The “Forgotten” Muslims of Southeastern Europe

In May 1989, as the walls separating East and West were about to come down in Europe, tens of thousands of anxious Bulgarian Turks began to arrive on the Turkish border. In the space of a few months, more than 300,000 Turks from cities few had ever heard of started to show up virtually everywhere in Istanbul and beyond. It was my first contact with a world I knew hardly anything about.

During this time, I met many Bulgarian Turks from cities such as Kardhzali, Shumen, and Razgrad, and was surprised to see that their relationship with Islamic rules was as laid back as that of the most secular Turks, probably more so. Pork was not considered haram, and gendered behavior was markedly different from Turkish mores. Many of the Bulgarian Turks were well-educated, and most of them spoke Turkish, albeit with heavy Bulgarian accents.  And yet, they had just been chucked out of their homelands for two reasons: being Muslims and Turks.

It took me almost 20 years to visit Kardzhali and other cities in the region, whose names are known to surprisingly few Europeans, even though they are located firmly with Southeast Europe: Prizren, Prishtina, Mostar, Harmanli. Add to these Sarajevo and Tirana, Komotini, and Plovdiv, and there you have a tentative map of Muslims in Europe.

At the beginning of December, I attended a forum on transitional justice in Sofia, which aimed to discuss the Bulgarian experience of facing up to the legacy of authoritarianism with activists from the Arab revolutions. I was amazed to see that, in those three days, not a single speaker addressed the 1989 eviction Turks and Muslims from Bulgaria, which Bulgarian Communist leaders had cynically labelled the "Big Excursion."

When we talk about European Muslims today, we often forget that close to 8 million people in Southeast Europe identify as Muslims in one way or another. Unlike Muslim communities in Western Europe, which are made up of recent immigrants, Balkan Muslims have been indigenous Europeans for more than five centuries. Yet, it almost seems as if the issue of Balkan Muslims is one which many Europeans prefer to forget.  In my view, this lapse of memory in Sofia is a splendid example of selective remembering and forgetting. And still, almost 10 percent of Bulgarian society identify as Turks and/or Muslims.

The plight of Muslims in the Balkans has not been easy, and since the gradual retreat of the Ottoman Empire from the Balkans in the mid-19th century, they had to make do under sometimes hostile Christian-majority states. Displacement, massacres, and flight to Turkey have led to a massive reduction in population size and self-confidence, as well as to the formation of distant diasporas in Turkey and Western Europe. The Communist regimes, which dominated this part of the world until the early 1990s, put severe limitations on the practice of religion in general and of Islam in particular.

Despite the many constraints, these communities have gone through often breath-taking processes of modernization. Education, urbanization and industrialization have shaped Muslim identities in the Balkans, and so has engagement with ideas and institutions emanating from Western Europe.

Today, there are three countries with Muslim majority populations: Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina (without the Republika Srbska), and Kosovo. Substantial Muslim minorities exist in all Balkan states, particularly in Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Serbia. In all of these countries, Muslims have interacted with mostly secular states and, after the end of Communism, re-established their formal religious communities.

In a research project funded by the Open Society Foundations and the British Academy, "Muslim Communities in Southeast Europe," I tried to trace these communities and their linguistically, ethnically, and theologically diverse outlooks with an eye on the European Islam debate. Based on interviews with community leaders, educational institutions, academic and laypeople, I sought to paint a differentiated picture, which depicts both the fragmentation of these communities along national and cultural lines, as well as unifying experiences and practices of a universal religion.

Above all, I wanted to make the point that any debate on Muslims in Europe needs to take into consideration the historical experience and the challenges which Muslims in the Balkans face today. The website BalkanMuslims.com is meant to be a starting point for this debate.

1 Comment

I enjoyed reading this informative article. It provides a clear overview of the Muslims in the region. I was surprise to find out that 10% of the Bulgarian population are Muslims. I am also surprised why Montenegro is not mentioned in the article? To my knowledge, there is a substantial Muslim community living in Montenegro, as well.

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