The flag of the Albanian nation.
Albania has reached the 100th
anniversary of its independence from the Ottoman empire, proclaimed in the port city of Vlora on November 28, 1912. That event was symbolized by the raising of the banner of Gjergj Kastrioti Skenderbeu (1405-68), with its double-headed black eagle on a red background, by a group of patriots. They were led mainly by Ismail Qemali (1844-1919), a Bektashi Sufi Muslim, and included Luigj Gurakuqi (1879-1925), a progressive Catholic political advocate. Other unforgettable personalities present on the first Albanian Flag Day included Mit'hat Frashëri (1880-1949), likewise a Bektashi Sufi, Isa Boletini (1874-1916), an outstanding Kosovar fighter for Albanian rights, and Dervish Hima (1872-1928), yet another Bektashi. The roster of Albania's founding fathers comprised 83 names, most of them Muslim.
Ismail Qemali (second from right, Luigj Gurakuqi (third from right), with Ismail Qemali's sons, Et'hem Beu Vlora (first at left) and Qazim Beu Vlora (last at right.)
After the definitive defeat of the Albanians by the Turks in 1478, Albania had become Muslim in its majority. Many Albanians fled to Sicily, Calabria, and today's Romania, most of them Orthodox Christians in religion, but including Catholics from Shkodra. In Sicily 450 years later, some Albanian families continued to proclaim themselves "Gegs" from northern Albania.
Skënderbeu memorial, Kruja, Albania.
Albanian Islam was different from that in other Muslim lands. While they served the Ottoman overlords, Albanians, even as Muslims, refused to surrender their identity and language. The Ottomans tried – and to a considerable degree succeeded, as late as the first decade of the 20th century – in identifying Islam with Turkish consciousness, but Albanians always put their ancient ethnicity first. In the mid-19th century, a movement began demanding Albanian-language education for their children. As my colleague and dear friend Arben Sulejmani has pointed out, the Bektashi babas – officials of the Ottoman empire as preachers to the Yeniçeri or "New Men," an Ottoman military force recruited mostly by levies of young Christians – insisted that the Albanians would always be Albanian and would never be assimilated by Turks, Greeks, Slavs, or Latin peoples.
The Bektashis were and remain remarkable: they were a pillar of the Ottoman system but protected rebels from persecution, and were of a dissident nature themselves. Bektashism became influential in Albania, with the Bektashi Sufis worldwide today directed from their Kryegjyshata (Holy See) in Tirana, perhaps because it accommodated well the Albanian national spirit. If Albanians were to serve foreigners, they would do so honorably, having given a pledge of loyalty. But the Bektashis would never preach "Turkification," which was a different matter altogether from Islamization.
Kus Baba Bektashi teqe in Vlora, 2005. Kus Baba is the "patron saint" of Vlora. Photograph (c) Ervin Ruci, Via Wikimedia Commons.
In traditional Islam, it is believed that if non-Muslims accept Islam, they must not fight against the religion of their parents, unless their parents try to obstruct their choice of belief. That is because to the moderate, conventional, and spiritual Muslim, Islam is beautiful, but "your mother is your mother," as Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him and his noble family, said. For Albanians, their mother was their language, their native soil, and their distinctive customs. The same remains true now. Ottoman authority could never replace the Albanian mother as their progenitor and moral protector. Nor could the intrusions of any other invader. As Ismail Qemali wrote in 1917, in an article included as a supplement to his Memoirs (1920), the Albanians "themselves, profoundly indifferent to these arbitrary arrangements, which did not interfere with... their language or their national character, seemed hardly to be aware of the fall of Empires or the changes of frontiers. Proudly they preserved the independence of which no power could deprive them."
But indifference to the impositions of foreigners, although it could contribute to the preservation of Albanian national sentiment, could not guarantee, necessarily, the existence of Albania as a political state.
In the decades leading to the first Albanian Flag Day in 1912, the sovereigns of Europe – Britain supporting the Greeks, Russia backing the Montenegrins and Serbs – encouraged their regional lackeys to believe they could absorb the Albanian districts of the Ottoman dominion. Later, Italy was convinced it might annex Albanian ports on the eastern shore of the Adriatic. Sadly, tragically, and terribly, the same year 1912 that marked the raising of the flag of Skenderbeu in Vlora also saw the First Balkan War. In that conflict, Kosova was invaded and annexed by the Serbs and Montenegrins, and Çamëria was occupied by the Greeks, resulting in the amputation of half the Albanian nation's historic territories, and separating their people from their grandparents, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and children. In addition, the war included genocidal Slav atrocities.
Ismail Qemali referred to the alienation of Kosova and Çamëria from Albania proper, which was ratified by the European diplomatic vultures – Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Italy, at the London Conference of 1913 – and "Albania's broken heart" after having trusted the masters of Europe, "sure of the justice of [the Albanians'] claims."
L. D. Trotsky.
The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky (1879-1940), then a journalist in Austrian exile, writing for a liberal periodical, Kievskaya Mysl (Kievan Thought)
, and other, similar newspapers in Russia, had described, as a war correspondent, the depredations of the Slav armies against the Albanians in the First Balkan War, and denounced the backing of the Russians for the Serbs and Montenegrins. He wrote, in an article addressed to the "liberal" political leader Pavel Milyukov (1859-1943): "Mr. Deputy! ...You have frequently, both in the columns of the press and at the tribune of the Duma, assured the Balkan allies... of the unaltered sympathies of so-called Russian society for their campaign of 'liberation.' Recently, during the period of the armistice, you made a political journey to the Balkans... Did you not hear during your travels... about the monstrous acts of brutality that were committed by the triumphant soldiery of the allies all along their line of march, not only on unarmed Turkish soldiers, wounded or taken prisoner, but also on the peaceful Muslim inhabitants, on old men and women, on defenseless children?... Did not the facts, undeniable and irrefutable, force you to come to the conclusion that the Bulgars in Macedonia, the Serbs in (Kosova), in their national endeavor to correct data in the ethnographical statistics that are not quite favorable to them, are engaged quite simply in systematic extermination of the Muslim population?... Is it not clear to you that the silent connivance of the 'leading' Russian parties and their press... make it much easier for the (Bulgarians and Serbs) to engage in their Cain's work of further massacres of the people of the Crescent in the interests of the 'culture' of the Cross?" ("An Extraparliamentary Question to Mr. P. Milyukov").
"Cain's work" indeed defined the actions of the Serbs in Kosova. In a succeeding article, "Results of the 'Question About the Balkans,'" Trotsky's polemic reached an exceptional intensity. Addressing himself again to Milyukov, he wrote, "Since the 'leading' newspapers of Russia... either hushed up or denied the exposures published in the democratic press, a certain number of murdered Albanian babies must be put down, Mr. Deputy, to your Slavophile account. Get your senior doorman to look for them in your editorial office, Mr. Milyukov!" He continued, "Indignant protest against unbridled behavior by men armed with machine guns, rifles, and bayonets was required for our own moral self-defense. An individual, a group, a party, or a class that is capable of 'objectively' picking its nose while it watches men drunk with blood, and incited from above, massacring defenseless people is condemned by history to rot and become worm-eaten while it is still alive."
These latter words deserved to be reprinted around the world during the episodes of wholesale bloodshed inflicted on the Albanians by the Slavs through the rest of the 20th century, but lay unread and unconsidered in the works of an often-mentioned but insufficiently-studied Russian leftist. They should be repeated across the globe today, as Serbs and Macedonian Slavs continue intrigues and violence against the Albanians of northern Kosova and Western Macedonia. Disgracefully, the "Trotskyists" now, who have seen their political fortunes revived by the economic crisis in Europe, America, Asia, and the Arab countries, suppress their alleged mentor's imperishably wise writings on the First Balkan War. Many "Trotskyists" supported the regime of Millosheviq during the second series of Balkan Wars in the 1990s.
Serbian Social Democrats, who were honest defenders of their nation of a kind unknown in Serbia today, admitted the truth at that time. Dimitrije Tucoviq (1881-1914), the Serbian Social Democrat leader, who joined his country's army on the belief that revolutionaries had to be present wherever their people were, wrote, "We have carried out the attempted premeditated murder of an entire nation. We were caught in that criminal act and have been obstructed. Now we have to suffer the punishment... In the Balkan Wars, Serbia not only doubled its territory but also its external enemies...
"Our lordly people dreamed of foreign lands and foreign freedoms, but we who had been heralds of national liberation brought with us, instead, the banner of national enslavement... The basis for all of the misfortunes we now suffer and which we will continue to suffer in the future lies in the fact that we invaded a foreign land."
"Serbian overlords are trying to turn a national minority [Kosova Serbs] into a majority by means of a police state, and they are preparing their subjects not to be free citizens but submissive subjects. The regime of extraordinary police measures... is inspired by the reactionary desire to advance one nation and subdue another... On the other hand, it gives rise to new urges... provoking intolerance and hatred between peoples."
A political comrade of Tucoviq, Dushan Popoviq (1884-1918), wrote, "The details concerning the operations of the Serb armies are frightful. They plunder, lay waste, burn, plow up, massacre, and destroy everything, down to the roots... It is no wonder that our peasant masses have such barbaric instincts since this state never saw to it that they were educated and civilized; nor should we be shocked at the narrow and meagre political and spiritual horizons of our military commanders who are trained to regard the brutal and cold-blooded murder of tens and hundreds of Albanians, their wives and children, as heroic... The slogans in which such ideas and views are expressed come from the highest social and political strata in Serbia. It is not merely a question of a protest by Serbian workers against the Albanian policy of the Serbian bourgeoisie; we must rescue the image of the Serbian people in the eyes of cultured and democratic Europeans. We must show that there are people in Serbia, many people, who oppose this, and that at the head of this opinion stands the working class and Social Democracy."
And yet another Serb leftist, Kosta Novakoviq (1886/89-1939), recalled 20 years later, "Kosova is a purely Albanian territory; it has only 10-15 per cent Serbs. The Serbian imperialists employed the tactics and methods of medieval warriors or colonial invaders: the annihilation of the population under the pretext of military operations, the disarming of people, and the suppression of the armed resistance... At least 50,000 Albanians were forced to become refugees and flee to Turkey and Albania to save their lives. This annihilation thinned out the Albanian nation in Kosova, but in no way changed the Albanian character there. The objective of these massacres of Albanians in Kosova was to replace them with Serbs and to colonize and Serbianize it."
The Marxist socialism represented by the Serbian Social Democrats failed as a historic movement, but the verities expressed by these brave dissenters against Serbian ultranationalism retain their sharpness and relevance. Serbia adheres to the same pretenses, and faces the same moral ignominy, now as it did then. For this reason, leaving aside their ideology, I have argued that the people of Kosova, and Albanians in general, should honor the Serbian Social Democrats of 1912, leaving their names on streets in the towns, and considering erection of monuments to them.
Statue of Woodrow Wilson Inaugurated in Tirana, Albania, November 21, 2012.
But socialists, even as defenders of the victims of Serbian expansionism, were of little help to the Albanians. The Yugoslav Communist dictator J.B. Tito (1892-1980) at least granted Kosova enhanced autonomy "within Serbia" in 1974. The American presidents Woodrow Wilson, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush were capable of doing more – and did more – to assist the Albanians in their defense against predatory neighbors than any prominent Balkan historical figure like Tito. As for Enver Hoxha (1908-1985), the Communist tyrant who ruled over Albania proper for 41 dark years – he turned his back on Kosova, western Macedonia, Çamëria, and the Albanians oppressed there.
Stephen Schwartz with Bill Clinton, 2000: "Thank you, Mr. President, for the freedom of Kosova!" Photograph by White House Staff.
Statue of President George W. Bush erected in 2011 in the town of Fushë-Krujë, Albania, which the president visited in 2007.
From 1919-20, when Wilson rescued Albania from a new effort for its partition, at the Paris Peace Conference, through the Kosova intervention of 1999, in which Clinton compelled the powerful forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to halt the attempted Serbian genocide of the Kosovars, to 2008 when Bush recognized the independence of Kosova, America stood by the Albanians in their hour of need. There are, of course, many other historical episodes linking these two great nations.
Theofan Stilian Noli.
Theofan Stilian Noli (1882-1965), proclaimed the autocephaly (religious autonomy) of the Albanian Orthodox Church, from Boston, in 1908.
Rahmetli Baba Rexheb Beqiri, may his mystery be sanctified.
Baba Rexheb Beqiri (1901-1995), the great Bektashi divine, established the The First Albanian Teqe Bektashiane
in Taylor, Michigan, in 1954, preserving the continuity of Bektashism as a public faith, against the suppression of religion in Albania by Hoxha. For many years, the only Bektashi meeting-houses open to the world were those of Baba Rexheb, whom I have taken as an intellectual guide, even though I was unable to meet him in person, and that in Gjakova, Kosova, headed today by the intelligent and patriotic Baba Mumin Lama, whom I consider a personal mentor and friend.
Baba Mumin Lama.
Between them in time, the Albanian author and diplomat Faik Beg Konica (1875-1942), one of the masters of Albanian prose, was accredited as Albanian ambassador to the U.S. from 1926 until 1939, when Albania was seized by fascist Italy. Faiku died in Washington, DC. In his Albania: The Rock Garden of Southeast Europe And Other Essays (1957), he recalled "a famous Albanian saying, 'Kill the man but do not insult him.'" The Kosovar patriot Adem Demaçi repeated this phrase to the Serb police during the Kosova liberation war of 1998-99. Konica, who appears to have been of Bektashi origin, certainly knew the customs of the Bektashis in his district, Konica in southern Albania, now beyond the Greek border. He was a notable friend and companion of the great French poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918).
Faik Beg Konica.
I would be remiss in failing to add to these names that of Gjon Sinishta (1930-65), the indefatigable founder of the Buletini Katolik Shqiptar/Albanian Catholic Bulletin, an annual "thick journal" issued from San Francisco, with whom I was privileged to work as an editor and writer, from 1990 to 1995. Gjon I consider my second father (babai im i dytë), since I cannot, unfortunately, claim Albania as my mother. I am only "an Albanian of the heart" – "një shqiptar i zemrës." In 1990, we formed the first "Friends of Kosova" group in San Francisco.
Pope John Paul II with Gjon Sinishta.
Gjon educated me in everything Albanian – including introducing me to the book of Baba Rexheb, The Mysticism of Islam and Bektashism
(1984) – and prepared me to go to the former Yugoslavia, for the second time, as a reporter in 1991, a commitment I have reaffirmed by my journalism in and about Albania, Kosova, Western Macedonia, and Mal e Zi, visiting and working there repeatedly since. Gjon also wrote an irreplaceable volume, recording the suppression of Albanian Catholic culture under Hoxha, The Fulfilled Promise
Thanks to Baba Rexheb I have learned to love the Bektashi Sufis, and thanks to Gjon Sinishta I have luxuriated in the poetry of Albanian versifiers such as Lasgush Poradeci (1899-1987) and Beqir Musliu (1945-96). Through Baba Rexheb and Gjon Sinishta I became devoted to the Bektashi poet Naim Frashëri (1846-1900), and read the Catholic poet Gjergj Fishta (1871-1940). I have followed in their footsteps, to Prizren where the Albanian League was founded in 1878 with the participation of Naimi's brothers Abdyl (1839-92) and Sami Frashëri (1850-1904), and to Shkodra where Fishta wrote Lahuta e Malcis (The Mountain Lute)
, a national epic.
I have come to know, with Faiku over one shoulder, so to speak, and Naimi over the other, the Albanian-language recitations commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hysen, the hero of Shia Islam, at the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE. These include Dalip Frashëri's rendition of the Hadikaja, or Garden of Martyrs, by the Azeri Shia poet Fuzuli (1483-1556), published in 1842; his brother Shahin Frashëri's Chronicle of Myhtar, dating from 1868; Qerbelaja by Naimi, the nephew of Dalip, printed in Bucharest in 1898, and Baba Rexheb's translation of the Hadikaja, issued by the Bektashi teqe in Gjakova in 1997. These Albanian writers equated the death in the service of justice of Imam Hysen with the sacrifices, for similar ends, of the Albanian nation.
Monument to the Frashëri Brothers, Prishtina, Kosova. Abdyl Frashëri (l), Sami Frashëri (c), Naim Frashëri (r).
I have seen the great Gjakova teqe and its unique archive reduced to ashes by the Serb terrorists during the Kosova liberation war, and seen it rebuilt. I have gone to Manastir where, in 1908, the Catholics Fishta and Gurakuqi and the Bektashi Mit'hat Frashëri joined another distinguished Albanian Catholic, the writer Ndre Mjeda (1866-1937), with the Protestant Christian Parashqevi Qiriazi (1880-1970), who also died in the U.S., on a roster of 50 enlighteners dedicated to the adoption of the modern Albanian alphabet. The Manastir Alphabet Congress was an indispensable step toward the achievement of independence in 1912.
I have further visited and participated in memorials to the Kosova Liberation Army fighters, and have earned the friendship of Albin Kurti of the Vetëvendosje! Movement. In America I have enjoyed the support and cooperation of the outstanding editorial team, including Vehbi Bajrami and Ruben Avxhiu, at Illyria, my favorite place to publish my work.
In Macedonia I met Baba Tahir Emini (1941-2006) of the Harabati Baba Bektashi teqe in Tetova, and his successor, Baba Edmond Brahimaj. I have followed the work of Baba Mondi, as the latter is known, since his election to the post of Kryegjysh, or Supreme Grandfather, now titled Dede Haxhi Baba Edmond Brahimaj, to replace Kryegjysh Baba Haxhi Dede Reshat Bardhi (1935-2011), who revived Bektashism in Albania after the fall of the Communist regime there. I had the good fortune to meet with Kryegjysh Reshat Bardhi twice. I remember with emotion how, in reaction to the atrocities of Al-Qaida against the U.S. on September 11, 2001, Kryegjysh Reshat Bardhi called America "the pride of the world," and declared, "May Allah be, as always, on the side of the American people and the American state!"
Rahmetli Kryegjysh Baba Haxhi Dede Reshat Bardhi, may his mystery be sanctified.
Finally, only the Albanians themselves, by maintaining their spirit of resistance, will realize their full promise as a European nation. I offer here a very personal commentary on the 100th Albanian Flag Day here, and have only begun to express myself. So much more to remember, both in history and in my own experience. So much more to come. I cannot close without mentioning the rescue of Jews from the Nazi occupiers by Albanians during the Second World War. Albanians still face risks, from the Serbs in northern Kosova, from the Macedonian Slavs, from the Wahhabis and other Islamist extremists who seek to penetrate and dominate Sunni Islam throughout the Albanian lands. But I have written too much on this occasion, and, in a sense, have said very little.
Numerous Albanians have affirmed their appreciation for America's friendship, which helped them win their freedom. I, by contrast, must admit my obligation to the Albanians, who gave me reason to live, to work, to struggle, to laugh, to cry, to love. Without the Albanians I would have been nothing more than one among many newspaper writers, recording sordid crimes – but, of course, there has been no worse crime in my lifetime than the attempted Serbian genocide of the Kosovars.
I promise to be in Vlora on November 28, 2012, to witness the commemoration of the 100th Dita e Flamurit and to sing Himni i Flamurit, the Albanian national anthem. I will stand with the Albanians there, and then in Western Macedonia and Kosova, in gratitude for what I have received from "the nation of heroes."
The author at Berat, Albania, with Tomorri, the sacred mountain of the Bektashi Sufis, in the background, 2012.
One Hundred Years of Albanian Independence.
We Are One.
Related Topics: Albanian Muslims, Balkan Muslims, Bektashi Sufis, European Muslims, Iran, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Muslim-Christian Relations, Muslim-Jewish Relations
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