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European Islam

November 25, 2011

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, a debate in Europe has heated up over the compatibility of Islam with secular, Western society. Scholars meeting in Stuttgart took a fresh look at the question.

A woman wearing a face-covering made of the European flag
Many Europeans question Islam's adaptabilityImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

International scholars met last week in Stuttgart to consider the question: What's the ideal form of Islam for a European context, if there is one?

An estimated 20 million Muslims live in Western Europe. In many countries, the presence of a large Muslim minority has led to intense national discussions. The September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States stoked arguments in Europe that Islam was not reconcilable with European values, and that Islam was not adaptable to democracy.

With such debates raging about Muslim "integration," many are looking to the way Islam is practiced in Bosnia-Herzegovina for the answers.

Institutionalized Islam

"Islam has long been practiced [in Bosnia-Herzegovina] in a secular environment and in a secular state," said Armina Omerika, an Islam scholar at the University of Bochum in western Germany. "Also, there's a high level of institutionalization of Islam there, and that institutionalization has become the strongest support for the religion in that country."

Dr. Armina Omerika
Omerika believes institutionalization would earn Muslims in Europe more trustImage: DW

Muslims make up the majority in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and they live harmoniously alongside Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Sephardic Jews. This diversity, along with the 130 years during which the country was ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, made Bosnian Islam what it is today.

Under the empire, a Muslim institution was created which was modeled on the structures of Christian churches. In fact, it was then that the role of the Grand Mufti, the leader of Bosnian Muslims, was established.

Omerika believes this kind of organization of the religion could make Islam more welcome in Europe: "It's this form of institutionalization that represents a known quantity for many Europeans, because they see parallels with religious organization in church structures."


Back in the 1990s, German political scholar Bassim Tibi introduced the term "Euroislam," meaning a combination of Islamic principle and modern European culture and values.

However, many scholars, such as Kerem Öktem of the European Studies Centre at Oxford, disagree and believe the idea of "European Islam" is not useful.

Dr. Kerem Öktem
Öktem says Islam is not necessarily a foreign element within EuropeImage: DW

"The main problem," he argues, "is that there's a basic assumption that Islam is something foreign, something different, something that's not from Europe - and that the religion must therefore be domesticated, Europeanized or nationalized."

Öktem argues that's not the case, and that Islam has existed in Europe for centuries. Bosnia, he maintains, is not the only example; there's also Turkey, Albania and Bulgaria.

And then there are the Tatars, who've lived in Poland for more than 600 years. They make up under 1 percent of the population, but, according to Adam Was, an Islamic studies scholar at the Catholic University in Lublin, they've now been joined by a second wave of Muslims.

"Those are the students from various Arab lands who came to Poland in the second half of the 20th century. Most married in Poland and started families, and that's how the second group came to be," he said.

So there are Turks and Algerians, Albanians and Bosnians, Pakistanis and Iranians, and two streams of the religion in Poland alone - all of them speaking different languages and having different cultures and religious traditions.

"Is it even theoretically possible to find a model for such a diverse challenge?" asked Öktem. "Even on a theoretical level, I would say no. There is simply too much diversity, and this diversity must be addressed."

A unique flavor

Was agrees there can be no unified European Islam - whether Bosnian or something else - but perhaps rather an Islam with a European flavor, as there is African Islam, which differs from the Islam of Southeast Asia.

Dr. Adam Was
Dr. Adam Was points out that there are multiple Muslim traditions in Poland aloneImage: DW

"We need an Islam with certain European characteristics: democracy, human rights, freedom of religion. This will involve a process of reinterpretation of the Koran, and that will require a certain new exegesis of the holy scripture," said Was. "And that's a discussion to which Muslims who have already been in Europe for centuries can contribute."

Author: Zoran Arbutina / dl
Editor: Michael Lawton

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