Long Live Albanian Independence and Unity!
by Stephen Schwartz
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.
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.
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."
"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.
"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."
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!"
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."
Related Topics: Albanian Muslims, Balkan Muslims, Bektashi Sufis, European Muslims, Iran, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Muslim-Christian Relations, Muslim-Jewish Relations receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free center for islamic pluralism mailing list
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