Hugh Fitzgerald: Riada Akyol Presents the “Tolerant Islam” of Bosnia (Part Three)


Forced secularization—including bans on wearing face veils—can be counterproductive. As the testimonies of Muslim women from Yugoslavia revealed, such restrictions can produce deeply negative consequences, including insults and attacks against veiled women. Instead, Muslims’ own questioning of the religious foundations of the face veil can yield progressive interpretations that feel authentic because they’re coming from within the community. For instance, the Bosniak reformist leadership argued that Islam grants men and women rights and responsibilities, and unveiling is both true to Islam and can facilitate women’s access to fulfilling their given rights. Instead of legal bans or enforced dress codes, democratic Western governments would do better to promote Muslim women’s freedom of choice.

The author believes that by not enforcing a ban on the veil, Western governments are more likely to achieve voluntarily the uncovering of Muslim women. But that assumes that Muslim women really can exercise free will in this matter. All around the world, we see Muslim women being forced, by terrific family and societal pressure, to remain veiled. That pressure can include the threat of physical violence, and there have been many cases of Muslim women and girls being beaten, or even killed, for daring to remove their cover — whether hijab, chador, or niqab. If, however, the power of the state is brought to bear, and wearing the veil outlawed, it becomes much harder for Muslim men to enforce their own dress code on “their” women.

The greatest example of “forced secularization” of a Muslim people occurred in Turkey under Ataturk. It was, by all accounts, a great success. The state now required, among many reforms, that women not wear the veil in most public places (courts, universities, government offices). Turkish women did not rebel at this; most were glad to be required by law not to wear the hijab. Those who wanted — or were forced by their husbands — to wear the veil, could still do so at home. Having lost their empire after World War I, many Turks were sufficiently jolted by this colossal defeat to embrace Ataturk’s reforms, and to share his determination to secularize the country and bring it into the 20th century.

Finally, Islamic modernism, born in the 19th century as an effort to reinterpret Islam with a liberal spirit, is not as ineffective as some pessimistic commentators on Islam believe. In today’s Bosnia, Islam is internally diverse: Many Muslims see it as part of their cultural heritage, while others emphasize the importance of daily religious rituals.

Islam in Bosnia may be “diverse” not in an ethnic or sectarian sense, but in the varied level of religious commitment by its adherents. We have no way of knowing, from Riada Akyol’s piece, how many in Bosnia are “cultural” Muslims, who may not even believe in God, and how many are strictly devout, which can reasonably be taken to mean not only that they think the “daily religious rituals” are important — the author limits herself to mentioning that as the sum total of their devotion, deliberately leaving out the most disturbing aspects of the faith, which requires that they also accept, among other things, the 109 Qur’anic verses that command them to wage violent Jihad against the Unbelievers and to “strike terror” in  their hearts.

Our modernist Islamic tradition is not immune to global trends, including Salafist currents. But Bosnia’s intellectual legacy offers plenty of evidence that Europe and Islam are far from incompatible—in fact, they have been intertwined for centuries.

Europe and Islam have been “intertwined” in the sense that they have been at war for 1,400 years. Muslims in the West conquered the Iberian Peninsula and thrust deep into central France before being halted at Tours by Charles Martel in 732; they remained the masters of Spain for centuries, mistreating the Christians and Jews with whom Akyol says they were (peacefully) “intertwined.” During the Reconquista by the Christians, that lasted more than 700 years, the Muslims lost first one and then another territory, until Granada, the last kingdom to fall, surrendered to the Christians in 1492. In the West, the Muslims made repeated attempts to conquer the Byzantines. Their final victory over the Christians in this theater of war was achieved with the conquest of Constantinople on May 29, 1453. For centuries after, Muslims raided up and down the coasts of Europe, seizing loot, and kidnapping Christians to be slaves, striking as far north as Ireland and, in one recorded case, Iceland. Later still, Muslims — history’s “Barbary pirates” — would prey on Christian ships and seamen in the Mediterranean. That ‘intertwining” was soaked in rivers of blood.

The moderate Islam that the author claims can be found in Bosnia is the result of one thing: the fact that from 1878 on, the Muslims were under the stern rule of Unbelievers, when Bosnia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They had no choice but to compromise, and to find muftis willing to issue fatwas that would justify such compromises as had to be made with the rule of non-Muslim masters.

Riada Akyol does not mention how those “tolerant” Bosniaks demonstrated a much darker side when, during World War II, they formed the S.S. Hanjar Division, that took part in some of the worst atrocities of the Second World War, with the roundup and  murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews. Hajj Amin al-Husseini made a substantial contribution to the Axis war effort by organizing “in record time” recruitment to Muslim SS units.

Altogether, it is estimated that some 20,000 Muslims were chosen to serve in the elite Hanjar (Sword) SS Division — there was no lack of volunteers — where they not only murdered Jews, but also fought against the anti-Nazi  partisans. Along with the infamous Bosnian 13th Waffen Hanjar (or Handschar) SS division, the Nazis also raised the Albanian Skanderbeg 21st Waffen SS division, consisting entirely of Muslims. SS conscription in Yugoslavia during the war produced a total of 42,000 Waffen SS and police troops.

Facing a true test of their “tolerance,” the Bosnian Muslims failed utterly. Riada Akyol makes no mention of this most important chapter in the history of the Bosniaks. It’s easy to guess why.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *