By Taceddin Kutay
The writer is a research fellow at the Turkish-German University (TAU), specializing in secularization theories, the relationship between religion and politics, Catholic theology, and occidental culture.
Narratives that date Europe's first real encounter with Islam to the 1950s with the arrival of the first group of migrant workers create the false impression that the continent was not familiar with Islam previously. The fact of the matter is, the city of Hajdúböszörmény, situated in the east of Hungary to the north of the town of Debrecen, tells us how far back Islam's European roots actually go.
When the great Hungarian king Saint Istvan accepted Christianity in the 10th century, his people were baptized en masse and the conversion to Christianity began. Nevertheless, not all Hungarians accepted Christianity. On the contrary, some Hungarians preferred to become Muslim. These Hungarians who embraced Islam came to be called "Böszörmény". Despite the claims that the Bözsörmény were not originally Hungarian and that they were Ismaili Shiite Turks who had emigrated from the banks of the Volga river and settled in Hungary, it is a historical fact that they spoke Hungarian. We know that, as early as the 10th century, Géza, the great Hungarian prince, had allocated areas for the Muslim Hungarians to live in. Furthermore, Gesta Hungarorum Géza, one of the most important inscriptions in Hungarian history, mentions even the capital Budapest among these lands bestowed by Géza. According to the same source, the Pest side of the city -- which consists of two parts, Budin and Pest -- was given to the Muslim Böszörmény by Géza, and therefore this particular part must have been founded by Muslims.
The Bözsörmény are recorded in the sources as a community that played important economic and military roles in Medieval Hungary. Engaging in trade took the members of this community as far as Austria and Germany. In addition, the Bözsörmény were known as reliable and capable soldiers; with their avoidance of alcoholic beverages, they stood out among Hungarian soldiers, who were given to drinking, and thus were able to surpass their non-Muslim peers in military discipline and prowess. The Bözsörmény were known as “those who don't drink wine”. This quality that they were praised for also became the very source of the scorn poured on them. There was a smoldering grudge and anger, on the other hand, against these “freaks” who did not drink wine. These “weirdos” who drank yoghurt with meat and who had “no appreciation for wine” were eventually given the same status as Jews -- another hated community -- owing to the Hungarian King András (Andrew) II's famous Golden Bull, or edict, (Aranybulla) of 1222. This edict protected them while also placing them under certain obligations. Drinking was such a decisive determinant between Muslims and non-Muslims in the European mind that Gotthold Ephraim Lessing says the following in his poem entitled “Turks”:
How beautiful are Turkish girls
Each one is a robust guardian of chastity
Those who wish could marry more than one of them
Hence my desire to become a Turk
How I would wish to indulge in love
And lead a life of peace in love
But Turks are not wine drinkers
Hence my desire not to become a Turk
We find the traces of the Bözsörmény as late as the 14th century, when the Ottomans first appeared in the Balkans. It seems that the “infidel Turks” making rapid advances into the European heartland put an end to the tolerance shown to this “infidel Hungarian” community, and the existence of the Bözsörmény was not tolerated for much longer. It is estimated that the Böszörmeny were forcibly Christianized. We do not have much information about how the Bözsörmény became Muslim, nor do we precisely know about their fate. However, it is not difficult to guesstimate that they wound up becoming “wine-drinking Hungarians” or they were simply made to disappear.
The Böszörmeny were, of course, not the first to introduce Islam to Europe. Karl Martell, the king of the Francs, who defeated the Umayyad army in the Battle of Poitiers (or Tours), rose to the status of the guardian of the continent by protecting it from this “malicious” mass. Martell's success was so overrated that the Francs began to be seen as the revivers of the devastated Rome, and the Pope gave them the title the ‘Second Rome’, and this was shortly followed by the foundation of the Holy Roman German Empire. On the other hand, we find the Bözsörmény as the first example of an Islamized local community living in the continent without being seen as foreign occupants.
Europe and culture of living with the 'other'
The 14th century, in which the Bözsörmény vanished from the stage of history, was when Europe was hit by great pogroms. Its population decimated by the plague, Europe began to seek the cause of this misfortune and had no difficulty finding it: the Jews living in the continent. They were prosecuted based on quite strange allegations, such as that they disrespected the holy bread, abducted Christian children and ate them, and raped the statues of the sacred virgin. As a result, Jews were slaughtered in many parts of the continent between 1348-1351. Jews were already a nation whose existence was only grudgingly tolerated, but King Karl IV showed zero tolerance in cases when they were subjected to any kind of persecution since he saw them as financiers. But the Jewish population had reached intolerable levels in certain regions. In particular, Speyer, Worms, and Mainz were cities where the Jewish population was a source of apprehension since in these cities the Jews had the upper hand in economy. These three cities -- whose initials, SWM, read "Shum" in Hebrew, meaning garlic -- had to be “cleaned” at all costs. For this reason, the crusades directed at the holy lands passed by these cities and a considerable number of the Jews were put to the sword and all their goods and belongings were looted. A part of the army, which had set out already with the intention of looting and plundering, returned home early because of these spoils they obtained in Speyer, Worms, and Mainz. And as soon as Karl IV began to obtain a greater income from the Christian population compared to what he got from the Jews, he gave the green light for the Jews of Nuremberg to be burned alive. A total of 562 Jews were burned outside the city walls. The square where the world-famous Nuremberg Christmas Fair is held today formed with the demolition of the neighborhood populated by these Jews.
‘Whoever rules, his religion prevails’
The history of Europe is rife with stories of intolerance toward the existence of the “other”. The Bartholomew Night Massacre was the result of intolerance to the Protestant presence in France. Thanks to the Catholics in France who slayed all the Protestants in the country to the point of completely exterminating them, today we are not able to speak of any French Hugenot Protestants, for example. The famous principle of cuius regio-eius religio (whoever rules, his religion prevails), which held sway during the sectarian wars, demonstrated that the existence of a group with a different sect would definitely not be tolerated in any given region. When Prussia founded the city of Berlin, nearly half of the city spoke French in addition to German, which they spoke with a southern accent. This is because the Protestants whose presence was not tolerated in France and in the Bavarian-Austrian regions, had emigrated there. The massacres and the exiles that took place in the Iberian Peninsula in the aftermath of the Reconquista against Muslims and Jews rendered that region a purely Christian one even though previously all three religions had peacefully co-existed there. The Portuguese boasted of being the first pure Christian kingdom purged of all religious minorities.
Occasional exception: Habsburgs
The small space that we have here forces us to stop enumerating more of the massacres against the “other” that have taken place in Europe's last 1,500 years. But let us face the truth: Europe has always had a potential for bigotry with which it has refused to accept the “other” as a neighbor. It is because of this lack of enthusiasm for living with neighbors from different religions and cultures that no city in the continental Europe is a match for Istanbul, which has the famous quarter of Pera. The only state, however, that would constitute an exception to this argument was the Habsburg Austria. Such practices as Joseph II's Tolerance Edict and Franz Joseph's recognition of Islam as an official religion after the annexation of Bosnia require us to consider Austria differently in certain historical periods compared to the rest of Europe.
What Europe understands from religion
Christianity, which gives Europe its identity, has a character that is different from those of Judaism and Islam in that it takes a wholly different approach to the notion of religion. While Islam and Judaism are both legislative religions with sharia laws that interfere in the daily lives of individual believers, Christianity is not legislative and does not establish a sharia, that is, religious canonical law. In addition, the perception of revelation in these two religions is quite different from that in Christianity. Jesus Christ is a “divine word embodied in flesh” and the Church that he established through his apostle Peter is the only means of salvation. In this regards, the Bible for a Christian is not a book divinely revealed to Jesus Christ; it is rather a collection of books that contain testimonies on the life of Christ, who is himself the word of God. Religion is something established by the Church and it is very normal for the Church administration to transform it periodically. The most typical example of these transformations is Henry Tudor VIII's establishment of the Anglican Church. In keeping with the principle of “aggiornamento”, the Church was formulated as a structure that could adapt itself to every historical era.
Europe’s creedal basis for ‘European Islam’
The relations between politics and the Church have varied in every period, and Christianity has undergone transformations in certain eras in line with the needs of the political establishment. While the Church was in a decisive position in the period of the Investiture Fights, after it lost this position, the political establishment prevailed over the Church. Unless we consider these very significant points, it is impossible to appreciate how the idea of “European Islam” emerged; the issue of how Europe arrived at the opinion that religion is something that can be transformed can be appreciated only when we fully understand what it is that a European learns about the concept of religion. The Enlightenment forced the Church to retreat from the areas in which it claimed to be the sole authority, confining it within the role of giving ethical guidance alone. One of the points that should be considered here is that Europe in the 19th century was the scene of a transformation, as part of which the “religion of miracles” was eradicated and the “religion of ethics” was instead established. The Church can only be tolerated as a socially responsible institution, which is responsible for providing moral advice limited by modern ethics. Today, all kinds of official statements by the Church about daily life is met with great reaction from the European public. Reactions it has shown, such as its attitude towards homosexuality and criticism of abortion, result in its being perceived as an institution that violates its borders, and therefore the deal that was made long ago. The Church should not have the luxury of creating problems regarding how modernity understands life; the Church is not to be allowed to interfere and create issues, and be a disruption to an already established order.
Will 'European Islam' banish social angst?
The fact that Christianity was “disciplined” so that it would not disrupt or disturb the usual flow of European social life, despite already not being a legislative religion, causes Islam to be viewed by the European as an increasingly bigger source of disturbance. Their numbers in the continent increasing by the day and their lives lived according to their faith, Muslims stir up Europeans' incorrigible hate of the “other”. Every one of the integration issues raised by politicians stands before us as arguments that are used to portray all xenophobic tendencies as justifiable -- not to say, by the way, that every one of those issues is invalid. Every woman wearing the hijab encountered in the public sphere and every butcher selling halal meat angers the Europeans who do not like to live side by side with the “other”.
In addition to all of these, every new mosque that these people, who want to have places of worship as a basic right, are planning to build, sparks off new debates in Europe. These anti-Islamic stances, like the ban on minarets imposed in Switzerland in 2009 as a result of a referendum, and the anti-mosque demonstrations planned to take place in Vienna's Birigittenau district, have now spread all over the continent. In various European countries, one bill follows another in order to make the daily lives of Muslims more miserable. Halal meat discussions, which have lasted for more than ten years already, began with the suggestions that Muslims should be denied their right to slaughter animals in an Islamic way. The presentation of the Jews' rights to “kosher” slaughtering as a precedent has temporarily halted these discussions. But immediately afterwards a legal debate was kicked off on circumcision. The bill, which argued that circumcising young children went against human rights and thus had to be banned, was prevented from coming up for a vote, again, with the presentation of the Jewish “khitan” (the circumcision of Jewish baby boys on the eighth day after birth) as an example. The fact that the basic rights of Muslims are tolerated as long as they are in parallel with Jewish practices naturally engenders open intolerance toward those that differ from Jewish practices. And in keeping with this trend, the recent moves against the wearing of hijab is increasing in severity with impunity since this particular practice has no equivalent in the Jewish religious law.
Ultimate goal of ‘European Islam’
The most innocent of comments on this topic would be to say that what is intended by a “European Islam” is to create a kind of Islam that would not “act up” and would remain a docile part of the social fabric of Europe. Possessed of a culture in which it is perfectly okay to transform a religion so that it is more compatible with the current social trends, the European mind wants to perceive Islam as just another “convertible” faith, such as Christianity. Moreover, all objections that Islam does not have such a “convertible” nature are simply ignored. The intended result from a “European Islam” is to cripple Islam's legislative capabilities to the extent possible, thereby rendering Islam less visible in the public sphere. All in all, turning Islam into merely an institution of providing moral guidance, just like in the case of Christianity, stands before us as the ultimate goal that every demand pertaining to a European Islam wants to achieve. Similar to the creation of European Christianity, a European Islam will be one that will only give its adherents counsel on ethical issues and will no longer require anything of them in their daily lives. As a result, the ongoing efforts are directed at making Islam the same as Christianity apart from the name given to God.
And it is highly debatable whether this what we may call “Islam-free Islam” would be able to offer any real solution to all the social disquiet. The fact that Muslims will never be purged of their characteristics with which they are bound to be the “other” in Europe lays bare for us a phenomenon that will continue to exist independent of all the debates on whether their religion can really be reformed. This is because the hostility we are faced with has an identity dissimilar to that of the millennium-old anti-Islamism. European folks have developed a particular kind of hatred for their Muslim neighbors apart from the hatred they have for Islam itself. Their millennium-old reflex of not being able to live with the “other” has been at play, with their strong aspiration to live in a homogenous living space without an “other” feeding this hatred. Comparable, in a way, to the Bözsörmény, who were either exterminated or turned into ordinary Hungarians, Muslims will remain the “other” in Europe as long as they remain unassimilated and, basically, Muslim. And if and when they do become fully assimilated, their artificially created, watered-down European Islam will not save them, either, because the Islamic identity will always keep Muslims as the other. Unleashed by the Sept. 11 paradigm, this enmity will always be considered in the European mind as a legitimate way of countering the “other”. After all, all the efforts put into creating a European Islam will never go beyond being oppression of the other.