Millet, nation, community

As a signifier, Bosnjak – which is gaining traction as a national identity in Sandjak (in both Serbia and Montenegro), and among Balkan Muslims in Western Europe – is coming to connote a political identity associated with access to state power, “European” credentials and Islamic legitimacy.

By David B. Kanin

“Arab Spring” works too well as a simple slogan; the term permits various protagonists to appropriate fluid, diverse, and interacting developments to serve very different agendas. Brussels and Washington congratulate themselves as being the indispensable models for democracy and cultural diversity. This goes beyond government propaganda – one NGO maven was cited in the Washington Post as saying Egypt (for example) had no alternative to moving forward in cooperation with the United States.

The “Occupy” phenomenon, which exists more as twittered electrons than as an effective popular movement, embraces Arab revolts as part of its rhetoric of global revolution. Western Occupiers, however, have yet to demonstrate anything like the efficacy of those who organized so well and sacrificed so much last year in the Middle East and North Africa. Asserting that their lack of organization and strategic coherence are strengths rather than weaknesses will get the much less than 99 percent who take to US and European streets only so far.

In turn – outside of Tunisia, perhaps – some of the Arab heroes of 2011 are finding themselves eclipsed by savvy politicians and opportunists associated with old regimes or patronage networks (to include traditional regional and tribal configurations). Activists in Egypt and elsewhere could suffer the fate of those who drove revolutions in 1789, 1848 and 1968. Some eventually could follow the example of Serbia’s Otpor, which adjusted to its post-Milosevic popular rejection by translating the credit it gave itself for the events of October 2000 into an entrepreneurial credential used to advertise services to would-be revolutionaries in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The upheavals in the Arab and Muslim world reflect a diverse array of initiatives and reactions helping to drive global politics out of the period of Western dominance and into an era when no country, no matter how much hard or soft power it claims for itself, will drive trends and events. Going forward, the Balkan region will be – among other things – a part of that Muslim world, an area in which Muslims will engage simultaneously with various flavors of Islamic politics and the residual pull of the Western teleology of democracy and secular multi-culturalism.

At least some Balkan Muslims are taking a sophisticated and constructive approach to communal organization. In a thoughtful interview in Sarajevo’s Dani (March 16), Fikret Karcic, who is associated with the Commission for Constitutional and Legal Affairs of the Islamic Community’s Assembly, discussed the relationship between Muslims in the various pieces of former Yugoslavia and the Albanian world. He also grappled with the inherent tensions involved in reconciling the Ottoman Millet tradition, 19th and 20th century nationalism and state formation, and the more recent development of a transnational Bosnjak identity that struggles to manage religious, ethnic and civic components.

Karcic is clear on the importance of labeling an Islamic community as existing in a country, not being of one. This is more than just a debating point between Muamer Zukorlic and his critics in Serbia. Islamic organizations increasingly are determined not to be limited by national borders. This is smart – no border south of the Sava is set in stone, and governments in Bosnia, Kosova/Kosovo, and perhaps elsewhere exist in anything but “final status.” Karcic points out that the name “Islamic Community of Bosnjaks” is particularly inappropriate – even though some European Islamic communities have adopted it – because non-Slavic Muslims also belong to these groups.

The problem Karcic faces here is that the idea of “Bosnjak” as a national identity is gaining traction in Sandjak (in both Serbia and Montenegro), and among Balkan Muslims in Western Europe as well. As a signifier, Bosnjak is coming to connote a political identity associated with access to state power, “European” credentials and Islamic legitimacy. The religious and the political content of Bosnjak co-mingle in a way Karcic and his colleagues likely will struggle to deal with.

Karcic acknowledges the Ottoman legacy, but insists Islamic organization in the contemporary Balkans must become more than the autonomous cultural and religious Millet institutions associated with minorities in the old Empire. He hopes Muslims will transcend as well the post-Ottoman national/ethnic organization associated with what he termed the “territorial principle.” Karcic envisions a multi-levelled structure that would look as much Western as inherently Muslim. It would have central institutions – a Supreme Assembly, Ulema Majlis (Council of Scholars – currently called the Rijaset, of which Karcic is a member), Constitutional Court and Reis ul Ulema. At the same time, Islamic Communities in Bosnia, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and the Diaspora would have their own Assembly and Mesihat (executive).

As with any proposed governing structure, this raises a number of questions. Karcic points to the fact that not all Balkan Muslims are Bosnjaks, and criticizes the current situation in Europe, in which there are separate Mosques for “Arabs, Moroccans, Tunisians, Bosnjaks Albanians and others.” However—aside from acknowledging that an ethnic Albanian very well could lead the Islamic Community in Croatia – in his thumbnail discussion of a notional Islamic Community he makes no mention of Albanians or (Bulgarian Turks or Pomaks, for that matter). He appears to desire a relationship among Muslims across ethnic lines – so how will the evolving Islamic Community interact with Muslim institutions in Albania, Kosova and Macedonia that have their own organizational problems and engage in sometimes difficult transactions with governments that seek to influence their leadership choices and other functions?

In the interview, Karcic also skillfully evaded questions about the question of whether the current Reis ul Ulema should stay in office or, if not, who might replace him. Muamer Zukorlic and other names remain unmentioned. No matter how carefully the Rijaset and Mesihat craft new rules and governing bodies, the question of power and its periodic transfer appears just as fraught for Balkan Muslims as for non-Muslim communities and states in the region.

Karcic also seems uncertain about how he will mix the apple of politics with the orange of religion. He stresses that the Islamic Community is a nation, not a Millet, and implies that faith should be in the communal but not the political domain. He says the Islamic Community is first and foremost a religious community and should concentrate on its core mission. On the other hand, he emphasizes that the Bosnjaks are a nation, which infers a highly political content to a part of the Islamic community that – as I said above – already has come to serve as a political and social magnet to Slavic Muslims in Serbia, Montenegro and perhaps elsewhere. If Bosnjak political identity gathers steam, what will be the relationship between the overall Islamic Community – headed by a Reis ul Ulema sitting in Sarajevo – and Bosnjak politicians and community leaders in a number of countries?

This question is made more sensitive by Karcic’s references to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Turkish AK Party as having promulgated social policies worth attention from the European and Balkan Islamic Community. Karcic stresses that social justice is one of the key concepts of Islam, and reasonably criticizes the emphasis on politics over social services among Balkan Muslims (and, of course, non-Muslims). He hopes that a religious grounding of social services will produce high quality hospitals, clinics, and charitable institutions. He does not mention HAMAS or Hizb’allah (for good reason), but these overtly political organizations amassed much credibility from their reputation for honesty and ability to provide services more efficiently and fairly than did governments. If the Islamic Community comes to fill social needs better than the secular public sector, and the usual condition exists whereby in other areas political structures work less well than those social networks, what would be the relationship between this social function and whatever political authority exists under Bosnjak or other Muslim management (not to mention between the Islamic social network and non-Muslim states)?

None of these questions are meant as criticism. Karcic deserves credit for a thoughtful outline of how an Islamic Community can develop institutions in the Balkans and in other parts of Europe. His notion proposes an adaptive Islamic Community that is cohesive but also devolves authority to units in different places – without hardening borders by speaking of those units as being of those places. This would contrast with relations among Orthodox Christians, whose emergence from the same Ottoman history has not led to anything like a movement to transcend the old Millet/Exarchate identifiers. The continuing rows between a Serbian Orthodox Church seeking to maintain its Ottoman-derived authority against a Macedonian Orthodox Church (which dates from the Tito era-with only the weakest connection to the medieval and early modern Ohrid patriarchate) and the post-2006 Orthodox Church of Montenegro are not so different from nineteenth century Greek and Patriarchate efforts to block Serbian and Bulgarian ecclesiastical autocephaly. These are models the Islamic Community would do well to avoid.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

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