Jan 02 2019

Kosovars question Turkey’s Islamic outreach - Guardian

Kosovo’s capital badly needs a new mosque, but Turkey’s attempts to court the Balkan state with investment and advocacy are making many locals uneasy, The Guardian reported on Wednesday.

Six years ago, Pristina’s Muslim leaders and government officials laid the cornerstone for a new central mosque. But today it lies under weeds, covered in red graffiti that threatens Kosovo’s chief mufti: “No Turkish mosque or there will be blood.”

After years of debate and controversy, Kosovo’s capital appears set to finally get its new mosque, a gift from Turkey that is to begin construction this spring.

Kosovo’s population of 1.8 million is 95 percent Muslim, yet many of the countless mosques destroyed in recent conflicts with neighboring Serbia have yet to be rebuilt.

“In Europe they don’t have a single village without a church, but here in Kosovo are at least 50 villages without a mosque,” chief mufti Naim Tërnava told The Guardian.

Having declared independence 10 years ago, Kosovo is still struggling to make its way in an unstable area of Europe and in need of friends. Enter Turkey, which as part of its neo-Ottoman foreign policy has in recent years sought to use Islam, and particularly the construction of mosques, to extend its influence.

Ankara has made huge investments in Kosovo and been a firm advocate for its international recognition and eventual accession to NATO and the EU, said the Guardian. “Turkey is Kosovo, and Kosovo is Turkey,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said during a 2013 visit.

Imperial Turks played a key role in Kosovo’s history, defeating the Serbs in 1389 to begin the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans. The empire ruled Kosovo for nearly 500 years, bringing Islam, cuisine, and much more. Now Erdoğan has returned, bearing a great gift.

There has been controversy over the mosque’s design, including the rejection of plans by esteemed architects like Zaha Hadid in favour of a classical Ottoman style -- even though the public tender stressed the need for an original building.

The project is being overseen by the Turkish state’s directorate for religious affairs, the Diyanet, which has built dozens of other mosques across the Islamic world in recent years.

The Diyanet said the mosque will be based on the famous 16th-century Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, in northwest Turkey not far from Greece. “In short, Pristina’s new mosque will more closely resemble the hundreds built across the Balkans under Turkish rule – only much larger,” wrote the Guardian.

Pristina’s Muslim community said it took a long time to choose a winning design that fit the chosen location, while the city government dragged its feet in giving final approval, which finally came in September. Some locals resent the mosque as a symbol of Turkey’s overbearing influence, said The Guardian.

“Over 30 designs were submitted just months after the call for designs was made in 2012,” said local architect Arbër Sadiki. “But before the competition closed, interviews started appearing in the press in which the mufti described what the new mosque would look like...the designs were supposed to be original, but the chosen one is just a copy of an Ottoman mosque. The decision looks more political than architectural to me. I know amazing architects doing work on contemporary mosques in Turkey. Why can’t we put Pristina on the map with something similar?”

Pristina isn’t the only city in Kosovo where ostentatious Turkish-funded mosque construction has taken place. In Mitrovica, about 20 miles north, the city’s Albanian district is home to the country’s largest mosque, which opened in 2014 and is named after the Istanbul district that funded its construction, Bayrampaşa.

“Back in Pristina there is a sense Turkey has taken advantage of western disinterest to expand its influence in a place Ankara treats like part of its backyard,” wrote The Guardian.

“People ask: why aren’t western investors coming here? Is it because we are Muslim?” asked Xhabir Hamiti, professor of Islamic studies at Pristina University. “The sense is that the only door open to us leads to Turkey – and some want to walk through it.”