Channel: Lauren Booth
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Salam aleikum wa rahmatullah him. But I care to ever since going to Albania a couple of years ago, and recently to Bosnia, I have been really amazed, excited, delighted and troubled by the knowledge of what European Islam is, has been and continues to look like. In the Balkans Salam alaykum Warahmatullahi Wabarakatuh. While it was Salam wa rahmatullahi thank you so much for having me on sister Lauren, thank you so much. It's, it's a real pleasure to be here sharing this space with you. It's great to see you. And you know, what brothers and sisters really important as believers that we, we've got each other's backs, and when something when we're doing something great and positive,
and the work is good, that we're always there amplifying each other's voices, you know, this is what family means this what, you know, kind of structured response to bad news looks like, you know, let's get the good news. And the good work out there in Charlotte, tell us about your nomination first and foremost, for the Bailey Gifford prize for nonfiction 2021. And why are you in that category? And and what's your book about? So the Bailey Gifford prize, to those who don't know, is the most prestigious nonfiction award in the UK. And in in pretty much in the English language in many ways.
And the reason that it's it's been nominated for that is because my publishers felt like there was such an immense amount of history, which of course, there is because I'm covering the Muslim history and heritage of Europe, in many ways, they felt that there was so much there, that it constituted a punk as they put it, travel literature, which is what my book is, doesn't normally get a look in at the Bailey Gifford because it tends to be for Big History type books, and those autobiographies of famous historical figures, or historical narratives, and things like that. So if I'm honest, I didn't hold out much hope so. So to hear that it was nominated for the award was a huge shock to me,
especially for what is my debut book. But also, of course, it was a wonderful, wonderful honor. But more importantly, in my opinion, it alludes to the fact that we are living through an age where people know that there are alternative narratives, people know that there are alternative histories out there. And I think, especially when it comes to Europe, you know, there is a huge hunger for the Muslim history and heritage of Europe. And across the continent, whether it's, you know, in the places like the ones, like the countries I went to, on this journey, or Western Europe as well. And we're seeing a growing number of people exploring these histories now. And I think that's what
piqued the interest of the judges who spoke highly of the book, and said that it gave them that alternative, you know, kind of look on on the place on places that they were already familiar with, you know, everybody knows, the Western Balkans, everybody knows these countries, in what isn't what is the former Soviet bloc, but unfortunately, they often get pigeonholed into being little more than former Soviet Bloc countries. And we have this popular image of them being kind of gray drab, places that are war torn. And I wanted to redress that. But of course, more importantly, I wanted to remind people
that this is actually indigenous Muslim Europe, as
soon as I hear that word, indigenous Muslim Europe, I think of unfortunately, right wing parties being triggered by this idea.
It's simple and complicated, at the same time,
because you've got you've had this turkey and the Ottoman Empire, and then communism, and then secularism, and yet, Islam is still there. But first of all, take us back to 2014. Was that your first trip to was it Albania? No, the trip that kind of instigated it was in Bulgaria. So we were in Bulgaria, which is the part that we do that I deal with in the introduction. And I'd actually we traveled vastly across Eastern Europe. It was one of our favorite places to visit as a family. And as I often did, whether it was Europe or anywhere else, I like to go and explore and look for the Muslim heritage in these spaces. And at this point in my life when I was in Bulgaria, I started to
do more than
to go and look at these places, as tourists, I had resurrected my career as a writer, I was now writing articles for various international magazines and, and travel guidebooks. And I wanted to kind of show the alternative history in these spaces. So when we were in Bulgaria, it came as a bit of a shock to me, because although I'd done a little bit of research, I wasn't aware of just how vast the living legacy still was. In Bulgaria, we were in the center of the country, we were staying in this tiny, obscure village called Pelham matzah, where we were staying on an eco farm run by two Brits, it was a wonderfully kind of deal, relaxed and sedate way of living, that they were kind of
proponents of something called Slow living, you know, a bit of the old,
the living the whole kind of off the fat of the land, and, and, you know, just turning down the speed on life, and it was wonderful growing their own food, having their own animals, etc. And we wanted to go and experience a bit of that, and on our way there from Romania. And we started off the journey in Romania and I were driving south, into Bulgaria. I was astonished by how many little mosques kept popping up in the hills, obviously, they were minarets, when I say mosques. And obviously, when I saw them in there, I knew exactly what was attached to them. Some were locked up, and were clearly disused and not no longer
being prayed in, so to speak. And then others were clearly still in use. And this did come as a surprise to me even though I've traveled across Eastern Europe quite a bit at this point. And so when we pitched up rocked up at the,
at the actual farm, much to my delight, one of one of the owners, Chris is a was an archaeologist, and he had a fascination with the local Muslim culture as well. So he then helped me go and explore a bit more of this history and heritage. And he took me to the to have a local bektashi St. Or Alevi set St. Called them in Baba, where we came up on this tomb that was being wonderfully shared by both the local Christians and the local Muslims. And I just found it really rather humbling, and also quite mind blowing. And so it was on that trip that I began to formulate a road trip across the countries that I knew had a Muslim majority population to this day in Bosnia and Herzegovina,
Albania and Kosovo, and some of the surrounding countries such as Serbia, North Macedonia, and Montenegro. Because by now, I was also starting to research the potential history and heritage in these places, some of which I was also realizing, as I began, my research was being dramatically and quickly eradicated. And so there was a sense of urgency to do something about this. And I wanted to use the journey initially, to maybe write a series of articles or something. And, and as I, as we went on the journey, it became apparent to me that this could be a book.
We're very glad it is a book, I wonder about this word eradication that you just used, because that's definitely something that Albanians cost ovens during my visit to, you know, various areas where they are now being encroached upon what we don't realize about the Balkans brothers and sisters, is how difficult it is to be Muslim there, even though many of those areas are still Muslim populations. Can you talk to us a little bit about the eradication perspective? Yeah, I think one of the things that helped me appreciate this, which is important, of course, is that I also did one of those classic travel writer things where I found a historical narrator of the area, and they wanted
to follow in his footsteps. But this wasn't just any old historical narrative, and most of your listeners, especially those in Turkey, will be aware of Elia televi. Who, of course, is the 17th century Ottoman traveler that most English speakers know almost nothing about. Some of us more curious and intrepid Muslims may have learned a little bit about him. I knew a fair amount at this point, and I could only access him in English. So taking him along with me and the parts of the Balkans that he wrote about really helped to bring home just how much had been eradicated in some spaces, because of course, when fhlb was wandering through these lands in the 17th century, his
father having lived under and in the service of Saltonstall, Amanda Mack,
nificent he was essentially moving through an empire that was more or less still at its peak. And in that respect, much of the Europe that I wandered through, and much of the Europe that was Ottoman at the time was the most Muslim it was ever going to be. And so he was looking at towns and villages at a time when they were as Muslim as they've ever been. And then I was able to go to those places and draw comparisons. And yes, in some places, such as Albania, you could see just how much of that had been done away with. A big part of the Albanian story, of course, is to do with the dictator, Ember Hajah, who declared Albania the foot world's first secular state. And he wasn't just anti Muslim,
anti ottoman, he was anti or religion. He wanted to do away with all faiths. And so all the many of the country's churches were destroyed as well as the mosques.
And we saw many of them aggressors. Many of the basically anything to do with Islamic history or heritage in the main and Bahasa, did a pretty good job of doing away with some of it is being revived now. But places like Albania also have a very
interesting relationship with their Muslim heritage. Because, of course, in all of these countries that Islam came on the back of colonialism. It came on the back of a colonial empire, there's no there's no denying that. Are we comfortable about using that language when that's the language of a non Muslim colonizer so that so the English who colonized India did it for the East India, company, and for money, and for a queen? When the Muslims did it, it was some expansion because of territory. And also, by the way, the Bosnians are the tallest people on the planet. They're great fighters. But But But driving our greatest leaders has also been an ideology called Islam, which is this
unfairness for the poorest in society? Now, absolutely, of course, you know, we can talk about the intentions. But ultimately, if you look at most of these Imperial movements, they were not these romantic Islamic movements, and anybody who's an ottoman historian, and I'm not, but what I have read about Ottoman history, history tells you that the Ottoman Empire was not necessarily this wonderful beacon of Islam, because it was an imperial movement. As with any Imperial movement, there is resistance. And in many of these countries, there was resistance. And so with countries like Albania, although Islam was left behind, and many people have embraced that, and are very happy
about that, of course, there are many who are unhappy about the fact that they feel a foreign force came and took over their country, so to speak. Whereas you will see in other places, like the Bosnians, they have a very different take on it. And they seem to be quite comfortable. Sorry, far more comfortable with the fact that the Ottomans came to their lands, and effectively ruled there. And so that in itself makes for quite an interesting
observation when you're in these countries. The sense is, we're being crushed. We're being crushed our beliefs, which are just waking up post communism, post secularism, if I can say that, or during this current secularism, are already being crushed by a political system. Did you get that sense? Well, I actually got quite a country sense in places like Sarajevo in that I felt like there was a real revival taking place. So I was really quite
not excited, but certainly really happy to see that, for example, the Islamic faculty, the faculty of Islamic sciences in Sarajevo is now an official part of the University of Sarajevo, there is a mafia office, that is nationwide, which centralizes all the training of the Imams and the various orlimar that come through, I felt like the infrastructure that had potentially existed there before communism before secularism was experiencing a fourth type of revival. But of course, we're talking about that part of the country that is known as Bosnia, there is another part of this country that is known as the Republic of superscore. And those of us that know these things will be aware that's
the first company in Serbia essentially. So that following the kind of agreement that was made in the wake of the horrific 1990s, genocide and war, we have essentially two countries in one. And when I was in those in those other spaces, which I did go to as well, it was quite apparent that this wasn't a Muslim country, and you felt that in the most visible way because again, the the history and heritage had been eradicated in most places, in some places.
is returning Muslims or on Muslims who were connected to a place like visit grab, for example, many of the Muslims who, whose families had been murdered, had obviously moved out and left as refugees and gone to other parts of the world. And they were, they had returned and invested in resurrecting mosques, for example, and this was something you saw again and again, in places where there had been a systematic attempt to eradicate the Islamic identity. Another place that springs to mind is Forca, I'm probably pronouncing these places wrong, so do forgive me.
And yes, so in those places, I sent that, you know, that pull and push that struggle was still apparent. But like I say, in other places, and I've been a few times now, and I'm fortunate enough to have been friends who I've spent quality time with them, and who I still spend time with, and who told me about how they're feeling. And I actually felt very much at ease as a Muslim of Europe, in places like Erivo. Sarajevo, having been founded by the Ottomans, is a European Muslim city, from birth, in that respect, and, but it's not just any old Europeans, Muslim city, it's, of course, what the Western writers dubbed the Jerusalem of Europe, because of the fact that you have this wonderful
coexistence that that took place historically, which I compared to the modern was the in term of concealer, which is very much like the Moorish or, or Spanish la convivencia, where, you know, this coexistence at time when much of the rest of Europe was struggling to live with each other's ideologies. And so to go to a place like that, and see that, that spirit was still very much present in the people, and they weren't, they wanted to revive it, you know, and they, they they appeared comfortable lips still living side by side, in spite of the horrors that they had lived through, they offered a lot of hope for me. But what I also found interesting is I went there, very excited
that I was going to the Jerusalem of Europe, and you know, and then I was gonna go to this place where everybody had coexisted. And then as I was there, and as I was traveling around, and reading and getting these notes, he made it quite apparent to me that it wasn't exotic to him, because this was the norm, everywhere else. And, and actually, that's, that's another interesting reason to read and look at these spaces from a Muslim perspective. Because as English speakers, often our lens are dominated by people who are non Muslim, just because, you know, that's, that's the language in which historically non Muslims wrote about in the spaces, as well as the fact that, you know, English is
such a popular language. And so that was another reason fhlb was so important, because it meant I could look at these places through Muslim eyes, through the literature of Muslims eyes, as well as my own Muslim eyes, and compare them to how they'd been viewed by those who had written about it. But were non Muslim. People like Patrick Leigh fermor, Lord Byron, and others. And it was very, very interesting because, of course, within their writing, you also pick up on sometimes not so subtle, but sometimes the subtle
othering because they came from a part of the world that would look at that part of Europe as being the other Europe, that Muslim Europe or in their case, having come from the Christian side, they would often look at it as the invading force, the amount of people praying we met, we met
a an imam there who said that 20 years ago, he had trouble when he made the call to prayer, getting enough people for to make a jump mat, to make the enough three or four people to pray. And now there are 60 Young people legging it into the mosque. Why do you think this is? And how do you in your book try to contribute to a version of European Islam as a positive thing for non Muslims a positive presence? Well, I think the reason that you see this revival and one of the most impressive things for example, I interviewed a gentleman who was working as the tour guide at the Razzie, Hooser Bay mosque in Sarajevo, which is, of course, the main and the most beautiful historic Masjid in the
center of Sarajevo. And this guy is working as a tour guide. But if I remember correctly, he had a degree in like, I think it was in Islamic science or Arabic. He spoke Arabic fluently, he was able to talk about, you know, things like fear, he was able to talk about Hadith he was able to talk about the way in which will interpret historical documents or manuscripts. In other words, he was highly trained
In a way that sometimes we don't even come across imams in other parts of Europe. And yet here he was working as a tour guide. And for me, he, along with others embodied embodies this revival and this desire to reconnect with what they see as their heritage and of course, their historic identity as well as Muslims.
And you're right, you're absolutely right, that in the immediate aftermath, it must have been an extremely challenging scenario. What's interesting when you go there is if you want to speak to somebody, and you don't speak the local language, which many of us don't, whether you want to converse with them in English, or as many of the Gulf tourists who are making their way there speak in Arabic, you should approach the younger people, because the revival of many of these
educational institutes and the desire by the locals to revive these, these famous madrasahs, and the institutional kind of approaches, has seen many young people speaking Arabic, many young people studying the Islamic sciences. And and of course, many young people speak in English as well, because inevitably seeing themselves as a part of the wider, wider European community. They're also picking up on that, that to your second point in terms of how do I see my book contributing? Well, for me, I'm hoping the book is going to begin to normalize this idea that there is an indigenous Muslim Europe, even if people are uncomfortable with this. For a lot of people, it was a shock to
hear that there are quote, unquote, Muslim European countries. And what we mean by that is, and we're getting into semantics here, but what we mean by that, of course, is, if a country is majority Muslim in population, then you can quite conceivably call it a Muslim country, like you might call the country of my birth, Bangladesh and Muslim country, even though constitutionally, it's a second nation. So that's why I keep calling Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo, Muslim, much to some people's annoyance, but there's a point I'm trying to make here. And of course, there are other pockets all over that region, not just the countries I visited Romania, Bulgaria, and we could go on. And of
course, the Baltic Muslims in places like Lithuania, Poland, which I've written about as well, all of these spaces have Muslims who have been living there longer than white people have been living in America. So they've got every right to call themselves indigenous, you have I mean, not every right they are indigenous Europeans, because no religion, none of the Abrahamic religions is indigenous to Europe. They're all from the Middle East. So I'm not saying to be Muslim is to be indigenous European, I'm saying an Albanian is indigenous. Now, if he or she happens to be Muslim, that's an indigenous European Muslim, it's as simple as that. There's, there's no real discussion there. It's
just something that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. And I'm kind of saying that this is the reality. And I'm also saying the reason you are uncomfortable with this reality is because you historically, and in the literary heritage of travel, writing by most Westerners, this part of Europe has been othered. And if you look at the language, in which that's been used, it's often been spoken about in really horrible derogatory ways. And that has led to the rest of Europe, consciously and unconsciously seeing Western Europe as your proper. And this is some kind of other Europe. And I think one of the main reasons and I put this in my book, I think one of the main reasons for this
consciously or unconsciously, is because in embracing that part of Europe, what we call Eastern Europe, the whole of Europe has to admit that there is a living indigenous Muslim Europe, and I don't think the rest of Europe is comfortable doing that.
Do you know what you're really that's a really great point that I mean, as as a British person, you know, we call Eastern Europe that because we want to kind of USSR it, we want to block it off. It's the other it's almost as if you're a proper the proper Christian Europe sort of ends Poland and Italy, and the rest is sort of like unknown. It's like you're in Yeah, every road that you walk down in Sarajevo has echoes for us in the history that we're taught, you know, whether it was where Archduke Ferdinand was was shot the First World War was instigated, you know, so much war so much negotiation has come through there so much trade and yet it's you're right it's it's that idea of
the other. I wanted to ask you as well about this Christian Judeo idea of Europe. And yet it's definitely secular. Now for the main studies are showing that people do not consider themselves to have a faith. Yet we hear the and feel sorry, the echoes
I have an ethical system, don't we? We hear the echoes of that through our behavior. It is Judeo Christian, in our understandings, broadly speaking, are still based on those. Why is credit not given to this whole bloc of nations that were and to a majority remain Muslim majority, not allowed to have echoes of Muslim morality there? And if they're nice places to go to, can we please credit Islam with some of that niceness? Is that something you see as happening? And is that something that you recognize and experienced? Well, I think one of the reasons that we get the Judeo Christian narrative is because, well, firstly, the Judeo lemon has only been added, in my opinion, from what
I've seen in the post Holocaust era. And, and there's no denying, and most scholars will agree a lot of that is is off the back of the guilt that Western Europe carries for the atrocities committed against the Jews of Europe. And whilst the Holocaust is the most recent incident, throughout history, the Jews were treated horrifically across Europe. And they were constantly kicked out of Britain, Spain, every single country that you can pretty much name on the European continent at some point that wasn't under Muslim rule, tried to kick them out. And then you know, and so on. And one of the places one of the amazing things to answer your second question as well, one of the amazing
things that I came to the realization of while I was on this journey, was that actually, throughout that time, the Jews being what was essentially then probably Europe's most oppressed religious community, the safest spaces they found, for almost 12 centuries, from the eighth century, when Muslims first arrived in Spain, right through to the early part of the 20th century, when the Ottoman Empire collapses, the safer spaces for Jews tended to be in Muslim lands. And this is something Jewish historians will of course, openly admit, because it also saw certain golden periods. In that time, like the period of people like me money, there's
who was from ANA Lucia. And then you look at the period of the famous Jewish poets and scholars during the period of of the Nazareth dynasty in Granada. So one of the most amazing pieces of heritage that I came to the realization about was that my forefathers, as European Muslims, had been the protectors of the continents most persecuted religious group for nearly 12 centuries, and that the horrors committed against the Jews of Europe had nothing to do with the Muslims of Europe. So this is one of those, you know, beautiful pieces of heritage you're talking about, as well as, of course, other things we can go into be it be the kind of, you know, the example of coexistence at a
time when most of Europe was in a bit, you know, behaving in this intolerant way, where even Christian sects felt safer, minority Christian sects felt safer in Muslim, and I mean, sorry, in Ottoman or may have lands because the Muslims tended to be more tolerant because they were embodying the spirit of the faith in that respect. So yeah,
you know, that's that, for me, those those kinds of glimpses of heritage as well as the more typical stuff than the wonderful nature of the people, the amazing art heritage that I come across the stunning, you know, Sufi lodges and marks and everything else. There's so much there that we can celebrate. And there's so much there that we can, you know, take forward as, as Muslims of Europe today and learn from
and we need to, but one of the reasons we don't is because it's not in the popular domain. It's not a kind of normative discussion. It's not a part of the normative discussion of Europe's cultural narrative. There is this myth that Europe is pagan stroke, Judeo Christian, and as I said, I think the Judeo was added as a because of the dibble. Prior to that the Jews were being treated in a way there's no nobody wanted to admit that it was Judaic at all. And this is where we find ourselves from an Islamic perspective as well. You know, ultimately, it's an Abrahamic, cultural narrative, along with the, you know, pagan and other other cultural narratives that we have across Europe as
well. And that's something that I think, you know, previous scholars have or sorry, previous academics who, who have written the popular books from the Bernard Lewis's free the Samuel Huntington. They have proposed this as being the normative cultural narrative of Europe and thereby the West. And I think that's one of the reasons this line is drawn between Western Europe and East so I went to black guy as well again, but
Other than sisters, this is an incredible journey that you should make via Sarajevo in sha Allah. And you. It is right nestled in a mountain. And it's built on the Sufi ideals of that region, which is there must be running water for the peace, and there should be a cave. And there should be a place of burial to visit. And what I didn't notice was this kind of scratchy existence. Now, brother Tarik, whereby, on the one side, you've got this lovely spiritual place to visit. And on the other side is a restaurant selling beer and wine. When people are looking deliberately unimpressed about Muslims being there, and you'll get dirty looks. And
I just remember that being like, that's a shame. Yeah, no, absolutely. This is the, this is the fine line that's been walked between,
you know, commercializing a space for tourism. And of course, it's still an active Sufi space. Although today it's, it's managed, and it's used by the natural Bundys. It was historically a bektashi space. And it was a space that the classes founded. I think, if I remember off the top of my head around the 16th century, a space that fhlb also visited, which is another reason why I was really, really chuffed to be able to go and see it, because I knew that I was in a place that he had come to, where he no doubt would have performed, digging himself being from a Sufi tradition himself. And I also knew that historically, the kind of movement, so to speak, that did build the
space and and had their saints buried there,
including some quite interesting saints that you know, are worth reading about in the book.
They were a far more liberal bunch that attaches if we're honest, because the bektashi is are more of a sheer mystical branch of Islam. And they and they follow some very liberal kind of
approaches to Islam. Liberal in the in the kind of broader sense.
And But fascism was something that really became popular across the Balkans during the Ottoman period. And it's something that, again, was news to me, and I learned about on this journey, and I see it as being a kind of, you know,
a kind of European mystical tradition. Today, because it is, it is again, being revived, and I went to functioning bektashi lodges in tetsuzo, most most of them apparently, I went to one there. And then there was one in Korea, in Albania. And it's no surprise that the places I'm naming where where the bektashi is, are quite vibrant, tend to be in Albanian spaces. So turbo, although it's in North Macedonia, is a stronghold or immensely popular populated by ethnic Albanians. And of course, Korea is in Albania, where in Tirana, it is the headquarters of the International bektashi movement. And so the bektashi is are experienced in a revival as well. And my friend who spends time with me in in
Albania, is somebody who's from a bektashi tradition, although, you know, he's not he doesn't observe much of it these days, because he also lived through the end bahaji period.
So yeah, certainly blog is is a stunning space. And you can see that the the location being completely conducive to meditation and decayed and solitude and you can see it being the kind of place where historically the kind of the Sufi dervishes would have come there. And they would have tucked themselves away from the dunya, which of course, as you've rightly identified isn't possible today, because it's become such a popular touristic space where people from all persuasions are turning up. And maybe some of them are a little bit disgruntled at the fact that actual Muslims are turning up. Ironically, of course, Greece is further east than most of the countries we're talking
about. But it is embraced as being part of Western Europe, because there's Plato there, there's Aristotle there, there's Hippocrates there, there's all of this, you this bastion of western heritage, which I find ironic because essentially, the cradle of Western Heritage is in Eastern Europe, because it's the space and Muslim heritage as the other Sufi lodges that I went to where as well and it was a similar thing, you certainly in Korea, you have a lot of lot of tourists coming to that one as well because it's right next to the castle, where the famous Albanian
figure of Skanderborg was based and it was his capital, whereas the one in Tsavo is much more of a strictly functioning religious space. But there's other kinds of contentious issues going on there between the local Sunnis and the bektashi. But all of them offered a glimpse of the way in which Islam has been practice contested and
and revived across the region. I saw that final message for people to go and find your book. Where can they see you in the coming months and hear more about your journey and the interviews that you've got coming up? And what can we do to promote your book really, to our families and our schools in Charlotte, Charlotte? So the book should be available pretty much anywhere across the globe now, so wherever you would have normally by your English language books, you can order my book through that because it's being distributed by HarperCollins. So it's available everywhere in Sharla. And of course, you know, the usual space is the big online retailers that I don't want to
name stop them. If you can, I'd love it if you bought it from independent sources so you can support them. Allah bless you and we'll speak again soon inshallah. Take care Malika Salam o, Allah. Yeah, you know, the beauty of Islamic tradition is felt in these cities. And the reminder brothers and sisters, that Islam is not for a time and for a place it's for all times and all places and all peoples who worship one God alone Allah to Allah, and love the prophets and Prophet Muhammad sallallahu alayhi wa sallam, and that can happen at any time in any place. And that is a good thing for humanity. I hope you find that useful. Don't forget to subscribe to my YouTube channel as well
if you like this content, and share this with your friends and family. Inshallah. Salam, Aleikum rahmatullahi wa better care to