Field Impressions
Jeremy F. Walton (Croatia & Turkey)

Contentious Proximities: Spatial Practices and New Politics of Religious Pluralism in Croatia and Turkey

Jeremy F. Walton

In Autumn 2013, when I first began my CETREN project, “Secular Geographies of Nation and Religion on the Margins of the New Europe: Mosque Communities and Civil Society in Turkey and Croatia,” both my research focus and the bevy of concepts and political commitments informing my research were at a crossroads. I had begun to fine-tune a manuscript based on my dissertation research on Islam, civil society, and secularism in Turkey, and eagerly anticipated expanding my geographical purview to incorporate Islam in the Balkans, especially in Croatia and other former Yugoslav nation-states, even as new developments in Turkey continued to challenge and intrigue me. Intellectually, I had begun to experience acute fatigue in relation to arguments over the sway and effects of secularism, understood not merely as a political method for regulating the proper place and role of religion in the context of the nation-state but, more expansively, as a discursive framework that simultaneously entrenches and problematizes the relationship between “the political” and “the religious.” Nevertheless, the groundbreaking work of anthropologists of Islam and secularism such as Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, and Hussein Agrama continued to animate the bulk of my thinking. I thus began my tenure at CETREN with the aspiration to complicate the methodological nationalism characteristic of secularism studies by examining how the relatively deterritorialized secular logics of “Europe” affect specific projects of religious pluralism in contexts that are marginal to metropolitan Europe itself. My multi-sited CETREN research on the Tuzluçayır Mosque-Cem House, an Ankara-based project to create an integrated space of worship for Sunni and Alevi Muslims, and the Rijeka New Mosque, a recently constructed mosque for the Bosniak community in the Croatian port city of Rijeka, offered a unique opportunity to pursue these emergent interests. Yet I also soon found that my new research demanded conceptual tools and interlocutors beyond the field of secularism studies itself—in particular, I sought to complement and supplement my earlier focus on secularism with political theorist Wendy Brown’s interrogation of “the governmentality of tolerance” and post-structuralist theories of spatial practice advanced by thinkers such as de Certeau and Lefebvre.

When I arrived in Ankara for my first ethnographic excursion to the Tuzluçayır Mosque-Cem House, I discovered a consummate context of what anthropologist Robert Hayden has called “antagonistic tolerance.” The groundbreaking ceremony for the project, which occurred in September 2013, was a pageant of triumphant interreligious pluralism. Both Sunni and Alevi politicians and civil society activists had gathered under the cerulean late summer sky to celebrate a project that, in the words of prominent Alevi intellectual İzzetin Doğan, aimed to “help Sunnis and Alevis to come to know one another as siblings who worship the same God, thus overcoming many of the factors that led to a separation between the two communities during the Ottoman Era.” Despite this rhetoric of liberal-multicultural goodwill, the majority of Alevis greeted the project with skepticism and cynicism—as the head of a major, Ankara-based Alevi NGO asserted, “There is no such thing as a mosque in the Alevi tradition…the project is a program of assimilation.” A protest had broken out in the impoverished shantytown neighborhood surrounding the mosque-cem house on the day of the groundbreaking, and was still in force when I visited in March 2014. Clutches of young protesters, many sporting the banners of Leftist revolutionary groups and clad in Guy Fawkes masks, faced off against a cordon of police officers in riot gear, occasionally lobbing stones in their direction. Several local merchants with whom I spoke condemned the indifference of the project’s supporters to the political-economic plight of the neighborhood; graffiti on a condemned shanty house facetiously punctuated this point with the simple proclamation, “We want a church, too.” Before I left the neighborhood that day, an adolescent protester insisted on displaying his collection of empty tear gas canisters to me, and remarked darkly that an identical canister had caused wounds that resulted in the death of an Istanbul adolescent, Berkin Elvan, several days earlier. Especially in the light of the legal and political reforms entailed by Turkey’s (now-stalled) EU membership negotiations, religious freedom and public visibility are now non-negotiable desiderata of secularism for many Alevis; simultaneously, projects that attempt to seize the legitimacy of liberal-secular pluralism, such as the mosque-cem house, also provoke profound anxiety and suspicion.

A young protester in Tuzluçayır dons a Guy Fawkes mask [Photo: Jeremy F. Walton].

Demonstrators gather in front of the construction site for the Tuzluçayır mosque-cem house in March 2014 [Photo: Jeremy F. Walton].

A Tuzluçayır resident displays an empty tear gas canister employed by the police guarding the construction site of the mosque-cem house [Photo: Jeremy F. Walton].

Graffiti in the neighborhood of Tuzluçayır: “We want a church, too” [Photo: Jeremy F. Walton].

In Rijeka, I encountered a much different configuration of religious pluralism and spatial practice, one in which the antagonisms and anxieties of the Tuzluçayır Mosque-Cem House were largely absent. Like the mosque-cem house, Rijeka’s New Mosque was fêted as a sign and achievement of interreligious pluralism during an opening ceremony in May 2013, several months prior to Croatia’s official entry into the European Union. Among the dignitaries in attendance at this ceremony were Bakir Izetbegović, the Muslim Bosniak member of the tripartite (Bosniak-Croat-Serb) Bosnian-Herzegovinian presidency; Ghaith bin Mubarak al Kuwari, the Qatari Minister of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (the Emir of Qatar sponsored and partially funded the mosque); Paul Vandoren, the president of the EU delegation to Croatia; and Ivo Josipović, the president of Croatia at the time. President Josipović underscored the national and regional importance of the New Mosque: “The Islamic tradition is woven into the fabric of Croatian social and spiritual history, and just like other minority traditions it enriches Croatian cultural identity…they (Bosnian Muslims) have been an example of rational and patriotic behaviour and of interreligious understanding and tolerance.” When I first visited the mosque in January 2014, I was immediately struck by the contrast between its public visibility and the immense difficulty that I had in actually arriving at its campus. Although the space-age structure, designed by famous Macedonian-Croatian architect Dušan Džamonja, looms prominently over the motorway that connects Rijeka to the Istrian peninsula, it is only accessible via a warren of narrow, barely navigable alleys and backstreets. This contrast speaks to the ambivalence of the mosque itself: Its visibility is a public sign of Croatia’s tolerance of Islam, while its poor accessibility gestures to the fact that its use as a space of worship is limited to an insular, local community. On a second visit to the mosque, I was able to interview the son of the imam, an articulate secondary school student who planned to enter university in Qatar following his graduation. He reiterated the dominant discourse of the mosque as a triumph of interreligious tolerance of Islam in Croatia, and thereby suggested that scathing criticisms of tolerance as a mode of power, such as Wendy Brown’s, may risk neglecting the sentiments of the very religious subjects that the governmentality of tolerance disciplines. And yet, despite the triumphant hegemony of interreligious tolerance in Rijeka—in contrast to Ankara—traces of a repudiated, violent past also occupy the space of the New Mosque, in the form of a solemn memorial to Bosnian Muslims who died fighting with Croatian forces in the war following the disintegration of socialist Yugoslavia in the 1990s. This memorial testifies to the novel syntheses of EU-mandated tolerance for minority communities and the particular politics of commemoration in the Western Balkans, where dead bodies speak to both the possibilities and limits of national belonging.

The Rijeka New Mosque, designed by Macedonian-Croatian architect Dušan Džamonja [Photo: Jeremy F. Walton].

A memorial in the courtyard of Rijeka’s New Mosque commemorating Bosniak victims in Croatia’s Homeland War against Serb-Yugoslav Army forces in the 1990s  [Photo: Jeremy F. Walton].

Although my tenure at CETREN has now come to a close, the lessons of both the project and the research that I conducted with CETREN’s support continue to expand and complicate my perspective on secularism, interreligious pluralism, and religious space-making. Both Ankara’s mosque-cem house and Rijeka’s New Mosque are crucibles for “the politics of the new” in relation to religion, the lodestar of the CETREN Transregional Resarch Network in general. Their common images and discourses of interreligious pluralism suggest that the secular logic of religious minority as an object of tolerance has achieved transregional traction on the margins of Europe. Furthermore, both sites articulate novel, contrasting configurations of space and place in relation to religious difference. In Ankara, a contentious spatial proximity between Alevis and Sunnis animates debates over the desirability of the mosque-cem house, while in Rijeka, Islam and the Bosniak community have achieved a mode of urban visibility that belies the marginal, non-integrated place of the mosque and Islam within the city and nation as a whole. Both sites simultaneously incorporate and silence histories of interreligious violence and strife. Beyond inspiring several forthcoming publications, these myriad, fascinating lessons will continue to occupy me in my new position as a research fellow at the Center for Advanced Study of Southeast Europe at the University of Rijeka and, in the coming years, as a research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen.


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