Europe’s Muslim Majorities


The Gazi Husrev mosque in Sarajevo

Those who fret about the Islamisation of Europe and the emergence of ‘Eurabia’ should take comfort from those parts of Europe that already have large Muslim populations

Europe’s growing Muslim population has become one of the most important political issues on the continent. The fear of non-Muslims runs something like this: Muslims have more children than the average non-Muslim, therefore, they will account for an ever greater proportion of Europe’s population. And a result Europe will become more like the Muslim world in terms of its attitudes to personal, religious and political freedom. This thesis is assailable from two directions. Firstly, it doesn’t seem that the Muslim population of the EU will grow that much, it will likely go from about 7% now to around 10% by 2050. Secondly, we can wonder if Europe might change its Muslims more than vice versa. For example, the Islamic theologian Tariq Ramadan has argued that there is evolving a distinct “European Islam” to accompany the Asian and African varieties of the faith.

One thing that tends to get overlooked in this debate is that Europe already has predominantly Muslim countries. About 70% of Albanians are Muslim and the proportion in Kosovo is probably even higher. Muslims are also the plurality in Bosnia and a majority in the Bosniak-Croatian entity within it.

However, contrary to what many Europeans would assume these countries feel more like Italy or Poland than Saudi Arabia. All are constitutionally secular and all have large groups who identify as Muslim but don’t practice. Walking around Sarajevo – a now overwhelmingly Muslim city – you see fewer people wearing veils than in London and as many people drinking: the average Bosnian drinks more than the average American!

This is in part the product of the religious history of the Balkans: most of its Muslims belong to traditions that have been influenced by Sufi mysticism and its receptiveness to folk traditions. The Islam you get in the Balkans is thus of the less puritanical and more tolerant variety.

Equally importantly Islam has been present in the Balkans for centuries. It was first introduced by the Ottomans in the 14th century and this 600 year history in European countries has given Balkan Islam a distinctly European hue.

This is not to say that everything is mysticism and tolerance: there have been concerns raised about the radicalising impact of the wars in the region. However, that is something happening on the fringe rather than the mainstream.

There are limitations to using the Balkans as a model for the rest of Europe: in particular Muslims in the rest of Europe tend to come from lands where Sufism is less influential. However, to completely ignore these examples of a genuinely European Islam is scaremongering by omission. Ironically, a region often associated with war may be a herald of how Europe will be able to live with itself in the decades to come.



P.S: If you’re wondering why I’ve not really addressed whether the wars of the 90s undermine my arguments, don’t worry I’m going to do a post on that later in the week.

5 thoughts on “Europe’s Muslim Majorities

  1. Pingback: Jihad or Jenga: The anti-Islamophobes guide to the war in Bosnia | Matter Of Facts
  2. I agree, the Balkans do get overlooked in this debate. And, few people take the time to understand the differences of Islam in various parts of the world and the overwhelming secular nature of Muslims in the Balkans.

    • Well, I don’t think that the Balkan States with Muslim majorities (be them relative or absolute) can be thought of as a relevant example for the kind of societies that will eventually arise within the context of an increased Islamic presence in Europe. First of all, the Islamization of these countries occurred not through migration but through conversions, as the Ottoman Empire became the dominant power in the area. Why did that process occur? For many reasons. Because of the pre-existing religious “tabula rasa” of Bosnia, in which local Christianity was not at all firmly established, due to the conflict of jurisdiction between the Orthodox church and the Catholic church. So while the population was formally christian, there existed significant schismatic and heretic groups.
      Another factor was more practical, since there were significant advantages in being Muslim rather than Christian under ottoman rule. Many Bosniaks but also Albanian (to name another balkan population although not slavic that converted to Islam) achieved important positions within the Ottoman civilian and military apparati.
      Another factor that shaped Bosnian islam was the fact that Bosnia was subjected to the rule of Austria and subsequently was under a communist regime. Both multicultural societies, with a secular outlook.
      Also, as you pointed out in the article, islam in bosnia belongs to a relatively liberal fiqh, the Hanafi, with nuances of Tasawwuf (sufism). The problem is that, unfortunately, Sufism, (which I personally find a very intersting and complex movement, in particular the Bektashi order that originated from the combination of Shia and Sunni Islam and Medieval Greek culture) religious is by no means mainstream and is not even tolerated by many other school of jurisprudence of Islam that emerged from the pre-existing ones or evolved during the last two or three centuries. Such Fiqs are possibly the more commonly followed among a large part of European muslims, in particular those coming from arab countries, pakistan and the horn of africa (the single most important of such school is the Hanbali).

  3. Pingback: Muslims In Canada | ELLIOT LAKE News
  4. Pingback: The Bosnians of Salt Lake City and the best Balkan quote ever | Matter Of Facts

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