Muslims in Europe between the Two World Wars

The debate about possible methods of "Europeanising Islam" already raged in several European countries in the 1920s. This was just one of many issues raised at the recent workshop in Paris. Götz Nordbruch was there

The controversial debate about possible methods of "Europeanising Islam" is not new; it already raged in several European countries in the 1920s. This was just one of many issues raised at the recent "Islam in Europe between the two world wars" workshop in Paris. Götz Nordbruch was there.

photo: German Historical Museum
Using Islam to attain war-time political ends: Kaiser Wilhelm II. on a state visit to Constantinople

​​The "Islam in Europe between the two world wars" workshop, which was organised in Paris by the Institut d'Etudes de l'Islam et des Sociétés du Monde Musulman (IISMM) and the Etudes Turques et Ottomanes research group from the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) drew definite parallels between current controversies and those that raged between the two world wars.

While past research into the history of Islam in Europe has mainly been limited to the time after World War II and the lives of Muslim immigrants from former European colonies and Turkey, there are hardly any comprehensive studies about the lives of Muslims in the Balkans and Central and Western Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.

Headscarf ban as a symbol of modernisation

When viewed from today’s perspective in particular, the results of the research that were presented during the workshop were astonishing. Nathalie Clayer of the CNRS in Paris, for example, gave an overview of the discussions that took place in the predominantly Muslim Albania of the 1920s. She explained how the issue of the headscarf led to an open conflict between the self-image of the secular Albanian state and that of individual Muslim groupings.

Just like the introduction of the secular law on civil status or the abolition of Islamic schools, the eventual headscarf ban in 1937 was not purely the result of domestic considerations; all three measures were the result of foreign policy; they were signals to the outside world that heralded the modernisation of the country.

Similar debates in Greece regarding the introduction of the Latin alphabet in Islamic schools, which were started as a result of the influence of Kemalist reforms in Turkey, and regarding Muslim burials in France are an indication of the tension that arose between the Muslim and non-Muslim populations of Europe during and after World War I.

The papers given at the workshops also made it clear that in the 1920s these conflicts were not limited to a confrontation between the non-Muslim majority and the Muslim minority.

The fatwas given by Islamic scholars about the headscarf and loyalty to the Muslim community and the nation state - some of which were contradictory - hint at the deep divisions that existed within the Muslim community itself.

Using Islam to attain war-time political ends

But even more important than these descriptions of pluralism within Islam were the findings regarding past attempts by the non-Muslim majority to "domesticate" Islam, as it was pointedly termed in one paper.

Michel Renard of the Université de Paris VIII, for example, outlined France’s attempts in the 1920s to bring about police monitoring of Muslims with the institutionalisation of Islam by building a Paris Mosque, while Wolfgang Schwanitz of the Deutsches Orient Institut in Hamburg described how Germany used Islam to achieve political war aims in both domestic and foreign policy matters, a usage which was commonplace in the European states of the day.

While France pursued a policy of depoliticising Islam, Germany’s World War I concept of a "European Islam" was based on the premise of encouraging Muslims in the colonial hinterland to declare Jihad on their colonial masters: Germany’s European war enemies.

Paternalistic policies towards Islam

Even though the topicality of this historical research was not openly discussed at this two-day event, it did rear its head in numerous papers.

The failure of the policy of "paternalism and police control", which shaped both French and German Islam policy of the 1920s, raises important questions regarding current attitudes to Islam in Europe.

When seen in this light, much of this research has important arguments to offer the discussions about the establishment of a Muslim Council in France or the debate in Germany about the introduction of Islamic religious instruction in state schools.

However, the fact that both Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe have been continuously discussing the controversial possibilities of "Europeanising Islam" since the 1920s might actually end up calling this project into question.

After all, for decades now, Islam has been an important part of the cultural and political debates about what Europe is; both as an object and a player.

Götz Nordbruch

© 2004

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan