Continuities between Ottoman and Habsburg Bosnia: an interview with scholar, Leyla Amzi-Erdogdular


Leyla Amzi-Erdogdular received her Ph.D. from the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University specialising in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies. Her research focuses on the history of the Ottoman Empire and Southeast Europe. Presently, Leyla Amzi-Erdogdular is working on a book manuscript titled ‘Afterlife of Empire’ that explores Ottoman continuities in Habsburg Bosnia Herzegovina. Following her recent appearance on the ‘Rethinking Modern Europe – Empires and Frontiers in the Balkans’ panel, Leyla sat down (virtually) to speak with Politika News on the Bosnian Muslim experience in Habsburg Bosnia, and what scholars can learn from revisiting Bosnia’s transition from Ottoman rule.

You have published several publications on the Bosnian Muslim experience in both Habsburg but particularly Ottoman Bosnia. In your essay, ‘Alternative Muslim Modernities: Bosnian Intellectuals in the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires’, you articulate the need for scholars of Southeast Europe to view Habsburg Bosnia as a continuation of, rather than a break from, Ottoman Bosnia. Why is this important? 

Although the transition was also a rupture, the Habsburg Monarchy continued many of the Ottoman features in the province, including Ottoman laws and practices, and the way it defined its subjects. These features were gradually changed as the need and opportunity arose.

Bosnia Herzegovina also differed from lost Ottoman domains in the Balkans because it was occupied by another empire, while other provinces were included in the newly formed nation-states. The Habsburg Monarchy was a self-proclaimed multicultural empire and, much like the Ottomans, had an inclusive view of its diverse subjects and its mandate across various geographies. Heterogenous populations of the Ottoman and Habsburg domains were not seen as inherently problematic, as they were for the nation-states that worked to homogenise their populations in order to fit the imagined national profile. Unlike the nation-states, diversity and especially its Muslims and the Islamic heritage persisted in Bosnia Herzegovina the way it did because of the Habsburg imperial rule. 

Why do you think there has been a historical tendency to view Habsburg Bosnia as a break from Ottoman Bosnia? Would it be fair to lay some blame on Habsburg discourse? 

The European colonial narrative of the nineteenth century had a major role in perpetuating the discourse of a civilisational break as a result of annexing, occupying, and in other ways disengaging territories from the Ottoman Empire, whether in North Africa or Southeastern Europe.

Redrawing Ottoman borders, as stipulated by the Berlin Treaty (1878), was to resolve what the European Great Powers called the Eastern Question, namely the redistribution of the Ottoman territories which the Ottoman authorities were presumed incapable of managing. The very mandate of the Habsburg Empire in Bosnia Herzegovina was to bring change. The narrative continued to be rehashed in nationalist discourses, theories of modernisation and developmentalism, and even current academic disciplinary divisions. 

As you have pointed out in ‘Alternative Muslim Modernities’, the Habsburgs did ultimately see the Muslim population as ‘the key population through which the province [Bosnia] could be ruled effectively.’ Do you think the Habsburgs would have been as openminded towards the Bosnian Muslims had they not feared Serbian expansionism?

Large Muslim presence in the province and the fact that the Muslims made up the majority of the landowning, merchant, and educated elite, in addition to the delicate position of the province as de jure Ottoman, at least until the annexation in 1908, would have made the Habsburg administrators consider the Bosnian Muslim population important in establishing their authority in the province. As much as the they were “openminded” towards the Bosnian Muslims, in comparison to other European empires with overseas colonies, or in comparison to nation-states in Southeastern Europe, Bosnia Herzegovina was still “our little Orient” for the Habsburgs. 

In the same essay, you talk about Ottoman ‘top-down’ measures for reform in Bosnia towards the end of the nineteenth century. This included an expansive printing press and the introduction of modern schools. How much of this reform should we put down to a defensive response to increasing anti-Ottoman nationalism?

Ottoman reform measures, known as Tanzimat, were implemented in Bosnia Herzegovina in the 1860s. Provincial printing press was one of the highlights, alongside roads, rail, telegraph, modern hospitals, and schools. Anti-Ottoman nationalist propaganda in the textbooks for confessional schools and the press imported to Bosnia Herzegovina, as well as in a number of missionary schools established in this period, prompted the Ottoman Governor Topal Osman Pasha to introduce comparable local sources of Ottoman influence. 

He also instituted an inter-confessional provincial assembly and an executive council. The Ottoman governor, just like Benjamin Kállay, the Habsburg Minister of Finance in charge of Bosnia some decades later, encouraged the idea of Bosnianism, seeing it as a form of regional identity that would counter the outside nationalistic propaganda threatening the province and endangering imperial rule in the Balkans. Ottomanism, as a broad response to these various alternative allegiances ultimately did not take widespread hold. Looking at the example of Bosnia – without hindsight that often comes with dismissing this period for the events that followed – we could say that the Tanzimat men were attuned to particular local challenges and worked to implement solutions tailored to the occasion. 

Leyla Amzi-Erdogdular is an Associate Professor at the Department of History of Rutgers University Newark

During your talk on the ‘Rethinking Modern Europe – Empires and Frontiers in the Balkans’ panel, you spoke about how Bosnian Muslims (like other communities in Bosnia at the time) sought ways to utilise the deliberately ambiguous status of Bosnia (as per the Treaty of Berlin) to secure rights from both the Habsburg and Ottoman empires. Is there historical evidence to suggest that the Bosnian Muslims would have initially feared their new Christian ‘rulers’? 

Historical evidence played a role in the initial Habsburg and Bosnian attitudes. By the end of the seventeenth century, the Ottomans lost lands in Hungary, Slavonia, and Dalmatia, that is, to the north and west of Bosnia. Muslims in the lands lost to the Habsburgs were expelled or forced to convert, their properties lost, and even the place names changed. Many took refuge in Bosnia.

Bosnia became the westernmost province of the Ottoman Empire and the fortified borderland to a growing Ottoman opponent – the Habsburgs. The experience left an impression on the inhabitants of Bosnia Herzegovina. They viewed further Austro-Hungarian expansion to impact them in the most detrimental way as they were the next line of defense.

The Habsburg administration after 1878 however, made inroads in assuring the Ottomans and the Bosnian population of its ‘benevolent’ intentions. Habsburg Monarchy also had what we would call today an international mandate, which made this occupation different. As mentioned, the province’s ambiguous legal situation allowed the locals to advance their interests, however narrow that latitude was. 

You remarked during the same talk that nineteenth and twentieth-century Bosnia was indicative of the long nineteenth-century dilemma: how to reconcile multicultural empires and the emerging idea of a sovereign state. If we think of today’s Balkan region, what answers to that conundrum may we find in 2021 Bosnia?

The long nineteenth-century dilemma was recognised by Christine Philliou and Alan Mikhail in their article on the Ottoman Empire and the Imperial Turn. The Habsburg Empire struggled with similar issues and came up with comparable devices in countering the shifting ideas of sovereignty and legitimacy that ended up intersecting in their shared province. Correspondingly, Southeast European nation-states formed their founding myths in opposition to imperial rule, both Ottoman and Habsburg, making reactionary nationalisms central to their identities.

When it comes to contemporary Bosnia Herzegovina: whereas the Dayton Peace Accords (1995) ended the war, it also institutionalized the outcomes of the Bosnian Genocide and created a sort of a segregated state. Historians can easily see the similarities with the ways in which the colonial powers established divide and rule sectarian politics in the Ottoman provinces – of course, not without the agency of those locals for whom such arrangements were beneficial.

Post-Dayton Bosnia Herzegovina saw the formation of new interest groups – political elites with dependent relationships perpetuating the crisis – rather than creating a democratic society and acknowledging citizens’ right to decide their own future. A truly democratic Bosnia Herzegovina in turn, is key to stability in the Western Balkans, primarily because it would end the prospect of a nationalistic scramble for Bosnia Herzegovina that began at the turn of the twentieth century. 

Politika News would like to thank Leyla for her time. A full list of her publications can be found here.

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Article Image Source: Flickr

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