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Erdogan’s Meddling in the Balkans

12:09 PM, Oct 11, 2011 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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The Kosovo government’s education minister, Rame Buja, has been occupied with defending secular education in the republic against Islamist pressure. But he promised the Turks that new educational materials would appear next year, based on the work of a research commission that went to Turkey. Kosovar Albanians, especially members of the small but vocal Catholic community, have expressed unease over the rewriting of school texts. A Catholic Kosovar, Ndue Ukaj, commented to the regional Southeast European Times, “Turkey must show greater tolerance toward Albanians, to accept the historical facts and repent for the destruction of numerous invasions. . . . The period of Ottoman history is what it is.”

The majority of Albanians accepted Islam as a faith during the Ottoman period, but were never reconciled with foreign supremacy. They began asserting their desire for national independence in the 19th century. That struggle, which turned into war against the Turks, was led by Albanian Muslims as well as Christians.

In addition, the late-period Ottomans and their successors under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk dealt abusively with the spiritual Sufi orders. The Sufis attracted considerable adherents among Albanians, and their suffering at Turkish hands has not been forgotten. When the Sufis were officially suppressed in Turkey after World War I, the powerful Bektashi order moved its headquarters to Albania, and became Albanized in its culture. Albanian Bektashis, who are dedicated to secular governance, female equality, and mass education, may account for as many as a quarter of all Albanians in the world, or at least three million people.

Since 2002, one of the most important Sufi monuments in Europe, the Harabati Baba Bektashi shrine complex in Tetovo, a city in Western Macedonia, has been under siege by Arab-financed Wahhabi radicals. Tetovo has an Albanian majority alongside Turkish-speaking and Slavic residents. The extensive attacks on the Harabati Baba Bektashis have been noted by the State Department and culminated in an arson attempt last December. But the rest of the world has paid little attention to a confrontation in such a little-known place.

During his recent visit to Macedonia, however, Erdogan made a point of going to Tetovo and offering Muslim prayers at the Harabati Baba shrine. According to Bektashi Sufi leader Baba Edmond Brahimaj, interviewed by Albanian-American media, Erdogan’s appearance was preceded by more Wahhabi vandalism at the site.

The Harabati Baba shrine, although once an Ottoman institution, is not a mosque, although the Wahhabis who have occupied it claim to have installed one there. Bektashi devotions do not include regular Muslim prayer, even though, paradoxically, the Bektashi order was long a pillar of the Ottoman state. A Sufi who remains at the diminishing property to care for it, Dervish Abdylmytalip Beqiri, remonstrated with Erdogan and his group, pointing out that there was no mosque at the site where they could pray. Tetovo includes numerous Sunni mosques, mostly from the Ottoman period, and some of them are distinguished architecturally.

So Erdogan prayed in the meydan, or open square in the middle of the Harabati Baba shrine, surrounded by buildings usurped and damaged by fundamentalist fanatics. To the Bektashis, Catholics, and other Albanians critical of the Turkish historical legacy, visits by Erdogan and his ministers, in which they advocate editing of textbooks and appear to approve of the destruction of symbols of heterodox identity, embody the same cultural devastation that Albanians, Muslim as well as Christian, equate with the Turkish onslaught of the past.

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