Ottoman Empire in Kosovo and Albanian history books

25/07/2011

How the history of the Ottoman Empire in Kosovo and Albania is written has important implications for Kosovo and Albania's relations with Turkey.

By Muhamet Brajshori for Southeast European Times in Pristina -- 25/07/11

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Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu's concept of "strategic depth" faces problems in Kosovo and Albanian history books. [Reuters]

In the history books of Kosovo and Albania, full of nationalist building discourse, the Ottoman Empire, and in some cases Turkey, are considered an oppressor due to nearly five centuries of Ottoman rule. However, historians argue that this nationalist-based perception could have a long-term impact on relations with a resurgent Turkey in the region.

Olsi Jazexhi, who is doing his PhD on Albanian nationalism, tells SETimes the history books on the Ottoman Empire and Turkey reflect a prejudice that is influenced by so-called Albanian European nationalism, which had different stages of development, beginning during the Ottoman presence until Communist rule.

"All those stages show Europe as a destination of the Albanians, and Turkey as the opposite of it, and since 9/11 show Islam as part of this evil," says Jazexhi.

Describing the Ottoman period, a history book written for primary schools in Kosovo describes the influence of Islam on Kosovo. "Factors which had impact on the spread of Islam were: pressure on the people through land taxes, which should be paid only by Christians, abducting boys and taking them to Istanbul where they faced Islamisation and education in Islamic way, reprisals of the state organs on the population, etc."

In this context, one issue discussed among experts and historians is whether the Ottoman Empire was an occupying country in Albania and Kosovo.

Jazexhi argues that the Ottomans conquered lands that Albanian nationalist historians view as greater Albania, but mentions an important caveat. "The Ottomans were not Turks, but in most cases were Albanians. Albanian Muslims who constructed and administered in the Ottoman Empire and its European parts," he tells SETimes.

This stance is reflected in the view of Turks, who view Albanians as brothers and a loyal nation, and were part of the Ottoman elite that included over two dozen prime ministers of Albanian origin.

In a 2009 speech in Sarajevo, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said, "If there had not been an Ottoman tradition, Egyptians would not have seen any Albanian in their life," referring to the 19th century Albanian reformer Muhammad Ali, who ruled Egypt and established a dynasty.

However, historian Dhimiter Koci reflects the nationalist perspective, and questions the need for a revision of history. "In our history the Ottomans were conquering our Albanian areas, and this is a fact which cannot be changed," says Koci, arguing that "any change of history or review, whatever they call it, is a risk to our national identity, and this happened just in communist times."

What may seem as an academic discussion among historians, may, however, have repercussion for Turkish foreign policy's guiding principle of "strategic depth" as advocated by Davutoglu, using Turkey's soft power -- including common historical and cultural bonds -- to advance Turkey's increasing imprint on the region.

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Columnist Ndue Ukaj, for example, has doubts about the "brotherly relations" between Kosovo and Turkey.

"Is it possible with those with whom we have fought for five centuries, those that have degenerated and deformed the nation, with those who have rendered us in the pool of ignorance and underdevelopment…today, when we intend to turn towards the civilized world, to have brotherly relations?" he writes in a column.

This negative view of the Ottomans could also reverberate on Turkey's perception of ethnic Albanians over the long-run, warns Jazexhi.

"At the moment, Turkey is under Ahmet Davutoglu's feverish policy, which seeks communion with the peoples of the Balkans and wants to begin the history from the beginning. But after a few decades I think the Turks will probably begin to change their attitude towards their Albanian brothers."

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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