Interview with Ervin Hatibi on Albanian Muslims

We talked with Ervin Hatibi, an Albanian poet, artist and intellectual, about the building process of the Albanian identity under the modern claims.

Interview with Ervin Hatibi on Albanian Muslims

Interview: Vahide Ulusoy

WB: What is the basis of the Albanian identity?

: I think that the basis of the Albanian identity is, of course, first and foremost the Albanian language. The language is the only thing, apart from the shared history, which unites all Albanians. Indeed, there are many conflicting perspectives about the "official" Albanian identity, based on sectarian projects or agendas. Nevertheless, I still think that the wisest Albanians are those who seek to widen the concept of inclusiveness regarding the Albanian identity. As a nation, Albania is an example of diversity in unity.

Albania houses people of different religious traditions, but also of different ethnic communities and minorities who are considered Albanians. I could easily bring up the examples of the Vlach and Slavic communities, or even that of certain parts of the official Greek minority in Albania, who perceive themselves as "real" Albanians and who display all the characteristics of the most typical, average Albanian.

Moreover, there is no such thing as an exclusive religion based project when we speak of Albanian identity. This would otherwise erase once and for all a good part of the Albanian nation only on the basis of religion. And this, especially during times when the discourse on permanent clashes and wars between cultures and religions has reached quite an aggressive peak.

It is thus a richness that the Albanian national case remains an exemplary case of co-habitation of peoples from different religious backgrounds, co-dividing and sharing the same language, common place and, who generally, also share the same cultural and historical references.

WB: What is the relation between the Albanian identity and Islamic culture?

EH: I think that the relation between the Albanian identity and Islamic culture is of an extremely important and special nature. Indeed, the very word which describes the word "nation" in Albanian is the word "komb". The word "komb" originates from the Arabic word "kawm", which has arrived in Albanian via the Ottoman language. Thus, in order to define the very notion of the Albanian nation, the founding fathers of the Albanian nationalism chose precisely this Arabic word. I believe that the question of the relationship between Islamic culture and Albanian identity is very well represented in this symbolic example.

What we nowadays perceive as a pure Albanian identity is no less than a beautiful blend of influences, which started since the times of the Roman Empire all the way to the days of the last Rome, the Ottoman Empire. It is a widely known fact, which has also been underlined by some of the most brilliant personalities of our culture, that the strongest influences in our culture and identity derive from the Ottoman times.

The strongest influences are to be found in our folklore, in the social rituals of our everyday life, in our perceptions of the sacred, in the urbanism and architecture of our cities and also in our language and terminology. In other words, these influences have shaped the very core of our collective memory and helped create the Albanian cultural identity. This identity is one of the many post-ottoman identities that flourished after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. In the Albanian territories, where the overwhelming majority of the population is Muslim, this post-ottoman identity, withholds more Islamicate features than the other post-ottoman territories in the Balkans.

I would prefer this term "Islamicate", coined by the Orientalist tradition, which designates that not everything in the culture of Muslim societies is necessarily religiously Islamic or produced solely by Muslims. Not everything Muslims produce can be considered from a strictly religious point of view as Islamic.

In the case of Albania, the above-mentioned influences, including the concepts of sacred and profane, drive from the Ottoman, Islamicate tradition. Any Albanian, educated or not, of Muslim or Christian heritage, freely uses several times per day the word "inshallah". The persistence of the very use of this word goes beyond language. It is rather another strong symbol of our cultural identity well anchored in our tradition of the last six centuries.

WB: What is the attitude of the Albanian elite and public regarding the Ottoman culture heritage?

EH: Our separation from the supra-national and the supra-religious authority and entity i.e., the Ottoman Empire, called for a nation building discourse that was to be constructed in opposition with the very concepts of supra nationalism and cosmopolitanism that the Ottoman tradition represented. This discourse, although a necessary one for the needs of the nation building, with time has gotten out hand and has led to enormous errors and misinterpretations concerning our Ottoman past.

The Albanian elites growingly accepted and adopted the ultranationalist narratives similar to our neighbouring countries, mainly those of the Serbs and Greeks, joining thus the mourning chorus of laments about an "obscure and dark night" that lasted for five centuries under the Ottoman "yoke". According to this narrative, the Albanian nation fell into backwardness and thus became insignificant because of the abrupt separation from the developments of the "civilised world" which kept the nation away from its "natural relationship with Europe" for five centuries.

Unfortunately, this discourse is far from being historically correct and by being so it is preventing the science of history from evaluating the correct way to view our relation with our Ottoman past, even at the expense of becoming dangerously contradictory. The most significant example of this schizophrenia is the Albanian attitude regarding the Battle of Kosova, which mimics that of the Serbs. In reality, the Ottoman victory in Kosova was also a victory over the Serbian imperial visions regarding the Albanian lands and thus, it helped seal the fate of these lands in favour of the Albanians. This is a contradiction within the nationalist discourse.

Albanians were not living in paradise when the Ottomans entered the Albanian lands. The life of the Albanians in the Balkan Peninsula was harsh. If we turn to the history books we see that the treatment the Serbs reserved to Catholic Albanians was of a horrific nature. People were harshly punished and tortured for the mere fact of openly displaying their Catholic identity. The same can be said about the other foreign occupying administrations.

So, in my opinion, from a strict nationalist point of view, Albanians benefited from the coming of Ottomans. By siding with the superpower that the Ottoman Empire represented at those days, Albanians started to play an important role in the affairs of the Balkan Peninsula and with time established their strong position in the area.

The official narratives, starting from the simple history schoolbooks to the works of writers and academicians, format the perceptions of Albanians about their Ottoman history from an early age. The myth that the Ottomans were the oppressors of our nation is being perpetuated in spite of the fact that the Ottoman project was neither national nor tribal. Moreover, an enormous number of Albanians held very high positions in the Ottoman structure of power.

There was a succession of the Ottoman Albanian elites in the Empire from its beginning and all the way to its last days. Although one can never account for the totality of the Albanian Ottomans who held lower or even middle range offices in the Empire, one can say with certitude that the number of Sadrazams (Prime Ministers) was arguably around 35, not counting the incredibly large numbers of Vezirs (Ministers), Beylerbeys, Sheykh-ul-Islams and also a few Sultans' consorts and Valide Sultanas.

This natural integration in the Ottoman structures is perceived by the narrative of the Albanian elites as treacherous to the nation. The consideration is not only reserved to the historical figures of the past, but strongly persists in our present days against anyone who questions or challenges the official discourse regarding our Ottoman history. It is not uncommon to read in Albanian newspapers, and for that matter throughout all the mediums that transport the public discourse, the bashing propaganda about the Albanian Muslim, son of the treacherous Christian who converted to Islam, as an undesired inheritance of the Ottoman oppression.

Today Albania considers Turkey as one of its best allies. Nevertheless, to this day, the words "Anatolian", "Turk", "Pasha" etc, are employed as insults throughout the public discourse. In one of my essays, "The violent Islamisation of the enemy in the Albanian political discourse", I highlight the fact that our politicians persist in categorising their political opponent as "Oriental" or "Turk" in order to debase or darken their image. It is important to underline that the same terminology is employed by the Serbian nationalist discourse regarding their Albanian or Bosnian adversaries. One of the explanations for this similarity could to be found in the continuation of the same political communist elite that took power in Albania with the generous help of the Yugoslavs.

It is extremely interesting to notice that while most of the Albanian elite persists in demonising our Ottoman history and today's relations with Turkey, the complete reverse attitude is to be found amongst the average Albanian, who to this day considers Turkey as the friendliest state and the Turkish people as brotherly. The most vivid and sincere example of this expression of brotherhood is to be found in the outburst of joy that people demonstrated when Turkey's national football team achieved an important victory in one of the last world championships. People rushed out in the streets of Tirana to express their joy for this Turkish victory, which was obviously considered as common one, since people were usually carrying the Turkish national flag on one hand and the Albanian one on the other.

Apart from the positive popular image, fortunately enough, a new generation of scholars is starting to appear. This generation, through the use of new methods and diverse sources, is striving to propose new approaches regarding our history, identity and culture, Ottoman or other. I tend to see this as a normalisation process. Normalising our approach to our history and culture is important because the internal tension within the Albanian identity is not healthy for the Albanian nation.

WB: Do you think the Albanian identity could survive without Islam?

EH: Broadly, the role of Islam is believed to be positive in building the Albanian identity. This idea is partially fuelled by some academicians and historians who defend this thesis by claiming that the reason behind our conversion to Islam was to discern our ethnicity from that of the Serbs and Greeks. This view has induced many Albanians to think that the main reason why Albanians converted to Islam was to "save" the national identity.

I think that the preservation of the ethnicity is only a consequence of the conversion to Islam, but not the very purpose of it. I do not believe that someone converts to another religion to preserve his ethnicity. Moreover, ethnicity was not that important in the times under scrutiny. Nonetheless, from a technical point of view, this could be seen as a just cause. Indeed, prior to the Ottoman conquest, the process of Slavisation and Helenisation of the Albanian population was a routine development, especially in the non-mountainous areas. As proof to this are the numerous toponymic appellations throughout Albania still in use, while the Ottomans changed or created only a handful of toponyms in their five centuries of rule.

I really do not understand the reason why there are so many Slavic appellations of cities, mountains, villages and rivers in Albania and not so many Ottoman ones, for example. I am not an historian, but I think that this aspect is quite telling when one cares to compares the nature of the Ottoman rule with those of the other Balkanic powers that had ruled Albania prior to the arrival of the Ottomans. Ottomans generally preserved what they found in Albania, enabling thus the pre-Albanian identity to crystallise and formalise later.

WB: What became of Albania after its independence from the Ottoman Empire? Albania's relations to the world were interrupted for almost fifty years under the communist regime. What were the internal dynamics in Albania during those days?

EH: The independence from the Ottoman Empire opened for the Albanian lands a hard survival chapter. The Albanian nation was to survive scattered throughout several Balkan states, often as an unrecognised minority, and in its own small designated state almost as "an official minority", surrounded by the same states which claimed even more of its territories. In order to fulfil their expansionist agendas, the neighbouring countries, were depicting the predominantly Muslim Albanian state in the international arena as a miniature Ottoman state in order to continue to break it apart and devour it at their ease.

Thus, in beginning of 20th century, what was left of the Albanian nation within the territories of the Albanian state was encountering enormous difficulties in emerging firmly in the international scene. The Albanian elites, aware of the feeble existence of the Albanian state in front of the ideological and military power of the neighbouring nations, strived to legitimise the existence of their state by undertaking a series of radical reforms in order smoothen and blurry the Ottoman and Islamic traditions, trying thus to "westernise" the features of the Albanian society. Hence, for Albania, the only way to survive in this hostile environment was to convince the Great Powers that its state was now quite distant from its past Ottoman tradition and allegiance and was now part and parcel of the European realm and order of things. We have to bear in mind that back in those days the multicultural coexistence was not fashionable and the human rights did not necessarily mean what they mean nowadays.

The question then was how to become less Muslim. And this is how the politics of kitman or the concealment of the Muslim identity, I think, came to the fore, erasing thus, or rather smoothing all the visible Islamic or Ottoman features of the Albanian tradition. In doing so, the example to be followed was first given by the elites during the first half of the 20th century. With the instalment of the communist dictatorship, Albania took a hysterical path in the westernising reforms. The communist viewed the former Albanian elites, which had conducted the first westernising reforms, as "Anatolian" and "patriarchal" and continued the radical transformation of the Albanian society, eradicating thus all the signs of the past traditions.

All the obvious signs of the Ottoman past started to disappear, starting with the beautiful architecture of the urban buildings, seraglios and bazaars. Their destruction was meant to show that Albania had taken very seriously its modernization path as understood by the socialist revolution. Each of the obvious signs of the Oriental past became a target for the daily propaganda and subject to repressive laws of the communist dictatorship. This declared war, first against tradition and later against religion, Muslim or Christian, became an Albanian trademark.

WB: How does the balance between secularism and religion work in Albania?

EH: Secularism is the climate of our continent. We are not any different from the rest of the continent in this respect. Albania follows the French version of secularism, not the more flexible Anglo-Saxon version that perceives the religious element as positive and not to be repressed. Nevertheless, there are differences between the Albanian secularist model and its original French version. The secularist mindset seems to frame only Islam in Albania. Christianity, be it Orthodoxy or Catholicism, is perceived as a modern and trendy European label which transcends secularism. This is an obvious contradiction in the attitude of the Albanian elite regarding secularism, although it is presented as something very natural. The examples of the Albanian politicians who openly attend the Sunday mass, follow the Christian rituals, marry in churches and attend religious ceremonies in their honour are quite natural to the Albanian order of things. In contrast, it is unheard and unseen that an Albanian politician would attend a mosque for prayer or even publicly show the slightest appurtenance to the Muslim faith.

Moreover, in the Albanian Parliament, one finds nominal Christian political parties, while the very idea of creating a nominal Muslim party would create something similar to an earthquake of a catastrophic magnitude. Also, in my secular country, the official public schoolbooks openly contain Christian fundamentalist interpretations and serve them as facts to children of various confessions.

The reasons that have led us here are numerous and diverse, but I believe that the most important one amongst them is to be found in the emancipating discourse that has managed to erase any distinction between "Christian" and "European". Thus, in the name of integrating Albania within the European structures, fundamentalist circles are proposing Christian agendas as the only way to reach Europe.

WB: How does the Albanian Muslim intellectual respond to the misconceptions regarding the image and the role of Islam in the society?

EH: I tried to explain the reasons for the concealment of Islam during the nation building process in the early 20th century. The struggle to conceal became painful due to the gravity of what was at stake, the very existence of the Albanian state. The fact that the Albanian elites embraced the European style and adopted the European way of life, had created the belief that Islam was being eradicated in Albania. Thus, the Albanians of the time had to face frantic criticism from diverse European voices for the mere fact of building mosques in the 1930-s. While the French and Italian press were most vocal in their alarmism, one can easily imagine what was the quality of language used in the circles of power.

As a response, the fearing Albanian elites, including the religious ones, started to limit the number of mosques by simply closing them down. The bureaucrats stopped their public prayers and attendance of the Muslim ceremonies. They thought that they had to show serious signs of de-Islamisation and de-Ottomanisation of Albania. I believe that in doing so they expected to be accepted by their European counterparts and hoped to achieve good relations with them.

The following generation ignored the real reasons behind such survival strategies and the third generation even more so. These survival strategies of concealment started to narrow the public space for Muslim claims which resulted in the alienation of the Albanian Muslim intellectual that eventually died out completely with the instalment of the communist dictatorship and its infamous religion ban law that lasted for 23 years.

At present, the Muslim intellectual is in his formative period. The younger generation is becoming conscious about the realities of the Albanian identity and its religious heritage. I hope, that after one century spent in concealment and repression things will return to their normal course.

WB: Thank you for answering our questions.

Who is Ervin Hatibi?

Ervin Hatibi is an Albanian poet, essayist and painter. So far, he has
published three poetry collections, "Përditë Shoh Qiellin"(Everyday I
look at the sky), "6" and "Pasqyra e Lëndës" (Table of Contents),
which have strongly marked the Albanian poetry landscape and a
collection of essays, Republick of Albanania, Albania, 2005, which is
a colourful collage of some of his best essays written during this
past decade.

He has periodically written and published articles and essays in all
major newspapers and magazines in Albanian language: the leading
Albanian newspaper Shekulli and the historical Albanian Macedonian
magazine Lobi, but not only. Bota Shqiptare, in Italy and Fjala, in
Albania have also frequently been tribunes of his writings. Ervin
Hatibi has written in length on issues related to culture, religion
and arts and has participated in writing, but not only, in the social
and the political debates of our complex times.

As a painter, Ervin Hatibi has shown in remarkable exhibitions, such
as: Albanie, Printemps-Eternitée 2003, Paris 2003, Pop-Ferman, Ferrara
2004 and f&rman, Skopje 2004 and only very recently he was called upon
by the National Gallery of Fine Arts and the Ministry of Culture of
Albania to curate the yearly international contest of visual arts
Onufri, Albania's most important visual art event which takes place in
the premises of the National Gallery of Fine Arts in Tirana. His most
current exhibition "Fast Forwarding Fermans"was held at Mavi Kum,
Istanbul, on February 2008.

As the television era has continuously gained more and more terrain,
Ervin Hatibi has growingly participated in important interventions and
debates on contemporary issues in relation to social matters, and more
particularly in culture and religion. For the most part the debates
and the interventions have been conducted by leading Albanian
television channels, such as Klan, Arbëria, Top Channel and Vizion
Plus, but many of them have been led by the leading television
channels of Greece, Austria, Italy, etc., and also by important news
broadcasting agencies, such as Associated Press, Reuters, and Radio
France International, BBC, among many others.

Last Mod: 08 Ağustos 2008, 23:12
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