The Harabati Baba Teqe in Tetova Under Wahhabi Attack
My paper is not an academic study. It is a commentary on an urgent problem, and is brief.
A renewed struggle is taking place in the Balkans, between the traditional and moderate Islam established there and infiltrators sponsored by the Wahhabi movement. Controversies, arrests, and even physical clashes have taken place in Bosnia-Hercegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, South Serbia, Kosova, and Albania. Although it has received little regional or international attention, the most significant such collision during the past decade has taken place at the Harabati Baba Bektashi Teqe in Tetova, Western Macedonia.
The Harabati Baba Teqe is one of the three most important outposts of the Bektashis outside Albania, the other two being the Bektashi teqe of Gjakova, Kosova, and the First Bektashi Teqe in America, located in Taylor, Michigan, USA. The Harabati Baba Teqe is a major landmark in Tetova, and an image of it appears on the municipal seal. The teqe was founded in 1538 under the inspiration of a prominent Bektashi figure, Sersem Ali Dede.[i] Baba Rexheb Beqiri, in his encyclopedic work The Mysticism of Islam and Bektashism, describes Sersem Ali Dede as a former vizir of Sultan Suleyman Kanuni, who reigned from 1520 to 1566, and notes the proximity in time of Sersem Ali Dede to Ballem Sultan, the "reformer" of the Bektashis.[ii] The Teqe was rebuilt in the 18th century thanks to a donation by the local Ottoman official Koxha Rexhep Pasha. From that time forward the Harabati Baba Teqe served as a major center of Bektashism, even as the Bektashis became, and remain, a uniquely active, if not the most influential, Sufi tariqat in the Balkans. The Harabati Baba Teqe educated many Bektashi clerics and founded a library available to the whole community of Tetova. Baba Qazim Bakalli led the Harabati Baba Teqe during the second world war, but with its closure by the Titoite authorities after the conflict, and some experience with persecution in Albania and Yugoslavia, he became baba in Gjakova.[iii]
The Harabati complex of buildings, which is the largest Sufi institution in the former Yugoslav territories, is extremely impressive, and the teqe was intended to benefit from a major landholding bestowed on it by a waqf. Under Titoism, it was nationalized and turned into a hotel and entertainment complex. Since the breakup of Yugoslavia and establishment of Macedonian independence in 1991, the Macedonian government has failed to satisfy demands for its complete, legal restitution to its original owners, although the late Bektashi baba Tahir Emini (1941-2006) and others reoccupied it after a 10-day hunger strike in August 2000, in the "Winter House" ("Shtëpia Dimërore"), attached to the tyrbe of Harabati Baba, for whom the teqe is named.
According to an anonymous account released by American friends of the Bektashis on September 16, 2006[iv], Wahhabi aggression against the Harabati Baba Teqe began on August 15, 2002, a little more than a year after the NATO imposition of a truce that ended Slav-Albanian ethnic fighting in Macedonia. A group of interlopers armed with automatic rifles and handguns seized a section of the teqe, claiming that they were "recovering" the structure for use as a mosque and for regular Muslim prayer. As a Bektashi installation, in which regular prayer would not be held, the teqe had never, at any time, included a mosque. This usurpation was carried out with the apparent approval of the Sunni religious authorities, i.e. the official Islamic Community of Macedonia. In its report on international religious freedom issued in 2006, the U.S. State Department described the armed Wahhabis who invaded the Harabati Baba Teqe as representing the Islamic Community of Macedonia.[v] It should be noted that the good relations between the Sunni establishment and the Bektashi community that exist in Albania are absent in Macedonia and limited to local contacts in Kosova.
The first action of the invaders was to transform the "Kubeli Meydan," which has a chimney and sits next to a street entrance, by placing loudspeakers on it for the adhan or call to prayer. The adhan is currently delivered from the loudspeakers at a notably high volume. In April 2006, a large photograph of Hajji Dedebaba Reshat Bardhi, world supreme head (kryëgjysh) of the Bektashi Community, displayed at the entrance to the compound, was stolen. The picture was replaced and, a month later was vandalized; the middle of the photograph was cut out.[vi]
From 2002 on, as I have more recently observed,[vii] the Wahhabi takeover has continued, building by building, in the complex. The extremists settled in the former "Mihman Evi" or guest house and, according to some reports, commenced harassing visitors. They are a presence in the complex that cannot be ignored. In mid-2009, at the time of my last visit, they filled it at prayer times so that their adherents, who appeared to be vagabonds, flocked under the windows of the "Winter House." But I have not, in repeated visits, been approached by them. Still, the former guesthouse from which they operate is now maintained as a typical Balkan café, although presumably without alcoholic drinks, in which the Wahhabis occupy themselves when not conducting prayer, watching television.
The Wahhabi transformation of the complex next involved capture of the former "Summer Kiosk" ("Qoshku Veror") in the complex, the covering of its windows with black material, and the proclamation that it would now function as a women's mosque. They also cut down some ancient trees on the property. By 2008, the remaining Bektashi devotees in the teqe complained that crowds of Wahhabis adherents were actively obstructing the entry of visitors. The Wahhabis had by then occupied the majority of structures in the teqe, so that the besieged caretakers of the site were limited to the "Winter House." In the first week of March, 2008, the Wahhabis began discharging firearms at night on the teqe property in an obvious and lawless attempt to intimidate the Bektashis.[viii] In addition, a certain Bexhehudin Shuhabi, described as an individual close to the Islamic Community of Macedonia, had reportedly applied for a permit to the Macedonian Culture Ministry's Section for Protection of Cultural Monuments, to construct a mosque inside the complex. Shuhabi was allegedly financed in this effort by Islamist foundations in Turkey.[ix]
On May 4, 2008, an Albanian-speaking crowd attacked the "Winter House," which remains under Bektashi control, stealing the cashbox, tearing down the Bektashi banner, and committing other violent depredations, including vandalism of the tyrbe of Harabati Baba. Dervish Abdylmutalib Beqiri, who administers the complex when the current Baba Edmond Brahimaj is away, was alone in the building when the attack occurred. Baba Mondi, as he is known, was travelling in Western Europe when the incident took place. Dervish Abdylmutalib said that the attackers had never before been seen on the grounds of the teqe. Money in the cashbox was typically donated in memory of Baba Harabati, and while the funds had previously been stolen, in the May 2008 attack the cashbox itself was taken. Dervish Abdylmutalib said he believed the aggressors had been waiting for him to go out of the tyrbe, in the direction opposite the street, before their action.[x]
In the face of this sustained campaign, the Bektashis of Tetova have appealed to the Macedonian government, to opposition politicians, to foreign diplomats, and to others for help, without avail. The Macedonian authorities consistently argued that since property titles throughout the republic have not been clarified in the aftermath of Yugoslav Communism, the controversy could not be quickly resolved. The Macedonian government has also refused to recognize the Bektashis as a separate religious community, notwithstanding repeated appeals since 1993. Macedonian representatives claim that only one institution, the Islamic Community of Macedonia, can represent Islam, because under the country's law, each of the broader religious communities – Christian Orthodox, Muslim, Catholic, Jewish – must have a single, registered representative. Yet other Sufis in Macedonia, as in Kosova and Albania, including Rifa'is, Halvetis, Sadis, Kadiris, and Naqshbandis, maintain a distinct body known as the Islamic Dervish Religious Community, which is separate from the Sunni institutions.
The Slav Macedonian authorities appear eager to sow discord in the large Albanian community within its borders. Their benevolent policy toward Wahhabism parallels a similar one in south Serbia. There is an irony in this, because the Macedonian Orthodox Church, representing most of the country's Christians, has not succeeded in gaining affirmation of its autocephaly from the Serbian Orthodox Church. Both the Bektashis and the Macedonian Orthodox, representing old and established local spiritual traditions, are contesting foreign interference – that of Arab-backed Wahhabis in the first case, and of Serbs in the second. Yet according to Bektashi sources that request anonymity, the Macedonian regime insists on seeing the Bektashi issue in exactly reverse, and incorrect, terms. That is, for Slav Macedonian leaders, both the Macedonian Orthodox Church and the official Islamic Community are threatened by troublesome minorities – Serbs in the first instance and the Bektashis in the second. Yet the paradigm is not one of numbers, or of bureaucratic symmetry, but of injustice: the Serbs and the Islamic Community continue their successful usurpation, while the Macedonian Orthodox and the Bektashis remain victims, deprived of their legacies.
The question has been posed: why are the Wahhabis so intent on capturing the Harabati Baba Teqe? It has been noted that Tetova has 25 mosques, with 12 in the central city area near the teqe. Some perceive a desire to exploit the teqe's resources, and especially the land contained in its waqf.
But the Wahhabis are also motivated, as should be obvious to anybody, by ideological enmity. First, the Bektashis represent a liberal trend among the Shias, and Wahhabis loathe Shias even more than they hate Jews and Christians. (Based on the writings of Baba Rexheb, and my own observation, I consider the alignment of the Bektashis with Shiism beyond argument. It is not coincidental that the remaining Bektashis in the Harabati Baba Teqe refer to the aggressors against them as "Yezid.") Second, the Bektashis are known to consume intoxicants. And third, men and women are equals in Bektashi rituals. Several Bektashi babas have insisted to me that they are the "most progressive" element in global Islam, and they support that statement up with a long, proven, and fervent commitment to secular governance and popular education. Bektashis are also now being publicized for their role as "righteous Gentiles" saving Jews during the second world war.[xi] While some Bektashis seem to believe the community must inevitably break with the rest of the Muslims, others insist that they should remain within the Islamic ummah.
The Albanian lands are witnessing three of the tactics commonly employed by Arab-financed radicals seeking to export bloody terror. In Kosovo, they mainly burrow deep undercover, although they have recently engaged in aggressive acts toward their critics in Islamic institutions. Where they can, as in Albania, they preach and recruit. And where government is indifferent and the extremists' chosen enemies appear vulnerable, as in Macedonia, they invade, occupy, and threaten. They maintain extensive publishing enterprises in both the latter countries.
In long discussions with the Bektashis in Tetova, I was repeatedly assured of their willingness to assist the democratic nations in defeating Islamist radicalism in any way they can. "We want to help, but we need help," said Baba Mondi Brahimaj as he sketched out for me a network of extremist agitation in the region – from revived centers of Sunni radicalism in Turkey to cells hidden unobtrusively in places like Peshkopia, in eastern Albania, to Tetova. Although the Bektashis of Tetova have many humble supporters, few are prepared to disrupt their own lives by taking on the Wahhabis. Thus the export of the Arab-financed jihad continues unhampered.
The Wahhabi conspirators have recognized something that most commentators choose to ignore: the significance of the Balkans as the crossroads of European Christianity and indigenous European Islam. But the radicals also comprehend that the diversion of Western European and American attention away from the Balkans provides extremists with a new area for activity. When Serb and other demagogues proclaimed that the independence of Bosnia-Hercegovina represented the penetration of Europe by the so-called "green transversal," and repeated such claims during the Kosova liberation war, their blandishments were absurd. Bosnians and Kosovars were fighting for their national and cultural dignity and survival, not for radical Islam. But the consistent denigration by Western leaders of Balkan Islam, including the Bektashi tradition, as a marginal phenomenon, less important than Arab Islam in the development of the ummah and the relations of the latter with the West, has had unfortunate consequences. The radicals see an open field for activity, but moderate Muslims in the region also fear, with considerable reason, that they will be abandoned as irrelevant.
Bektashis have few friends. While they may join Turkish Alevis in pilgrimages to the town of Hacibektaş in Turkey, few of the hundreds of thousands of Alevis living in Germany and other Western European countries express interest in saving the Harabati Baba Teqe from a Wahhabi misappropriation. Bektashis fought with distinction in the Kosova Liberation Army, but the security of Kosova depends on non-interference with the new republic's Macedonian neighbor. Thus, the situation at the Harabati Baba Teqe attracts almost no mention in Kosovar media. Macedonian Albanian leaders who have opposed Wahhabi penetration of the country have been threatened, or otherwise silenced by the claim that Albanians in the country must not be divided, i.e. that the official Islamic Community must retain its authority, no matter the price. The authorities in Albania have also ignored the problem in Tetova.
Internationally, the situation appears equally negative for the Bektashis of Tetova. The minor attention granted by the U.S. State Department in 2006 was followed in 2007 by publication of a report by The RAND Corporation's Center for Middle East Public Policy, titled Building Moderate Muslim Networks.[xii] Composed by a team led by Dr. Angel Rabasa, the document mapped out a strategy for the democratic nations to identify and enlist, as allies in the defense of civilization, adherents to a peaceful vision of Islam as a normal religion. "RAND Muslims" had already become a term of obloquy directed against moderates.[xiii] The RAND report specifically noted the importance of the Harabati Baba Teqe and the siege mounted against it by Wahhabis. But what policy decisions reflected the impact of the RAND document? Finally, none, and Western leaders now seem satisfied to echo the new U.S. posture that promotes dialogue with radicals as a solution to the threat of a "clash of civilizations."
The Bektashi community represents a precious resource for the development of pluralistic Islam both globally and in Europe. Aside from comprising the only indigenous Shia tradition in Europe, it is not merely a curiosity, or a remnant of Ottoman domination.
Sayyid Qutb, the author most prominently identified with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and with contemporary jihadism, went to the United States between 1948 and 1951, and made a study of educational curricula, sponsored by the Egyptian Ministry of Education. Qutb was horrified by America's lack of prudery and its manifest materialism. In the same period, Baba Rexheb Beqiri fled to America to escape the Albanian Communists and found the country a haven of religious liberty.[xiv]
Baba Rexheb established the First Bektashi Teqe in America, in Taylor, Michigan, in 1954, and 30 years later published a rare but important book in English, The Mysticism of Islam and Bektashism. With the founding of the Teqe in Taylor, he tried to explain Sufism to Americans in an idiom never previously articulated on their shores. Launching a small Albanian- and English-language periodical that saw only four issues, Zëri Bektashizmës (Voice of Bektashism), he wrote in a Shia vein about the martyrdom of Imam Husayn. Baba Rexheb declared that the grandson of Muhammad was persecuted and slain because he defended a constitutional attitude toward religious rule, liberty, and the welfare of the people. Imam Husayn, according to Baba Rexheb, "kept alive the flag of liberty, the prestige of religious democracy." The people rebelled against the injustices of their rulers, and Imam Husayn joined them in their protest, but the evil Yezid, who had usurped authority, replied with "terroristic actions."[xv]
This anticipation by an Albanian Bektashi exile in America of the key questions in the relations between Islam and the West a half-century afterward is more than remarkable. The principle of "religious democracy" – meaning democracy within religion, not a democracy ruled by a religion – comprises a great challenge to Shariah-driven conformity in Islam, and the description of Muslim tyrants maintaining their position by terror could be taken from the pages of any media outlet in the world today. But because his activity was limited to the Albanian-speaking community in America, Baba Rexheb remains almost unknown to the world, and because the Harabati Baba Teqe in Tetova is obscure in the calculations of the leading nations, its fate seems destined to remain largely unknown. And yet, the struggle of the Bektashis in Tetova, to preserve their rightful legacy, is analogous with the disaffection of the Iranian masses, outraged by the denial of their rights by the Ahmadinejad regime, even if in one place the agents of tyranny are Sunni, and in the other they are Shia.
What should be done to protect the Bektashis of the Harabati Baba Teqe?
In my opinion, and that of my organization, the Center for Islamic Pluralism, the fate of the Harabati Baba Teqe is an urgent issue.
First, the Albanian and Kosovar authorities should publically state their solidarity with the Bektashis of Tetova and their opposition to Wahhabi victimization of them.
Second, Albanian and Kosovar media should be pressed to publicize the confrontation and mobilize the public in their countries against Wahhabi aggression.
Third, Albanian and Kosovar diplomatic representatives should protest to the Macedonian government, demanding that the Wahhabis be removed from the site and that the teqe be protected against any further assault.
Fourth, all friends of the Bektashis should call on the Macedonian government to recognize the Bektashis as a distinct religious body from the Islamic Community.
Fifth, publicity about the situation in Tetova should also be extended to Turkey and its diaspora, and especially to the Alevi organizations there and in Western Europe.
The Harabati Baba Teqe is a symbol of the past, present, and future of pluralistic Islam, as well as the destiny of the Albanian nation. In the past, it nurtured spirituality among the Albanians of Western Macedonia. The Wahhabi threat to take it over and wipe out its heritage epitomizes the situation of Sufis and other moderate Muslims in every country. The future of the Harabati Baba Teqe is unpredictable. Its surrender to the Wahhabi offensive would be a devastating blow to a significant element of the Albanian patriotic tradition, and a betrayal of the memory of the many Bektashis, exemplified by the Frashëri brothers, without whom the Albanian Rilindja would have lacked the intellectual strength to secure the freedom of the nation.
Bektashis in Albania, Albanians in general, and supporters of pluralist Islam must cease turning their eyes away from the crisis at the Harabati Baba Teqe. It requires immediate and significant attention.
[i] Vishko, Ali. Teqeja Harabati e Tetovës dhe Roli i Saj Historik e Kulturor në të Kaluarën. Tetova, Komuna e Tetovës, 2006.
[ii] [Beqiri], Baba Rexheb, Mistiçizma Islame dhe Bektashizma. Shtëpia Botuese "Urtësia," Tirana, 2006.
[iii] Vishko, op. cit.
[iv] See "When Wahhabis Attack," accessible at http://www.islamicpluralism.org/415/when-wahhabis-attack-the-case-of-the-harabati-tekke.
[vii] See my book The Other Islam, New York, Doubleday, 2008, Albanian edition Islami Tjetër, Prishtina, Koha, 2009. A Bosnian edition is in press.
[viii] See "Urgent Call for Protest Against Wahhabi Aggression in Macedonia," accessible at http://www.islamicpluralism.org/427/urgent-call-for-protest-against-wahhabi-aggression.
[ix] Private communication with the author.
[x] E-mail from the Bektashi Community of the Republic of Macedonia, May 6, 2008, with photographs.
[xi] See Gershman, Norman H., Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II, Syracuse, NY, USA, Syracuse University Press, 2008.
[xii] Rabasa, Angel, et al. Building Moderate Muslim Networks. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 2007.
[xiv] On Sayyid Qutb and Baba Rexheb in America, see my book The Two Faces of Islam, New York, Doubleday, 2002. On the migration of Baba Rexheb to the U.S., see Trix, Frances, The Sufi Journey of Baba Rexheb, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylania Press, 2009.
[xv] See note 7.