Missing on Kosova: the sufi voice?

Newly pseudo-independent Kosova, it seems, is serving as a sort of political Rorschach test, with commentators’ views on its drive for self-determination shaped more by their views on other issues. Days after left-wing Israeli dissident Uri Avnery noted Israeli reluctance to recognize Kosova lest it give some ideas to the Palestinians (and, worse yet, Israeli Arabs), comes a voice from the neocon end of the spectrum—finding that Kosovars and Israelis are natural allies. Michael Totten writes in a March 20 piece for Commentary (also online at his website):

The State of Israel is divided on the Kosovo question: should the world’s newest country be recognized? Some, like former Minister for Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman, worry that Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia might encourage Palestinians to make the same move. The small Balkan state, however, may have more in common with Israel than with the West Bank and Gaza.

Israelis, as Amir Mizroch notes in the Jerusalem Post, have excellent relations with the Kosovars. “Israel has an interest in helping to establish a moderate, secular Muslim state friendly to Jerusalem and Washington in the heart of southeast Europe,” he writes. Indeed, Kosovo is neither an enemy state nor a jihad state. Its brand of Islam is heavily Sufi, which is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Wahhabism and Salafism that inspire Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Kosovo doesn’t belong to the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah-Hamas axis. On the contrary, Kosovo has thrown in its lot with the West, and especially with the United States. Serbia’s breakaway province is perhaps the most pro-American country in all of Europe. Bill Clinton is lionized there as a liberator—a main boulevard through the capital Prishtina is named after him—just as George H. W. Bush and his son George W. Bush are hailed as saviors in Iraqi Kurdistan….

The irrelevance of Kosovo to the Arab-Israeli conflict is underscored by the fact that not a single Arab country has recognized Kosovo. The only Muslim countries which so far have bothered are Turkey, Malaysia, Senegal, Albania, and Afghanistan. The governments of all these countries are, to one extent or another, either moderate, in the pro-Western camp, or both…

Many in Kosovo are well aware that they have more in common with Israel than with the West Bank and Gaza. “Kosovars used to identify with the Palestinians because we Albanians are Muslims and Christians and we saw Serbia and Israel both as usurpers of land,” a prominent Kosovar recently told journalist Stephen Schwartz. “Then we looked at a map and woke up. Israelis have a population of six million, their backs to the sea, and 300 million Arab enemies. Albanians have a total population of eight million, our backs to the sea, and 200 million Slav enemies. So why should we identify with the Arabs?”

In other words, the Kosovars are domesticated good Muslims, who view the US as protector rather than hegemon. Someone forgot to tell the folks at the pro-Serbian American Council on Kosovo (which they love over at Jihad Watch, of course). Bent on portraying Kosova as al-Qaeda’s new European beachhead, it is awash with such lurid titles as “Wahhabism Tightening Grip Over Kosovo” and “The Clinton-Bush-Islamic Axis in Israel and Kosovo.”

The reality may be more complicated—and interesting—than either side will acknowledge. A March 13 article in the Tehran Times mentions some deep-rooted elements in the region which appear to exist outside the spectacularized jihad-vs-GWOT duality. It notes that the Albania-based Sadi Cultural Foundation is establishing libraries and tekiyas—sufi gathering places— in Kosova and Macedonia “with the assistance of the Bektashi Order and is planning to set up more in the future.”

The story renders tekiya with the less orthodox spelling of tekyeh—and defines it as a “place where ritual Shia Islamic ceremonies are practiced.” But this may be a ploy to get past Tehran’s censors. Tekiyas—especially in the Balkans—are generally associated with sufi orders which, even when Shi’ite, fall well outside the mainstream of Shia Islam. In fact, the Balkans appear to have been a refuge for heretical traditions which were persecuted in Turkey when the Ottoman Empire was shaken by paroxysms of orthodoxy or—with Sultan Mahmud II’s modernization drive in 1826—militant secularism.

Writes historian Anthony Weir on the website of the Bektashi Order of Sufi Dervishes:

Many early leaders of Albanian nationalism were Bektashi, and the Order formed the “left” end of the Islamic spectrum in the Balkans. Following the destruction of the Janissary Corps and the banning of the tariqat [sufi orders] in 1826, many Bektashi babas and dervishes fled to the remote areas of the Balkans far from the reach of the Ottoman government. During this period (especially after the order outlawing of the Bektashis was rescinded in the 1860s), the tariqat had gained a sizeable presence in southern Albania. Their toleration and ability to absorb local custom provided the population with a “folk” Islam that they could easily relate to—and this allowed Bektashism to spread throughout Greece and modern Macedonia

He notes that among those who established colonies in the Balkans at this time (especially Bulgaria) were the Kizilbashi, a sufi military caste from central Anatolia—where they are generally associated with the (nominally Shi’ite) Alevi Order.

The Alevis of central Anatolia are said to harbor indigenous Turkic traditions (including traces of shamanism) purged from the Arabized culture of the Ottoman court. Balkan sufism similarly seems to harbor traces of indigenous pre-Islamic and even pre-Christian traditions. In “A Glimpse at Sufism in the Balkans,” scholar Huseyin Abiva writes on the Alevi-Bektashi website:

In rural areas, often far removed from the educational institutions of the religious establishment, the orders that were the widest spread tended to have had heterodox and syncretistic teachings. Here, in order to facilitate an easy transition from Christianity to Islam, the people often kept elements of their old ways (which were often of pre-Christian in origin themselves). For instance, the Hamzevis found considerable appeal along the very rural districts of the Drina River valley [Bosnia] in the 16th century shortly after the population of the area had converted to Islam. The 14th century religio-political movement of Shaykh Beddruddin Simavi (if it can be defined as a Sufi tariqat) was confined to the wilds of the Bulgarian backcountry. Both of these movements were crushed by the Ottoman government, but many of their ideas are believed to have filtered into the Bektashi Order, the Sufi order that held enormous influence over large parts of the rustic Balkans.

An April 4, 2006 AFP report online at Sufi News & World Report noted (in an account not for the squeamish):

At the end of March the 5,000 Dervishes of Prizen in southern Kosovo celebrate the Spring equinox festival of “Sultan Nevruz,” the moment when the sun begins to favor the Northern Hemisphere and day become longer than night.

The ceremony unfolds in the hilly suburbs of this picture-postcard town in special ampitheatre, or “teqe,” that bears little resemblance to a traditional Muslim mosque. Some 60 dervishes of all ages dressed in black and white waistcoats and flat hats, including a few children, begin chanting before an overflowing crowd. Women, guests and journalists are kept to the side or observe from a small wooden balcony.

What is about to unfold is so dramatic as to shock the uninitiated, and even shake one’s understanding of medical science.

“La-illaha-illallah” (“There is no god but God”) the Dervishes intone in a subdued prayer… Bobbing their heads, they slowly up the tempo and volume of the prayer from a deep murmur into full-throated howl, praying for their past sins to be pardoned. The crescendo mounts for two hours until the Dervishes are swaying in a state of mystical ecstasy. “Allah Hu” (he is God), they chant in perfect unison.

That is when the skewers and knives appear.

The Shejh [Adrihusejn, leader of the order] leads the way, coating 15-centimetre (six inch) long needles with his saliva and then piercing his two young sons. He does the same to three other children.

Miraculously, there is no blood, and the children show no sign of fear or pain, swaying silently as they hold the needles pierced through one side of their mouths.

Next come the blades: Shejh slowly eases 40-centimetre ( 1.3-foot) knives with rounded, pearl-coated stems through both cheeks of the Dervishes, one-by-one.

Driven by the rhythm of kettledrums and tambourines, the entranced worshipers sway in a semi-conscious state, repeating their calls to “Allah” over and over.

Next they begin piercing their necks with knives, proudly displaying the wounds. “The knives symbolize the healing of all wounds. This is the blessing of God and the power of the order,” says an elderly, high-ranking Dervish after the ceremony.

This is clearly Nowruz, the Persian new year festival—perhaps brought to the Balkans in the 1820s by the Kizilbashi, or perhaps by Zoroastrian-influenced Gnostics 2,000 years ago.

It is practically axiomatic that these cultures are threatened. In a 2000 study, “Destruction of cultural heritage in Kosovo: a postwar report,” Stanford University found:

Another category of historical architecture in urgent need of protection in Kosovo is Muslim houses of worship. This part of Europe is home to an indigenous Islamic tradition going back more than 600 years, with its own rich architectural heritage—mosques, tekkes (lodges of the Sufi lay brotherhoods), medreses (theological schools), Islamic libraries, hamams (Turkish baths), and bazaars built to support charitable foundations. This heritage suffered massive destruction during the recent conflict. In the majority of cases, it was evident from the statements of eyewitnesses, from the type of damage (mosques burned out from within, with no bullet or shrapnel holes; minarets that had been blown up with explosives placed inside, causing the stone spire to collapse onto the building), and from visible signs of vandalism (Koran manuscripts ripped from bindings and burned or defaced with human excrement, crude anti-Muslim and anti-Albanian graffiti in Serbian on the walls of destroyed and desecrated mosques) that this destruction was not the result of military activities. These were not buildings that had been caught in the crossfire as Serbian forces fought Albanian rebels, or hit by NATO’s bombs and missiles.

Of course, if you want to be regaled by the corresponding accounts of Albanian vandalism of Serbian Orthodox churches, monasteries and artifacts, just go to the American Council on Kosovo. The point is that maybe—just maybe—there are autochthonous forces that have not been drawn into the pathological polarization, if only due to their own endemic weirdness.

The Bektashi do pop up in the Turkish press from time to time. The Turkish Daily News noted March 3 that they have weighed in publicly in favor of the lifting of the head-scarf ban:

The leader of the Hasandede Turkmen-Bektashi Association, Ă–zdemir Ă–zdemir…claimed that the greater part of society is against the headscarf ban and argued that the ban has nothing to do with secularism. “People with and without veils are living together in peace. We should respect individual preferences. We should always act hand in hand for the development of our country,” said Ă–zdemir.

Secularists might disagree with this position—but it is still a very far cry from Wahhabism. And, despite the dreams of the neocons, the dervish ceremony described above is also (thank goodness) a very far cry from American globalism…

See our last posts on Kosova, the sufis and the struggle within Islam.

    1. And aleikum salaam
      I’m not sure there is an “argument” exactly, but the point is just what we said—that there are deep-rooted elements in the region which appear to exist outside the spectacularized jihad-vs-GWOT duality.