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University of Basel

A diverse religious heritage

Text: Urs Hafner

Like other immigrants, many migrants from the former Yugoslavia look to religion – both Islam and Christianity – for a sense of direction. Maurus Reinkowski is an academic specializing in Islamic studies. He stresses the need to take a historically informed view on the role of religion in shaping identity.

In Belp, near Bern, there is a Serbian Orthodox church. Its exterior is strikingly reminiscent of Byzantine architecture; inside, unlike home-grown Christian churches, it is completely covered in paintings. When people enter the building for the first time, they are dazzled by these exotic, icon-like images. You do not need to be a prophet to work out that, had this place of worship – completed in 2013 – been a mosque rather than a Christian church, its construction would probably have been blocked.

Not all Serbs living in Switzerland are religious, but a number of them have banded together in diaspora groups with a pronounced religious character. These Orthodox communities provide a focal point for migrants, offering them not only «spiritual goods», but also advice, books and cultural activities. They themselves state that their main aim is to improve the negative image of Serbs.

Diaspora groups

It is true that Serbs in Switzerland are often regarded with suspicion – as are Croats, for instance. They, too, are Balkan migrants who often band together in religious groups in the diaspora. If you surveyed passers-by on the street, many of them would probably state that Croats and Serbs are Christians, but they would still class them – like migrants from southeastern European countries generally – as part of a «Balkan» culture that they associate vaguely with «Islam».

Only a quarter of a century ago, outsiders in the West regarded all of these south-eastern European peoples simply as Yugoslavs. They were contained within Josip Broz Tito’s multinational state, based on socialism and integration, in which religion played no official role. After Tito’s death in 1980 – and especially during the wars that accompanied the disintegration of Yugoslavia from 1991 onwards – different groups sought to affirm their identity by stressing ethnic and religious differentiations. We can see a similar dynamic at work among ex- Yugoslav migrants. When forced to address the question of who they really are, increasingly they seek their identity in religious and ethnic labels.

Whereas among Christians this process of self-affirmation has gone largely unnoticed – as the example of the church in Belp shows – the Islamic faith of Balkan migrants has attracted a great deal of attention. Since 9/11, Muslims in general, including those from south-eastern Europe, have been suspected of harboring Islamist sympathies. This suspicion manifests itself in measures such as the «minaret ban» imposed by the Swiss electorate in 2009. Often migrants are reduced to their (Islamic) religion.

Self-affirmation through religion

Maurus Reinkowski, a professor of Islamic studies at Basel University, thinks that we need to take the religious views of south-eastern European migrants seriously. He argues that «it is in the diaspora that religion often becomes an important source of values and norms.» However, the process of self-affirmation through religion among Albanian migrants, who come mainly from Kosovo and Macedonia, and among Bosnians is much more complex than the Islamism thesis would suggest. If you want to understand migrants, you must also understand their religion.

Reinkowski notes that the religious identity of Albanians, for example, is shaky. This is apparent even in how they view themselves. They often argue that they lived on the fault line between the eastern and western Roman empires for centuries and have experienced constant religious change. After World War II, the state-sponsored atheism of Albania under Enver Hoxha invoked this historical experience. The successful Kosovar Albanian independence movement managed to get by without appealing to religion. According to Reinkowski, «The Kosovo Albanians define themselves with reference to ethnicity and language, rather than religion. They derive their identity from their claim to be modern, which goes like this: ‘We are fundamentally compatible with Europe. We are the better migrants, as religion isn’t important to us.’»

Against the «homogenization of Islam»

It is a different story with the Albanian population of Macedonia. There, «folk Islam», a traditional form of piety, has given way to various forms of Islamic orthodoxy. This can be explained in part by the fact that, in their conflict with the majority of Macedonians, Albanians see religion as a way of setting themselves apart. A similar process is at work among Bosnians. Lacking their «own» language to differentiate them from Croats and Serbs, they have increasingly found their identity in Islam, Reinkowski says.

Switzerland’s response to the establishment of Islam here has been to set up chairs in Islamic theology, including at the Swiss Center for Islam and Society in Fribourg. Reinkowski sees this as a positive development, as it will allow western Europe to develop its own, independent Islamic theology, instead of importing one from abroad – mainly from Turkey. However, he warns against a «homogenization of Islam». «We shouldn’t see the interpretation of Islam professed by Islamic theologians as the only one available. There is a rich tradition – not least, a vibrant popular piety.»

Reinkowski hopes that Islamic theology in Switzerland and other countries will be able to bring out the differences and shades of opinion within the religion’s traditions and discourses. Part of this reality – whether we like it or not – is orthodox Islam, which is popular at the moment and contrasts with the distinctly «soft» Islam that was once prevalent in south-eastern Europe.


More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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