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Revisiting Europe’s Muslim Heartland

In their new book, two French scholars provide valuable insights on Balkan history over the past 200 years.

by John K. Cox 19 December 2017

Europe’s Balkan Muslims: A New History, by Nathalie Clayer and Xavier Bougarel, translated by Andrew Kirby. London, Hurst and Co., 2017




The fall of communism in Eastern Europe did not exactly simplify life for Muslims in the Balkans. The year 1989 was one in which many countries in the region broke their alliances with the Soviet Union and began to jettison both centrally planned economies and single-party political systems. If that was the start of the transition “back to Europe” for countries from Poland to Romania, it was the beginning of a very different set of transformations for the Muslim populations of southeastern Europe. In Europe’s Balkan Muslims: A New History, the accomplished French scholars Nathalie Clayer and Xavier Bougarel of the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris, examine the post-1989 changes, and many others, in an effort to fill a huge gap in our understanding of religious diversity and evolution in a part of Europe that only rarely grabs headlines.


This well-researched and very detailed book focuses on Muslim populations in 11 states of contemporary Eastern Europe. Historians nearly always argue over which countries are “Balkan” and which ones are not; people living in this region have certainly been known to do so, too, especially people from countries around the edges, such as Greece and Slovenia, but also from Croatia and Romania. That said, in the judgment of this reviewer, the regional designation “Balkan” is both historically attested and useful, if more complex than its journalistic usage would imply. There is, for instance, no reason to assume that entire countries – with their recently drawn borders – have to be squeezed into a regional designation that more productively can be seen as an amalgam of smaller and older regions; also, societies or polities (or even cultures) can, arguably, move in or out of the Balkan network, because what is at issue here is not geographical determinism or pseudo-scientific national “characterology.”


The authors do not attempt to define the Balkans beyond simply the geographical delineation of southeastern Europe. The countries that Clayer and Bougarel have chosen for their study include the states of the former Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania. That is certainly a workable approach. The reason for the omission of Moldova, which formed part of the medieval principality of Moldavia and, later, Romania, would seem to stem from the authors’ intention to focus on areas that were not incorporated into Russia or the Soviet Union.


Unity in Diversity


One essential key to understanding Clayer and Bougarel’s analytical approach is that the Muslim populations under study are autochthonous ones; that is to say, they are long-established and historically well-chronicled. Unlike in Western Europe, East European Muslim groups date from the time of the Ottoman Empire, which first entered Europe in the 14th century and grew to include pretty much all of the Balkans and parts of Central Europe by the 17th century. This is not to say that some Muslims have not arrived in the Balkans, especially in Serbia since the European refugee crisis of 2015-2016. They have, but southeastern Europe’s Muslim populations differ from those of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Sweden, and elsewhere, because of their origins during the 500 or more years of Ottoman presence. In the Balkans, Muslim populations consist for the most part of local groups who converted to Islam, or of Turks (and smaller numbers of Tatars and other groups) who settled on the peninsula between 1354 and 1914, while in Western Europe most Muslim populations are a phenomenon of the 20th or 21st century and originated as immigrants or guest workers from former colonies or Turkey, or as asylum seekers or refugees from Africa and the Middle East as the result of devastating recent upheavals.


Another key to understanding this work is that it is primarily a political history. There is a fair amount of demography thrown in, larded with some intellectual and economic history. The blend is a masterful one, but readers in search of social, cultural, or military history will definitely need to look elsewhere as well. One of the advantages of the authors’ concentration on political history, though, is that the evolution of the Balkan states around the Muslim communities gets explained very well, in addition, of course, to the evolution of those Muslim communities inside the Balkan states. It’s a kind of parallel approach, with a lot of push and pull and interconnections, and it provides ready context for developments within the very disparate non-Christian regions and populations.


Old postcard of Tirana. Public domain photo.


The notion of “disparate” provides us with a third key to understanding this fairly complex work. In the 11 countries under study, there are at least eight different ethnic or national groups that are predominantly Muslim. This high degree of linguistic and cultural heterogeneity makes it hard to generalize about the Muslim groups. This is all the more true because each of the sovereign states in which these groups find themselves also has a unique historical trajectory, with its own milestones of both state- and nation-building.


Finally, one more useful thing for us to keep in mind is simply the periodization of this book. Despite its general title, it essentially focuses on the post-1800 period. Within this span of over 200 years, it is the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after 1918 and then the end of the communist governments starting in 1989 that are the biggest turning points; it is to these two collapses, and the attendant changes at the national and international level, that the authors key their study of the evolving needs and perspectives of Muslim communities in the Balkans.


From the Adriatic to the Black Sea


Clayer and Bougarel have constructed their book on long, chronologically ordered chapters. They begin with some very important demographic information. Using a variety of sources dating from 1991 to 2011, they generate very reasonable estimates about the current size of the Muslim population in the 11 countries. The number comes in at 8 million, amounting to 12.5 percent of the overall population. Only Kosovo and Albania are true “Muslim-majority” countries, although Muslims are a plurality in Bosnia and Herzegovina and do form a clear majority in their half of the federal system, the Bosniak-Croat Federation. Although there are minor religious differences among Balkan Muslims, mostly in relation to Sufism, their common origin in Ottoman times means that most of them are Sunnis, of the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, like today’s Turks. The large Muslim populations that figure in this book are, in descending order of size, Albanians, Bosnians (now referred to more precisely as Bosniaks), Turks, and Roma. Smaller groups include Pomaks, Torbeshi, and Gorani (Muslims who speak Bulgarian, Macedonian, and Serbian, respectively), as well as Tatars.


The authors have chosen not to chop their book up into country-centered presentations, probably because that would make it more difficult to underscore long-term comparisons and contrasts. Clayer and Bougarel provide solid 19th-century background on the nature of Ottoman rule, beginning around the time of Napoleon, and on the “Eastern Question”: the contraction of the Ottoman Empire – even as it adapted and consolidated – because of the imperialist advances of the French, British, Austrians, and especially Russians. But for ease of discussion here, let us examine briefly some of the salient features of life for the Muslim communities in the 20th century.


In Albania, where 70 percent of the population was Muslim, the emancipation of women was a major theme in the interwar period, followed by a harsh repression of all religions under the Hoxha regime, beginning in the late 1960s. Today in Albania, as in Kosovo and Bosnia, there is a major revival of various kinds of Muslim spirituality under way. Bosnia was part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (later Yugoslavia) after 1918, but up to World War II its identity was regional, not ethnic; Serbs and Croats alike claimed the Bosnians as members of their own peoples. During World War II, the Axis conquerors gave Bosnia to the fascist Ustasha movement in Croatia, where the Muslim population became embroiled in the bitter multilateral civil war across the entire region that led eventually to the rise of the Yugoslav communists under Marshal Tito. After the war, Tito gave Bosnia and Herzegovina the status of an ethno-historical constituent republic in Yugoslavia, and then helped the Bosnian Muslims achieve the legal status of a “nation” equivalent to Serbs, Slovenes, and Macedonians (of whose official “birth” he was also the sponsor). After the breakup of Yugoslavia, the designation “Bosnian Muslim” was switched to “Bosniak,” the term widely used now both in independent Bosnia and in the diaspora.


In Romania, where most Muslims, both Turks and Tatars, lived near the coast in the farming region of Dobruja, there were major expulsions to Turkey in the 1930s, so that Romanians could seize the agricultural land; the remaining communities are small, but have been given educational and linguistic rights again since the fall of the Ceausescu regime. In the 1980s, the Bulgarian government began moving aggressively to denaturalize (by changing people’s names and banning the public use of Turkish) its large Turkish minority, estimated at up to 10 percent of the population, even as it tried to assimilate the ethno-religious community known as the Pomaks, who are Bulgarian-speaking Slavs who adopted Islam during the Ottoman period. A more severe conflict occurred in Kosovo, which was a part of Serbia (and Yugoslavia) until 2008. By the 1990s, the Muslim Albanian population there had risen to 90 percent, undermining Serbia’s historical claims to the region; the Milosevic regime began a campaign of brutal repression and then expulsion of the Albanians, which led to a major NATO military intervention. Today, significant Muslim populations remain in Serbia, especially in the Sandzak region and around the borders of Kosovo. These areas face developmental issues but no longer the ethnic cleansing of the 1990s.


The Tides of History


One thing that all the Balkan states had in common in the interwar period was that governments were busy “nationalizing” or homogenizing their populations to the extent possible, and little priority was given to the preservation of religious minorities, and other forms of diversity, on democratic or ethical grounds. As for the post-communist period, we see, pretty much uniformly, discrimination against Muslim (and, for that matter, non-Muslim) Roma, or Gypsy, populations, as well as the emergence not of pan-Muslim political parties, but rather ethnically based ones, so that Macedonia has Albanian and Turkish parties, and Romania has Turkish and Tatar ones, etc.


There are a few “takeaway” generalizations in the book, too, beyond these perspectives on individual countries, which are very portable and important. Two of these generalizations have to do with the 19th century, a complicated period in Balkan history when, at the exact same time that the Ottomans were radically reforming and even Westernizing their empire, all of the societies in their European holdings were starting movements for autonomy and eventually secession. Therefore, for instance, propaganda (then and now) aside, it is important to remember that most of these movements did not begin as anti-Muslim or even anti-Ottoman movements, born out of hatred of Islam or some kind of omnipotent racial or ethnic consciousness. Indeed Serbs and other South Slavs defined their nations, by mid-century, largely in linguistic terms, and from Croatia to Bulgaria a great deal of ink was spilled trying to prove that the Muslim and Christian populations were ethnically identical and belonged together politically.


A second unfounded assertion of nationalist historiography is that the Ottoman Empire was an economic disaster for Europe, and that it was only after independence that Balkan countries began to modernize and grow more prosperous. In fact the reverse was true. In countries such as Greece, Serbia, and Romania, there was a significant lag between secession and any kind of industrialization, and new “native” elites that quickly dominated the agrarian scene were more concerned with stability than innovation. On the other hand, the Ottoman sultans’ reforms in Bosnia and Bulgaria, when they were still part of the Empire, led to the concrete development of trade and infrastructure.


Moving to the 20th century, the authors’ assertion that the communist period, despite its one-party rule and centrally planned economies, was “not always a byword for oppression and privation” will generate more controversy. Clayer and Bougarel explain their reasoning here, though, arguing in part that although communist regimes initially considered religion backward and religious institutions dangerous, the severity of their attacks on Muslim and other practitioners soon came to vary widely, with Yugoslavia (and of course Greece) at the liberal end of the spectrum, and Albania at the authoritarian end. To some degree, the increases in education, job security, medical care, and other social benefits for all helped to offset the lack of procedural democracy.


In their conclusion, the authors present us with a final nuanced, but significant, interpretation of the post-1989 period: Although Muslim communities in the Balkans now have more international ties than ever, including to their co-nationals in the diaspora, to revived Ottoman-style institutions in Turkey, and to neo-Salafist or Islamist networks of various types in the Arab world, these ties have “contributed less to [their] radicalization than to their internal diversification – proof that Balkan Islam is no exception to the predominant transformations experienced by all religious communities in Southeast Europe, in a context of restoration of political and religious freedoms.” This assessment is accurate, and it is also a welcome sign of the “normalization” of the study of Muslims in the Balkans and, indeed, of that entire, large, and important section of Europe. Exoticism and exceptionalism do not make good history, and this valuable book gives the conscientious reader better alternatives.

John K. Cox is professor of East European history at North Dakota State University in Fargo. His historical publications include Slovenia: Evolving Loyalties (2005) and The History of Serbia (2002). He has published translations of fiction by Danilo Kis, Ivo Andric, Muharem Bazdulj, Ivan Cankar, and Miklos Radnoti.

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