”Islamic intellectual thought of the modern times can be described as already ‘Europeanized’” – Interview with Armina Omerika

This article is part of the TRAFO series ”Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’”. Today, we put the spotlight on the conference ”At Home: Jews and Muslims in Eastern Europe”. The workshop is organized in a cooperation by the research program Prisma Ukraïna – Research Network Eastern Europe and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Osteuropakunde (DGO). It will take place on June 28-29, 2018 at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin.

Armina Omerika. Photo: Goethe Universität Frankfurt (Main)

Armina Omerika is Assistant Professor of Intellectual History of Islam at the Goethe University Frankfurt (Main). She obtained her PhD in Islamic Studies in Bochum with a thesis on the history of Islam in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 20th century. Since 2005, she has conducted teaching and research activities in History and Islamic Studies at universities in Germany, the USA and Switzerland. From 2010 to 2012, she worked on the project “Re-territorialization and local integration of transnational neo-fundamentalist networks in the Western Balkans”, as part of a research program realized jointly by the University of Leipzig and the University of Bochum. In summer 2014, she was Visiting Professor in Islamic Studies/Islamic Theology at the Academy of World Religions of the University of Hamburg, and in winter 2017/2018 Visiting Professor for Islamic Theology and Education at the University of Zurich.

She has published books and articles on the intellectual and religious history of Islam in Southeastern Europe, and on the relationship between Islam and politics in the Western Balkans. Currently, she is working on the understanding and conceptualization of history in the works of modern Muslim religious scholars and is examining the impact of historical thinking on contemporary Islamic theological discourses.

Workshop poster

Professor Omerika, you are one of the keynote speakers at the conference “At Home: Jews and Muslims in Eastern Europe”. Can you tell us something about your approach to the workshop topic?

In general, I have been increasingly interested in the relationship between Muslims and Jews in Southeastern Europe, both in terms of interactions and mutual perceptions. It is an area that I am currently starting to discover for myself. In this specific workshop, I will be focusing on the “Muslim” part, which is also in accordance with my actual areas of research, namely the history of Muslims in Southeastern Europe during the modern period. This includes both the social and cultural history of Muslim communities and the history of Muslim thought. Although I am focusing on the history of Islamic religious thought and in general on Muslim intellectual discourses on religion, these cannot be viewed without taking into account the larger contexts in which they were developed and by which they were shaped.

In my keynote I want to explore these relations and address the “big” turns of Muslim history during the 20th century. These are processes – especially the secularization – that are important both for the social and political status of Muslims as well as for Islamic and Muslim thought. In this regard, Southeastern and Eastern Europe do have many parallels, but also important differences, which I will be addressing.

One could argue that, from a historiographical perspective Islam in Europe is often limited to Andalusia and Sicily, while Eastern Europe tends to be ignored. From the perspective of a scholar specialized in the conceptual history of Islam: Would you claim that the presence of Muslims in Eastern Europe and their experience is neglected in the intellectual and public debate? And if yes, why is this?

Definitely. Although Islam and Muslims in Southeastern Europe have recently started attracting attention, particularly when it comes to  Bosnia, there is in general little public interest for the  historical experiences of the communities both in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, interest that would go beyond the currently interesting questions of political developments and radicalization processes, e.g. related to Salafism.

There are several reasons for this general neglect of Eastern European Islam. First, it has something to do with the ways both Islam and Europe are imagined and configured. In spite of being a global religion that has found many different expressions in different historical and cultural contexts, Islam is still somehow connoted with the Arabic-speaking Middle East, Iran and, to some extent, Turkey. In Islamic studies these regions have traditionally been the centre of “Islam”. Second, Eastern Europe has had an ambivalent position in the changing configurations and on the mental maps of “Europe”, shifting between belonging and somehow still not belonging to “Europe”, particularly during the Cold War. Today, Europe is mainly identified with the European Union. Just as an example: On the forms for travel insurances in Germany, the characterization “European countries” is used exclusively for the member countries of the EU.

Muslims of Eastern Europe have been communicating and expressing their ways of living and understanding Islam – at least in the modern period – in languages that are not regarded as the traditional “languages of Islam”.  With the exceptions of Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo, Muslims are minorities – albeit to a varying degree – in the most countries of Southeastern and even more so of Eastern Europe. They live in societies which are not mainly shaped by Islam, or at least in societies where Islam had never been or is not a relevant determinant of socio-political life anymore. Somehow, since Islam is not a major cultural force in the region, there is little interest in the particular forms of Islamicities that have developed there. Historians who have dealt with those communities have for a long time focused on the political constellation and on the minority status of Islam, but there has been in general very little scholarly interest in the specifically Islamic discourses of Muslims in this part of the world.

This situation has changed during the last roughly 20 years, at least with regard to scholarly approaches, but still the cultural and intellectual history of Islam in Eastern Europe is confined to a relatively small group of specialists.

In times of the so-called “refugee crisis”, the role of Islam in Europe has become a highly controversial issue. What can the history and the presence of Muslims in Eastern Europe tell us about this complex relationship, and can it add new perspectives?

Maybe the first insight would indeed be the complexity of that relationship Islam-Europe. When taking into consideration the historical presence of Muslims in Europe, in the whole of Europe, the dichotomy Islam-Europe, which is not new, but has been revived and even augmented during these last years, is at least shaken, if not seriously called into question. We are not talking about some immigrant groups here, but about population groups with century-long traditions and as such being part of Europe, historically, culturally, politically and in many other ways.

Muslim religious traditions in Eastern and Southeastern Europe have developed and have been shaped in the context of major historical changes – intellectual, political, ideological – that are part of European history in general.  This is actually true for the rest of the Islamic world, too, particularly in modern times, but in the context of Eastern and Southeastern Europe it is maybe even more apparent: Besides having been rooted in particular local settings and traditions, the expression and the understanding of Islam developed with reference both to transnational Islamic discourses and to major European intellectual and political trends that affected other European populations, too.

These historical experiences of Muslims with modern European concepts and developments resulting from them have not always been positive ones. Take, for example, the establishment of nation states in the Balkans during the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century, which has had tragic consequences for many Muslim communities, since they went along with ethnic cleansing, displacements, more or less voluntary emigrations and in general with an aggressive de-Islamization of societies and discriminatory politics towards Muslims. The major population displacement movements in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century include Balkan Muslims fleeing to the territories of the Ottoman Empire or being forcefully displaced during the Balkan Wars. More or less voluntary emigration movements continued during the whole of the 20th century. As for other contexts, the anti-religious attitudes of socialist states of Eastern Europe which affected all religious communities had had even multiplied effects on Muslims, since they were not only a religious, but also an ethnic minority, with shifting forms of discriminatory politics directed at them. The current discourses on Islam and Europe are completely ignorant of these historical experiences, but they also form part of that big complex “Islam and Europe” that we are talking about. They certainly do form a part of the collective memory of Muslim communities in these parts of the world.

Although many conservative politicians and intellectuals claim that Islam does not belong to Europe, Muslims have been living in Europe for centuries and still do today. Would you say that the Muslim communities all over the continent adapted “European Islam” – and if yes, how would you characterize it?

The syntagma “European Islam”, although very popular, can be misleading. The problem is that it carries, at least in its popular usage, certain normative and judgmental implications. This category implies that European Islam is somehow intrinsically “better” by its very European nature and that other, “non-European” Islams are inferior or at least problematic. Therefore, I always plead for a careful usage of the term and for a clear outline of the criteria used to describe that “European” Islam. Even in the context of Eastern or Southeastern Europe, I am not sure whether there is one “Islam”, let alone one that can jointly be labelled as “European”. Muslims from these regions belong to a number of communities that differ from each other – culturally, ethnically, linguistically, and theologically. They represent all social strata with corresponding educational backgrounds, and so forth. What is also important is that all these constellations are subject to constant changes, even now as we are speaking, so that it is difficult to make a generalized statement here.

As I already mentioned, Islamic intellectual thought of the modern times can be generally described as already “Europeanized” in many ways: Most of the modern Muslim imaginations and conceptualizations of Islam actually rather go back to global modernity, with modern epistemes related to it, which had started out in Europe but had spread all over the world, than to classical Islamic discourses or traditions.

Still, when it comes to the Eastern context, and this is true for Southeastern Europe to a great extent, too, I would say that it was the process of secularization and the modernization policies of the nation states which have had long-lasting consequences for Muslim communities and their understanding of the relationship between state and religion, and religion and politics respectively. To be sure, the secularization process of the 20th century was not a democratic one, it was imposed from above, and most certainly it was not accompanied by the freedom of religion as we understand it today. The aggressive modernization projects particularly of socialist states had seriously affected the traditional ways of living on both an individual and social level. Still, the secular project as such has been accommodated by most Muslims. Even after the breakdown of the socialist systems and the subsequent return of religion into the public sphere, there were for the most part no demands to rewind the secularization process or to establish any form of social order based on religion. Even the emergence of radical Islamist groups and the stronger connections to the Islamic world due to the globalization of communication in the last decades have not seriously changed that major tendency. All recent empirical research about political and religious attitudes among Muslims in Eastern and Southeastern Europe suggest that they strongly advocate the separation of religion and politics. This is an important difference to the developments in, for example, the Middle East, where political Islam has formed the backbone of the major social movements since the 1970s. In this context, it is also telling that the three European countries with the Muslim majority – Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo – display the strongest degree of secularism in their constitutional order in the region. In other southeastern European countries Orthodox Christian Churches are in one way or another privileged either as state religions or at least as culturally “leading” churches.


Questions: Moritz Buchner


Citation: ”Islamic intellectual thought of the modern times can be described as already ‘Europeanized’” – Interview with Armina Omerika, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 27.06.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/10521.

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