Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Embracing Europe’s Islamic-Christian heritage

I have spent the last two weeks in Andalucia, Spain, where I attended an academic conference of historians from the former Yugoslavia. I was able to witness at first hand the evidence of the pride with which educated Spaniards view Spain’s Moorish heritage. The ‘Moors’ – a somewhat rough term that encompasses Arabs, Berbers and other Muslims and Arabic-speakers – ruled part of the Iberian peninsula between 711 and 1492. This is a period of 781 years: longer than there have been Europeans or their descendants living in the Americas; longer than there have been Protestants living anywhere. It would be difficult to exaggerate the impact this has had on European and world history; this is a subject that could not be exhausted by many scholarly studies, and I cannot begin to do justice to it in a humble blog post. But just to scratch the surface: Arabic numerals first appeared in Europe in al-Andalus – Muslim Spain – and spread across the continent thanks to the Mediterranean trade between Muslims and Christians; the astrolabe, an astronomical tool, was introduced to Europe via Muslim Spain and helped Christopher Columbus to discover America; Muslim Spain was also the conduit by which Christian Europe learned the secret of gunpowder, and much else besides. Nor does the Islamic contribution to European civilisation begin and end with al-Andalus; coffee was introduced into Christian Europe from the Muslim world, via Ottoman Constantinople and Venice, and into England directly from the Ottoman world.

To make this point is not to subscribe to the triumphalism indulged in by some Muslim commentators on the subject; Islamic civilisation was itself based upon Christian, Jewish and pagan foundations, just as Christianity was an offshoot of Judaism and a large part of Europe’s heritage derives from pagan origins, e.g. the seven-day week. Indeed, it is ultimately pointless to try to determine just how much of our modern heritage we owe to each religion or prior civilisation; Europe is a synthesis, and has been so for most of its history.

This is, however, something that is difficult for many contemporary nationalists – whether from predominantly Christian or Muslim countries – to acknowledge. Although I have had occasion to criticise Spain’s democratic deficiency, it is nevertheless a relatively mature democracy in comparison to several countries in the eastern part of the European continent. Thus, although Spanish national identity was greatly shaped by the centuries-long Christian Reconquista to drive the Moors from the Iberian peninsula, resulting in an exceptionally strong Catholic orientation that influenced, among other things, the outbreak and course of the Spanish Civil War; although Spain expelled its Morisco (Moorish) population in the early seventeenth century; yet today there is sufficient historical distance for modern, educated Spaniards to appreciate the Islamic conquerors as part of their national heritage, as we in England appreciate the Norman French. Not to mention our last successful conqueror, the Dutchman William of Orange, whose Dutch army invaded England and occupied London in 1688, driving out the legitimate English king, James II; successive generations of English historians have contrived to portray this successful foreign invasion as a ‘Glorious Revolution’. Spaniards treasure national monuments that date from Moorish times: Seville’s Giralda; Cordoba’s Mezquita; Granada’s Alhambra. Just as we in England treasure our Norman castles.

The readiness to accept past invaders, particularly those of a different religion, as part of one’s national heritage is, indeed, an acid test for the maturity of one’s democracy, and it is a field where the nations of South East Europe still prove deficient. Turkey is, as much as Spain, the product of a synthetic Islamic-Christian heritage; the Christian legacy is almost as visible in Turkey today as the Islamic, and many of Turkey’s greatest tourist attractions are Christian in origin, such as the Hagia Sophia and the rock-dwellings of Cappadocia. Yet however aware Turks are of their Christian heritage, it is something they tend to find difficult to come to terms with, as Bruce Clark has brilliantly described in his book Twice a stranger: How mass expulsion forged modern Greece and Turkey (Granta Books, 2007). The modern Turkish nation-state was founded upon the extermination or expulsion of millions of Christian Armenians and Greeks – just as the modern, post-Ottoman Christian Balkan nation-states of Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro were founded upon the extermination or expulsion of much of the indigenous Ottoman Muslim population.

The tyrannical regime of Franjo Tudjman in Croatia in the 1990s made strenuous efforts to disavow Croatia’s Serb heritage. Yet the tune of the Croatian national anthem, Lijepa nasa domovina, was probably composed by Josip Runjanin, whose family was Serb Orthodox (the lyrics were composed by Antun Mihanovic, whose family was Catholic); the nineteenth-century father of integral Croatian nationalism, Ante Starcevic, had a Catholic father and a Serb Orthodox mother. Croatia’s greatest scientist, and one of the greatest scientists of world history, Nikola Tesla, was an ethnic Serb. The Croatian republic was established in the 1940s by a Croatian Partisan movement whose army, by the end of the war, numbered about 150,000 – roughly two-thirds of these were ethnic Croats and over one-quarter were ethnic Serbs. Tudjman’s own daughter Nevenka married a Serb and he, therefore, had part-Serb grandchildren. Yet in liberating the Serbian-occupied region of ‘Krajina’ in 1995, the Tudjman regime treated only the territory as having been liberated; the Croatian Serb population – natives of Croatia – was treated as the enemy. The bulk of this population having been evacuated by the Serbian-occupation authorities, the few Serb civilians who remained behind were systematically terrorised and frequently killed under the umbrella of the Croatian authorities, while Serb homes were burned and destroyed to discourage the refugees from returning – all this done to a national minority that had contributed so much to Croatia.

Turkey and Croatia are, however, currently under governments that are genuinely committed to turning their backs on such practices. Yet in areas where the national question is not yet resolved, local chauvinists are still engaging in the destruction of what should be treasured parts of the national heritage. The greatest building in the largest city held by the Bosnian Serb nationalists, the Ferhadija mosque in Banja Luka, was destroyed in 1993 by the Serb authorities, which have since successfully stymied all efforts at its reconstruction. In Kosovo, as I have written elsewhere, Albanian thugs in 2004 vandalised and desecrated local Serb Orthodox religious buildings; Serb thugs in Belgrade and Nis responded by attacking mosques and smashing Ottoman gravestones. These are acts of barbarity that would be equivalent to the Spanish today destroying the Alhambra. The Banja Luka Serbs may come to regret the destruction of what should have been their greatest tourist attraction; they can still rebuild it.

The Kosovo Albanians should treasure their Orthodox churches and monasteries, and the Serbs their mosques and Ottoman monuments, as the Spanish treasure the Alhambra, Giralda and Mezquita. The Kosovo Albanians should feel proud of the Orthodox part of their heritage, as the Serbs should feel proud of the Islamic part of theirs. Skanderbeg, the Albanians’ greatest national hero, was a Christian who fought alongside the Serbs against the Ottomans, and who had a Serbian daughter-in-law; the Albanian double-eagle flag is itself of Byzantine origin. The most powerful Bosnian ever to have lived was Mehmed-pasha Sokolovic, who, as grand vizier in the sixteenth-century, presided over the Ottoman Empire at the height of its power; Sokolovic came from a Serb Orthodox family and, although a Muslim convert, reestablished the Serbian Patriarchate of Pec. Whether Sokolovic was a ‘Serb’ or a ‘Bosniak’ is a meaningless question; he belongs to both nations today. The fact that there is a Serb population in western Bosnia is itself a product of the Ottoman heritage; the Orthodox spread westward in Bosnia under the Ottoman umbrella. Belgrade’s greatest building and tourist attraction is the fortress of Kalemegdan, which was built by successive occupiers including the Ottomans; the tomb of one of its Ottoman governors still stands prominently in its heart, inside which hung, at least until very recently, an Ottoman flag. Belgrade place names like Kalemegdan, Karaburma and Mirijevo are Turkish in origin.

(As an aside: while many of our contemporary Western ‘anti-imperialists’ like nothing better than patronisingly to stereotype the Serbs as ‘noble savages’ who have been holding out against ‘imperialism’ for centuries, Serbs in reality often bravely fought for the Ottoman, Habsburg and other empires. In the Battle of Ankara in 1402, when the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid was defeated by the great Central Asian conqueror Tamurlane, Bayezid’s Serbian troops fought loyally for him while his Muslim troops deserted. Kara Djordje Petrovic, who led the First Serbian Uprising against the Ottomans in the early nineteenth century, served in the Austrian army; his name, and that of the Serbian royal dynasty that he sired – Karadjordjevic – is itself Turkish in origin. The Serb commander Stevan Jovanovic conquered Hercegovina for the Habsburgs in 1878. Serb troops from Croatia fought loyally for Austria-Hungary against Serbia in World War I. The Serb commander Svetozar Boroevic von Bojna successfully defended the Habsburg Empire from the Italians for the best part of World War I, and reached the rank of Field Marshal in the Austro-Hungarian Army. Serbian troops served alongside the British and French against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War. Etc. etc. Some of this should rightfully be celebrated.)

All of this is to say that the heritage of the nations of Europe that have experienced both an Islamic and a Christian presence, or a Catholic and an Orthodox presence, like the heritage of Europe as a whole, cannot be homogenised as the nationalists and religious bigots would like, and ‘purified’ of ‘alien’ national or religious elements. Whereas being a ‘good’ nationalist may once have been seen to involve tearing down an ‘alien’ mosque or a church, being a good European and democrat today should require the embracing of all elements of the national past, in all their rich multi-ethnic and multi-religious diversity, and rebuilding or restoring those same mosques and churches destroyed by previous generations. The unified, democratic Europe that is emerging requires not just the unification of our territories, but the unification of our histories.

Correction: My friend and colleague Andras Riedlmayer, whose expertise on the topic of cultural destruction and vandalism in Bosnia is second to none, informs me that what I have written above about the Ferhadija mosque in Banja Luka is out of date: the Banja Luka authorities have recently dropped their opposition to the reconstruction of the Ferhadija, and even provided modest financial support for it; reconstruction has consequently commenced under the direction of Professor Muhamed Hamidovic, retired dean of the Faculty of Architecture in Sarajevo. On this occasion, it is a pleasure to be corrected.

Friday, 15 February 2008 - Posted by | Balkans, Bosnia, Croatia, Former Yugoslavia, Islam, Kosovo, Serbia, Spain, Turkey

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