Europe’s Muslims: Can We Have a Common Template?

Stephen Schwartz

Stephen Sylejman Schwartz – CIP

Remarks to Second Kosova Interfaith Conference, Prizren, Kosova Republic

Selamalejkum warahmetallahuh wabarakatuh,
Bismillah ir-rahman ir-rahim,

While I am an American by birth, I accepted Islam in Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1997, at age 49. For this reason, and because so much of the work of the organization I founded, the Center for Islamic Pluralism, has been carried out in the Balkans and elsewhere in Europe, I believe I can answer adequately the question of whether Europe’s Muslims can develop a common “template.”
We are often preached to, by Islamic radicals, regarding the indissoluble unity of the Muslim global community or ummah. We are informed that there is one Allah subhanawata’la, one Prophet Muhammad sallallahualejhisalem, and one Qur’an al-qerim. All of which are true. There is, we are told, one Islam, in which local, cultural, and doctrinal differences disappear. This is questionable, to say the least.
In countries like America, where a conformist attitude has been imposed on Muslims from within the community, this argument may appear sound to many indoctrinated believers. But I do not think anybody can accept the claim of “one Islam” who observes the basic differences between Balkan Islam, and especially Islam in the Albanian lands including Kosova, where the religion counts a majority of the population, and immigrant minority Islam in the countries of Western Europe, as well as the indigenous minority Islam in the Christian lands of Eastern Europe – Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania.
The flag of Ukraine. Every Muslim should stand up against Russian imperialism.

The flag of Ukraine. Every Muslim should stand up against Russian imperialism.

European Muslims excluding European Turkey and Azerbaijan currently have been estimated at 40-50 million people.[1] Differences in tradition, language, customs, and ideology abound among them.
British Muslims, totaling about three million, are mainly immigrants from the Indian Subcontinent and their descendants. They are deeply, and even violently, divided. Historically, most were adherents of the moderately conservative South Asian Barelvi sect, which is often culturally unassimilated in Britain, but favors metaphysical Sufism and adheres to the traditional guidance of Prophet Muhammad calling on Muslims living in lands without a Muslim majority to obey the laws and customs of their rulers.
In recent years, however, British Islam has been challenged by the radicalism of the South Asian Deobandi sect, which inspires the Taliban, as well as by such other extremist trends as the Muslim Brotherhood, Wahhabism, and the Pakistan-based jihadism of Jamaat-e Islami, founded by the 20th century CE fundamentalist Mawdudi. Britain also has a significant Shia presence. Between the Barelvis and the radicals, confrontation has taken extreme forms, including physical battles over control of Barelvi-founded mosques. Barelvis claim a majority of about 70 percent of British Muslims. No state supervision of British ulema, by any country, exists. The languages of British Muslims are English, Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati, and other subcontinental idioms.
German Muslims, at four million, are overwhelmingly of Turkish and Kurdish background. They comprise 75 percent normative Sunnis, and 25 percent, or a million, followers of the heterodox Alevi movement. Numerous German Sunnis are members of conventional Sufi tariqats. Alevism, which may be described as a Kurdish-based fusion of Safavid Sufism and Shiism with pre-Ottoman, Central Asian Turkic Islam and pre-Islamic shamanism, is extremely heterodox in its views and observances. In contrast with the practice of most Turkish Sunni Sufis in Germany, music is central to Alevi religious ceremonies and women lead their rituals. Alevi women enjoy equality in social relationships.
Many German Turks and, especially, people of Kurdish culture, are secular or leftist in politics. Sunni believers who migrated from Turkey to Germany long held to the Kemalist secularism of the Turkish Republic. This allegiance was reinforced by the role of the DİTİB, or Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs, an official wing of the Turkish government, in construction and administration of mosques in Germany. The DİTİB has always enjoyed special extra-territorial rights in Germany. With the rise of the Milli Görüş (IGMG or National Vision) radical movement in the Turkish European diaspora during the 1970s, the DİTİB’s Kemalism was challenged. While the DİTİB has built sumptuous mosques in major German cities, Milli Görüş offers services from so-called “garage” mosques operating in private or business premises. Alevis do not benefit from DİTİB financing for their cemevi or meeting houses.
Relations between the DİTİB and Milli Görüş may have changed with the ascent to power in 2002 of the Justice and Development Party or AKP led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Numerous members of the AKP, including Erdoğan, are former supporters of Milli Görüş. Although AKP originated in a split with Milli Görüş, much of their common ideological legacy appears intact. In addition, both Milli Görüş, officially, and the AKP, unofficially, have aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. It will be important to see how the German Turkish Sunnis react to the AKP’s takeover of the DİTİB. In addition, German Muslims will continue to include numerous Kurdish opponents of the Turkish state. The main languages of German Muslims are German, Turkish, Kurdish, Bosnian, and Albanian.
In France, which with five to six million has the largest Muslim community in Western Europe, conditions are completely different from those in Britain or Germany. The great majority of French Muslims are of North African background. They are subject to the laws of the French secular state, and while the Muslim Brotherhood commands powerful influence in the ranks of the ordinary believers, the established French Muslim leadership is supportive of French secularism, following the mentioned guidance of Rasulallah. Violence by French Muslim youth is generally social in nature, reflecting economic marginalization, and has seldom been jihadist. Muslims of Algerian background, in particular, are repelled by radical Islam, in the aftermath of the bloody civil war in Algeria, between the state and Islamists, beginning in 1991. There is liaison between the French ulema and the state but no direct supervision, notwithstanding official Moroccan and Algerian backing of ulema. The languages of French Muslims are French, North African Arabic, and Berber languages and dialects.
There is obviously, then, no “one Islam” uniting Western European Muslims. The German experience tends to replication in the northern European countries, and the French model of belief and practice – absent state secularism – in Spain. In the area of legal schools, most British Muslims are Hanafi, although radicals among them have departed from the Hanafi stricture that Islamic law [shariah] cannot be exported to countries without a Muslim majority. German Turkish Sunnis are Hanafi, German Kurdish Sunnis are Shafi’i. French Muslims who follow a madhdhab are Maliki, reflecting the tradition in their native countries. Other significant Muslim immigrant communities in Western Europe include Balkan Muslims and Somalis, all with their own collective personalities.
Bektashi Principles. Photograph 2010 by the Bektashi Community of the Republic of Macedonia.

Bektashi Principles. Photograph 2010 by the Bektashi Community of the Republic of Macedonia.

Even in the Balkan area, there is not “one Islam.” The Slavic Islam of Bosnians, and some Montenegrin and Macedonian Muslims, is not identical to Albanian Islam. Some Turkish-speaking communities continue in Kosova and Macedonia, which is why street and shop signs here in Prizren are written in Albanian, Serbian, and Turkish, as well as English. Spiritual Sufism is a much more vital movement among Albanians than among Bosnians. In addition, Albanians include the heterodox Bektashi sect, which resembles but has no direct link to the Alevi movement. Bektashis and Alevis (the latter in European Turkey and Bulgaria) are the sole indigenous community of Shia Muslims in Europe.I believe, therefore, that the “template” for European Muslims is one of acceptance of pluralism in Islam.
In conclusion, I have, since I first encountered it in 1990, admired the “template” of Albanian Islam, particularly in Albania proper, which rejects radicalism and promotes acceptance of the Sunni Sufis and Bektashis, with full respect for the other Albanian religious communities, Roman Catholics, Albanian Orthodox Christians, and the small Jewish representation. Albanian Islam is a model for Islam throughout Europe in its internal relations and dealing with other faiths.
I believe that the saying of the 19th century Albanian patriot, Ottoman official, and Catholic worshipper Pashko Vasa, “the religion of the Albanian is Albanianism,” accords exactly with the teachings of Qur’an and of Prophet Muhammad sallallahualeyhisalem. This attitude is especially praiseworthy because it arises from the national tradition rather than from external or internal imposition.

We should not be afraid to say we are Albanian, Bosnian, Macedonian, and American Muslims, with an emphasis on our national identities. For immigrants and their offspring in Western Europe, this affirmation is often more difficult, mainly for economic reasons, but its absence may be exploited by radicals to promote the fiction of “one Islam.” Still, loyalty to the non-Muslim state in Western Europe should be an unarguable Islamic principle.
Thank you for your attention, selamalejkum warahmetallahuh wabarakatuh.