VIEW: Muslim ‘nationhood’ in Slovenia — Farhat Taj
Why, I wondered, were the Muslims not identified in ethnic terms like the other nationalities? Aren't the Muslims Slavic people - ethnic European? Someone at the University of Ljubljana told me that they (the Muslims) insist on being recognised as the 'Muslim nation' rather than by ethnic identity. I found it hard to believe that any people should reject their ethnic identity and prefer a name that speaks of their faith alone
Slovenia was once a Yugoslav republic like Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia and Montenegro. Now it is an independent country surrounded by Italy, Austria, Hungry, Croatia and Mediterranean. In 1999 it became a member of the European Union (EU) in 1999.
I visited Slovenia in August 2006 to participate in a doctoral course arranged by the European Consortium for Political Research at the University of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. Before, my arrival in Slovenia I knew very little about the country. I began learning about it by reading the government brochures for tourists. One of these identified the nationalities inhabiting Slovenia as Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Hungarians, Italians and Muslims. Why, I wondered, were the Muslims not identified in ethnic terms like the other nationalities? Aren’t the Muslims Slavic people - ethnic European? Someone at the University of Ljubljana told me that they (the Muslims) insist on being recognised as the ‘Muslim nation’ rather than by ethnic identity. I found it hard to believe that any people should reject their ethnic identity and prefer a name that speaks of their faith alone.
Later someone I met in the downtown Ljubljana solved the riddle for me: “The Slovenian Muslims don’t like to be called the Muslim nation. They too want, like the other Slovenians, to be referred to by their ethnic identity. A celebrated 19th century Slovenian poet, France Preseren, called the Slovenian Muslims Bosnjiak. It was the dominant Serbs in Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavia that named them ‘Muslim nation’. Slovenia inherited this political label as successor to former Yugoslavia.”
This increased my curiosity. I wanted to meet some Slovenian Muslims to know their views. The curiosity took me to the Islamic Centre of Ljubljana where I met Nevzat Poric, general secretary of the Muslim community of Slovenia. Poric said 90 percent of the Muslim in Slovenia are Bosnjak (Bosnian), 8 percent Albanian and 2 percent come from other ethnic branches of the large Slav family of the Balkan. The Slovenian Muslims are ethnic Europeans having no ethnic ties with Muslims from the rest of the world. He said Muslims in Slovenia did not like to be deprived of their ethnic identity. When a census was taken in Slovenia in 2002, he informed me, the Slovenian Muslims clearly mentioned their ethnic identities. He regretted that the government brochures still referred to them as ‘Muslim nation’ rather than Bosnjak and Albanian, whereas their Christian cousins were always referred to by their ethnic identities: Slovenian, Croat and Serb.
Today Slovenia is understating its Balkan identity and highlighting its European identity, because ‘Balkan’ symbolises dictatorship, war and bloodshed, whereas the European identity, confirmed by the country’s inclusion in EU, symbolises democracy, human rights and development. It is disturbing therefore that Slovenia does not officially recognise the ethnic identity of its Muslim minority, especially since the minority prefers it.
I did not have the opportunity to talk to a representative of the Slovenian government, but the fact that the official brochure sums up the ethnically diverse Muslim population as ‘Muslim nation’, indicates that Slovenia has yet to get rid of its legacy of the post-Yugoslav era. The degree of Slovenia’s recognition of the ethnic identity of its Muslim minority will be a test of it commitment to the EU standards of human rights.
The Slovenian situation also made me recall the case of Pakistan, where the state has long tried to impose a politically convenient Muslim nationhood on the ethnically diverse people. The people of Bangladesh were the first to reject that Muslim nationhood. Today the people of the truncated Pakistan, too, are proud of their ethnicities. Clearly, religion - though important - does not compensate for people’s ethnicity. I experienced this firsthand in Slovenia when I asked some Slovenians: “I am a Muslim. Do you think I am included in the ‘Muslim nation’ of Slovenia?” They said: ‘no’. I asked Nevzet Porac the same question. “No,” he said, “you and I are both Muslims, but I am a Bosnjak Slovene - a European. I have much more in common with Europeans than I have with you.” “Yes,” I agreed: “I have much more in common with the Muslims - even non-Muslims in South Asia - than I have with Muslims in Slovenia.”
The writer a PhD research fellow at the Centre for Women and Gender Studies, University of Oslo and author of ‘Intellectual Terrorists’, a novelette