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

Bosniaks also debated Muslim women’s issues, including use of the face veil. One of the most renowned debates on the subject dates to 1928. It began when Mehmed Džemaludin Čaušević, the grand mufti of the Bosnian community and an important religious reformist, argued that the face veil was a product of historical tradition, not of religion per se, so it was possible to change veiling practices without violating Islam. Religious conservatives, who considered covering a woman’s face to be a religious duty, reacted harshly. But through a long and vigorous back-and-forth, Čaušević eventually earned the support of notable intellectuals and professionals, some of whom soon became the leaders of a self-defined progressive movement.

Again, this was a case of finding an Islamic justification for submitting to superior forces. The Austro-Hungarian rulers discouraged the veiling of women, and finding an “Islamic” justification for what would have to be accepted in any case was a way to avoid a clash between the non-Muslim rulers and the Muslim ruled, a clash that could only lead to the defeat and humiliation of the latter. Furthermore, Bosnia was right next door to Turkey, where by 1928 Ataturk had pushed through much of his grand plan for the secularization of Turkish society, including outlawing the wearing of the veil in the public square (such as universities and all government offices) and giving women the right to vote. This no doubt influenced the religious reformers in Bosnia.

After World War II, during Communist rule in Yugoslavia, the “emancipation” of Muslim women was enacted through authoritarian means. The face veil was perceived as backward—an obstacle to women’s much-needed participation in the socialist rebuilding of the newly formed country. The Women’s Antifascist Front, a state-sponsored organization, organized campaigns to unveil Muslim women in Yugoslavia from 1947 to 1950. At public unveiling ceremonies, women clambered onto stages and removed their zar—a black garment resembling today’s burka—en masse.

State-imposed unveiling ultimately culminated in a legal ban on face veils in 1950. The new law was presented to the public as the state’s response to Muslim women’s mass requests. Although some women did welcome the ban, many ended up more isolated as a result of it; they felt they had to stay home because they couldn’t go outside with their heads uncovered. Written and video testimonies confirm the difficulties they endured.

Concerned for the position of Muslim women in society, Bosnia’s highest official Islamic religious body supported the unveiling campaigns at the time. It made several statements in 1947 asserting that veiling one’s face and covering one’s hands up to the wrists was not required by religious code. Ibrahim Fejić, a mufti who then served as the leader of the Islamic Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, said Islam asks women to dress modestly, but that this does not require face veiling or isolation from the public. He added, “It is a sin in Islam to allow oneself what the religion forbids; it is as much a sin to forbid to oneself what the religion permits.”

Today, the history and practice of Bosnian Islam yield a number of noteworthy lessons for those seeking to cultivate a liberal Islam in Europe.

One is that an institutionalized, centralized form of Islam can be highly successful, as seen in the case of the Islamic Community. This probably can’t be replicated precisely in other European countries—the Bosnian organization of Islamic religious affairs is distinct in that it is independent of the state and incorporates elements of representative democracy for legislative and representative bodies—but it can still serve as a useful example to the rest of Europe.

The Muslims in Bosnia share a sect and an ethnicity, which allowed them to create a “centralized form of Islam.” The Muslims now all over Europe are identical neither in sect nor, even more important, in ethnicity. The vast variety, of Turks and Kurds, Pakistanis and Afghans, Arabs and Berbers, Iranians and Azerbaijanis, Somalis and Sudanese, black Africans and white converts, would make it difficult to gather them into one Islamic organization capable of representing all of them.

The Islamic Community cites the “requirements of time” (in the words of Bosnia’s top Islamic legal scholar) as one of the principles animating its religious interpretations: Islamic thought can and should offer Muslims answers on how to practice Islam here and now. The result is that “the institutions are given an element of flexibility, while maintaining Islam’s timelessness.” The same institution today asserts its credibility to “serve as a constructive partner for other Muslim communities and EU institutions.”

If some Bosniaks — the author doesn’t tell us how many — think that the texts and teachings of Islam must change with the times (yielding to the “requirements of time”) to be flexible, that is welcome news. But very few Muslims believe that. For them, the Qur’an’s text is uncreated and immutable. It cannot be changed.


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