OP-ED - Turkey and religious and cultural developments in the Balkans

Metin Izeti, professor of Philosophy of Art at the State University of Tetova in the Republic of Macedonia, evaluated the Turkish presence in the Balkans for Anadolu Agency

Prof. Dr. Metin İzeti   | 24.01.2016
OP-ED - Turkey and religious and cultural developments in the Balkans


The Balkans have been closely associated with the Ottomans since the 15th century. In fact, even before this time, Sufis - having spread Islam across Anatolia, thereby laying down the doctrinal origins of the state to be shortly founded - had already set foot in the Balkans and endeavored to "salve the wounds" of the peoples who were faced with so many difficulties. The experience of humanitarian and tolerant religious understanding dating back to this early era became synonymous in the Balkans with the name "Sari Saltik" for a period of nearly two centuries. Beyond merely being a historical figure, Sari Saltik represents the social experience of the traveling Sufis who brought Islam to the Balkans not with its religious obligations alone, but with its culture, civilization, art, and literature.

This paradigm did not change even after the Ottoman State established itself in the region and the local peoples came under Ottoman rule. The nearly five-century Ottoman era brought peace to the Balkans - "a salad of nations", as it were - and during this era, the Balkans enjoyed the longest-lived peace in its history. This reality was as true of Albanians and Bosnians - the two nations that accepted Islam - as it was for the rest of the nations who chose to remain Christian. Communities who did not adopt Islam enjoyed the freedom to practice their religions and hold onto their cultures. We find absolutely no historical documents indicating any projects of genocide, assimilation, or displacement. Equipped with an understanding centered on ensuring that people can live proper lives, with all the cherished human values, without facing any religious, racial, or language discrimination, the Ottoman style of administration was, therefore, able to remain in the region for a very long time and brought ever-lasting peace to the multi-ethnic and multi-religious Balkan society.

The religious understanding adopted by the majority of the Balkan Muslims during the Ottoman era was Maturidi in theology (aqidah) and Hanafi in jurisprudence (fiqh). In addition to this, a Sufi approach was always prioritized in order to gain proximity to God and help people become individuals beneficial for the society. Based on such an understanding, the religion of Islam gave life to a paradigm of civilization adorned with culture, art, and literature, that is, a paradigm of its own. The Balkan people were thus brought up and lived with the paradigm of bringing up virtuous human beings and uniting around the notion of Perfect Man (al-insan al-kamil).

Sufi paradigm was influential not only in the theoretical establishment of the religion but also all of its social manifestations. The cultural anthropology of Balkan cities is actually a continuation of Sufi anthropology as well as being a formal aspect of this anthropology. The Ottoman society is a reflection of its perception of Perfect Man, manifesting in a horizontal manner within the physical space. The entire theoretical experience of Sufi anthropology is built around three compound phrases: the Perfect Man, who has attained perfection and sublimity; the Universal Man, who is universal and ideal; and the Absolute Man, who is absolute and spiritual. The Ottoman society in the Balkans incorporates all of these characteristics. The Qur'an describes the human, within the divine creation, as the exemplar par excellence of perfection and beauty; the human is an object capable of accommodating both spirituality and physicality in himself, a receptacle in which the micro-cosmic and macro-cosmic forms assume denseness, or thickness (kathafah; as opposed to subtlety, or latafah), and he is also a being that brings the Realm of Dominion, Power, Will, and Knowledge (malakut) closer to the Realm of Sensible Experience (shahadah). With its mosques, Sufi lodges, public baths, and caravansaries, the Ottoman society in the Balkans is a manifestation of this approach and understanding.

The Balkans after the withdrawal of the Ottoman State

The real problems in the Balkans began in the 1830's but peaked in the aftermath of the First World War. The uprisings that began in the first half of the 19th century gradually resulted in the emergence of new nation-states, which, in turn, set about trying to eradicate all the institutions that kept the Ottoman understanding alive. No doubt, the most important institution that the newly-established states brutally attacked was Sufism and Sufi lodges (tekke/dergah). A large number of Sufi lodges were destroyed and their sheikhs were killed or driven away from their homelands and they were forced into emigrating to Turkey along with their dervishes. As for the resulting spiritual vacuum, state-appointed imams tried to compensate for it. In short, what happened was the creation of a great void and gap between those representing the religion and those who adhered to it, and unfortunately it has so far not been possible to bridge this great gap that exists in so many issues.

After 1919, Balkan Muslims (consisting largely of Albanians and Bosnians) were fragmented into a number of states, with all their chances of reuniting wiped out. The newly-established states were never able to achieve social peace because of the inhuman manners by which they governed the society. State violence and terrorism targeted the religion of Islam and all the buildings and institutions that represented the Muslim culture, eventually pushing the Muslims living in the region into a cultural crisis and chaos.

In the region where the old Yugoslav kingdom had been founded, the Muslim population concentrated in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Macedonia, and also in Serbia and Montenegro albeit to a lesser degree. However, their numbers seriously dwindled in the Muslim-majority areas as well because they were forced to leave these areas as part of a carefully orchestrated emigration. Oppression against Muslims continued after the collapse of the Yugoslav Kingdom and the Second World War, well into the new communist Yugoslavia. With the coming to power of the Communist Party in Albania, Muslims began to face oppression there as well. The communist administration in Albania permanently closed down all places of worship in 1967, demolished most of them, and this situation continued in this manner until the 1990's.

Unlike Albania, places of worship were not closed down in Yugoslavia, but Islamic associations were able to continue their activities only under rigorous state scrutiny. Starting from the 1970's and 1980's, many from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, and the Sandzak region went to Islamic universities in Cairo, Damascus, Medina, Beirut, and Tripoli, and when they returned to their homelands, they started preaching an Islamic understanding at odds with what people had been used to and very different from the traditional understanding of Islam they were so familiar with from the Ottoman times. But this new religious way did not prove very effective up until the 1990's, and the winds of democracy that began to blow from this date on subjected every field of social life to an anarchic situation, and Islamic associations and devotedly Muslim communities were not spared, either. Around the same time, the situation was more or less the same in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, and Sandzak. Influenced by the changes taking place across the globe as well, graduates of certain universities, especially of those in the Arab world, began to settle into the region and spread their own understanding, aided by various associations, saying that the traditional religious understanding was replete with myths and superstitions and it was a must to return to the salafi understanding. Particularly after this, the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Macedonia, and the administrative crises in Albania created a void in society, which catered to the spread of such harsh and rough interpretations of Islam. Of course, this negative situation reached its nadir with the outbreak of the wars in Iraq and Syria, and, as in everywhere else in the world, these intolerant manners have tainted the image of Islam and caused an increase in the number and intensity of Islamophobic reactions and attitudes.

Turkey and the Balkans after the withdrawal of the Ottomans

It is a fact that there was an interruption in Turkey's relations with the Balkans after the withdrawal of the Ottomans. Until the outbreak of the war in Bosnia in 1992, there were few or no students from the Balkans going to Turkey for their education. After this date, a relationship began in the field of education, and Turkey started receiving Balkan students. The same is true of Islamic studies: Balkan students began to have the opportunity to enroll in the faculties of Islamic Studies in Turkey only after this date. However, the main move to eradicate this gap came with the AK Party's coming to power in Turkey, when ties began to be reestablished in the fields of culture, arts, and Islamic studies. Beginning with these years, Turkey began to take serious interest in the Muslims living in the Balkans as well as the cultural structures constituting the Islamic heritage, and through official institutions, concerted efforts were launched in order to restore the verbal and structural culture representing the common cultural ground between the Balkans and Turkey. This heritage, naturally, does not belong to Turkey alone, because it represents the essential culture of the Balkan peoples as well. Re-developed relations have not been limited to the cultural sphere; Turkey has been trying to be of help to Balkan peoples in education and health as well as all other areas of social life.

In all these years, when the world in general and the Balkans in particular have been going through very troubling times; at a time, when groups that propagate a harsh and rough interpretation of Islam began to breed and when Muslims are accused of terrorism, Turkey and a number of institutions in the region operating under Turkey have been acting in accordance with democracy, human rights, universal humanitarian principles, stayed away from all sorts of extremes and excesses, nurtured an understanding toward a religion and society endowed with arts, literature, and culture, thereby endeavoring to plant seeds of these humanitarian values in the larger Balkan society.

In the recent years, Turkish officials have been establishing a system of values that can eliminate the gap between tradition and modernity. They have also been boldly trying to promote these values in the social sphere. But despite these efforts, they are confronted with incomprehensible pressure from the other side in a way that no open-minded person could possibly make sense of. The Euro-centric thinking system imposed by certain western circles has failed to deliver even within its own boundaries, and what's more, it has disturbed the peace in the world several times over the last century. Turkey has, on the other hand, been confronting various groups desecrating/casting aspersions on Islam and Muslims on a global scale, those feeding an inferiority complex, and also those tainting the image of Muslims by resorting to terrorism. In recent years, Turkey has also been strongly opposed not only to the deformation of Muslim communities, but also to Islamophobic thoughts directed at Muslims and the idea of "ontological superiority". Keeping in mind the cosmopolitan nature of the Balkans, Turkey has always been involved in activities against terrorism, an unrelenting and intolerant religious understanding, and a lack of culture, and it has demonstrated a self-conscious religious and cultural understanding respectful of the other religions and cultures, feeling the essence of worship in its very essence, and not only apparently. As a matter of fact, this is the religious and cultural understanding the Balkan peoples have been familiar with since the Ottoman times.

Therefore, both local peoples and outsiders trying to interpret the situation must appreciate the sincerity of Turkish efforts that are based on a multi-ethnic, multi-denominational, and multi-cultured axis. It is particularly important for the people of the region to see and identify this reality. The most important reasons for this necessity can be listed as follows:

- By perpetuating values that are the products of the essential and common culture of the Balkan peoples, Turkey has been helping concepts such as tolerance, love, and respect to gain a new level of vitality; these are concepts that have existed in the region since the Ottoman times and they are also values that we need most today.

- Turkey and its cultural and aid centers operating in the region have a humane approach, free of any tendencies to pressure, in issues related to individuals and society. Unfortunately, as Balkan peoples, we had long forgotten that an approach of this kind actually existed. The reason for this forgetting is that whichever force came to the Balkans in the last century did nothing but divide, break up, and do things that resulted in the shedding of our blood.

- Turkey has never ever been engaged in any coercive or oppressive religious activity in this region. Quite to the contrary, from the presidential level to the pettiest official, they always maintained that they are against all sorts of understandings and groups that resort to violence and thus get Muslims into serious troubles. They have done their utmost to prevent the influence of such groups from spreading across the society.

- Turkey has based its political approach on establishing and nurturing good relations with the officials governing the states in the region, hoping that this would reflect on all areas of social life. We can clearly observe an example of this approach not only in Muslim-majority countries such as Albania, Kosovo, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, but also in the Christian-majority countries of Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, and Greece.

- Turkey's presence in the region will constitute a platform conducive to the growth of tolerance and facilitate the local peoples to live with their own cultures. We can clearly see this reality in all the recent events and activities held by Turkey in the region.

- Turkey's presence in the region will additionally be the most important factor in countering religious extremism and violence.

- Turkey's religious understanding is one endowed with culture and arts, and one that aims at helping people to live lives worthy of humanity; it is, I guess, this kind of approach that we, as people living in the Balkans, need most.

We can undoubtedly provide more examples than the several listed here. But what matters most is to evaluate the events with a realistic approach and stay away from double standards. The group of people eventually most vulnerable to unrealistic observations based on conspiracy theories is, again, us, the peoples living in the Balkans.

"Opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Anadolu Agency's editorial policy."

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