Conclusion: the role of Islam in the formation of Europe
Muslims and the Making of Modern Europe
Emily Greble, Oxford University Press, £26.99
When discussing the historical role of Muslims in Europe, most authors focus on Muslims from the western part of the continent, many of whom arrived as immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. As a result, Muslims are easily identifiable as an “other” foreigner.
Emily Greble takes a different trajectory. In Muslims and the Making of Modern EuropeGreble centers his analysis on the Muslims of Southeast Europe who are native to the region and, despite this fact, have always been the subject of continuous stigmatization.
In light of current political tensions and targeted attacks on Muslims in Bosnia, which has seen inter-ethnic and religious hostility at its worst in 30 years, Greble’s nuanced account of the region’s social and political landscape has renewed the emergency. His work serves as a refreshing intervention to literature on various fronts. It subverts the stereotypical assumptions promulgated by the “Eastern Question”, according to which Muslims are portrayed as a mere ethnic minority living under colonial rule. Instead, Greble shows how they are a marginalized indigenous group that is by no means a monolithic, homogeneous entity.
By uncovering the region’s history through the lens of Muslims, Greble sheds light on their abilities as agents of change. Muslims were not just passive subjects but active citizens whose engagement was vital in shaping social norms, political, ethical and legislative structures.
Greble’s carefully crafted thesis serves as a counterpoint to a decades-long discourse on the clash of civilizations, which pits the region’s Muslims against Ottoman foreigners to scapegoat as and when deemed necessary.
The author offers a proposition that if secularism was the overarching goal of the new European state project, the role of religion, especially of marginalized or “altered” religious communities, cannot be overlooked or relegated to a mere “minority” issue.
This argument is presented in three historical parts, beginning with the transition of post-Ottoman power (1878-1921), through the Yugoslav nation-building project (1918-1941), and finally through the political reshaping in a post-World War II context. Europe (1941-1949).
Most historical analyzes of the region focus on state actions towards Muslim minorities. Greble points out that such an approach is lacking because it is riddled with institutional biases from the very sources and methods used to understand them.
Instead, the author takes Muslims, their lived realities, and their free will as a starting point and effectively manages to avoid such pitfalls.
What is most remarkable about this book is Greble’s self-reflective approach to tackling such a sensitive topic with great care.
Almost every chapter begins with an insightful and deeply personal historical account by a local Muslim that sets the stage for Greble’s assessment of major social, political and legal struggles.
With an enriching methodology, Greble explores the subject through first-hand and second-hand accounts of how Muslims have maneuvered in both the secular realm and in religious spaces, such as madrasah (Islamic seminaries), waqfs (local community funds), muftis and ulama (religious scholar) and Sharia courts. As a result, the reader sees how Muslims influenced change and directed the trajectory of constitutional democracies in Europe at key historical moments.
In taking this lens, Greble not only offers another account of the importance of the Berlin Congress of 1878, which enabled the demarcation of new territorial borders in a post-Ottoman world, but also conveys the story of how which Muslims have contributed to emerging narratives. around citizenship.
Fundamentally, we are exposed to Muslim leadership as more than just a docile, cohesive grouping, but a defining entity that has shaped the project of European citizenship by reshaping both imperial secular norms, as well as Islamic jurisprudential rulings according to their unique context, as opposed to a remnant of bygone Ottoman rule.
A fundamental difference that sets this book apart from other contemporary work on the subject is that the author highlights multiple intra-religious complexities found within Muslim groups in the region, from revivalists to reformists, and everything in between. . The fluctuating relationship between the traditionalist ulama, muftis and cadis (religious scholars, clergy, and judges) and the secular powers of the state are elaborately described in most chapters of this book.
Sometimes the ulama would be seen as allying with the state to acculturate Muslims to emerging politics in the region. As Greble shows, muftis in 1914 traveled through southern Serbia giving dawah (missionary work) to locals to encourage them to support the Serbian state. Similarly, the qadis of Montenegro in 1902 reassured local Muslims that by following the law of the land, they would be guaranteed their “Sharia rights”, which were loosely defined by the Muslim clergy.
This created a paradox for states: the role of nation-building and liberalizing Orthodox religious communities was entrusted to conservative clerics who, in turn, were guardians setting the boundaries and therefore interpreted and applied Islam to maintain their position of power. The consequences were twofold. As Greble suggests, “instead of becoming more tied to secular structures of state and society – through centralized law, conscription, political representation – Muslims in the former Ottoman lands were becoming more deeply tied to the Islam”.
Simultaneously, the rhetoric made more use of firmly entrenched Muslims as a minority.
On the other hand, ironically, it was the liberal reformist thinkers who sometimes opposed state regimes. Such internal divisions within Muslim spaces became more obviously noticeable under communist rule, where members of the same Muslim community fought on different sides.
For example, the author notes that some were aligned with the Communist regime, while others fought with Allied forces, and many still supported Islamic revivalist groups. In light of this, what is perhaps most intriguing is how the Communist takeover in 1945 managed to demolish any seemingly progressive movement that benefited Muslims in the region. And that brought them back to square one, with the abandonment of sharia and the removal of a mufti judicial system. Such crackdowns have caused greater frenzy among Muslims in the region and led to resistance movements in the form of activism and insurgencies.
Ultimately, the author offers a complex perspective not only of Balkan Muslims and their lived experiences, but also of the implications of this for society at large and the states themselves.
Greble’s remapping of the historical underpinnings of the history of Muslims and the Making of Modern Europe is not only a clear example of how Muslims are not a foreign entity to the region, but a call to overthrow the entrenched theory of the Great Replacement which uses this foreign “otherness” to aggravate prejudice and calls for ousting Muslims and other minorities from Europe, a land that has always been their home.