Originally one of many Sufi orders within Sunni Islam, the Bektashi Order emerged in the 16th-century and quickly spread to the Ottoman Balkans, particularly to what is now Albania, Kosovo, and North Macedonia. Like many Sufis, the Bektashis were quite lax in observing daily Muslim laws, and women as well as men took part in ritual wine drinking and dancing during devotional ceremonies. Espoused by the Janissaries, the elite soldiers of the Ottoman Empire, the Bektashi’s long mystic tradition in Albania made a rich contribution to Sufi poetry.
After 1925, when all Sufi orders were dissolved in Turkey, the Bektashi leadership shifted to Albania, but were later banned during the long Communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. Since the fall of Communism, Bektashi traditions have been revived as Albania and its neighbours begin to integrate closer with the West. New Europe’s Andrianos Giannou sat down with Baba Mondi, the Dedebaba, or spiritual leader, of the order to discuss the future of both Sufism and the Bektashis in modern Europe.
Baba Mondi was in Brussels to attend the Freedom of Religion or Belief Roundtable. He was also invited to deliver an address on “What is Bektashism?” at an event hosted by the European Office of the Church of Scientology for Public Affairs and Human Rights.
Andrianos Giannou (AG): I would like to start with your visit in Brussels. What was the purpose and what was the reception that you have here in Brussels?
Baba Mondi (speaking through a translator) (BM): We as a faith, we respect all people, indifferently of where they come from, what is the colour of their skin, what is their religion, nationality, culture of the values they espouse. This time, I was asked by to join the roundtable (Freedom of Religion or Belief Roundtable), to represent Albania. Of course, I received that invitation with great happiness, this event happens in Brussels, an important place. Throughout the years, we have had a plethora of meetings throughout Europe, and we have attended many events in European Parliament, the European Commission, and other European institutions. At the same time, we have also managed to register our community with the Transparency Register of the European Parliament and the European Commission. For all these reasons, it is a great honour for us to be in Brussels. We believe that it is an important place to share our experience, to learn from the experiences of other, and to seek to advance and promote our faith, and overall, peaceful coexistence in society. As the leader of the World Bektashi Community, I use every chance I have to communicate and spread our values, our wisdom, our knowledge, and in particular, the role that we play in Albania in forging and maintaining harmony among religions, we want to spread that to Europe, we want to bring that to Europe. It is very unique, yet possible, to promote the peaceful co-existence and harmony that exist today in Albania in the rest of the world. And we want to see Europe in better harmony than it is today.
After the end of Communism, we faced significant challenges, especially the previous world leader, but also me, we had to work a lot on the conservation of the Bektashi community in Albania. Later on, together with Arben Sulejmani (Chairman of Bektashi Community of North Macedonia and Head of Foreign Affairs, World Bektashi Headquarters), we started working on spreading our message in Europe, raising the issues and challenges we were facing, to the European institutions. To this day, we have worked hard, in different ways, taking up all opportunities along the way, to show Europe that a harmonious coexistence can be achieved: we want to spread our wisdom, the message of coexistence for a greater common good, our goodwill, and especially – through all this- to show that the Bektashi community is part of the solution, that it has a positive contribution.
We want to show that we are part of Europe and that we want to give our best for Europe, our best. That is what we try to do and that is why we have worked very hard to make our situation known, but also our peaceful worldview. In any workshop, in any meeting, any conference that we have been to in Europe – we were well-received, the reception of the people was very positive, and we have seen an immense interest in what we do and what we represent. This invitation was another chance to engage with all those interested, that is why I accepted without hesitation.
As I said yesterday (In an event hosted by the European Office of the Church of Scientology for Public Affairs and Human Rights, titled “What is Bektashism?”), that is what our faith is, this is what our view is. However, we continue to face challenges: as I mentioned yesterday, the Bektashi community in North Macedonia faces prosecution, representatives of the European Commission have shown interest in assisting us to protect the community there. There was a final decision issued last September, following a ruling in April 2018, a case brought before the European Court of Human Rights by the Bektashi community of Northern Macedonia, on the grounds of the refusal by the country’s authorities to permit the registration of the organisation as a religious institution. The Court found in favour of the Bektashi community. A year has almost passed since that decision entered into force but the authorities of North Macedonia have yet to implement it, which raises questions for North Macedonia, a country that has been pursuing European Union membership.
I would also like to add something more: we have been fighting for our rights as a community in North Macedonia since. We have faced all types of obstacles, discrimination and prosecution: offending us, threatening us with our lives, trying to remove us from our establishments, they have burnt down our tekke, and despite all this, we have never used a single bad word against anyone. That is how we won this battle. Since 1994, in every annual US Department of State report on religious freedom [Report on International Religious Freedom], it is clearly stated that we are discriminated against. Every association in Europe related to freedom of religion issues, they are with us, they have been supporting us. The same goes for the International Association for Religious Freedom.
For this specific case, the challenges we face in North Macedonia, I will go back to 2007, when there was a new law voted that regulated religious organisations. I want to highlight that, as Baba Mondi has already told all foreign diplomats, this was a law specifically designed against the Bektashis. Many diplomats we met after 2007, they told me “Baba Mondi, how could you know?” Let me just explain the problem. Back in 1993, the only procedure you had to undertake in the county to register as a religious community was to go the police station. Then, in 1997, a commission for religion was set up, and that is where you had to register as a religious community. From 1994 to 1997, we tried to register with the police. It worked, but then things changed. In 1997, we tried to register with the commission, which was accepted in 2000. Between 2000 and 2006, we were there. In 2007, a new law was passed: all those communities registered before 1998 did not have to register again. Those that had obtained registration with the commission after that year, including us, were obliged to re-register under the new law. We sought to register. Initially, excuses were invented: first, we were told there is no register. Such tactics continue to this day.
Can you imagine? We have been present in North Macedonia for 500 years. North Macedonia is a new state, it has been around for 20 years, its name has only been around for one year. This is a flagrant case of discrimination; it happens in the open.
Our community is a community where both sexes are equal, they worship together, in the same place. Women are equal to men, our women do not cover their heads, because we believe that every person has their own character, it is not the cloth or the fabric that will make the character of a person. This is what Bektashism has shown in all these years: that Bektashism is the path for understanding, progress, peace, and goodwill. However, the word about us has not spread, we were supressed by Communism.
Historically, in any part of Europe where Islam has existed peacefully, it has been a place with Bektashi presence.
During the times of the Ottoman Empire, the Bektashis were always peaceful, we were the barrier against extremism. We have never given any chance to extremism within our community. One of the recent challenges that the Bektashis have faced -the worst one being the massacre of over one million Bektashis by the Ottoman Sultan- was when Kemal Ataturk, upon his assumption of power, closed down our tekkes, confiscated our properties, barred our world leader from entering our headquarters, then based in Turkey. That is when we came to Albania. Things were good here, but then came communism. In the Ottoman Empire, Bektashis could communicate with each other easily, they could travel. That continued even after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. But with the creation of new nation states and the arrival of communism, that abruptly stopped. Now, we have been trying to rebuild that, we are officially present in 31 countries, with temples, we are trying to register everywhere Bektashis live, we are trying to find new ways to connect. Bektashis are all over the world. We have not had many temples in Western Europe, but today we are using new ways, such as smaller societies or NGOs, to bring Bektashis together and spread our message to society. In Albania, we have a big multi-functional building, within our headquarters, and I am using this chance to invite you and your readers to visit us, to see what really Bektashism is about. Because that building, in its multi-functionality, is not only for Bektashis. It is for everyone.
There is a museum, it exhibits our 800-year-long history. We made a library, a very new one, a modern one, where we have old books, which we are now trying to translate, we have new books, and we also have also digitalised the old manuscripts. We have a modern archive. We have original documents dating back to the 1800s. We have an archive of photography and videos. We have been trying to gather all information available, wherever it is stored, to make it easier for people to find what Bektashism is about. We have a group of people who are working on the old books, to repair them, to improve their condition. The difference for us is that we live on our properties -think of the Benedictine monks, for example: that gives us economic independence, we produce and sell commodities, and that allows us to live in our peaceful and loving Bektashi way. Because we do not live from donations. We live from our work, our, sweat. This is the model of Bektashism: to work so you can feed yourself but also give to those people who are in need.
AG: What would you say are the basic tenets, the basic ideas of Bektashism that make it so peaceful and have a universal value that can be spread?
BM: The universal value of Bektashism is the human. A human being is an institution that has been created by God. We do not have the right to take someone’s life. We don’t have the right to lie, to proselytise, we do not have the right to propagandise, no religion has the right to engage in propaganda. Knowing the human being, knowing that his values are universal, as a perfect creation of God, and working to help, to improve the conditions for the human being, means that we have to work hard to achieve progress, to change things, to adopt things, to always strive to do good.
What do we do towards that? First, we try to provide education. That does not only mean to read book. It also means to educate people to work. Because they have to learn that it is only through their own sweat that they can eat. That is what was so bad about communism: it disconnected the human being from its creator and made a complacent, lazy man out of a good man.
We also work a lot with family. The family is saint. Because a good family will bear good children, a good generation. We do not discriminate, and we do not discriminate between genders. Families will bring progress to society. What will an educated woman, or a smart mother with wisdom, what will she gift the world? Her offspring will be good, educated children. You might say that many people have access to education. In our community, we strive to provide education to those who do not have access. We help children attend school; we send them to school. It has been that way through history.
We try to help the younger generation. We are trying to give them opportunities – at school, at work. Those opportunities will open their mind to help them think more progressively. This is the generation that will make changes. They will make changes because they have been educated and they have worked.
In the Quran, there is a beautiful saying. God says “I am hidden treasure. I want people to learn about me. So, I created people to learn about me.” That means that, a man, throughout his life, he has to learn. His education is endless. Let’s say we spend the whole day praying; what will we do if we do not work? I’m not against prayer, but before praying, we must work. If we work, then we can pray. Because even in the Quran, Prophet Mohammed says, the first thing in a man’s life is to work. After you work, you will pray.
AG: What would you say is this secret of interfaith coexistence? How did you make it in Albania, how did you succeed?
BM: First, we respect all men – Bektashi, Orthodox, Catholic, Buddhist, Protestant, Jew – We do not care. Everyone is my brother. I do not see specifics. Why? Look, I have five fingers on my hand. They are not much alone, but when they are together, they are strong. That’s why God made differences, so different people can help each other, not fight each other. What other people are doing is not a problem for me. It depends on a man. A person’s ego creates enemies. But a man has no enemies, he only has one enemy- himself, his ego. You have a different mind, he has a different mind, I have a different mind, but something connects us, and something brings us together. We are the most beautiful creation of God, yet we hurt each other. And why do we do this? Because of our egos. There is no perfect man, only God is perfect. I am not your judge. Faith is personal, it is not collective, because in front of God, you are only one person. In Bektashism, it is forbidden for someone to confess, only God can take my sins away. Because if I have God in my life, I do not need anyone to confess to.
Second, the Quran and Haji Bektash say that when a man has sinned and he has apologized, he is asking to be free from that sin. If he does not make the same mistake, he will be forgiven. But if a man is asking God to forgive him for the same mistake over and over again, it is wrong. He is not forgiven. You become your own evil. Not everyone who looks like a man is a man. They look like men, but they act like beasts. They are doing what a beast would do. The terrorists and murders, they are not men.
And the last thing I wanted to say, there are no problems within any religion. There are problems only in people. In Bektashism, we do not have problems because we never force people to convert. Anyone who joins is a genuine believer and they will stay faithful. When someone make a mistake, they make a mistake as a person and not as a believer. Similarly, leaders must be clear and solve the problems. There is no way in this world that you will find a bad nation. You will find a bad leader, not a bad nation. It is always a bad leader. We are the ones who have to connect with people and help them act out with good will in the world.