The Revival of Islam in the Balkans: From Identity to Religiosity

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 The Revival Of Islam In The Balkans
  • Book Author:
Arolda ElbasaniOlivier Roy
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Introduction: Nation, State and Faith in the Post-Communist Era

The growing specter of Muslim migrants has triggered a bourgeoning research on processes of contestation, adaptation and manifestations of Islam in Europe. In contrast, the resurgence of Islam across the post- communist Balkans, the historical stronghold of Muslims in Europe, has gone largely unnoticed.

If we heard about them, it was usually in the context of allegiances to the state, the rise of nationalism and violent conflicts brought to world attention by the media in the early 1990s. The violent dissolution of the former Yugoslavia has certainly sparked some academic interest concerning the Muslim communities involved, but the ferocity of the various conflicts has contributed to constrain- ing research only to the most striking cases and particular moments in time (Poulton and Taji-Farouki 1997: 1).

The occurrence of war and conflict has, moreover, left the exploration of the Islamic phenomena to the mercy of nationalism and post-conflict paradigms, which have essential- ized religion in line with ethno-national divisions of the day (Henig and Bielenin-Lenczowska 2013). Consequently, mainstream research tends to analyze religious groups as a repository of clear-cut ethno-national identities, the ends of which are closely monitored by the state in the interest of imposing communal uniformity and charting well-defined criteria for inclusion and exclusion.

Meanwhile, the gradual normalization of the political field and the liberalization of religious conduct in the two decades since the col- lapse of communism have unleashed a myriad of new encounters between newborn Muslim believers and state-organized religious cate- gories, as well as diverse modalities of ‘being Muslim’ across the region.

Post-communist ‘ruptures’ – particularly the trends of secularization, the incoming international influences, and participation within larger European normative spaces and networks – challenge, contrast and overlap with the static, one-size-fits-all ethno-national categories of the organized religious field. In this ‘open’ post-communist religious sphere, believers have the opportunity to search for faith, encounter many sources of identification, and are more apt to choose, replicate, but also resist and reinvent the state-led classificatory systems within which they maneuver.

In this context, the new Islamic phenomenon is no longer only the bearer of ethno-national political alternatives but also a symp- tom of new spaces that cannot be confined within a particular territory, state, nation or any communal identity. Hence, as Bougarel suggests, it is necessary ‘to outline a new approach to Balkan Islam that stresses its internal diversity and recent transformations’ (2003: 346).

This volume focuses on the growing gap between top-down ethno- national categories of state-organized religious fields and believers’ diversified personal experiences, discoveries and formulations of faith. We are particularly interested in conceptualizing and empirically exploring the emerging mosaic of Islamic religiosity, defined here as the way an individual believer experiences his or her relation to religion and faith.

Hence, we seek conceptually grounded and empirically informed analysis of the revival of faith in the post-communist era. The under- lining questions of this book are: What are the new encounters of faith after the collapse of communism? How do believers navigate the spaces between organized religion and new-found alternatives to faith?

 How do they choose what it is to be a good Muslim? What importance does it gain in their post-communist lives and how do they pursue it in prac- tice? And finally, where are we heading in this reconfigured relation between state-organized religion and believers’ faith?

Obviously, answers to these questions depend on the particularities of time and place, which have to some extent been taken into account in existing research through individual case studies. The added value and contribution of this collective volume is to tackle these questions from a comparative and analytical perspective, allowing us to embody the analysis of singular cases from the Balkans into broader theoretical and empirical findings on sources, patterns and modalities of the post- communist revival of Islamic faith. The book thus aims to go beyond the ‘state of the art’ in at least two ways: first, documenting and tak- ing stock of the empirical mosaic of new-found Islamic religiosities; and second, generalizing emerging patterns in the dynamic relation- ship between faith, organized religion, state and nation across different Balkan countries.

Ultimately, it aims to connect research on the revival of Islam in the Balkans to broader and pertinent theoretical issues on the relation between nation, state and religion, revival of faith in post- communist societies, as well as the evolution and traits of Islam in the larger European context.

This chapter opens the debate by challenging the existing research and sketching a new analytical perspective that focuses on believers’ experiences and relations to faith. The first section critically unpacks the existing literature on religion as a fixed ethno-national communal category.

The second section outlines the mechanisms that sustain the state-organized religious field and its underlying categories in the post-communist era. This is followed by a short survey of new develop- ments that challenge the official religious sphere and provide believers with new opportunities, ideas and practices to pursue in their daily practice. The subsequent section maps out expected trends in the post- communist religious landscape. The final section explains the structure of the book and summarizes consequent empirical chapters.

The following case studies analyze the experience of religiosity at the intersection of the secular and the sacred, blending a variety of global, international, regional and local processes. The findings pre- sented herein suggests that Islam, as framed at the top-down political level, remains an important marker of identities, but the experiences of religiosity have increasingly become a more personalized individual attitude, detached from organized religion and doctrinal official prescriptions.

Empirical chapters offer ample evidence of a certain misfit between official Islam and other ‘suppliers’ of religion, while believ- ers take ownership of their own local and individual ‘ways’ of being Muslim. The concluding chapter relates and expands these empirical findings to broader questions regarding the many actors who speak for Islam, the role of foreign influences, evolving patterns of religiosity and the dynamics and trends of Islamic phenomenon in Europe.

Islam as a national/ethnic marker

Existing research on Islam, similarly to that concerning other denom- inations in the Balkans, is permeated by an implicit and sometimes explicit assumption that religion serves to shape and demarcate clear national/ethnic boundaries. Religion in general is reduced to an ‘ethnic marker’, a crucial and divisive source of national identity. According to Creed, scholarly privileging of ethno-national identities, at the expense of local identities and localized forms of knowledge and practice, repre- sents an ‘example of Balkanism par excellence’ (2011: 168).

Insistence upon the role of religion in confining communal identities is par- ticularly related to the march of national ideologies and the many vicissitudes of state-building processes in this part of the world.

The enmeshment, and often subjugation, of religion to politics of national identity became especially pronounced during the violent col- lapse of Yugoslavia. Political entities that resulted from the dissolution of the federal state structure all claimed to represent a dominant ethnic- nation identified with a specific religion, by effectively managing a transformation process that Verdery has called the ‘extermination of alternative identity choices’ (1994: 38).

Yet, it was the appalling blood- shed and destruction in Bosnia-Herzegovina that brought worldwide attention to Muslim populations, their ethnic allegiances and nation and state formation process in the south-eastern corner of Europe. As an influential study puts it, ‘the Bosnian tragedy has made very clear the importance of examining the relationship between the Balkan Muslim communities and the states in which they live, as well as their self-definition in relation to these states’ (Poulton and Taji-Farouki 1997: 1).

Then came Kosovo, another oft-discussed case of conflict that developed along ethno-religious lines, namely between Muslim Albanians and Orthodox Serbs. Subsequently, the unfolding conflicts in Macedonia drew new attention to hard-core divisions between Orthodox Macedonians and Muslim Albanians, both barricading themselves into opposing fronts.

The unfolding battles for state authority, power, territory, and independent statehood in the 1990s, all made use of religious labels and symbols as crucial instruments for the reconstruction of a national ‘self’ against the opposing ‘other’ (Duijzings 2000: 157).

All the while, churches and mosques became the major targets of destruction and embodied emerging political, ethnic and religious divisions.

For many, those events recalled the historical course of ethno-religious entanglement, imbroglios and conflicts of the state-building process in the post-Ottoman Balkans. Centuries of Ottoman rule, and its millet system of organization, whereby religion defined separate communal identities, nurtured a strong sense of belonging, which was determined almost exclusively by religion (Poulton and Taji-Farouki 1997).

The weakening of the empire, in the 19th century, made way for competing European concepts of the organization of modern nation-state, and enabled the emergence of overlapping identities.

However, even where religion was eroded by competing sources of identification, institutional legacies, allegiances and daily practices at local level helped to preserve the delineation of faith-based communities, which continued to separate the emerging national units.

This was particularly the case regarding the separation of Muslims from their non-Muslim neighbors. In the age of state-building, these separate and somehow distinguishable communal identities were promoted, manipulated and usurped by political schemers in order to demarcate their nations, consolidate central state authority, reconfigure borders and, when necessary, wage wars against ‘others’.

Modern state-making presses its subjects toward single identities: one cannot keep track of people who choose to be one thing at one point and something else at another. In the Balkans, similar to the ‘construction’ of ethno-national identities in Western Europe, ‘the self-consistent person who “has” one “identity” is the product of a specific historical process: modern nation-state formation’ (Verdery 1994: 37). As Todorova has famously argued, ‘the Balkans [have become]

European by shedding the last residue of an imperial legacy, widely considered an anomaly at the time and by assuming and emulating the homogenous nation-state as the normative form of social organization’ (1997: 177).

Consequently, religion was taken out of the hands of the believers and subjected to various nation-state ideologies and political projects – secularism, patriotism, ethnic mobilization and state control – which had very little to do with faith itself.

Attempts by national ‘entrepreneurs’, but also by centers of religious power, to agi- tate for clear-cut identities and the eradication of elements of blend and mixture were liveliest in border and composite areas, where ethnic and national loyalties were at their most fluid (Duijzings 2000).

Islam, as the dominant faith enjoying particular social and legal pre- rogatives during centuries of Pax Ottomana, became the backbone of political contestation and social engineering in the process of re-imaging new national religious regimes after the dissolution of the empire. The predominantly Christian-Orthodox states that emerged from for- mer Ottoman Balkan territories in the period 1829–1878 – Serbia, Greece, Romania, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Bosnia – identified them- selves with the orthodox ‘millet’ in order to consolidate their statehood (Poulton and Taji-Farouki 1997: 25). Only Albania, which, given its multi-religious population, could not clothe nationalism with a sin- gle creed, promoted a new ‘ecumenical’ nation (Clayer 2008; Elbasani 2014).

Regardless of their composition, all post-Ottoman Balkan states targeted their Muslim populations as a leftover of the Ottoman occu- pation, almost a traitor in the midst of the new nations in the making (Katsikas 2009: 539). Even Albania, the only Muslim-majority country, renounced its Muslim population as a synonym of Ottoman back- wardness, and made such renunciation the central tenet of state-led reforms aimed to catch up with ‘new European times’ (Clayer 2008).

These legacies, ideologies and state-building strategies informed general state policies that were inherently defamatory toward Muslims: branding them as foreigners to be expelled; stigmatizing them vis-à-vis the dominant ethnic group; advocating measures of homogenization; or, at best, recognizing but merely tolerating them as an ethno-religious group.

Muslim communities, for their part, found themselves struggling to carve a new place for themselves amidst non-Muslim societies, new nation state ideologies and antagonistic state policies, as well as the shifting fortunes of the European geopolitical order. Indeed, they have been at the very center of the biggest crises that have shaken the region during the last two tumultuous centuries of nation- and state-building processes.

Politically organized religious ‘Fields’: Legacies, categories and transmission mechanisms

Re-wakened nationalisms of the 1990s, and new politics of identity and statehood, which were certainly suffused with ethno-religious sym- bolisms and old historical interpretations, turned into the dominant lenses through which to interpret Islam also in the post-communist era. To quote the findings of a recent study, ‘the top-down driven hegemonic interpretation of

Muslim politics as trapped in the politics of identity and inter-communal ethno-religious nationalism prevails in the media, political debates and international community’s projects as well as in academic discourses’ (Henig and Bielenin-Lenczowska 2013: 2). Violence has a crucial role in solidifying self-fulfilling prophecies: ‘it makes reality resemble the ideological constructs that underpin the vio- lence’ (Duijzings 2000: 33). Indeed, both during and for some time after

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