After 44 Years, This European Country Is Finally Getting Its First Mosque

On the unlikely success of Slovenia's Muslims in a region plagued by a history of brutal intolerance.

(Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Mar 24, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

After 44 years of petitions from the Islamic community, many in this tiny central European country hope that the opening of Slovenia's first mosque marks the beginning of its farewell to religious intolerance. Behind a brewery and a railway station, the first stone for the Islamic Religio-Cultural Center was finally set in Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital, last September. Though mosques and cultural centers like it are found throughout other former Yugoslav countries, predominantly Catholic Slovenia was late to the game, foiling local Muslims' hopes for decades.

“In a way, Slovenia was the last. In Croatia, you have big mosques in Rijeka and Zagreb, so they’re much further in introducing Islamic culture and tradition to the broader public,” said Dr. Anja Zalta, an associate professor of sociology and religion at the University of Ljubljana.

Like Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina has a significant Islamic population with its own cultural and religious touchstones. The Ottoman conquest reached almost to the eastern gates of Vienna in the 16th century, and Slovenia, south of Austria between Italy and Hungary, remained a holdout. As a result, she says, “there is still that idea of Islam as totally other, as dangerous, you know, with all these stereotypical ideas and images.”

In spite of that, Zalta, a vocal supporter of the mosque’s construction, was quick to affirm that its eventual success indicates a collective positive shift in attitudes toward Islam in Slovenia. “The younger generation is doing a lot to overcome these classical stereotypes and to publicly start thinking differently,” she said.

As a visitor in Slovenia, it is easy to read the mosque’s construction as a straightforward victory, the physical manifestation of an overdue human rights triumph against years of religious intolerance. When I expressed this viewpoint to one Slovenian friend and asked what he thought, he sputtered a bit before concluding: “It’s just very complicated.”

As the dissolution of Yugoslavia began in the early 1990s, Slovenia endured a 10-day war to gain independence; neighboring Balkan countries went on to fight for years. During this time, horrific ethnic cleansing killed 60,000 Muslims across Bosnia and Herzegovina and uprooted many more. The preceding centuries saw fits of expulsion and persecution of Muslims and violence between ethnic and religious groups, but it had largely been tamped down during the decades after World War II as Moscow favorite Josip Broz Tito managed to unite the factions under Communism. Tito died in 1980, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the revolutions across Eastern Europe, the center in Yugoslavia could not hold.

Still, the ghosts of history are strong in Slovenia, as in many places.

“There is a big intolerance because of the collective Slovenian memory of Turkish incursions in the 15th and 16th century,” said Zalta. “Many poems and novels taught in primary school are recollections of these memories. It’s not that Slovenian curriculum is doing this on purpose, but it’s a part of our history.”

While it might be ancient history, this “collective memory” was pointed to in 2004 when city councilor Michael Jarc collected more than 11,000 signatures for a vote to oppose the mosque, saying, “In the Middle Ages our ancestors were attacked by Muslim soldiers, and they did bad things here, and this is in our historical subconscious.” But the movement against the mosque that clung to this long-gone history failed when Slovenia’s Constitutional Court declared the referendum unconstitutional.

Today’s generation is doing its part to reshape the perception of Islam. In 2006, Ljubljana’s Islamic community gained a new mufti, Nedžad Grabus. Grabus has worked with activists and public intellectuals among the Islamic community to promote roundtable discussions, educational activities, and cultural events open to the public, which serve to bring stereotypically negative notions of Islam out of the shadows and replace them with the present-day reality of Slovenia's vibrant Islamic community.

“This community has really changed the streams of intolerance,” said Zalta. A stubborn cultural tendency to cling to the past may steadily be eroding. Today workers are laying the foundation for the mosque on the once controversial grounds in Ljubljana’s northern district of Bežigrad. “It’s accepted that we will have a mosque, and slowly the wider public will get used to that. I see a bright future.”