Muslims and society in western Europe: lessons from Bosnia

Usman Sheikh
21 November 2002

What’s in a name? My name – Usman Sheikh – would appear to prepare the reader for an article written from a Muslim perspective. For anyone at all familiar with Muslim people or names, ‘Usman’ immediately stands out as a marker of Islamic identity. Names seem to have this habit of fixing people’s identities, of tying them into traditions. Moreover, by fixing the group that you belong to, they also implicitly indicate the groups to which you do not belong. Thus, they draw attention to the distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us’, often in an oppositional manner.

It comes, then, as little surprise that an increasing number of Muslims and Arabs in the United States have begun to anglicise their names over the last year; hence Muhammad becomes ‘Mike’, and Tariq becomes ‘Terence’, the outward signal of a shift in identity that is both personal and social. Yet a closer look at individual names can be healthily confusing. ‘Usman’, for example, has roots that predate the Arabic language, and is thought to originally derive from Hebrew – thus highlighting the inter-relationship of these brethren cultures.

Moreover, the differing pronunciations of ‘Usman’ chart a journey through various cultures rather than fixing it to any one in particular. An Arab would often pronounce it ‘Othmaan’, a Pakistani ‘Usmaan’, and an English person ‘Uzman’. ‘Sheikh’, on the other hand, is only used as a surname in the Indian subcontinent. Hindus from this region, when converting to Islam, often took up surnames such as ‘Sheikh’ and ‘Khan’ as a way of identifying with Muslims in the Arab world and in Central Asia, respectively. In these areas, however, they were usually used as titles (connoting ‘leader’). Their use as surnames in the subcontinent, far from fixing the Muslims’ newly found identity, acted as a constant reminder of the fact of conversion and thus of previous religious loyalty.

Perhaps what I am trying to say is that the relation between a person’s name and his or her individual, social and religious identity is more complicated (and perhaps interesting) than may at first appear.

Muslims in Britain: beyond indifference and hostility

This may seem a strange way of beginning an article on the position of Muslim immigrants in western societies. However, my intention is to draw attention to the fluidity of identity and the links between cultures. The connection between apparently different cultures is especially important when talk of a ‘clash of civilisations’ is so pervasive; and it is on the Muslim contribution to this putative ‘clash’ that I would like to focus.

As a Muslim growing up in London, I noticed two predominant, and linked, attitudes held by Muslims in Britain. The first is an indifference to the society around them, which results in segregation and the ‘parallel lives’ spoken of in the Cantle report (commissioned by the Home Office in the aftermath of the riots in the north of England in summer 2001). The second attitude is an overt hostility towards British society, an oppositional attitude that talks of the incompatibility of Muslim and western cultures. I see both these attitudes as different phases of the same phenomenon – Islamic nationalism.

It was with this experience and awareness that I moved to Bosnia in July this year for a period of work and travel, with the intention of exploring whether and how a greater fluidity could be injected into ideas of Muslim identity. As European Muslims, Bosnians undermine the lazy association between Europe and Christianity made by western and Islamic nationalists alike. In the context of the supposed ‘clash of civilisations’, the Bosnians represent something of a paradox, one that is worth unravelling in order to understand both how Bosnian society retained its plural identity for so long, and why it exploded a decade ago.

Can the Bosnia example help provide Muslim immigrants and their descendants in the west with the very thing that we most acutely lack: a tradition? More specifically, a tradition that is (unlike most nationalist traditions) oriented outwards, to those around us, in an embrace of diversity rather than exclusiveness and antagonism?

Listening to Tuzla

The most striking initial impression is one of secularism. Anyone expecting signs of religious devotion familiar from other Muslim countries (headscarved women, scarcity of alcohol) would quickly conclude that religion plays a minimal part in the lives of Bosnian Muslims. The everyday scenes of women in skimpy tops and short skirts being eyed up by men sipping bottles of beer against a background of Jennifer Lopez set Sarajevo apart from Cairo, Damascus or Lahore.

A student I met in Tuzla, a small town north of Sarajevo, told me about attitudes towards religion in her town. Before the 1992–95 war, religion played a secondary role for Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Christians alike (see link for population statistics). Religious rituals were important only in so far as they showed respect for a family’s traditions, and the emphasis was always placed on a commitment to inter-ethnic harmony, perhaps out of a realisation that the survival of a country as mixed as Bosnia depended on such a commitment.

Moreover, religious festivals were often celebrated across the boundaries of faith, thus helping both to maintain particular affiliations and to build bridges with other communities. A word my student friend kept repeating was ‘respect’. For her, respect for others was the most important aspect of living in a multi-faith community. Of course, this depends on trust between people – and trust was certainly one of the many casualties of the war. The conflict had the effect of forcing people into a narrower loyalty to their own religious group, thus polarising mixed communities.

Yet many students I talked to maintained that this trust was beginning to return. Despite distressing personal experiences, they showed no eagerness to blame or hate. Respect for other communities seemed second nature to them. It is true, of course, that students can often be unrepresentative of an overall community, but it did seem that respect was a value embedded in Bosnian society.

Although there was surprisingly little visible evidence of religious division, one of the most striking experiences in Bosnia to a visitor from western Europe is the muezzin’s call to prayer that sounds from each mosque. In Tuzla, I was especially struck by one part of what the muezzin recites: Hayyi’ alal falah (‘Hasten to prosperity’). Of course, this refers to a religious notion of prosperity rather than the more familiar material kind. Yet sitting in the centre of Tuzla amidst evidence of material prosperity brought about by international investment, and talking to young Tuzlans who speak of their desire for Bosnia to enter the European Union, it seems that no matter how loudly he shouts, the muezzin’s call to a ‘higher’ kind of prosperity falls on deaf ears. Similarly, many of the Muslims who have migrated to Europe for economic reasons display a similar obedience to a specifically material type of prosperity.

A secular route to religious harmony?

The experience of Bosnia might suggest to Muslims in western Europe that a secular path to a cohesive multi-faith community is, in principle, a welcome option. This path, however, entails a change in the character of religious identity. Religion loses its transcendental significance and is important only in as much as it distinguishes one group from another. A group is held together through the communal practice of religion, and religious rituals become important only in so far as they help to bind the group together.

This path could indeed be the most appropriate one for Muslims who have migrated to Europe. For many, a secularised form of religion – functioning as social identity rather than spirituality – has already become common in migrant communities where adherence to Islam has provided a valuable binding force, offering a sense of protection to people in often vulnerable positions. Many Muslims in Britain have precisely this secular attitude towards religion. Islamic identity is affirmed in social gatherings (in mosques, at weddings), or through physical appearance (growing a beard or wearing a headscarf). Such behaviour may be practised without any thought of the transcendental aspects of religion. Any sense of religion as a solely private matter – surely the prevalent attitude in the rest of British society – is discouraged.

There is an attractive logic of mutuality inscribed in this path, one that balances the secular identity of the Muslim community with the interests of the wider society of which it is a rightful part. The integration of Muslims into this wider society would be aided on a governmental and social level by action to reduce unemployment and social deprivation (to increase their material prosperity), and a commitment to combating discrimination against them. In return, Muslims would need to commit themselves more genuinely to their new countries, to give their foremost allegiance to the country they inhabit.

As a result, Muslim migrants to Europe (as with their Bosnian counterparts) would become one group amongst many others within British society, with their religion providing a secular identity. There is a parallel here with the historical path of the Jewish community in Britain – a future example perhaps of the inter-relationship of cultures referred to above.

The dangers of ‘difference’

There is, of course, an immediate problem with this Bosnia-inspired vision of group identity and social harmony – one that might be described as a benign form of ‘nationalism’, which identifies the individual with a religion understood as a secular cultural grouping. The problem is that it is challenged by increasingly visible ‘facts on the ground’ – the more confrontational Islamic nationalism that is making headlines and winning minds in Britain at present.

The logic of this tendency is radical exclusiveness rather than mutuality. From segregation and isolation in relation to the wider society, opposition and hostility later develops. Bosnia here provides a vivid, negative example. As the war progressed and communities were polarised, religious practices and rituals that had been used with respect for tradition were now used aggressively to set groups apart from one another. Here, in conditions of stress, nationalism reveals the divisive side of its nature.

If this is a warning for Britain, it is the proponents of multiculturalism as well as confrontation who are responsible. A lazy multiculturalism in which notions of ‘difference’ are accepted too easily was an important factor in allowing the ‘parallel’ Muslim societies of northern, urban England to emerge and persist, finally leading to rioting between communities.

I grew up around, or later encountered, many Muslims in Britain who routinely use the slogans of multiculturalism to perpetuate their segregation and to avoid change. As a result, they respond to any criticism of aspects of their culture (such as arranged marriages or a highly patriarchal social order) by declaring that ‘our’ differences should be respected – as if respect did not need to be reciprocated for it to have any meaning. The implication here is that to learn from any other community is to accept one’s own inferiority.

It was, then, hardly surprising for me when a cousin told me of a meeting with a Pakistani Muslim man from Bradford who, after having lived in Britain for over twenty years, could still hardly speak a word of English. English, he casually explained, was the tongue of the infidel. Such attitudes explain much of the stagnation that afflicts the Muslim community in Britain.

If the argument presented here is correct, the attitudes of confrontational Islamic nationalism will reinforce rather than resolve this stagnation. But the lazy version of the multicultural approach is not a solution either. Is it possible that progress both for Muslims and their neighbours in western Europe might better be ensured if Muslims adopted a more genuinely Islamic approach to the question of religious diversity?

This ostensibly paradoxical suggestion may be advanced by highlighting the connection between the problems of Islamic nationalism and its secular nature. It may appear surprising to describe Islamic nationalism as secular, yet in making the nation its chief focus of loyalty (as all nationalisms do by definition) it effectively creates for itself a worldly idol. The result is a tendency for its ‘worshippers’ to view it as the ultimate reality, the beginning and the end of all discourse. By making its god (relatively) tangible, its attitude towards truth becomes a fairly simple ‘possessive’ one – you have it or you don’t. Confrontation is inbuilt; other nations represent a kind of ‘secular heresy’ of which the world must be purged. Given all this, it is understandable that Islamic nationalist groups tend to concentrate almost exclusively on worldly affairs with little if any sense of the ‘intangible’ or the transcendental.

Bosnia: protected by the divine intangible?

In an article entitled ‘The Bosnian question and the world’, Rusmir Mahmutcehajic cites the growth of precisely this type of secularism as one of the main factors in the disintegration of Bosnian society in the years leading to open warfare. He credits a ‘monotheistic’ attitude towards diversity with holding Bosnia’s multi-faith society together for much of its history, and sets against this the ‘idolatry’ that helped to break it down.

Mahmutcehajic uses the term ‘composite integrality’ to describe the pre-war attitude towards diversity in Bosnia. This helps to convey the combination of unity and diversity (or unity in diversity) that once characterised Bosnian society. Each particular manifestation of identity (be it religious, ethnic or personal) is respected in its own right, yet at the same time particularities are seen as an individual expression of an overall oneness in society – and ultimately in creation. According to Mahmutcehajic, this was facilitated in Bosnia by the existence of the three main monotheistic religions side by side. Each had an implicit respect for the other, and any construction of individual identity could only be developed within a framework that allowed for a sense of plurality.

This idea, of multiple ways to the Truth, had to be fairly obvious to three communities with so much in common, yet each with its own variations on the common ground it shared with the others. Further, Mahmutcehajic argues that the ultimately transcendental nature of these three religions helped to guard against the idea that Truth could be contained within any one single tradition. For him, an infinite God must necessarily be beyond all attempts at restriction and ‘monopolisation’.

From Tuzla to Bradford

Can this idea from Bosnia be relevant to mixed communities in the rest of Europe? In avoiding the pitfalls of ‘many cultures’ living ‘side by side’ or ‘parallel’ to one another, it does seem that ‘composite integrality’, of the mutual dependence of individual and social identity, suggests a stronger bond than any simple idea of ‘multiculturalism’. Furthermore, the idea of the interdependence of the particular and the whole is described by Mahmutcehajic as a dialectic relationship in which each forces the other to constantly re-define itself.

The clear implication is that immigrants (in this case, Muslim) can play a positive role in breathing life into otherwise stagnant notions of national identity, while for the immigrants themselves migration can be seen as a beneficial experience that involves re-discovery and re-interpretation of identity – and not, as is so often emphasised, merely the threat of its loss. Thus, the implicitly mixed identity of immigrants can in principle crucially help to progress beyond simple and exclusivist ideas of national identity. Though the necessary state of being ‘in between’ can feel vulnerable and often painful, it is also instructive in so far as it prevents the affected groups from perceiving themselves as irretrievably distinct, and in practice becoming separated and isolated from one another. Immigrants bear living testimony to the fluidity and relativity of cultural identities.

The student at the University of Tuzla whom I talked to about Muslim identity was herself of mixed parentage; her father an Orthodox Christian, her mother a Muslim. Though the war naturally pulled her in different directions, she remains committed to the notions of respect and a pluralist society. As a perennially ‘in between’ figure she, and many like her, will remain a living warning against ideologies of difference and exclusion. If the terrible conflicts seen in the Balkans in the 1990s are to be avoided elsewhere, perhaps she can be a potent symbol for us in the mixed communities of the rest of Europe. Perhaps too, Muslims can bring to the largely secular communities they have joined the sense of a Truth towards which to strive, but which can never be definitively ‘possessed’ – a sense of infinity, which lies at the heart of their monotheism.

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