Islam in Europe

"Bosnian Islam" as a Model?

How can Islam be integrated in Europe? One answer might be offered by the model of Bosnian Islam. For centuries Bosnia has been practicing Islam, albeit in a more moderate form. Zoran Arbutina reports

Although immigrants from Muslim countries have lived in Europe for decades, only in recent years have they received greater attention among the Western public. This is largely due to the September 11 attacks of 2001.

The result is that the fight against terrorism has become a top issue on the political agenda. References to "the Islamic threat" or stereotypes about Muslims and their religion have become much more common.

But on the other hand, awareness has also grown that Islam is a part of Europe's reality and must be integrated into its majority Christian society. Thus began the search for a form of "European Islam."

An Islam that conforms to European norms

It has been found in Bosnia-Herzegovina. For centuries - ever since the Ottoman conquest - Bosnia has been practicing Islam, albeit in a more moderate form.

This Eastern European country also has a long history of experience with a multicultural society, explains Prof. Thomas Bremer from the Ecumenical Institute at the University of Munster. He believes that the particularities of Bosnian Islam stem from the country's long experience of living together with Christians:

"Bosnian Muslims lived together with Catholics, Orthodox, and Jews for centuries during the Ottoman Empire, and during the Yugoslavian period after 1918 they developed a unique approach that was open to dialogue with other religious communities. They also have a keen awareness that they need to develop a form of Islam that fits in with European norms and values."

"My Sultan is sitting in Brussels!"

This tradition can also been seen in the present. The highest representative of Bosnian Muslims, the Grand Mufti of Sarajevo Reis ul Ulema Mustafa effendi Ceric, recently said: "My Sultan is not in the East, my Sultan is sitting in Brussels!"

The message conveyed by Bosnian Muslims is that "we are Europeans," says Munir Hodzic, Imam of the Bosniak community in Frankfurt. "We are not oriented toward the East, as many people imagine; our perspective is Western. Our future lies in European integration. We are a part of Europe, we were born here and no one can transplant us elsewhere. We are here!"

This is also an important argument in debates about whether Islam has a place in Europe, says Lale Akgün, integration speaker for the Social Democratic fraction in the German Parliament. All those who claim that Europe and Islam do not fit together are proved wrong by the fact that Muslims are living in the midst of Europe – without conflicts with their neighbors or one another, according to Mr. Akgün.

Following numerous terrorist attacks in the name of Islam in recent years, including those in Europe, all over the West Muslims have been automatically equated with extremism. The Bosnian experience with Islam offered an attractive alternative in the face of this climate.

The phenomena associated with fundamentalism or Islamism are not present in Bosnia, according to Thomas Bremer, or if they are, then only sporadically. Bosnian Islam stands for openness and dialogue.

Partnering with local authorities

One particularity of Islam in Bosnia is its unified structure. The leader of this Islamic community is the "Reis ul Ulema," an elected and unanimously recognized Mufti.

Ahmet Alibasic, Professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies and Director of the Institute for Inter-religious Studies in Sarajevo, is convinced that this aspect of Bosnia's experience could be very important for Europe:

"I believe that the idea of the Bosnian Islamic community as an organization for all Muslims of the country that also represents a partner for local authorities yet still remains independent is something that ensures its credibility and integrity," says Mr. Alibasic.

"Local Muslims are thus not oriented toward transnational religious authorities from Yemen or elsewhere who lay down rules for them that they cannot follow in a Western context."

These ideas could also prove very pertinent to the German authorities, although it must be remembered that the Bosnian model of Islam emerged in a specific historical context and cannot simply be transplanted to another country.

The prerequisite for adopting a Bosnian model for Islam is proficiency in a common language. The many Imams who live and sermonize in Germany cannot even communicate with one another because many do not speak German.

Bosnian Imams, who have always told their constituents to integrate themselves, started offering religious instruction for children in German. And they are even working together with German authorities on a project, explains Ferid Kugic, Imam of the Bosniak community in Stuttgart:

"The project entails training for Imams who were born and attended school in Germany. They are to study here and also for a time in Sarajevo. It is thus not important if you are Arab or Afghan or Bosniak. It is only important that all communication takes place in the German language. In this way a 'German Islam' can emerge from all these nationalities."

Zoran Arbutina

© Deutsche Welle/Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Christina M. White

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