The Problems of Balkan Muslims: A General Evaluation
By Adnan İsmailî, Skopje
The Balkan peninsula is a frontier zone extending between Europe and Asia which faces North Africa from its sea borders. That region is comprised of the following countries; Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia. The last seven countries were the members of Federal Republic of Yugoslavia which was disintegrated in 1990s.
With collapse of communism and the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the Balkan Muslims were faced with new problems. We know that almost 200,000 Muslims were murdered in Bosnia and tens of thousands of them were slaughtered in Kosovo. Particularly, the murder of 6000 Muslims in Srebrenitsa within just a few days in 1995 became the seal of the oppression and massacres that the Balkan Muslims experienced.
In spite of these massacres, which took place in a period when the concept of civilization and culture was high in the world, the Muslims continued to exist in the Balkans. The Muslims are still a majority in Federal Bosnia Herzegovina. They are indisputably a minority in Croatia and Slovenia. They are in quite a weak position of minority in Serbia (Sancak and Preşova Valley) and in Montenegro. Muslims are an absolute majority in Kosovo and in Macedonia, almost half of the population is comprised of Muslims.
Although the statistics show Muslims as a majority in Albania that fact has been changing swiftly. Muslims are a minority in Bulgaria and Greece.
Thus according to the statistics, 17 million Muslims live in the Balkans (excluding Turkish soil, the total Balkan population is 50 million). This fact shows that Islam is the second largest religion in the Balkans following Christianity.
The Balkans – The Status Quo and the Problems
The Balkans is being rehabilitated, at least politically, after the wars and the transition period. Some Balkan countries, such as Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Greece, are the members of the EU. Croatia is taking the last steps for membership. Negotiations for membership will be launched for Serbia, Montenegro and Albania. Because of the political instability in Bosnia Herzegovina; the problems regarding the political recognition of Kosovo, and Macedonia’s naming problems with Greece, these countries continue to have troubles regarding membersip of the EU. Except for Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Macedonia and Kosovo, all Balkan countries are NATO members.
In spite of these political achievements, the social situation in the Balkans is not clean-cut. The economic crisis which finally affected Italy and shocked Europe could easily devastate the region. Particularly Albania, which has a great amount of Italian and Greek investment, could be seriously damaged. Besides which, almost five hundred thousand Albanian immigrants are working in Italy and Greece.
Although great steps have been taken for integration into and development of contemporary civilizational values, there are still obstacles to development in the Balkans.
Bosnia Herzegovina is a good example, indicating that the Balkan region has not yet drawn lessons from history. This country received the greatest amount of damage during the wars in the 1990s, but today it has still political instability. It has a Serbian republic on the one hand, and a federal structure which was established by Bosniaks and Croatians on the other hand. The fact that the political system is dependent on Serbia and Croatia and that economic development is weak, has made Bosnia the blind node of the Balkans. Euro-Atlantic connections and economic investments move slowly and that situation keeps the idea of disintegration of the republic alive, since the pains of the war are still fresh. The Serbs in Bosnia still put forward their demands to integrate with Serbia. The only reason that this demand has not yet come about is the involvement of the international powers. However, in the long term, if the influence of China and Russia becomes stronger, and the balance of power shifts at the expense of the Western bloc, then the disentegration of Bosnia will be inevitable.
Thus, the influence of Turkey, which is an ally of the US and a member of NATO, is very important for sustaining Bosnia. Bosnia’s membership of NATO and the EU needs to be supported, and only in this way can the country’s integrity be protected.
What discriminates positively in the case of Bosnia is its religious situation, since that region constitutes the border of native Muslims with Europe. Historically, Bosnia has a strong Islamic theology tradition. The Gazi Husrev Bey Madrasa and the Faculty of Sarajevo Islamic Disciplines have played a great role in establishing an authentic Islamic tradition. Naturally the war and post-war problems brought new problems, and due to some religous groups a radical image was made up and attributed to Bosnia. The truth is that Bosnia is one of the centers of Balkan Muslims with a large intellectual capacity which will carry the banner of Islam in Europe. However, it needs new investments in areas such as culture, economy and science.
Kosovo, which shared the same tragedy as Bosnia, has also not been able to heal its wounds of war. However Kosovo has been recognized by 80 countries of the world since it declared its independence in 2008. It has never been a member of any international body. Its political stability is also dependent on international powers, the USA being the most influential. However, the probability of disintegration is rising day by day. The fact that the Serbs who live in north of Kosovo desire separation from Kosovo poses a particular problem.
The cultural, religious and academic situation in Kosovo is interesting. Pristina University, which was established in 1970s, has been active since then. Though they were successful in terms of education, due to the communist regime at that time, an atheistic and irreligious generation was raised, which was unaware of history and Islamic culture. Recently, the Turkish Education Ministry has demanded that the expressions slandering the Ottomans be removed from school textbooks. This demand was met with harsh reactions and in some places xenophobic reactions were witnessed. This issue of slander and the reaction to attempts to reintegrate religious education into the educational system show the urgent need for more intellectual activities and reforms in the country. Educational reforms and cultural projects, especially the restoration of the madrasas in Pristina and the other cities, and the development of the Faculty of Islamic Disciplines will strengthen the Islamic potentiality in Kosovo. New investments are needed both for the media and other aspects of social life, the Kosovo Religious Directorate being in particular need of investment. After the 1999 wars, many liberal or Christian learning institutions were founded. These institutions are working to develop a culture other than the Islamic tradition of the society.
All the heritage remaining from Yugoslavia now belongs to Serbia. In spite of all the wars and transitional problems, Serbia is now becoming the most significant country in the Balkans. The EU is trying to give Serbia membership in any way possible, in order to isolate it from the influence of Russia or the Eastern bloc. Yet this situation is damaging for Muslim Bosniaks and Albanians living in the counry. The Muslims in Sancak and the Presova Valley are not included in the negotiations, which has increasingly led to them leaving the area, especially the Presova region. In the last twenty years, eleven villages have been completely abandoned.
We also need to mention the cultural problems of Muslims in Sancak with regard to Serbia. Although Serbia is pointing out the ‘international terrorism’ in this region, the real problem is different. There are two religious directorate authorities functioning simultanuously; one is run by Muamar Ef. Zukorliç, who is spiritually loyal to Bosnia, and the other is the Religious Diroctorate presided over by Adem Zilkiç, who is recognized formally by the Serbian state authority. That kind of a division also exists in Presova Valley. In Presova, two religious authorities, one loyal to Pristina and the other to Belgrade, are functioning. Religious education is provided in schools in Serbia, but only the personnel recognized by the state are allowed to provide this education. In line with this situation, Turkey has a responsibility to make possible the unity of Serbian Muslims. Unfortunately, although the Turkish authorities visited Sancak a few times, they never went to Presova. This situation caused a reaction among Albanians in there. Due to all these tensions, an integration beyond states needs to be established to bring about unity in this region.
I believe that establishing Balkan Islamic Unity will push all these feuds and divisions aside, and it will provide more opportunities for Balkan Muslims, particularly for those Muslims who are in a minority position in the area, for whom this kind of unity has major importance. For now, cultural, educational, scientific and media initiatives can be supported and encouraged, which are at present only operating at basic levels .
As a country bordering the sea, the separation of Montenegro from Yugoslavia was peaceful, and that made it a significant country which is taking steps towards development. The country has become a member of NATO and it progressed a considerable distance towards EU membership. Its population is lower than one million, and since it does not have any outstanding political problems, it will have access to the EU before Albania and Serbia. Regarding religion and culture, seventy per cent of Montenegro’s population is made up of Slavic orthodoxies. Muslims make up 25 per cent of the population, most of whom are Bosniaks, with some Albanians. Montenegro Muslims do not have serious problems regarding practising their beliefs. However, since they are a minority, they need the support of their brethren in other countries. A Balkan Islamic Integration would provide them with many benefits and a sense of being part of a greater whole.. An example of the support needed is the madrasa restoration programme sponsored by the TIKA (the Presidency of the Turkish Collaboration and Coordination Agency) which is an important step – more such works are clearly needed.
As a member of the EU and NATO, Greece has some problems in a variety of areas. Politically, it is not able to form a positive power in the Balkans. Though Greece denies the crimes that they perpetrated against Albanians in Chameria and Turks in West Trachia, these crimes are well known in world public opinion. Greece is at the brink of bankruptcy economically and it has endangered the EU and the Euro zone. That economic deterioration may affect also Albania. The grandsons of Socrates are not acting according to their grandfather’s ethics, and they continue suppressing Turks in West Trachia and making trouble by manipulating Orthodoxies in Albania. They completely assimilated seven hundred thousand Albanians living in the Chameria area of Greece, and they are imposing these assimilation policies on immigrant Albanians and spreading these policies into the south of Albania.
This negative situation shows that there are precautions that Turkey may have to take. As a protector of Muslims in the Balkans, Turkey needs to support the Muslim minority and their religious, educational and cultural projects in Greece.
As an inheritor of communist culture, Bulgaria is a member of the EU and NATO and it has a tradition of suppressing its Muslim population. Bulgaria has never respected the rights of the Muslim Turks and Pomaks living there. Turkey’s help, and especially the help of the Religious Directorate, means a lot to the Muslims of this country. Although EU values are an opportunity and advantage for integration into the EU, their aim is to assimilate Muslims culturally.
Macedonia, which came about from of the disintegration of Yugoslavia, still has problems in becoming a state. With regard to its southern region, it has naming problems with Greece. That is a real problem for the integration of Macedonia into the EU. The country has problems with Serbia, which does not recognize its church, and with Greece, which does not recognize its language and history. However, the country is trying to form its own Macedonian identity with sculptures and monuments projects amounting to two hundred million euros. We need to stress that these projects include only Macedonian and Christian historical pieces.
These problems have caused stagnation in Macedonia, foreign investment is low, and there is little tolerance between religious and ethnic groups. This year a population census, which was going to determine the religious position of the Macedonian population, failed. However, according to some estimations, the Muslim population is above 40 per cent. Muslims are comprised mostly of Albanians, Turks, Bosniaks and Romani people. Yet because crosses are put on top of the clock towers; mosques are demolished and new ones are not allowed to be constructed, and the estates of the Macedonia Religious Directorate have not been returned to them, there is serious cultural erosion and it is obvious that support from outside is needed. These support projects may be realized through the Macedonian Religious Affairs Directorate, madrasas, the Faculty of Islamic Disciplines, and through scientific and cultural activities, publications and the media.
Albania has experienced the most vehement communist regime atrocities and today it has an independent stance. However, political disintegration, economical instability, and cultural, religious and moral discord have made this country important for Albanians who live in Kosovo, Macedonia and Chamrea (Greece). Though Albania is a member of NATO, it does not play a strategic role in the geo-politic position of the Balkans.
Due to the economic investment of Greece and Italy in Albania, and immigration from Albania to those countries, their influence on Albania is obvious. This influence may be seen not only in the support for pro-Greece and pro-Italian political and economic groups, but also it may be seen in educational, cultural and religious subjects in Albania. Those who pay a visit to Tirana, which was established by Muslim beys, will see a large Catholic cathedral and an Orthodox church. Yet as survivors of the communist era suppression, only the Ethem Bey mosque and other smaller ones bear witness to the fact that there are Muslims on this soil, but they cannot reflect the fact that until recent times, this soil was one hundred per cent Muslim. The requests of the Muslims to build new mosques, or for the return of Ottoman Waqfiya (endowments) to them are recklessly declined by the Tirana authorities. Regarding the returning of the estates of the Waqfiya (endowments), we think that it would be appropriate to establish a center based in Turkey to inspect the legal aspect of the matter and observe the procedure. In this situation, support may be provided through the means of lobbying groups in the Balkans, particularly Albania, or by establishing a center which will engage with Ottoman waqfiya (endowments), record them, to put pressure on the authorities to return them and to follow the legal prosecution in local and international courts. Some groups do speak out about the returning of Ottoman waqfiya, which were largely privatized in the 1990s, and this situation maintains its urgency in Albania as an important issue. In fact, this crime that Albania has committed against its Muslim population has today endangered the religious balance in Albania.
A newly completed population census showed that the image of a Muslim Albania has been totally demolished. Now everybody is sure that the number of Muslims is not much greater than that of the Orthodoxes and the Catholics, since Baktashis are considered a different religious group, out of Islam. Over the next hundred years, the demographic distribution of Albania will largely change. Hypothetically, if Turkey or any other Muslim country had acted carefully during Albania’s transition period, and had helped them actively in education, media and cultural projects, we would have been faced with a different picture today.
Albania has been considered so far a country with a seventy per cent Muslim population, but as a result of activities that Greece has conducted through Yanulatos, the high priest of the Albanian Orthodox Church, Albanians living in the south have been declared not only as Orthodox but also as Greeks. Madrasas have been shut down in Korça and Girokastra. The opening of a large number of Greek schools and investments in the south, which aimed to raise the number of people who could be declared Orthodox and Greek, has also had a great effect. When the unseen and inefficient nature of the Albanian Muslim community is added to these facts, the situation takes on a dramatic appearance. That community has not yet established an Islamic style of life in the mosques, and with some muftis following the interests of particular groups of Muslims, they are far from a stable Albanian Muslim awareness. All these negative points cause this community to be an insignificant part of the social life of Albania.
The Muslim countries mentioned above are in great need of the support of other Muslim countries, especially that of Turkey, but it is particularly Albania that should be the main target of any projects. Civil organizations may hold meetings in Albania. Scientific conferences in which the Albanian identity may be discussed can be organized. This year (2012) is the 100th anniversary of the withdrawal of the Ottomans from the Balkans and this may be a good occasion for negotiating ideas on different aspects of social life in Albania.
Albania needs investments today in every field. Economically, Greek and Italian capital needs be balanced in the shortest possible time by Muslim investment, both local and from outside the country, in order to reduce the influence from these two countries. In education, Turkey should not be content with colleges. Although these colleges give a good image and provide a successful service, they are not able to undertake the responsibility of embracing all Albanian Muslims together. Unless Turkey makes a greater contribution on religious issues, and organizes powerful madrasa organizations in all the cities, it will just be a dream to expect that college initiatives will handle all the issues. Albania is almost the only country in which Turkish colleges engage both with educational and religious organizations, and the Muslim Albanian community has been overlooked in this process. If this community had been included by the Turkish Religious Directorate, today the result would have been quite different in terms of religious-demographic indications. This situation shows the urgency of the need for support in opening madrasas and eligible schools in lots of the cities of Albania. The Turkish Religious Directorate needs to contribute to the University of Islam, so that it becomes a center of Islamic theology in Albania. We also need to mention and remind people of the Tirana, Durs and Iskodra madrasas. These madrasas have played important role in Albania, but they are inadequate.
In terms of education, Turkey should prepare special educational programs for Albanian youths to be educated in Turkey. Within the framework of a five-year program, 100-200 high school students should attend Imam Hatib schools, and 100 students should attend theology faculties of universities in Turkey. In that way, the cultural damage in Albania may be compensated for a little. The other Albanian people scattered accross the Balkans are dependent on Albania. Unless Albania is able to survive, the Albanians living out of Albania will lose hope. It is an advantage for Albania to have a potential intellectual capacity for establishing educational, cultural and media institutions. The support of some institutions of Turkey, which feel less acknwledged on these soils, is also important.
We have to stress that the Civil organizations prone to Christianity, whether Orthodox or Catholic, have succeeded in establishing an image with their cultural projects and publications which suggests that the Albanian culture and prominent Albaninan figures are Christian, though most prominent writers are Muslim, the founder of the Albanian state is a Muslim and Prizen Union has been established in a mosque and has been headed by a Muslim scholar. But these facts should be reflected into Albanian public opinion through books, seminars and conferences. Turkey should evaluate the idea of supporting the Albanian Religious Affairs Directorate, Alsar and Ardhmëria which could carry out these kinds of activities to enlighten the Albanian society.
Regarding the TIKA (Presidency of Turkish Collaboration and Coordination Agency), it has been a USAID for Albanian people. The TIKA has been active in all investment fields. It is necessary to quickly spread these investments and initiatives more widely. Turkey has achieved this opening not only in order to establish a good image, which is really necessary in the Albanian case, but also to undertake the real responsibility. Of course, it cannot be imagined that the Turkish authorities visiting Bosnia and Sancak a couple of times, but relatively overlooking Albania, could have been deliberate.
Another way of conducting activities in Albania is through the media. There are media outlets which were established by pro-Christian and pro-Jewish liberal foundations like ‘Soros’, and these are competing with the most powerful media organizations of Europe and they are in the service of Greek and Italian lobbies. In other words, they are fighting for the wiping out of the Ottoman-Islamic cultural heredity in the region. Thus, the foundation of a media institution, particularly a TV channel, would serve our lofty ideal of preserving this heritage, and this is the primary and most important step that we need to take in Albania. Considering that such a TV channel would also be viewed attentively by the Albanians living in Kosovo, Macedonia and other countries, a total of 7 million Muslim Albanians, we could say that this is the most signigicant initiative that we need to launch in Albania.
The other indispensable projects that need to be launched in Albania are scientific, artistic and publishing projects. Another point regarding religion is the integration of the Baktashi path with Sunnism, because these two paths are encouraged to separate from each other and to be declared as different religious groups, and by this means the number of Muslims in Albania has been reduced to half. There is an understanding of the Baktashi way which is unrelated to real sufism in Albania.
Generally some initiatives have been launched in the other countries of the Balkans. Now, our target should be Albania, because what in question here is to save the Muslim identity and lay the ground for a successful future.
In the light of the facts that we have mentioned above, we must conclude that in order to protect and strengthen Muslim identity in the Balkan region some real investment is needed. Regarding the projects that need to be initiated, especially in Albania, the Balkan countries could send a hundred students a year to the Imam Hatib schools, and fifty students to theology faculties of universities; also the madrasas, faculties of Islamic disciplines and religious organizations need to be strengthened. In addition to these projects, economic investment, political support, media and cultural projects are also much needed.
In conclusion, I would like to remind the reader that the Muslims lived in Spain for eight hundred years. When the Christian armies attacked al-Andalus, they demanded support from the caliph. Dozens of letters were written and sent for that purpose and they are well known to all those who are interested in the history of the Andalusian Muslims. Yet, since Muslims were in the process of disintegration and in a kind of civil war, they overlooked the ejection of Muslims from Spain and their assimilation. It is tragic that after eight long centuries of Muslim civilization, there is not a remarkable Muslim community in Spain.
Finally, I hope this will be a warning of the critical situation of the Muslims in the Balkans today, and that it will contribute to the development of an effective Muslim response to their situation.
*This article was previously submitted in a meeting organized by UNIW in Istanbul.