Ottoman image in the Balkans: the case of Kosovoby Erhan Türbedar*

Ottoman image in the Balkans: the case of Kosovoby Erhan Türbedar*

Mehmed II’s entry into Constantinople, by Fausto Zonaro (1854-1929)

September 16, 2011, Friday/ 17:25:00

One of the topics that left an imprint on Kosovo’s domestic agenda in August 2011 and still continues is the debate over the Ottoman and Turkish image in Kosovar history books.

What triggered the debate was a statement made by Turkish Education Minister Ömer Dinçer, who visited Kosovo last August and who said that negative expressions about the Ottomans and Turks in Kosovar history books should be expunged. This led to the writing of many articles on Turkish-Albanian relations, and the matter was discussed in several live broadcasts. Although there were some favorable assessments about the Albanians’ status in the Ottoman state, those with historical misconceptions regarding the Ottomans dominated the scene. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who paid an official visit to Kosovo on Aug. 26-27, said Kosovar historians should free themselves of the Cold War and ideological historiography. Albanians had a privileged status in the Ottoman state. Their interests jibed and integrated with those of the Ottomans upon adopting Islam. According to Bilal Şimşir, 28 Ottoman viziers were of Albanian origin. Historian Dennis P. Hupchick calls attention to the fact that there were no conditions in the Ottoman era to necessitate a general Albanian uprising. Renowned Balkan historian Noel Malcolm contends that it was the Albanians abroad who, in the pre-1878 period, wanted the establishment of an independent Albanian state. Charles and Barbara Jelavich say that Albanians came up with no demand for independence from the Ottomans until 1912 and settled for autonomy alone. They believe that Albanians wary of the occupation of their lands by neighboring countries dreaded the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire. In fact, Albanians were among those who were the hardest hit during the process of the Ottoman state’s disintegration. When the shaping of a western Albanian identity became imperative during the process of building a modern Albanian state, Albanians started writing their history so as to gloss over its Ottoman past. This led to the emergence of anti-Ottoman and Turkish elements in Albanian history books. As Malcolm said, Albanian historians presented certain uprisings staged only to protest increased taxes or oppressive Ottoman officials as part of the struggle of independence waged against the Ottoman administration. The making of history in the same vein also continued during the communist era, when textbooks where used to serve the purposes of political establishment, its policies and ideologies.

Ottomans: ‘fanatical and intolerant’

It is still possible today to see in the publications of the Albanian Academy of Sciences articles and texts qualifying Ottomans as fanatical and intolerant. The widely accepted view is that the Albanians were crushed under heavy taxes under the Ottoman administration and were deprived of even the most fundamental human rights and massacred. This mode of history writing seems to have been adopted in Kosovo as well. As a matter of fact, the presentation of Ottoman history is biased, wrong and incomplete not only in Albanian text books but in all of the Balkan countries. While Turkish historiography tends to portray the Ottoman period as the “golden age” of the Balkans, which was later disturbed by nationalist movements (an approach many historians also find debatable), the Balkan peoples and governments are prone to perceiving this common history in a different way. The contrast can be so marked that certain nationalists in the Balkans blame all the wrongs and misfortunes of their countries on the Ottoman era.

It is possible to explain the prejudices against the Ottoman state with two major factors: The first is that the Balkan peoples were exposed in the 19th century to the West’s romantic ethnic nationalism. Balkan romantic nationalists not only played a successful role in the shaping of national identities and the encouragement of the desire for independence but also laid the groundwork for Ottoman history to be interpreted in a way shorn of objective facts. The second is that the collective memory of societies does not go back very far. Balkan peoples can be said to remember the Ottoman era mostly in terms of the developments throughout the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. However, these were the periods when administrative disturbances and irregularities as well as domestic turmoil were most rampant in all places of the Ottoman territories, including Anatolia.

An analysis of school textbooks in the Balkan countries today reveals that the style in which the Ottomans are treated is in general partial; there is no space for alternative views in some controversial subjects and the texts are replete with nationalistic discourse containing at times a language of vituperation. It is also possible to sense in the books the ideological and political concerns of the writers. What is also important in this respect is that the books speak for the greater part of the military and political aspects of the Ottoman state, leaving very little space for the social, cultural and religious colors of the empire. However, a more objective account of Ottoman history requires a thorough examination in the Balkans of those years of the social and cultural life, the family structure, the educational system, the relations between social groups, religious institutions and communities. So long as the Ottoman state is viewed from the perspectives of the military and politics, people in the Balkans can hardly learn some vitally important factors such as the Ottoman state’s religious tolerance and its contributions in the restoration of churches. Ottoman history and its rule over the Balkans is far more complex and Balkan historians need to dig deeper and have a more holistic and complete reading of the entire period of the Ottoman history to have a more balanced outlook.

*Erhan Türbedar, Ph.D., is a foreign policy analyst with the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV).

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