Emily Greble: European History via the Experience of Muslims

In conversation with RevDem editor Ferenc Laczó, Emily Greble discusses what foregrounding Muslims’ agency implies for the writing of European history; what were key legacies of the Ottoman Empire and how Muslims became a distinct legal minority; in what ways they related to the major political movements of the twentieth century; and how focusing on their experiences can help us reconceptualize questions of secularism and citizenship.

Ferenc Laczo: Your new book Muslims and the Making of Modern Europe shows how Islamic institutions simultaneously shaped and reflected European nation-building initiatives, and how Muslims in Europe understood and influenced law and society in the lands where they lived. You write about an intellectual epiphany of yours in the introduction (and I am quoting): “an Ottoman historian once asked me what would happen to my narrative if I tried to begin each chapter from the perspective of Muslims rather than from the lens of states or international institutions.” Shall we perhaps begin our conversation there, with the question how your narrative changed once you decided to focus on Muslim actors? More generally, what new insights into modern European history did such a foregrounding of Muslims agency allow you to develop?

Emily Greble:  The historian, who I don’t quote by name in the book, was the Ottoman historian Lâle Can who wrote a brilliant book called Spiritual Subjects about the Ottoman Empire and the hajj and I do want to give her credit for giving me this intellectual epiphany. I think when we begin with Muslim actors a lot of the categories and concepts that we use to discuss European history start to change. For example, historians and policymakers often will begin the study of Muslims in Europe from the perspective of the state, so we’ll hear about Muslims in the history of France or Muslims in Austria or Muslims in Serbia. But when we begin with Muslim perspectives, the nation-state as a category starts to become a little less relevant and we begin to see links across states and over time that challenge the ways that we’re understanding European history as a cohesive whole. 

By starting with the perspectives of Ottoman Muslims as they experienced the shattering of the Ottoman world and then their displacement into other European states, we start to see how state building and nation building in Europe looks different from the inside out. This allows us to challenge different concepts, or even the terminology that we use. 

For instance, what is religious freedom, what is secularism, what is individual liberty, what are our rights and who gets to decide? By asking these questions from the perspective of Muslims we can better understand the intellectual processes that went into defining what these things mean. 

Religious freedom means something really different to people in different parts of Europe in the late 19th century – it’s actually not until the late 20th century when that concept starts to have a codified meaning. By connecting intellectual history to social history through the perspective of Muslims, we see how such questions were worked out on the ground.

Your second question about agency is really important. We have to begin with the presumption that agency is defined by the state and the international system itself. When I think about Muslim agency, I tend to put it in two different ways. The first is that Muslims were able to negotiate and develop compromises with the states that they were in, and which they do within the language of the states. But we also need to take seriously that there were Muslims who did not agree with the changing political order and did not want to be absorbed by other European states. Those Muslims also expressed agency through insurgency and resistance. The boundaries and the borders that were created at different moments were not acceptable to a lot of people who were living within the spaces whose political boundaries were changing. I think we need to put these two aspects of agency in conversation as we think about European history.

Ferenc Laczo: You write about a consensus of sorts in European consciousness that “across time and space, and despite linguistic, religious, economic, national, and cultural divides, Muslims were to be understood first and foremost as Muslims” and argue in the book that the historical processes in the 19th and 20th centuries led to a flattening and standardization of what had been highly diverse Muslim groups back say in the mid-19th century. Would you care to comment on the diversity of the Muslim groups in southeastern Europe and how their diversity has been reduced over time, often in very violent ways?

Emily Greble: I think one of the great challenges to studying any group of people – and this is something that the theorist Rogers Brubaker and historian Fred Cooper have discussed – is our desire to have categories of analysis and a lens to rethink certain kinds of history. As historians, we don’t want to remove or reduce the great diversity of different groups that we are seeing as groups, but that don’t necessarily see themselves as groups. This is a constant challenge in the book: to simultaneously tell the story from the perspective of Muslims, and to acknowledge and constantly bring back to the surface the great diversity of what that category means at different moments in time.

To tell a bit about that diversity in Ottoman Europe in the 19th century. Muslims spoke many different languages; they spoke Turkish and Albanian and Romani and Romanian and Tartar and Persian and also German and French. Many people were fluent in more than one language which was quite common in imperial spaces and also in imperial successor states. Most Muslims were illiterate as were most people in the region – which was not uncommon in 19th century Europe. Most were Sunni Muslims. Many adhered to the Hanafi school of Islam. There were also groups whose members practiced a range of Sufi traditions and syncretic approaches that reflected the region’s Ottoman heritage. There were also widespread regional and cultural differences that had emerged over time.

Within the Ottoman context, this heterogeneity or diversity wasn’t a political stumbling block in the ways that it would be as new ideas of nations and minorities or majorities and minorities started to emerge in Europe in the 19th and 20th century in places where Muslims had been absorbed by other states: I talk about Austria-Hungary, Serbia, and Montenegro, but we can also see this in Bulgaria. If people are not in the national majority group, they become pigeonholed into minority categories. And once you’re in a minority category, then the state starts to perceive you as a unit. Civil lawmakers want somebody to negotiate with, someone who is representing the agenda of that group. Who is going to be the voice of Muslims, if you have all this widespread diversity, who gets to represent them? The stakes are really high: it’s about who is going to be representatives and have a voice in local governments and national governments, perhaps also at an international conference over where a border might get drawn; it’s about how laws are going to be adjudicated; it’s about what the school curriculum is going to involve; and it also involves control over Islamic institutions which were funded by the state.  What I suggest is that this system demands a flattening and a standardization of what constitutes Muslims if Muslims want to negotiate for an agenda.

I talk about this in terms of the different states that were trying to understand this. I also look at how different groups of Muslims understood this, which led to serious divisions and hostilities and rifts along many different fault lines, for instance in terms of new religious practices and beliefs, or whether someone prefers a federal system or the autonomous system of republics.  It also led to tensions over linguistic and national communities: in Yugoslavia, which is the central case study of the middle of the book, Slavic-speaking Muslims could be considered part of the Yugoslav nation, and so that places them on a hierarchy above, for example, Albanian-speaking Muslims who are understood as not part of the majority. We also have orthodox Sunni Muslims who see certain Sufi practices as inappropriate, and they move to shut down the Sufi lodges known as tekke and streamline practices. 

There’s simultaneously an effort to create a community, a block and a unity within Muslims, and that project, because it’s happening from lots of different perspectives, contributes to and leads to new kinds of tensions and schisms which could become hostile and even violent. 

One of my favorite quotes in the book is from some political leaders in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 1920s who go after pro-government politicians in the Sandžak region, which had been divided between Montenegro and Serbia: they call them slimy and creepy, accuse them of rape and corruption, and they do all this in the newspapers. The stakes had become really high for who gets to define the agenda of this minority.

There’s also another way that this happens with emerging national identities,  which we see throughout Europe: there’s a flattening and standardization of what a nation is supposed to look like or talk like, and what national education is. Muslims have multiple national groups and participate in different national movements. Part of what I try to get at is that we need to examine and understand the Bosniak, the Albanian, the Chechen and the Azeri movements – and all of these national movements also need to be understood within the context of other European national movements.

Ferenc Laczo: Your book traces the stories of several generations of Muslims. It shows, among others, how Ottoman confessional, legal, and social legacies continued to shape the states and societies that succeeded the Ottoman Empire. Could you explain to our listeners what such post-Ottoman legacies consisted of and how did the experiences of subsequent generations of Muslims differ from one another between the 1870s and the 1940s?

Emily Greble: As historians, we often like to think that there is a great rupture when one state ends and another begins. However, there are many historians who have been talking over the last decade or two that this idea of a sharp break is just not true.  There was no sharp break between the Ottoman Empire and the states that came after it: many Ottoman customs, laws, legal traditions, political norms, and economic structures, all these things are changing and being adapted over time in new states, just as they were changing and adapting over time within the Ottoman Empire. We often talk about this in terms of family and inheritance law, but I think it’s really important also to look at other kinds of ways that the Ottoman legacy extends. 

One of the things I talk about in the book is how the Ottomans created a system of municipal representation in government: in certain Ottoman cities, not all of them, but in certain cities in the Balkans in the late Ottoman period you had mandatory representation of Muslims, Orthodox Christians, and also Catholics (if there were Catholics), and Jewish communities. In many of those cities, this then extends into the 20th century, sometimes in formal and sometimes in more informal ways.  

We often forget that the Ottoman Empire was a modern European empire. It introduced certain things that we conceptualize as part of the modern European state before other states that we think of as modern European states. 

For example, it introduced centralizing legal reforms, citizenship and nationality policies, and representative government. By connecting the Ottoman period to what comes next, we can understand at a state level and at a legal level what the legacies look like.

From the perspective of the Ottoman Muslims, the Ottoman legacy or what it means to be post-Ottoman operates differently in the two periods of the book.  In the period from 1878 to 1923, the Ottoman Empire still exists.  Muslims who are no longer in the Ottoman Empire have to deal with that, and they remain connected to the Islamic empire in distinct ways: there are economic connections, there are very tangible legal connections that are outlined in both treaties and in domestic laws. And there’s also spiritual and cultural connections. There are even people who continue to fight for the restoration of the Ottoman Empire, and we see this, for example in Habsburg Bosnia-Herzegovina and in what was back then a transitional part of the vilayet of Kosovo. Historian Leyla Amzi-Erdodular has written about this and how different groups in Bosnia-Herzegovina petitioned the Ottomans, even after these territories have been absorbed by Austria-Hungary. 

The meaning of ’post-Ottoman’ changes when the Ottoman Empire doesn’t exist anymore. It becomes a sort of reconciling with a sense of loss and figuring out what it means to live in a world without the Islamic empire, to not have the backup at an international treaty conference of a great power that’s going to be coming in to represent you. We find in the 1920s and 30s and into the 1940s Muslims in these former Ottoman lands grappling with what that means and how they might re-conceive and reconceptualize a global community of faith.  This becomes all the more important for different groups when modern Turkey goes on its path towards a national state and introduces a lot of secularizing reforms. We find this tension in Yugoslavia because Muslims had greater religious freedom there than in Turkey. We even have some examples where Muslim people migrate from Turkey back to Yugoslavia, or to Yugoslavia for the first time, because they feel they have more flexibility in the practices of Islam and control over Islamic institutions.  

If you had to come up with an overarching framework of what this legacy looks like, I’d argue that the Ottoman Empire was constantly a reference point for European lawmakers and intellectuals. 

In the 19th century, references to the Ottoman Empire serve as a way to define what is Europe and what is not Europe. Then in the 20th century, it becomes a way for states to think about what modernity and what backwardness is as they try to lump the Ottoman Empire into this regressive aspect of their past.

 I try to show that it is not necessarily how it actually was; there was a lot of mythmaking involved in all that.  

Muslims in southeastern in Europe were navigating that mythmaking and also calling attention to it.  One of the goals of the book is for us to really start thinking about Ottoman history and put the Ottomans back in our European history, which many scholars are trying to do but which still needs to reach a broader public.

Ferenc Laczo: You show in the book how a broad range of Muslim movements — reformists, traditionalists, revivalists, progressives, nationalists, socialists, fascists, Islamists — developed in relation to and as part of European political, ideological, social, and legal transformations. Let us perhaps focus on the last three of the movements I have just mentioned. What has your research revealed about the rise of political Islam, what we might call Islamism? How would you compare the way various Muslim individuals and groups have related to and were impacted by Hitler’s rule in Europe and the emergence of Tito’s Yugoslavia?

Emily Greble: I think those questions concern four chapters of the book and I won’t be able to totally do them justice here. To think about political Islam to start, I’d like us to remember that the 1930s and 40s are a time of great ideological division across Europe and lots of different groups of people were dissatisfied with the ways that the post-World War I order had developed. There was a lot of anger over the economy, anger over borders, over national political movements, over the ways that European society and culture was shifting. Many groups felt disenfranchised, there was push-back against what was seen as an overly liberal secular agenda. This was also a time of mass politics and new forms of revolutionary movements.  In the 1920s the Bolsheviks and Fascists in Italy are changing the ways European politics and mass movements are happening, in 1930s we have Nazi Germany doing the same thing. 

I begin with that because I think the story of political Islam in the 1930s and 40s in Europe needs to be understood as part of that narrative. 

I make a point that political Islam is part of the complex and contentious history of mass movements in Europe. It’s not something that we can only see as belonging to some other part of the world.  

In Yugoslavia, the Muslims were upset by minority rights projects that gave lip service to rights and promised them all sorts of things, and then undermined those promises, which then led to a lot of discrimination and repression. This was something different minorities were experiencing across Europe.

Muslims wrote about this in articles in the 1930s. There were speeches dedicated to how their local cultures and voices were being marginalized and demeaned. They were particularly upset by proselytization and Christianization efforts that were somehow disguised as secularism. They described how Islamic law was being diluted and exploited, and they felt disempowered. They responded by creating a whole range of local grassroots movements and by seeking new alliances in the shifting international system. 

I show how there were a variety of grassroots movements that formed in the 1930s that were grounded in principles of Islamic legal revivalism and were looking to the different Muslim political movements that were forming in other parts of the world, especially in the British Empire and the French empire. There were a number of Muslims who were attracted to this, both religious elites, Islamic scholars and secular educated Muslim lawyers, engineers, and doctors. These kinds of popular grassroots movements were Europe-wide, and political Islam and Muslim grassroots movements were part of them.

Now the European system, of course, was changing. We have the expansion of Hitler’s European Empire, we also have the expansion of Fascist Italy and the Fascist Italian Empire, both of which are really important in the Balkans. They’re both expanding into different places where there are Muslim communities. 

What I find is that there are different groups of the Muslim elites who see an alliance with one of these two states as a way to reverse what was so frustrating about the remaking of the post-Ottoman order. Both Germany and Italy promise confessional sovereignty and political autonomy. 

There’s also the sense that they’re offering a model of empire that was a little bit more familiar than the model of the nationalizing state which had defined the political system in the 1920s and 30s. I suggest that we really need to understand these alliances in terms of pragmatic and local contexts and not necessarily as ideological synergies. 

I then also explore how these alliances face real challenges and break up for a number of reasons, one of the big ones of which is racial ideology and racial discrimination. 

For Islamic scholars and thinkers, the Nazi racial categories that come to define the Nazi state and its allies, like the Independent State of Croatia, can’t trump Islam as a category. You end up with a lot of tensions, for example, over conversion. Can a radical right government prohibit Jews from converting to Islam? Muslim leaders would say no. There was also a lot of tension over the racial categorization of groups of Muslims, for example, when Roma people – and there’s a lot of Muslim Roma in the Balkans – are declared within the Nazi racial categorization system as non-Aryan. It also trickles down to all sorts of other kinds of tensions, over property law, over religious institutions, over education and the relationship of religion to nationalism. 

The last part of the book deals with the success of Tito’s Partisans in Yugoslavia and the way that the Communist resistance movement and victories shape the story. Here I draw on a number of excellent works about World War II that show how Muslims place their hope in communism in large part because the partisan movement promises brotherhood, equality, and religious freedom. The idea of religious freedom still had not been totally worked out, and the Communists are promising religious freedom of which they have their own definition and people don’t necessarily know how that could be different. However, as the Communists win the war and Yugoslavia, they immediately back out of a lot of the promises they had made during the war.  Within a year, they undo almost all of the legal and political experimentation that’s been happening in the region since the late 19thcentury. They dismantle the Sharia judiciary and other Islamic institutions. They also try to take over the Islamic legal profession and schools.

We can then see the 1930s and 40s as a unit, because the grassroots movements that had formed in the 1930s reject that and choose to fight. They continue to oppose the communist regime and try to subvert the atheistic state that is now absorbing them.  I try to connect that towards the end of the book to the larger narrative of how different groups of Muslims in southeastern Europe had used different tools to fight and struggle against the states that were being formed and imposed upon them without their consent. 

Ferenc Laczo: Let us discuss a few more theoretical questions as well. You show in the book that a specific framework for Muslim citizenship emerged across southeastern Europe in the aftermath of the Congress of Berlin of 1878, one that was built on a paradox of equality and discrimination. You highlight the ways in which Balkan Muslims began to transform from a confessional minority into a distinct form of legal minority in the frameworks of European citizenship. You write that (and I am quoting) “The system of Muslim citizenship that had emerged in the post-Ottoman Balkans privileged legal negotiation above other forms of diplomacy, empowering these Islamic legal authorities to serve as the principal mediators of Muslims’ rights. […] By design, the history of Muslims in Europe was one of legal negotiation.” Would you care to address the implications the rise of modern notions of citizenship had for the people whose stories you analyze and discuss these legal negotiations in some detail?

Emily Greble: It is probably one of the hardest parts of the book for people to wrap their heads around. In treaties before 1878, there was a presumption that when borders changed Muslims would not remain part of the new European state that absorbed them: there was a presumption that Muslims belonged to the Ottoman Empire which led to widespread expulsions and mass violence. A lot of that continues on the ground into the 20th century, but at an international level and at a legal level something starts to shift after 1878: the idea arises that Muslims can be citizens. The newly independent kingdoms of Serbia and of Montenegro and Austria-Hungary do the same thing: they integrate laws that give Muslims citizenship and equal rights. 

The legal presumption shifts from “Muslims have to go because they’re not part of the European project” to “you can be Muslim and in the European project.” Within that there’s also this legacy where Muslims continue to have authority and autonomy over Islamic legal institutions, and so there’s a certain tension between egalitarian citizenship and a distinct kind of Islamic legal structure.  

I’m not the first one to discuss this; others have written about this in the Russian Empire and the French Empire. 

What I try to develop here is that in this process Muslims are defined in a different way and they are no longer understood just as a confessional minority, nor are they understood as a national or linguistic minority. They come to be understood in legal terms, and the legal institutions are what binds them as a unit.  This becomes really important in different moments for defining the ways and also defining who can negotiate on behalf of Muslims, because you have Islamic legal institutions that are considered to be the domain of the Muslim minority and Islamic legal scholars and practitioners who are in those institutions are the ones who are often at the forefront of negotiation. And the terms they fight for within their debates and negotiations are legal ones.  

We have this great example in 1921 in the lead up to the first Yugoslav Constitution. Different groups of Muslims fought for the enshrinement of Sharia judiciary in the first Constitution. They understood their rights and their goals as being legal ones, and they succeed. For other minorities, their goals were maybe certain aspects of the school curriculum to be in the local language or having the right to organize social groups whereas Muslims were constantly fighting for specific legal regulations. 

The concept of citizenship is about rights and duties, and those rights and duties are defined in legal terms, so it makes sense that a minority group would engage with those concepts from the perspective of law.  As I mentioned earlier, by the time we get to the 1930s there is a real sense that Islamic legal revivalism should be at the heart of grassroots movements. 

Now there’s an irony in all of this. European policymakers frame Muslims’ political belonging in this legal language, and they develop and insist upon Islamic legal institutions within their states, which they then use to supervise and control them when they can, but then they also complain that Muslims have an understanding of law and legal institutions that are incompatible with European legal thought and structures. There’s a paradox at the heart of the creation of such a legal minority, at the heart of what a Muslim legal minority is going to be. It’s both utilized by European states and formulated through international law and domestic law and then used against Muslims later.

Ferenc Laczo: One thing your book shows very clearly is that secularism in modern Europe was never religion-neutral and the forms it took tended to be impacted by Christian assumptions. Would you care to comment on how, based on your research, European secularism was defined in ways that were in some sense antithetical to Islam or at least somewhat strange from the point of view of Muslims, for instance when it comes to distinctions between the public and the private? You also allude to the fact early on that – and I am quoting – “it is the Jewish Question more than any other that has defined both the study of rights discourses and thinking about the relationship between minorities and modernity in European history.” Could I therefore ask how you view the relationship between what has often been termed the Jewish question and what we might call the Muslim question in modern Europe? Would you say the two are closely comparable or rather distinct phenomena?

Emily Greble: Part of what I show in the book and what Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood have shown before is that there’s the idea that the modern European State is secularizing and that is supposed to mean that it is somehow religion-neutral and not involved in religious matters but that is just not the case. 

There’s a lot of posturing around what secularism means, but there’s not a lot of acknowledgements that Christian legal authorities were defining the terms of the state and drawing upon Christian traditions and, in many cases, Christian legal reasoning in the ways that they were beginning the process of formulating new states.

It drives me a little bit crazy when people talk about laïcité as if it’s always existed in the same form and shape and had a concrete meaning or when people talk about France as having been this continuous historical role model for what a secular state could or should look like. In our history books, there is a sense that France was the model of liberal Enlightenment and Serbia had Orthodox Christianity as its national religion and that it was not liberal or progressive. I think those concepts need to be challenged when we look at the question of what rights are, who’s defining them, and how different states are engaging with rights. 

I like to point out that the Kingdom of Serbia gave Muslims full citizenship rights, allowed Muslims to help negotiate the boundaries of Islamic law and the boundaries of what is public and what is private, and how the legal system was going to develop decades before the French government would allow all Muslims to become French citizens without renouncing Islam. 

The anthropologist Saba Mahmood argues quite persuasively that the political ideology of the secularizing state necessitated the supervision of religion.  What we see in the case of Muslims in formerly Ottoman lands is that states use their own power within these negotiations to try to supervise Islam.  But another thing to point out is that most European countries paid for mosques, they helped fund them. We see this in France, which contributed to paying for the mosque in Paris in the 1920s, and also the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which paid for a mosque and madrasa in Skopje.  Then there are consequences and afterlives for how religion was being defined and determined within different European states.  That’s really what I’m trying to get at with calling into question secularism and how we understand it in different parts of Europe – and why we have this presumption that whatever we might think of today as a model existed already 150 years ago.

In response to your other question, I would say that in the simplest terms, Jews and Muslims operated as different kinds of European minorities.

A big part of this was that Muslims in the Ottoman Empire were part of the elite class, and so they experienced a reversal of status and a great sense of loss: they lose property, they lose political rights, they lose their prestigious place in society when new states absorb them. The character of the violence associated with those processes is often defined or shaped by that reversal of power structures and hierarchies in a way that just does not happen to Jews.  

Both groups will experience during the 19th and 20thcenturies episodes of mass expulsions and repression and pogroms and massacres, but the character of how those happen is really different.

I also think that we are at a point where we take for granted that Jews are part of Europe’s past and Europe’s present. There are professorships in European Jewish Studies, there are doctoral programs that have designated lines, there are book series devoted to the subject and there’s many, many books, there’s museums and memorials. Textbooks on European history generally seek to integrate the Jewish narrative. All of those are good things.

It’s important to note though that we don’t have that kind of robust history and acceptance of Europe’s Muslims as part of the story. Muslim still tend to be depicted largely as colonial migrants, as refugees and outsiders, as Others. Whether they are from southeastern Europe or whether they have migrated, they are understood as being on the fringe of the European story. 

There are hardly any professorships in Islam in Europe, there are very few doctoral programs. KU Leuven has been doing a great job with this and really investing, which is awesome, and Umar Ryad has been really trying to change the institutional landscape, but there’s not a lot of grants or books or book series or journals that are dedicated to the subject, which is a real problem. My hope is, and here I’m joining other scholars in calling for this, that we can start to shift that, and in shifting it also understand how the question of European minorities is being understood and defined in different ways.

Ferenc Laczo: Your book shows how Muslims have very much been part of modern European history but that they have often not been understood that way. European policymakers in fact often presumed that Muslim concepts of law and the Islamic organization of family, property, and even the economy were incompatible with their modernizing state projects. You speak of “rigid ideological boundaries” embedded in European nation-building that radicalized around the idea that “Muslim” was somehow the antithesis of “citizen” and of “European.” In your conclusion, you also refer to the fact that “from France, China, India, and Myanmar to the United States, we see today the legacy of this framing of Muslims as outside legal norms. Across the globe, states prove unable to accept the existence and possibility of Muslim citizens.” As a final question, could I ask how you view the contemporary legacies of such historical traditions of exclusion, traditions of excluding Muslims? And do you see your book as part of a wider and powerful trend to change the narrative and make it more inclusive, or rather as one that goes against the grain in an age of anti-Muslim radicalism?

Emily Greble: There are so many legacies to these stories. I should say I’m always a little bit hesitant to talk about contemporary things as I’m very much a historian.  I think that from a historical perspective the biggest legacy that I can see in the contemporary period is a persistence of cultural stereotypes and structural racism in law, in politics, and in opportunity. If we open almost any newspaper in Europe today, we see the ways that Muslims are often described. We also see the continual erasure of Muslims from the grand narrative. The story I tell is kind of a pre-history of what starts to happen after World War II when we see a significant number of Muslim migrants to Western Europe and migration across the whole world and people moving to different places. Part of what I try to show is that these legacies continue to have an impact and they have created a foundation for how things operate, how police officers are treating people, how Muslims are being understood or misunderstood within different societies.

In the Balkans we also see a lot of contemporary legacies in the ways that Bosnians and Kosovar Albanians, two national groups that are predominantly comprised of people who identify as Muslim, are understood and treated on the international stage.  

There have been episodes of forced emigration of Muslims from Bulgaria in the late 1980s, and there was ethnic cleansing and genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s. On the one hand, Europeans know and acknowledged this. On the other, there’s not really an attempt to grapple with how that might have evolved over the course of several hundred years in terms of an erasure and a lack of consent. 

That’s part of what I’m trying to get at: political belonging really requires dialogue and a way of incorporating other groups rather than just imposing a view on them. 

Somebody invented different terms at some point, and those terms are then imposed upon people. It’s important to create space for people to respond to that and perhaps negotiate how it’s going to be. In the early 20th century, there was a lot of negotiations in Austria-Hungary, Serbia, and Greece. Bringing back some of those narratives might help us check a little bit the rigidity we see today.

To your last question: I don’t necessarily see those as different things. I view my book as part of a powerful trend that is trying to change European history and make it more inclusive. I think there’s a lot of historians who are doing this from different angles.  Some people might read my book as some kind of a personal attack as it is very difficult to confront myths and people’s own anti-Muslim radicalism or latent Islamophobia.  People don’t always think of those categories, or they don’t think that they’re operating within them. 

I think the first step is to acknowledge that Muslims are a major European minority and they’re part of our history, and then ask what this history looks like from their perspective and how do we grapple with that, so we can rewrite the big narratives to include all of Europe’s constituents.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In collaboration with Karen Culver.

Contact Us