The discourses of the European political right do not stop considering “Muslim Europe” as a threat to the way of life known to the old continent, but these racist discourses avoid referring to a long history of Islamic presence and coexistence on the European continent for centuries, especially in the Balkans.
The words “Balkan Muslims” are associated with some Europeans with many mental images of wars, destruction and religious persecution of Muslims in this region of the world, but there is a different picture from that issued by the media, presented by a new book that talks about Balkan Muslims through a historical tourist trip by its author.
Written by Briton of Bangladeshi origin Tariq Hussain, Minarets in the Mountains: A Journey to Muslim Europe is an English travel literature by a Muslim, and also explores the historical roots of Islamophobia in Europe. The author and his family learn lessons about themselves and their identity as Britons, Europeans and Muslims. Following in the footsteps of the famous Ottoman traveler Evliya Celebi, he reminds readers that Europe is as Muslim as it is Christian, Jewish or pagan.
For a period of nearly 40 years, from 1640 to 1676 AD, after he began his tours in Istanbul; Chalabi gave a description of a series of long trips within and around the Ottoman Empire, sometimes alone, or on an official mission at other times, and recorded his trips and observations, in the manner of the writings of travelers, which reflects that he had seen their writings, in his 10 books, known as “Sayahtanamah” ” (Trips).
In his “Seyahtanamah”, Olya mentioned the vast geographical areas and the distant lands that he visited in present-day Turkey, the Balkan countries (Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Hungary, Macedonia, and Armenia), the islands of the Mediterranean, the Aegean Sea, Anatolia, Asia Minor, Iraq, the Levant, Egypt, Sudan, Abyssinia, Russia and the Caucasus. He described its cities, roads, inhabitants, landmarks, monuments, dialects, customs, anecdotes, and oddities, often with many details.
In the article published by “Balkan Insight”, American writer Robert Rigney, who specializes in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Turkey, reviews Tariq Hussein’s book, which tells of his trip to the Balkan countries that he made in 2016.
At first, the writer wonders why the book topped Amazon sales, was included in the long list of the baillie gifford prize for non-fiction, and was also chosen as “book of the year” by the literary supplement of Time magazine, noting that the hadith About the Balkans is usually not an attraction for sales in the world of books.
The writer draws attention to the fact that the title may be somewhat misleading, as it does not give any glimpse that the author of the book is talking about that region of the world, indicating that the author made this trip in the summer of 2016 with his family in search of indigenous Muslim communities in Europe, comparing their history their heritage and their current reality.
In the footsteps of Olya Chalabi
Rigney continues his review of the book; He says that the author used the writings of the Ottoman explorer Evliya Celebi, who lived in the 17th century, as his guide in a comparison between the Ottoman Balkans and the present-day Balkans after more than 30 years of the demise of communism, secularization, forced atheism, wars, genocide and ethnicity that occurred in them.
The writer explains that Hussein does not say that Islam is in good health in the Balkans, but he found surprisingly prosperous areas in Islam and in places that people do not expect, reviewing a number of literature that talked about the region, such as Edith Durham, a British traveler from the beginning of the twentieth century, and Rebecca also British West, who made a trip to the former Yugoslavia in 1937, and the 1990s also saw many books on the Balkans, though mostly focused on the region’s wars at the time.
The writer believes that what makes this book unique is that it was written from the point of view of a Muslim living in England; He writes about what is “generally seen as a white territory”; He explains that Husayn’s book is the first account of the Balkans by a Western Muslim, and may be the first since Evliya Celebi.
The writer considered that the author of this book began his journey at a difficult time for the Muslims of the West; On the one hand, former US President Donald Trump was openly hostile to Islam running for the presidency of the United States, and on the other hand – according to Hussein – Britain was engaged in an identity crisis after its campaign to leave the European Union; A campaign that was promoting the British that Europe is full of Muslim refugees.
Rigne shows that Hussein, his wife and two daughters decided to stay away from this hot atmosphere, and go on a trip to the Balkans to explore the heritage of Muslims there. They started from Bosnia, passing through the Serbian region of Sanjak, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro, to end the trip with them in the end in Bosnia again; Noting that Hussein, in his book and throughout the trip, mixed between conveying the manifestations of the attractiveness of the Muslim Balkans, and reviewing the painful history of the region.
The author explains that while a large part of the book talks about surviving architectural descriptions from the Ottoman Empire; From mosques, baths and schools, he was keen to convey the current human experiences by talking to some imams and worshipers, as he described some tourist attractions in a number of areas, such as Bacharcia or the old Sarajevo bazaar and the Sufi hospice in the village of Blajaj in southeastern Bosnia, noting that Hussein said that he He found the real appeal of Balkan Muslims far from the usual tourist spots, such as Novi bazaar in Serbian Sanjak, and Tetovo in North Macedonia, which is mostly Albanian.
The writer says that he made many visits to the Balkans, which means a lot to him as it means to the author of the book, as he made walking, bike, bus and train trips over 15 years, which made him overcome his prejudices and phobias, avoid many racist and nationalist attitudes, and learn about Islam differently.
The writer continues his talk about his relationship with the region, saying that in 2003, he was a journalist loving Serbs and a little anti-Islam, and wanted to see the last pariah state in Europe, which was like Iraq, Libya, North Korea and Cuba; It defied the United States and chanted “Long live Saddam” when the United States began bombing Iraq in 2003.
“I wanted to get to know one of the last pockets of resistance to globalized popular culture, the country that – a member of the European Union – rejected the hegemony imposed by the eurozone, and eager to see the last European bastion of ethnocentrism, I began my trip to Serbia in 2003.”
When meeting nationalist Serbs, Rijni expresses his astonishment at meeting the Muslims of Novi Pazar, the main city in the Serbian province of Sanjak; Where he heard the call to prayer for the first time, emerging at five in the morning from the minarets made of mud in that Turkish neighborhood.
The city of Novi Pazar was also an unexpected milestone in Hussein’s trip to the Balkans – according to the writer – he stated in his book, “When I arrived in Novi Pazar, I had to make sure that we did not cross the border by mistake and entered Turkey, as we found out through the guidebook We entered the biggest “Turkish” city ever, and it wasn’t a joke. Could this really be Serbia?”
and like Sarajevo; Hussein discovered – as Rigne says – that Novi Pazar is “a largely Muslim city, as more than 80% of the city’s population profess the Islamic religion, which makes the Serbian city more Muslim than some Islamic countries.”
The writer continues Hussein’s description of his trip. “It was only two weeks since we started our trip that we found not only the “hidden” Sarajevo in Novi Pazar, but also its double legacy.” Where Rigney makes it clear that the fundamental and troubling issue that Hussein raises in his book is that one should visit the Muslim Balkans because its Islamic heritage is in danger of annihilation.
While cities like Novi Pazar have inspired him with their dynamism, Hussein turns his attention to the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the 1990s, reinforcing his conviction that the Muslim Balkan region is under threat. One of the biggest threats facing Muslim societies in the Balkans today is not Islamophobia, but rather the emigration and brain drain, as the author quotes the author.
Rijni continues with Hussein, who says, “In Novi Pazar alone, 10 buses leave a day for Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden. Some NGOs estimate that between 500 and 1,000 people leave the Serbian province of Sanjak every Saturday for Western Europe, and many of them leave the region.” Permanently”.
The writer talks about the old bridge in Mostar, which defied the laws of physics 5 centuries before the Bosnian Croats blew it up in 1993, and the Victorian travelers considered it a Roman, and in the words of Hussein, it “belongs to the “other” history that I was told has nothing to do with the history of Europe, and with So I was traveling here across Europe with my family, visiting places and meeting people who connected me concretely with the cultural landscape of the continent and its Islamic heritage, or rather my Islamic heritage.”
The author denounces the deliberate denial of the Islamic origins of Balkan architecture, such as the attempt by the English archaeologist Arthur Evans in his 1897 book to attribute the Mostar Bridge to the Roman Emperor Trajan, while others, such as the 19th century painter Chalwater de Lazne, refused to accept his Turkish Islamic origin, and instead attributed it to Latin civilization .
The writer quotes Hussein asking why he did not learn anything about this heritage in school in England? He says, “Alexander the Great ruled the Greek and Roman empires. But why are so many people in Europe – not just Europe – ashamed to present the Ottoman Empire properly? Were the Ottomans guilty of more colonial crimes than the Greeks and Romans?!”
Rigny concludes his article with the author of the book saying, “I wanted to show that the Ottomans committed some atrocities, but they also did good things as the Romans and Greeks did, so if you can stay there as a non-Muslim white person, and talk about the wonders of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar and Hadrian, why can’t I talk about Sultan Suleiman or Mehmet Pasha Sokolovich?”