Too Diverse to Domesticate
International scholars met in mid November in Stuttgart to consider what the ideal form of Islam for a European context might be ‒ if such a thing exists.
An estimated 20 million Muslims live in Western Europe. In many countries, the presence of a large Muslim minority has led to intense national discussions. The September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States stoked arguments in Europe that Islam was not reconcilable with European values and not compatible with democracy.
With such debates raging about Muslim "integration", many are looking to the way Islam is practiced in Bosnia and Herzegovina for the answers.
"Islam has long been practiced [in Bosnia and Herzegovina] in a secular environment and in a secular state," said Armina Omerika, a scholar of Islam at the University of Bochum in western Germany. "Also, there's a high level of institutionalisation of Islam there, and that institutionalisation has become the strongest support for the religion in that country."
Muslims make up the majority in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They live harmoniously alongside Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Sephardic Jews. Both this diversity and the 130 years during which the country was ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, have made Bosnian Islam what it is today.
Under the empire, a Muslim institution modelled on the structures of Christian churches was established. In fact, it was at this time that the role of the Grand Mufti, the leader of Bosnian Muslims, was introduced.
Omerika believes that giving the religion this kind of organisational structure could make Islam more welcome in Europe: "It's this form of institutionalisation that represents a known quantity for many Europeans, because they see parallels with the religious organisation found in church structures."
Back in the 1990s, German political scholar Bassim Tibi introduced the term "Euro-Islam," meaning a combination of Islamic principles and modern European culture and values. However, many scholars, such as Kerem Öktem of the European Studies Centre at Oxford, dislike the term and believe the idea of "European Islam" is not helpful.
"The main problem," argues Öktem, "is that there's a basic assumption that Islam is something foreign, something different, something that's not from Europe ‒ and that the religion must therefore be domesticated, Europeanised or nationalised."
This, he argues, is not the case; Islam has existed in Europe for centuries: Bosnia is not the only example; there's also Turkey, Albania and Bulgaria. And then there are the Tatars, who've lived in Poland for more than 600 years. They make up under 1 per cent of the population, but, according to Adam Was, an Islamic studies scholar at the Catholic University in Lublin, they've now been joined by a second wave of Muslims.
"These Muslims are students from a variety of Arab countries who came to Poland in the second half of the twentieth century. Most married in Poland and started families, and that's how the second group came to be," he said.
So there are Turks and Algerians, Albanians and Bosnians, Pakistanis and Iranians, and two streams of the religion in Poland alone ‒ all of them speaking different languages and all with different cultures and religious traditions.
"Is it even theoretically possible to find a model for such a diverse challenge?" asked Öktem. "Even on a theoretical level, I would say no. There is simply too much diversity, and this diversity must be addressed."
A unique European flavour
Was agrees that while there can be no unified European Islam ‒ whether Bosnian or otherwise ‒ there might perhaps be an Islam with a European flavour, as there is an African Islam, which differs from the Islam of South-East Asia.
"We need an Islam with certain European characteristics: democracy, human rights, freedom of religion. This will involve a process of reinterpretation of the Koran, and that will require a certain new exegesis of the holy scripture," said Was. "And that's a discussion to which Muslims, who have already been in Europe for centuries, can contribute."
© Deustche Welle 2011
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de