The inevitability of nationalism

The inevitability of nationalism – The case of the Bektashi

Slađan Rankić

Nationalism is a fickle concept, defined so many times in so many way, yet its true potential still escapes us. When one thinks of nationalism, the minds eyes conjures up images of flag waving young men, eager to seek glory in battle (or on the football stadium) for their nation. However, its manifestations are far subtler and much more widespread than what is commonly believed. To start off I will present a working definition of nationalism, from the pen of one of the greatest scholars of nationalism, Eric Hobsbawn. He defines nationalism as: “primarily a principle which holds that the political and national unit should be congruent.”[1] He continues on: “I would add that this principle also implies the political duty of Ruritanians to the polity which encompasses and represents the Ruritanian nation, overrides all other public obligations, and in extreme cases (such as wars) all other obligations of whatever kind.”[2] Now we should define the nation itself. For this I will utilize two complementary visions of the nation, from his book Imagined communities. Firstly, “the nation is an imagined political community and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”[3] Secondly, “the nation is a solid community moving up (down) history.”[4] Both these definitions were extremely important for me to better comprehend the profound experience of our journey and reflect on the implications of intercommunal dynamics in Macedonia and Albania. Lastly, I must add a few more observations by Iver B Neumann. He claimed that every single ethnic group maintains itself by maintaining its boundaries with other neighboring groups.[5] The neighbors will do the same and thus, through discourse boundaries are maintained and the groups become “solid”. It is critical that the Other acknowledges the narrative of the collective Self, if the Other doesn’t acknowledge the Self, then the cohesiveness of the community is jeopardized. To put it bluntly, using the example from our research, the negotiations between Greece and Macedonia, with Greece being the Macedonian Other, are endangering the “solidity” of the Macedonian nation by not acknowledging its national narrative. The Other is necessary for Us, so that we can define Ourselves against it, yet it is also necessary for the Other to acknowledge Us as being different from it. The case of Germans and Austrians comes to mind vividly.

Even though both nations acknowledge that they both speak the same German language, nevertheless, Austrians fight tooth and nail to maintain their boundary with Germans symbolically(linguistically).  When Austria joined the EU it produced a list of 23 words which are different in High German and Austrian German. Thus, when an EU document regulating, say the trade of potatoes, is drafted, in its German version it must contain two words which mean the same, potato: Kartoffel (High German) and Erdapfel (Austrian). This may seem petty, but this list of 23 words serves a basic function. It acknowledges that there are two distinct political communities within the EU who use the German language. Symbolically and linguistically, Austria has entered into a union with other European nations, while protecting its boundaries with them, particularly with the most similar Other, Germany. Furthermore, Germany and Germans have accepted this symbolical border. This little story serves to illustrate that the logic of maintaining petty differences isn’t endemic to the Balkans. Rather it is necessary succor for any and all social groups which seek to endure and to move up (down history). Now, onto the meat of the matter.

During our trip we have visited many locations which piqued my interest, but for the interest of time I will focus on the most fascinating part of our journey, the visit to the Tekija in Tetovo and the seat of Baba Mondi in Tirana. When we entered the Tekija I was shocked by the stark contrast of this Muslim place of worship from the one in Tetovo proper. The Sunni mosque in the city was beautiful in an ascetic and austere way. The patterns on the walls were intricate and riveting, yet typical of any mosque. When we entered the Tekija however, we were greeted with the pictures of Mohamed and Ali, a taboo for mainstream Islam. Furthermore, although this may be an entirely subjective observation, the Prophets were painted in an effeminate way, with lush red lips and deep dark eyes, adding insult to injury for any adherent of Sunni Islam, let alone Wahhabism. The Tekija was modest, reminiscent of orthodox monasteries of my homeland, however on its outer walls lay flags of many nations, with the flags of: Kosovo, Albania and USA in the most prominent place. The Dervish greeted us and proceeded to tell us the story of his community, going up(down) history, all the while drawing bridges and borders with Catholics, Sunnis and Orthodox. Thus, a solid Sufi community emerged in our minds, distinct from Christians and Muslims, yet similar to both. The Dervish defined his community as being a bridge between radical Christianity and radical Islam. The metaphor of the bridge is omnipresent in the Balkans and I will get to it in a moment. During our talk the Dervish put forward his own hierarchy of collective Selves: 1. Nation, 2. Family, 3. Faith. His thought mirrors the words of one of the creators of Albanian nationalism Pashko Vasa: “The religion of Albanians is albanianism.”

However, it seemed that the Dervish was torn between his Sufi and Albanian Self. He told us that the greatest problem of Sufism is that it doesn’t have a state. Orthodoxy has Russia, Sunni Islam has Saudi Arabia and Sufis have no state to call their own. The Dervish said: “Kad imaš svoju državu možeš da imaš I svoju religiju.” Which I will loosely translate into: “You cannot have a religion without a nation state.” Later on, while the group was slowly entering the bus I stayed behind to speak some more with the Dervish, despite Kristoff’s strong protests. It is here that I learned about the conflict with the local Sunni Albanian population and it is here that I found out that the bullet holes in the Tekija Walls were not from some distant war. There was a constant threat that the Tekija might be stormed and it was shot at multiple times. The Dervish seamed happy to lay down his life as a martyr for his faith, as a true believer always is. He claimed that the Sufis were not men of violence and that no killer can ever be a Sufi. He placed his fate in the will of God, as a true ascetic believer.

The visit to the seat of Baba Mondi was a wake-up call. The humble lodgings of the Dervish and an ascetic spiritual environment was supplanted by an opulent seat of power and a plump religious head garbed in fine silk robes. The Sufi community, like any other human group couldn’t escape a hierarchical structuring of its members. We were escorted to the museum where we could see the history of the Sufi community visualized and presented to onlookers in all its glory. The picture of the prophet Ali, weeping after the battle of Karbala and washing his bloody hands in a river, caught my eye. The picture was breathtaking and inscribed with a poem in his name, written by one of the Frasheri brothers. Our guide was espousing the merits of multiculturalism, claiming that Sufism doesn’t distinguish between nations and that his religion abhors violence. He reiterated the metaphor of the bridge, which the Dervish used before. When I confronted him with the issue of how can a religious community which does not distinguish between nations and holds pacifism in high regard give birth to a nationalist movement and prominent intellectuals who crafted the concept of Greater Albania, the fell silent for a moment. He than answered: “There is no religion without a nation-state.”, and he shifted the topic down history, to the Ottoman era. Our guide proudly claimed that most of the Janissaries were Sufi. I asked: “Isn’t it contradictory that a pacifist religion is dominant within an elite military unit, made up of forced Christian converts to Islam?” Our guide fell silent again. I was challenging the basic premises of his collective Self, challenging the narrative of his community and he became defensive, as I would have in his place.

Now we return to the metaphor of the bridge. Samuel Huntington succinctly defined the problem of the bridge. “A bridge, however, is an artificial creation connecting two solid entities but is a part of neither.”[6] A bridge eases the transition from one shore to another, from one solid entity to another, it is not meant to be a place where one settles. We did hear as much from the Sufis themselves. Christian converts were more agreeable to converting to Sufi Islam than Sunni Islam, since it was not so radically different from their world view. However, we learned later on, from our trip in Skadar that the bridge is now fostering movement in a different direction. Many Sufis are converting to Protestantism, since they are already on the margins of mainstream Islam, they are more receptive to the evangelizing protestant missionaries.

Our guide in Skadar was an Albanian Catholic, who acknowledged that Islam was the delineating factor which helped the Albanian nation to form, juxtaposed to orthodox Serbs and Greeks. Our guide took us on a tour of the catholic churches and Venetian monuments, proud of the mark which Catholicism left on his country. He did not take us to the local mosque, despite the insistences of some of the members of our group. Here I saw yet another display of the inescapable realities of ingroup bias, or quite simply nationalism, and the need to maintain boundaries with Others. In brief, outwardly Albanians do seem like one nation, however the divides between their religious communities run deep. What I saw was, to be melodramatic, a battle for the soul of Albania. To use Huntington again: “the destiny of each linguistically and unified community depends ultimately upon the survival of primary structuring ideas, around which successive generations have coalesced, and which symbolize the society’s continuity.”[7]These primary structuring ideas then become a basis for institutionalization and the competition between these basis produces conflict. There is no religion without a nation state. The Sufi religious heads told us. They wish to enshrine their own principle into the institution which is the Albanian state, to ensure their community ensure its survival. Other religious/ideological communities will do the same, creating further ground for conflict. How would this dynamic play out could be an interesting question to ponder and I would love to discuss it further with all you.

[1] Eric Hosbabwm Nations and Nationalism since 1780- second edition, Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016 (23d print), p. 9

[2] ibid

[3] Benedict Anderson Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London UK: Verso 2016, p. 6

[4] Ibid p. 26

[5] Iver B Nojman, Upotreba drugog: Istok u formiranju evrpskog identiteta, Beograd: Službeni glasnik, 2011, pp 24-25

[6] Samuel P. Huntington Clash of Civilizations and The Remaking of World Order, New York US: Free Press, 2002, p. 149

[7] Samuel P. Huntington Clash of Civilizations and The Remaking of World Order, New York US: Free Press, 2002, pp 43-44




BUNK’ART – entering the dark past

Die Bektashi in Albanien und ihre Geschichte

Die Watchdog-Organisation Eco Guerilla

Fieldwork Šipkovica: Perceptions and group dynamics

Forgotten Spaces in border regions

Interkulturalität und Mehrsprachigkeit in Albanien und Mazedonien

Mehrsprachigkeit innerhalb der einheimischen Bevölkerung Mazedoniens und Albaniens

The representation of multilingualism in the linguistic landscape of Macedonia

Skopje 2014

State Identities and Architecture in Albania and Macedonia

The (hidden) face of Macedonia

The (post)Yugoslav legacy and everyday life in Macedonia and Albania

Women on the Balkans