique experiment that implies national in European and European in national.

The foremost thing that differentiates Europe is its institutions. This fact must be taken into account by European Muslims if they tend to incorporate into tripartite vision of Europe. If European Muslims want to be partners of Europe they have to speak to it in language it understands – i.e., to insist on institutionalized approach toward representation and interpretation of Islam. There are many challenges to this agenda:

The question of single Muslim authority is one of crucial, about which Grand Mufti Ceric gave scholarly explanation (European View, 6:41-48, 2007) Theoretically, based on Islamic teachings and concepts – the idea is easy to develop, in theory. In terms of its practical application it is long term process and Bosnian Muslims, having their special status today, (dispersed across the world in diasporas, especially in Europe) they can give this process a key momentum.

“It is time”, as Ceric holds, for Muslim intellectuals to offer Europe a “Muslim social contract!” On the other hand, intra-Muslim contract and dialogue is a case of emergency. It is simply needed to uphold the wider agenda. If Muslim intellectuals and leaders are ready to send open letters to Christians and Jews worldwide calling for open dialogue, why there does not exist single initiative for intra-Muslim dialogue with the main aim of developing single and clear stance. The consequences of failure to have initiative such us above mentioned are first and foremost reflected in the position of Muslims within Europe.

Internal Muslim issues are:

At the end I will try to identify some of the issues most pressing for European Muslims:

How to reconcile national with the creation of single Muslim European identity – which will come one day or another – and which will at the end detach itself from its roots creating a distinctive supranational – dominantly European – identity? Creation and building of this framework must go in hand with historical and traditional modes of interpretation of Islam within the context of Europe – Who are interpreters? Which institutions? What are educational capacities? Which school of Islamic thinking and jurisprudence are to be applied in Europe? etc.

How to resolve intra-Muslim frictions (often within the same nation) in fields like leadership and conceptions? – We consider the paradigm of the Islamic Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina can offer real basis for authority, balanced approached and mediated.

Even though the framework of the development of the Muslim European identity needs to be at one synchronized level – the status of Muslims in each European country has to be moved forwards. How to build single platform of the approach toward official institutions of host countries and which to follow?

How to reconcile the place and role of every organized Muslim community or national Islamic communities and the degrees of isolationism they all have with the processes of integration?

Does the Islamic Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina with its network of diaspora organizations have the capacity to move forward in the institutional development of European Muslims, and to what extent it can expect to be received as leading institution in Europe?

The last problem lies within the field where Muslims in general are very weak: media and the multidimensional challenge of language, type and way of communicating the message. Positive signs are there, and we just need to identify them and to take the lesson.

* Mirnes Kovac is a Bosnian journalist who worked as an editor for newspapers like Preporod (Islamic Newspaper in Bosnia), Al Jazeera Balkan and The Huffington Post. He graduated from Faculty of Islamic Studies in Sarajevo, and obtained MA degree in International relations, Middle East Politics, at Sussex University, UK.

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