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Arabs, Iranians, and Turks vs. Balkan Muslims

4:04 PM, May 11, 2012 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Like the Iranians, Erdogan’s agents play the Sufi card in the Balkans, stressing, accurately enough, the impact of Turkish spirituality on local Islam. Conflict between Arab and Turkish Islamist missionaries has erupted in Albania. As described by Gjergj Erebara of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), a pro-Turkish faction has expelled the imam, Lulzim Plloci, and Friday preacher, Ferid Piku, from the mosque of the Tirana Madrassah, in Albania’s capital. The clerics’ Arab-style idiom and habits, including affecting “Islamic” robes and growing untrimmed beards, had become, it seems, unacceptable. Turkophile religious leaders, who prefer Western suits and neat mustaches, have seized the Muslim Community of Albania (MCA), the official clerical network. The Arab-subsidized faction has split from the MCA to form a “League of Albanian Imams.”

The Turkish Islamists may have been too successful in their romance with the Albanian political and religious elite. In April, Albanian prime minister Sali Berisha, representing the secularist and conservative Democratic party, visited Ankara and was quoted widely declaring that Albanians and Turks are “blood brothers.” But Berisha was compelled to correct the overeager impression conveyed by such posturing. The Albanian claimed that Erdogan, not he, had uttered the phrase “blood brothers,” and Berisha stipulated that the two peoples enjoy “brotherly relations,” but are not of the same blood. The Albanian prime minister said he had encountered no Turkish officials who claimed Albanian descent. Turkish citizens include, nevertheless, about a million people of Albanian origin, in a population of 80 million.

The Turkish campaign for closer ties with Albania has been troubled by the related resentment of AKP politicians at the portrayal of Turkish rule in the Balkans in Bosnian and Albanian history textbooks. Albanians served the Ottomans, most of the time, until the rise of the Young Turks in the early 20th century and the new rulers’ demand that all citizens of the empire be considered beneficiaries of equality “as Turks”—a conceit carried on by the secularist successors to the sultans as well as the AKP today. This “progressive” concept of “national unity” stirred resentment among the Macedonian Slavs and the Armenians, leading to Turkish massacres of the latter population during the first world war and a continuing debate over whether Turkish policy toward Armenians represented a deliberate attempt at genocide.

In 1912, Kosovar Albanians rebelled against Turkish domination, demanding schools in their own language among other concessions recognizing their nationality. The rebels liberated Kosovo, much of Albania, and the Albanian regions of Macedonia, proclaiming Albanian independence from Turkey. The new state was recognized by a conference in London in 1913 but with Kosovo, western Macedonia, and Albanian-speaking areas of Montenegro and today’s Northern Greece amputated. Few Albanians are ignorant of this history.

Turkish advances toward today’s Albanians and other Balkan Muslim folk extend to the Balkan diaspora communities in Western Europe and the United States. In recent interviews with Albanian Sufis in Detroit, I was told that pro-AKP Turkish Islamists have showered attention and money on Balkan Muslims in America, hoping to indoctrinate the Bosnians and Albanians in the glories of the coming Ottoman revival. Arben Sulejmani, a representative of the powerful Bektashi Sufi order—with three million adherents among about 10 million Albanians worldwide—asserted repeatedly that the Bektashi community has been exclusively Albanian since the suppression of Sufism in secularist Turkey in 1925. Then the Bektashis moved their headquarters from Turkey to Tirana, the Albanian capital. Sulejmani expressed an eloquent rejection of growing attempts by Western academics and “New Age Sufis” to support a “re-Turkification” of the Bektashis.

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