Muslims and the Making of Modern Europe
- ISBN: 9780197538807
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: October 2021
Often relegated to the margins of both European and Middle East studies, Balkan countries tend to get less attention than their neighbors to the east and west. In her elegantly-written new book, Muslims and the Making of Modern Europe, Emily Greble challenges this by asserting that the Balkans, and especially the million or more Muslims in present-day Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina, are an intrinsic part of Europe’s complex history. “Their histories,” she insists, “are European histories” (2)–or, at least, they became European histories after the 1878 Conference of Berlin, where Greble’s account begins.
Drawing on an impressive range of Islamic institutional records, state and local archives, and Muslim newspapers, Greble introduces her readers to a diverse cast of characters grappling with immense political and social change from 1878 to the late-1940s. Captivating anecdotes introduce us to Muslim intellectuals and journalists commenting on current events, Muslim bureaucrats operating religious schools, and ordinary people trying to navigate new government regimes. Throughout the book, Greble builds on several threads of existing scholarship showing that religious communities are not homogeneous, that “minority” is a subjective socio-political category constructed relatively recently, and that the Western liberal project is fraught with tensions and contradictions.
Part 1 describes the messy transition from an Ottoman confessional framework to a European liberal rights framework. During this period, it was unclear where confessional jurisdiction ended and civil jurisdiction began. Because she focuses much of her attention on Islamic institutions, Greble shows that such questions were particularly contentious when it came to education, waqf (religious endowment) administration, and personal status issues. Violence and displacement during the Balkan Wars and World War I devastated Muslim communities and convinced many (though not all) to prioritize confessional sovereignty in the interwar era.
Greble admirably illustrates the contingency and uncertainty of global politics from 1878-1920. However, she skirts around the crucial issue of European empire by downplaying Austria-Hungary’s decades-long occupation of Bosnia, often gliding between the very different contexts of Bosnia and independent Montenegro. In reality, North Africa offers a more apt comparison. Like Bosnia, Egypt (for example) remained technically under Ottoman suzerainty while being ruled by European colonial administrators who created state-sponsored Islamic institutions run by Muslim intermediaries. Placing Bosnia within a framework of European imperialism in the Ottoman Mediterranean may undermine Greble’s European history project. But it better contextualizes Bosnia-Herzegovina’s history, including the more recent creation of its unusual, foreign-imposed presidential council, which divides political power between the country’s three main religio-national groups (Muslim Bosniaks, Serbian Orthodox, and Catholic Croats)—a consociational system similar to Lebanon’s. Adding insult to injury, these multi-confessional leaders are collectively overseen by a Western European bureaucrat, whose raison d’etre resembles the League of Nations’ logic of “colonial tutelage.” However provocative or imperfect, what insights might we glean from a colonial or post-colonial lens, and what implications might that have for Greble’s positioning Bosnia-Herzegovina comfortably within a European imaginary?
Part 2 examines the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (or “Yugoslavia”), where state attempts to constitute and regulate a unified Muslim “minority” crumbled in the face of communal heterogeneity. In my view, these chapters are the book’s richest. Borrowing from scholars like Rogers Brubaker and Fred Cooper, Greble guides the reader through a diverse network of Islamic thinkers and social movements. On religious matters, there was a growing divide between “reformists” and “traditionalists,” like elsewhere in the Islamic world. Socially and politically, Muslim organizations like the Yugoslav Muslim Organization and Cemiyet disagreed about whether to work within Slavic nationalist movements or to pursue religious unity across ethno-national and linguistic lines—both splintered into smaller factions. Ultimately, Greble follows conservative clerics and thinkers, arguing that Yugoslavia’s turn to authoritarianism weakened the project of minority rights and inspired Islamic revivalist movements that, by 1941, “wholly rejected the Yugoslav project” (193).
Greble concludes in part 3 by reiterating the diversity within Yugoslav Muslim communities, this time as they confronted World War II; Muslims fought and died for both sides. After the war, however, she turns again to conservative Muslims who resisted Tito’s decision to “eradicate the Shari’a legal order” (232). Her choice to predominantly focus on conservatives (chapters 2, 7, and 9) makes for a more dramatic story of agency and resistance. It also implicitly makes a case that even conservative Muslims—those perhaps seen as most inimical to the modern European project—are, in fact, part of Europe (whatever that means). But it sadly marginalizes the perspectives and contributions of progressives, leftists (including Communists), secularists, and adherents to “heterodox” traditions like Sufism. These Muslims, and their perspectives, generally only appear in passing.
Greble’s emphasis on more conservative voices also reflects her choice to focus heavily on Islamic institutions and on Shari’a law. Her account of how Muslim leaders successfully fought for the recognition of the Shari’a court system offers rich contributions on the history of Muslim social movements and the relationship between religion and state. However, her discussion of the Shari’a itself is a bit flat. She considers the provision in the 1921 Yugoslav Constitution allowing Islamic religious courts to operate autonomously a new “Shari’a Mandate,” but this stark term is misleading. In reality, the operation of Islamic courts in the Balkans, and the requirement that certain matters be adjudicated in them, had a deep Ottoman history. Moreover, scholars who have explored Shari’a court registers (sijillat)—including Beshara Doumani, Brinkley Messick, and Abdul-Karim Rafeq—have highlighted immense variability and negotiation within these courts in practice. In these contexts, the Shari’a was not so much a mandate as a well-established forum to resolve disputes and provide some structure to local communal life. Because this complexity is ignored in panicked western discourses about the Shari’a, I wish Greble had offered a deeper analysis of its practical application and impact in the Balkans.
Muslims and the Making of Modern Europe is an engaging story with significant archival, geographic, and chronological breadth. Greble offers new comparative insights into how religious “minority” communities navigated Europe’s turbulent interwar years, while opening up paths for further research. Above all, her book is a reminder of how important it is for scholars to think beyond entrenched geographical boundaries and to center overlooked voices in scholarship.
Joshua Donovan is a postdoctoral fellow at the German Historical Institute’s Pacific Office in Berkeley, California.Joshua DonovanDate Of Review:May 19, 2023