Author Tharik Hussain discusses how his travels to the Balkans shed light on issues like identity and belonging, the roots of Islamophobia, and the European fear of the ‘Turks’.
The footsteps of 17th century Ottoman explorer, Evliya Celebi, have been re-traced by travel writer and author Tharik Hussain in his groundbreaking new book, Minarets in the Mountains.
The book brings to life this rarely told story of Muslim Europe, and unearths a living history of Balkan people and their 600-year-old Ottoman Muslim heritage and culture.
As we journey through Islamophobia Awareness Month this November, and reflect on the hatred, exclusion, misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Muslims from all racial and ethnic backgrounds, this story of blond-haired, blue-eyed, white Muslims indigenous to Europe provides a lot of food for thought on the nature of anti-Muslim rhetoric from the past to the present day.
As Tharik highlights, Islam and Muslims have a historic and long-standing connection with Europe but their contribution to the Western world is ignored or overlooked by historical narratives and present discourse.
“For Muslims in the West, we often feel like we are under some kind of attack. We’re made to feel like we don't belong here but to discover that we have this heritage that goes back 14 centuries, it feels almost criminal that this stuff is not being discussed,” Tharik told TRT World.
The roots of Islamophobia go deep, and as Tharik shows in his book, it has historical roots.
Despite Muslims in Europe having the same ethnic roots as their Christian neighbours, they are still seen as the ‘other’. There is reluctance to recognise the Balkans as properly part of Europe, yet easy to accept Greece, when geographically it’s part of the Balkans too.
“That's because Western Europe considers Greek and Hellenic heritage as the very foundations of Western civilisation. They want Plato, they want Aristotle, they want Hippocrates but they're not so keen on Sultan Suleiman or Mehmed Sokollu Pasha,” Tharik says.
Islam in the Balkans was brought over by the Ottoman Empire in the late 1300s. The Empire at its peak was powerful and wealthy with superior government, social and economic systems. On the other hand, Western powers were weaker, economically disadvantaged and less advanced. This led to the Christian world wanting to catch up and dominate.
As a result, when the power dynamic shifted, the narrative was controlled by the Christian West and changed to suit political aims.
“All too often we're led to believe that Europe has only Judeo-Christian heritage, maybe with a sprinkling of some paganism, and apparently Islam has had nothing to do with the evolution and development of Europe,” says Tharik. “Of course, when you realise that it's quite the opposite, it's a sad moment.”
In fact, through Tharik’s travels, he unveils a much larger Muslim presence in countries other than just Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania, which are Muslim majority. He also meets Muslim communities living in Bulgaria, Serbia, North Macedonia and Montenegro, places you would not normally link with Muslims.
There are Ottoman-built mosques and architecture, some attributed to the Chief Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, who lived in the 16th century. The names of places, people, cuisines and cultural norms such as Muslim hospitality and welcoming travellers are all practiced in these areas. There is also a rich Sufi heritage, another legacy of the Ottomans.
While there has been a desire to wipe out that Muslim heritage, including the bulldozing of mosques, rewriting history and genocide, some of the heritage described by Evliya in his book is still there in many places, which was a pleasant surprise for Tharik. Although some of the heritage was damaged and demolished, it has been rebuilt by local communities and the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), who are keen to preserve Turkish history.
While European Islam lives on, the negative attitude towards ‘Turks’ and ‘Muslims’ continues to thrive in the West, and we have seen it play out in the US, European nations and in Britain with the Brexit campaign.
In his book, Tharik writes: “One of the key undercurrents of the Brexit campaign was selling Britain the idea that Muslim refugees were swarming Europe.” There was a fear of Turkey joining the EU, and if Britain remained then the Turks would swamp the UK.
There was also a rising hatred towards the Polish and all eastern Europeans. Tharik believes these attitudes are actually rooted in Islamophobia. “I think the eastern European hatred and Islamophobia were all wrapped into one and there’s no surprise that the two were interchangeable during the Brexit rhetoric,” he says.
When asked how to get rid of these Islamophobic attitudes, Tharik believes it is not straightforward nor a quick fix.
“In the unconscious of Western Europe there has always been a mistrust and a suspicion of eastern Europe,” he says. “Whilst some will say it's because they were communists, I believe that's only the tip of the iceberg and that it was built on Islamophobia, because long before it was communist, for almost six centuries much of it was Muslim.”
Tharik rightly points out that Islamophobia has been centuries in the making and as a result is quite solidified and canonised in Western psyche and culture. His aim is to try and normalise Europe’s Muslim stories and history. “All of this work is to essentially just try and move towards a normalisation of Islam being a part of the Western cultural landscape.”
Even if the West does not accept Muslims anytime soon, Tharik believes it is important for Muslims to at least know their own history. “Heritage is essential for anchoring identities and if we don't know our heritage in the way that we should or we're denied aspects of it, it's little wonder that we sometimes feel a little bit adrift,” he says.
Tharik is committed to raising awareness of Islam in Europe and its living legacy, and Minarets in the Mountains is part of several other projects that he is involved with. However, while the perception of Muslims may not change as quickly as he would like, it definitely had an immediate and lasting impact on him and his family.
“The real joy was seeing my children and wife come back seeing Muslims just like us, who have always been here in Europe and who were not converts or recent migrants. This knowledge was massively empowering.”