Dr Ilyas Mohammed says that whilst Muslims have been an indigenous population of Eastern Europe for centuries, the rise of political Islam is something that is new and could have positive and negative outcomes for both Muslims and non-Muslims.
Muslims as cultural communities and Islam as a religion have been part of Europe since the 12th century. Muslims settled in Eastern, Central and Northern Europe and remain there to this day. Therefore they can be described as indigenous to Europe.
These Muslims are indistinguishable from their fellow countrymen and women, such that even their neighbours are not aware of their faith as one Latvian citizen I interviewed stated. But in mainstream books detailing the history of Europe these Muslims are not represented.
Rebirth of Islam
In the post-communist world, Eastern and Central European countries have witnessed a rebirth of Islam among Tatar and Bosniak Muslim communities, as well as through the immigration of Muslims from majority Muslim countries. This also includes the immigration of Muslims from the Caucasus region to Eastern Europe, particularly to the Baltic countries.
This rebirth of Islam in the aforementioned regions is due to the collapse of communism and the Bosnian war, which resulted in one of the most brutal genocides in modern history (Srebrenica massacre). Before the collapse of communism and the Bosnian war, Muslims were either banned from practicing their faith or estranged from it.
In Eastern Europe, the number of indigenous and new immigrant Muslims are small but there is an increasing number of converts, especially women, as one expert on religion during a conference in Riga, Latvia in 2011 told me. The conversion rates have not reached the levels of those in Western Europe but with increased movement of Muslims from the global south to the north, migration from the Caucasus region and through the Internet, the numbers of converts are steadily on the up.
The immigrant Muslims are not only ethnically and culturally different from those that are indigenous but differ in terms of interpretations of Islam. It is likely that conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims, as well as between Muslims will emerge with the increase in different types of adherents to Islam.
We are already witnessing inter-Muslim conflict in countries like Lithuania and Ukraine on interpretive lines. Of course, inter-Muslim conflict is a common feature of politics among Muslims in other parts of Europe and in Muslim majority countries.
Hizb ut Tahrir
Although Islam and Muslims are not recent arrivals to Eastern European countries, “political Islam” in the form of Hizb ut Tahrir (HT) is. In Western European and Muslim majority countries where the group operates, it is often accused of being a “conveyor belt” to terrorism. The group strenuously denies this accusation.
In Eastern and Central Europe, HT operates and is gaining popularity in Russia, Poland, Ukraine, as well as slowly making inroads into Bosnia and Albania. The group also operates in the Caucasus region, as well as Scandinavia, which both boarder Eastern Europe.
The concern of HT in Ukraine at least from the outside seems not to be sudden but is based on two main reasons, which are intertwined. Firstly, due to inter-Muslim disputes – in the past the Crimean Tatar Mejlis and the Crimean Verkhovna Rada (unicameral parliament in Ukraine) opposed the group, and have wanted their governments to ban the group because it considers it a “radical” organization.
Secondly, Ukrainian Muslims could potentially be fighting in Syria, which is a security concern for the authorities because of the “blowback” phenomena. Spokesman for HT in Ukraine, Fazyl Amzaev said in an interview with the AFP: “We are not recruiting the rebels, but I do not rule out some of the Crimean Tatars fighting against Assad.” This type of position will inevitably foster more calls for the group to be proscribed from both apolitical Muslims and mainstream Ukrainian society.
He also went on to reassure the authorities that: “Our work in Ukraine does not mean that we act or will act to change the borders of the state. Achieving the goal of establishing the Caliphate is real only in countries with a predominantly Muslim population. But in Ukraine, we, as Muslims, are obliged to inform the society about Islam in its correct form.”
In the future, HT is likely to run into problems with Muslims and governments in both Eastern and Central Europe, not because of their faith but due to politics and their ability to win hearts and minds, whether Muslims and European governments like to admit it or not.