Islam and Nationhood in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Surviving Empires

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Xavier Bougarel
Islam of the Global West
  • London, UK: 
    Bloomsbury Publishing
    , December
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Islam and Nationhood in Bosnia-Herzegovina: Surviving Empires is a thoroughly researched book that analyzes the transformation of the Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) from a religious community to a political nation from around 1878 to the present day. Author Xavier Bougarel questions the idea of a linear development from imperial to modern nation-state building, emphasizing divergent forms and ambivalences of nationalization, while also considering “national indetermination.”

From the end of the Ottoman era until the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the Bosnian-Muslim elites showed a particular loyalty to imperial or other state authority, be it the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, the Ustasha state, or Tito´s communist Yugoslavia. The latter eventually brought the recognition of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a multi-ethnic entity of federal Yugoslavia and the national affirmation of the Bosnian Muslims as one of its constituent peoples. Underlining the agency of non-Communist Muslim elites in this process, Islam and Nationhood rejects the idea that Bosnian Muslim nation-building was merely a result of Communist political engineering. In spite of various disputes over language, literature and history, in 1968, the Muslim nation was officially recognized, before being renamed Bosniak in 1993.

Highlighting the central role of Islam in the process of Muslim-Bosniak identity-building, the author focuses on the attitudes of political, intellectual, and religious elites rather than on ordinary people´s national identification and religious practices. Social, economic and cultural developments are largely absent from this study, in particular the interplay between long-term modernization processes, including mass education and social differentiation on one hand, and secular nation-building on the other. Until the mid-20th century, the author claims, Islamic religious identity figured as a substitute for Muslim national identity. Yet, Islamic religious institutions and beliefs have seen a remarkable revival since the 1980s, and in particular during and following the Yugoslav wars of succession.

Four out of eight chapters deal with the 1992-1995 war period, when the Muslims were under existential threat by “ethnic cleansing.” The book covers the role and ambitions of the Party of Democratic Action (SDA) and President Alija Izebegović´s national strategy, the position of the Reis-ul-ulema and the Islamic religious institutions, the pluralization of religious life as well as activities of the neo-Salafist and neo-Sufi movements. In spite of a growing influence of Islamic states and Islamic humanitarian organizations, re-Islamization was only partially successful, the author shows. Pan-Islamism proved to be a form of proto-nationalism so that the full take-over of political Islam has so far failed. While Bosnian Muslims are still divided over questions of political sovereignty, national identity, and religious orientation, even some eminent professors of Islamic studies seem to promote secular views.

Islam and Nationhood convincingly rejects any essentialist notion of Muslim identity or the nature of Islam. It demonstrates how changing contexts, contingencies, and deliberate strategic choices influenced both the process of nation-building and its political affirmation, and that religion was one, but not the only important factor in this process. Less convincing is the suggestion that there was a long durée of identification with large empires among the Bosniac elites, which should explain that accession to the European Union is so attractive for them today.

Bougarel´s book builds on twenty years of research into the intellectual history of Bosnian Muslims. It is largely based on academic literature, press articles, and some fieldwork. Originally published in French in 2013 it offers a differentiated, balanced, and original interpretation of Muslim-Bosniak identity construction. It is highly recommended to all interested in national identity-building and the history of Islam in the Balkans.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Marie-Janine Calic is Professor of Eastern and Southeastern European History at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich.

Date of Review: 
March 3, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Xavier Bougarel is a researcher at CETOBAC, Centre d'études turques, ottomanes, balkaniques et centrasiatiques, in Paris, France.


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