With the turmoil in the Muslim world and the rise of global terrorism there are many debates about “European Muslims”, “American Muslims”, and “Western Muslims”. These discussions come out as a pressure felt by western Muslims to distance themselves from terrorists; and also as a categorization between “good” Muslims and “bad” Muslims.

Today we speak about the need of an Islamic fiqh (jurisprudence) to answer the needs and the questions of Muslims in America and Europe. But just as in America, so too in Europe, when someone mentions a Muslim we usually think of the Middle Eastern, South Asian, or North African immigrants. In America, more than in Europe, converted Muslims are only recently starting to be part of this representation. But are these the only Muslim communities?

Let us start in Europe. While we try to invent a new “type” of Muslim that we call the “Euro Muslims” and try to construct what fits them as being Muslims in Europe, we are ignoring the more than 600 years of experience of Islam in Europe. I am not talking about Andalusia, which we also tend to ignore when we speak about European Muslims, but rather the Western Balkans, and their experience as Muslims and as Europeans. While we consider Greece as the cradle of Europe and European civilization, we ignore the Muslims in Greece as even a part of European Muslims. Similarly, the Bulgarian Muslims Bulgarian-Turks and Pomaks, are very rarely included in the picture of European Muslims. The most well known Balkan Muslims are the Bosnians, who constitute around half of the population in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with minorities in the neighboring countries. But even Bosnian Muslims today are only mentioned in terms of the war in the 90s or radicalism today. The Muslim population in Albania is allegedly 70% and 90% in Kosovo. Although those are mostly non-practicing communities, Islam has influenced the Albanian culture as it has been made an integral part of their religious life, both in Albania and Kosovo. Similarly, in Macedonia, more than 40% of the population is Muslim.

The reason I am bringing this up is that these regions have integrated Muslims and communities of other religions for centuries; and yes there were problems, but those problems and wars had to do with the authoritative regimes, not with the religious demography of the population. This region being in Europe classifies the Balkan Muslims as “the” Euro-Muslims. I have had serious difficulties in understanding the construction of a new “Euro-Muslim” identity while ignoring the European Muslims. While there are many contributions that the Balkan Muslims can make in this “Euro-Muslim” identity, the only time when they are mentioned is either during the war or in the recent claims of the raise of radicalism. If we take the rise of radicalism as a determinant to disqualify a community from being European Muslims, then French, German, and British Muslims should be disqualified before the Balkan Muslims. When speaking of Balkan Muslims, the focus is more on the contribution of the region to jihadist organizations than centuries of contribution to inter-religious tolerance.

Although the history books in most European countries, including the Balkans, talk about the forced conversion of the Balkan people into Islam, today we celebrate monasteries in the Balkans that outdate the Ottoman Empire and that have lived during the 500-year rule of the empire. Moreover, governed mostly by local Muslims, most of the Christian churches and monasteries in the Balkans are two to four hundred years old, which means that they were built during the Ottoman Empire, where local Muslim leaders used to rule. In Albania, Kosovo, or other places where Albanians live, there is no division on religious differences. Albanian religious leaders come together for each other’s celebrations and support each other’s work for the reconciliation of the population and inter-religious tolerance and dialogue.

A similar situation is true with the Muslims in America. While no one talks about Bosnian, Albanian, Tatar, or Pomak Muslims, they have migrated to the United States much earlier than most of the communities that are considered as the representatives of Muslims in America.

A simple Google search shows that it was the Bosnian Muslims that established the first Muslim community, the Dzemijetul Hajrije Islamije (The Benevolent Society) in Chicago, Illinois, in 1906, which is the longest living incorporated Muslim Community in the United States.

Polish Lipka Tatars founded the first Muslim organization in New York City, in 1907, called the American Mohammedan Society. This organization is still alive in New York City.

Very interestingly, the Ross Masjid is considered the first mosque in the United States, founded by Syrian Muslims in North Dakota. You can read everywhere that this is the first mosque in the United States, followed by the second one in Cedar Rapids in Iowa, built in 1934. But there is strong evidence that the Albanian Muslims in Biddeford, Maine built their mosque in 1915. And although today the mosque is not present there is a Muslim-Albanian cemetery on the site.[1]

These are only some of the contributions of Balkan Muslims to Europe and America in terms of Islam and their presence in Europe and America. But we tend to ignore them when we speak about the Euro-Islam or the American-Islam identity. This, I believe, ignores a very credible presence of Islam as a part of “Western” identity. Balkan Muslims are as European as Greeks and French, and they have been present in the US for centuries.

Illusionists say that sometimes the best place to hide is in plain sight. Although the Balkan Muslims have no intention to hide, we tend to ignore them and their experiences from our plain sight. While trying to construct “new” European and American Muslim identities we ignore the indigenous European Muslims.

Erdoan A. Shipoli, Contributor
PhD in PolSci and IR; Associate Dean at Virginia International University, program director at FEBA and a visiting scholar at ACMCU at Georgetown University.

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