How many Muslim Serbs are there
From December 5 to 7, 2019, an international conference entitled “Discourses and Practices of Space Sharing - Christians and Muslims in the Balkans” will take place in the main building of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HU). Olimpia Dragouni from the Institute for Slavonic Studies at the HU as part of her research project "Shared places of worship by Muslims and Christians in Macedonia in everyday practice and from the perspective of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh)" - in cooperation with the Fritz Thyssen Foundation and the Southeast Europe Society.
Ms. Dragouni, what are the areas of the conference?
In the conference we try to cover the whole Balkan region: our speakers talk about Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia, but we will also move to the south, that is to the Greek-Bulgarian border region, where the Muslim minority of the Pomaks lives. We will also talk about Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Croatia and Slovenia may also be mentioned as the republic to which many Bosnian Muslims migrated during the time of Yugoslavia out of work difficulties. I have also tried to include Roma Muslims. They can be seen here as a transnational group and I have a feeling that they are often marginalized in the Islamic debate in the Balkans, even though a significant proportion of the Roma from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Serbia are Muslims are. My idea was to find some balance here.
What is the focus of the conference?
We will go deeper into the details and specifics of sharing sacred spaces. Specialists will discuss topics such as the role of atheism and secularism as a meeting place for various religious groups, Islamic economy as a practical dimension for contact between Christians and Muslims outside and within the Balkans, or the role of the Ottoman Empire and how its legacy interrelated Muslim and non-Muslim forms, speak. Because even though the Ottomans left the region over a century ago, certain political and religious terms such as “neighborhood” or “brotherhood” that inhabit the Ottoman social environment still shape the thoughts of the people in the Balkans in certain “mahalas “(Neighborhoods) live.
Where and how do Christians and Muslims clash more and more in this region?
Wherever they live in significant numbers, as people belonging to different groups with conflicting interests can clash anywhere in the world. The tension here, in my opinion, is usually not so much due to religious affiliations, but more due to the various interests mentioned earlier. The problem starts when these overlap and in the case of monotheism, which by definition excludes other religions, it is much easier to exacerbate the tensions. In the Balkans, the distance between Muslims and non-Muslims seems to be more visible when religious differences follow other, already existing divisions, such as linguistic divergence, e.g. Albanian-speaking Muslims and Macedonian-speaking Christians in North Macedonia, as the groups put more effort in have to spend communicating with each other.
Similarly, tension is stronger in regions that have experienced inter-ethnic violence, especially if it has recently, such as in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, where ethnicity has been correlated with religious demarcation. In any case, it does not help that nation states emerged in the Balkans and found their identity in opposition to the Ottoman Empire. As a result, the prevailing national discourse that has shaped the core of national identities has often used the figure of the Muslim as the threatening other. This is exactly why it is so much more exciting to look at shared rooms instead of separate ones. Separations are easily recognizable, the sharing of spaces takes benevolence and effort.
What conflicts arise in such places?
As already mentioned, all kinds of conflicts can arise. It is about groups of people who may have communication difficulties with each other because they use different languages (including symbolic languages) and / or represent different interests, but these conflicts do not necessarily arise due to religious differences. Most interreligious conflicts in the Balkans only arise when these differences overlap. However, there can also be minor religious-related conflicts, for example when pietists on both sides struggle to maintain orthodoxy in their beliefs, as this tends to weaken in environments where people mix. The Pietists could plead from above for less interreligious contact and for fencing in their own circles, because of the “purity” of dogma.
What about in the private sector?
There can be private conflicts when it comes to marriage, children in mixed marriages and how to raise them, but both Christianity and Islam have very specific rules that determine how to deal with such a situation. For this reason, it is sometimes said by religious authorities in the Balkans that while mixed marriages are allowed, it is more difficult to maintain them without conflict due to cultural differences and difficulties. There can also be everyday problems that involve maintaining good neighborly relations, such as respecting others' space: if the church bell is too loud, or if, for example, alcohol is drunk near the mosque during Ramadan, it could be disrespectful , just like slaughtering a pig in a Muslim (or Jewish) neighborhood. However, these issues can also function as deliberate threats when the communities are in conflict for another reason. Centuries of everyday life have led to the development of ways to avoid conflict, for example to keep an appropriate social distance from one another. So I would rather focus on aspects of life, not on the conflict, but how to avoid it. This does not mean that living in multi-religious settings is free of conflict (just like life in mono-religious settings is not), but the mechanisms for setting the appropriate distance and everyday savoir-vivre seem much more interesting and less obvious to me.
Is there an interreligious dialogue in the Balkans?
Yes, both in the practical dimension of everyday life and in the institutional one. The latter can be found in most multi-religious countries: North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina are the first to come to mind, as countries where multi-religiosity is presented as an integrated property of the country. Bosnia and Herzegovina, with its painful past, has focused on this problem with the help of many small initiatives. For example, there are studies on interreligious relationships and peacebuilding. These are carried out at the University of Sarajevo. Theologians from the three denominations take turns teaching to illustrate their respective religious attitudes.
In Bosnia, Muslims and Christians lived together peacefully before the wars in the 1990s. At that time, however, religion played a subordinate role in socialist-atheist Yugoslavia. How is this time rated today in terms of living together?
Yes, it is true that they lived together peacefully, but there were also underlying conflicts. The story of the bloodshed of World War II has been obscured. The subordination referred more to the party and the founding myth of the partisans, brotherhood and unity, not to socialist atheism itself. However, it is correct that socialism established the right to be an atheist and to function as an important person and as a full member society (sometimes even more important than believers) and religions had to respect that. Today this is viewed by Pietists as a period of religious persecution, but this attitude is not very justified. The Yugoslav nostalgia longing for peace and prosperity does not highlight atheism as a crucial factor in peacebuilding. You could say it was just another "non-religious" category. As for the sharing of sacred spaces, i.e. the use of churches and monasteries by both Christians and Muslims in the Balkans, Yugoslavia is not a reference period. Sharing is a longue durée practice that precedes all Yugoslav states.
In the city of Mitrovica, Serbs and Kosovars face each other irreconcilably in a divided city. How do politicians on both sides use the conflict for their own purposes?
The Mitrovica case is very serious. There are two parallel discourses being produced at the same time: by Kosovars and by Serbs, and any level of mutual understanding is very difficult to achieve, especially since the city itself is even geographically divided and people on both sides have little contact with each other, despite bottom-up efforts by activists, artists and informal groups to overcome the division. However, it is a strictly political and very politicized conflict. Politicians on both sides instrumentalize the conflict and drive it further; that's probably key to the situation.
Are there best practice examples for the coexistence of different religious groups today?
There are shrines all over the Balkans, mainly churches and monasteries, where Muslims also go to pray, often for health or fertility. As already mentioned, this is a longue durée practice. Often these Muslims are of Roma origin, but not always. In most cases, both groups pray differently in the same place and maintain this holy place as belonging to "their" religion: Christians will refer to a place as the tomb of a saint, while Muslims say that it is the tomb of a Sufi teacher and so on further. In a certain way, a certain level of orthodoxy is maintained: Muslims do not try to pray in front of icons and statues, and they do not attend mass. There are hadiths and fatwas that support this behavior (prayers in the church if there is increased need, iconoclasm is maintained). When Christians pray in front of or in the mosque, the surroundings are decorated accordingly. The whole point is to preserve your own identity without disrespecting the host.
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Translation: Megan Nagel
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