Islam and Heritage in Europe: Pasts, Presents and Future Possibilities

By Katarzyna Puzon

Katarzyna Puzon, Sharon Macdonald, and Mirjam Shatanawi (eds.), Islam and Heritage in Europe: Pasts, Presents and Future Possibilities, London: Routledge, 2021.

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 – an event that triggered a significant and sustained rise in prejudice, discrimination, and hate crimes against Muslims. These trends have accelerated steadily since then. The tragic developments that followed, especially the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and of Iraq in 2003, still reverberate across Europe, not least in the recent ‘refugee crises’.

As anti-Muslim sentiment grew, the phrase ‘Islam in the West’ gained traction. This label overlooks discourses and practices in settings in which Islam or Muslims do not easily fall into clear-cut categories. Some of these contexts are conventionally positioned outside of the ‘West’, despite being situated in or strongly connected to Europe – and constituting part of Europe, for that matter. This trend reveals much about the way Europe was then, and still is, imagined – and not just in the ‘West’. Unraveling generalities and debunking assumptions, the book Islam and Heritage in Europe: Pasts, Presents and Future Possibilities productively troubles such imaginings, as well as the concepts of Islam, heritage, and Europe as such. It builds on a workshop I organized in 2019 while working on the project Making Differences in Berlin: Transforming Museums and Heritage in the 21st Century, in its Representing Islam strand, under the direction of Sharon Macdonald at the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH), based at the Institute of European Ethnology of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. During the workshop, the book’s idea began to take shape as part of relational thinking about the potent constellation of heritage, Islam, and Europe. As my co-editors and I write in the introduction, the volume looks at these three terms as “subject to diverse interpretations, and as changeable and changing. At the same time, however, we are interested in when [they] may be stabilised (as well as opened up), by whom and in what ways. In particular, we are concerned with how they are materialised through infrastructures, practices and processes, such as those of museum taxonomies, buildings and sites, exhibitions, rituals, and creative reworking of traditional forms” (p. 1).

In the introductory chapter, we present a rich theoretical and conceptual background to the book’s broad subject, keeping in mind that it does not break down easily into neat categories and classifications. We structure the volume around the following three interconnected themes: embodied heritage and belonging; the nation-state and identity formations; and categories, connections, and contemporary challenges.

In looking at specific and contextualized articulations of belonging and non-belonging, the book’s chapters explore the ways in which these articulations create new avenues for re-thinking Islam and heritage in Europe. Composed of essays based on ethnographic, historical, and archival research, the collection delves into diverse trajectories of people and things across various scales. It examines images, sounds, narratives, and practices in and through which Islam conjures up belonging and/or not belonging on the continent. The book spans not only several disciplines – anthropology, art history, media studies, musicology, political science, and sociology – but also countries and regions, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, France, Germany, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Russia, Spain, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, as well as connecting with other parts of the world. We aim to highlight the broad scope this subject encompasses, and how it is approached from different vantage points and disciplinary perspectives.

Heritage proves to operate as an especially useful concept, itself becoming unsettled, in the productive troubling with which the volume is concerned. One way of looking at heritage in this constellation is to think of it as a concept that, as Wendy Shaw propounds in her essay, draws on Islamic thought, distinguishing between ‘objective heritage preservation’ and ‘embodied heritage perpetuation’. The latter, which favors perpetuation over preservation, attends to the idea of Islam as a living entity. It also, as she argues, “engages in the decolonisation of the category of Islam by recognising it as perpetually productive of its identity through a continual reconstruction of the past with an eye to the future” (p. 44). In this regard, the model of embodied heritage perpetuation seeks to break with colonial tropes, evidenced in the category of ‘Islamic heritage’ – that is to say, a heritage of the Islamic world. The essays in the book’s Part I follow up on this point by focusing on a broad array of forms of belonging and ways of engaging with aspects of Islam. Localized and nuanced accounts of heritage-making examine how heritage itself can be diversified and expanded by drawing on this model. The chapters explore senses of self and embodied knowledge through sound, scent (misk), and poetry performance/recitation.

As well as looking at various forms of heritage-making, three chapters deal at length with national frames and identity formations in the following three different contexts: Spain, France, and Turkey. The questions of image, space, and materiality as well as legal aspects emerge as salient in the representation of ‘Islamic art’ and the claims for recognition of ‘Islamic heritage’. The contributions examine how these are enmeshed in orientalizing discourses and binary depictions, as happens in France and Spain, or the silencing of episodes of violence against non-Muslims, as Turkey’s case illustrates. Such phenomena become especially relevant in the current climate of the revival of right-wing populism and the resurgence of nationalist sentiments.

The timely themes of restitution and redress, entrenched in contemporary debates on colonial legacies and historical justice, also feature in a number of essays. Here, perhaps unsurprisingly, museums emerge as culprits responsible for still-prevalent hierarchical and binary modes of display, structured along the lines of the European/Western versus non-European/non-Western – and by analogy, of the pre-modern/pre-colonial versus modern – while reproducing imperial histories and silences about the displacement of people and things, dispossession, and violence. Despite facing a crisis, museums nonetheless hold the potential to self-transform and even contribute to social change, as the chapters suggest, and their authors put forward specific propositions. An important step towards this goal would be to move on from simplistic, dichotomous representations and to foreground the inbetweenness of objects pertinent, albeit not exclusively, to Middle Eastern collections, which exemplify a multiple nature of things and ‘essential connectedness’.[1] Including narratives about the episodes of dispossession and violence in which some of those collections are implicated would constitute another crucial development in this process. Connecting to diverse audiences and reaching out to communities, for instance, would also enable new narratives on artifacts from the Middle Eastern region in European heritage institutions, as well as fostering other senses of belonging in museums and public space. Participatory approaches and extensive forms of collaboration could contribute to this end, too. The two final chapters are concerned with these issues and discuss in detail how such collaboration works – or could work – in practice, as well as drawing attention to its potential pitfalls and inadvertent effects.

Islam and Heritage in Europe disrupts categories, makes connections, and tackles contemporary challenges by looking at legacies, current developments, and future possibilities from an interdisciplinary standpoint in the context of Europe-wide and global trends. Offering original insights and new directions, we hope this book will provide fresh impetus to debate, research, and practice.

The book is digitally available as open access, and a discount flyer for the print copy can be found here.


References

[1] Basu, P. (2017) The Inbetweenness of Things: Materializing Mediation and Movement Between Worlds. London: Bloomsbury.


Katarzyna Puzon, PhD, is an anthropologist working on heritage, memory, and mobility – and more recently also on sound and empire. She conducts research in Lebanon and Germany, and is now writing a monograph on temporality, heritage, and loss in Beirut. Currently, she is a research associate at the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH), which is part of the Institute of European Ethnology at the Humboldt-Univeristät zu Berlin.


Citation: Katarzyna Puzon, Islam and Heritage in Europe: Pasts, Presents and Future Possibilities, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16.09.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/30864


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