- Europe's Balkan Muslims. A New History by Nathalie Clayer and Xavier Bougarel
Written very much for a general western readership, this book is, according its title, a "new history" of around 8 million "sociological" Muslims (to use the authors' terminology ), living in Southeast Europe (today's Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Slovenia) from the beginning of the 19th century to 2001. The volume is divided into an introduction, a conclusion and five chapters, arranged according to the political history of the region. The first chapter, "From the Ottoman Provincial Autonomies to the Eastern Crisis (1800-1876)," covers the weakening of Ottoman central control in the region and the intensification of Great Power intervention, while the second chapter, "From the Eastern Crisis in the End of the Empires (1876-1923)," focuses on the period between the Ottoman-Russian War of 1876 and the establishment of the Turkish Republic, which signified the end of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires and the consolidation of the nation-state constructions in the region. The third chapter, "From the End of the Empires to the Advent of Communism (1920-1944)," encapsulates the period between 1920 and 1944, focusing on the various political and ideological developments in the region. The fourth, "From the Advent of Communism to its Fall (1944-1989)," is about the rise of communism in the region. And the final chapter, "From the Fall of Communism to European Integration (1989-2001)," covers the post-communist era when the region experienced political upheavals and tragedies as well as further integration into a wider Europe.
Although, according to the authors, this book is about the "political and religious transformations that Balkan Muslims have undergone" (218), most of the text deals with nation-state building and political upheavals in the region in general or zooms in on Islamic religious institutions and Sufi brotherhoods in particular rather than systematically analysing the social, political and economic experiences of Balkan Muslims. Thus, issues such as the changing socio-economic conditions of Balkan Muslims, evident, for example, in the rural-urban divide, migration patterns or legal status are largely ignored. A major problem with the book, and one which feeds into this lack of effective engagement with Balkan Muslims, is the authors' premise that takes Islam as the main unifying factor uniting nationally, ethnically, ideologically, linguistically, economically, socially and geographically dispersed groups of people [End Page 1469] around one common religious identity. However, rather than being a common constant signifier, Islam was multi-faceted and experienced in different forms by different Muslim groups throughout the region. Hence, while Islam has played a significant role in constructing Bosniak national identity, faced by dominant Croatian and Serbian identities, its importance in the national identity construction in Albania, where the majority of the population is Muslim, was very limited. Ironically, Islam became an important agent in the propagation of Albanian nationalism among ethnically non-Albanian Muslim groups both in Macedonia and Kosovo.
This multiplicity of Islams undermines the authors' conception of a dichotomy between religious identity and national identity, which is premised on the assumption that these two categories are mutually exclusive (192-193). The inherent weakness of such an argument is highlighted by the authors themselves when they refer to the ex-Yugoslavian government's promotion of "Muslim national identity" (152). This criticism of the authors' use of simple dichotomies applies also to the juxtaposition of Muslim public opinion to Western public opinion (6), which presumes in the first place that there is such a thing as Muslim public opinion, something far from established here, and that Islam and the West somehow exclude each other. Such conceptual problems result in the book becoming an amalgamation of various vignettes, some detailed and interesting, in particular those on Albanian nationalism and Islam and the development of Islamic institutions in communist Bosnia, but some general, superficial and sometimes based on very dated secondary source information and only loosely related due to the...