The Albanian National Identity, Kosovo and Europe: A Reply to Marion Maréchal | Albert Bikaj & Nikola Kedhi
Dear Mademoiselle Marechal,
As patriotic Albanians and Europeans, we are writing to draw your attention to an inaccurate declaration made by you, which we have noticed is part of a disturbing trend in your French political family. You may recall that your aunt, Madame Marine Le Pen, launched a petition last year to prevent Albanians from joining the European Union. Just a few days ago, you spoke these remarks on a French television show:
“It’s demographics that make history, just look at Kosovo. This predominantly Serbian Orthodox country was colonized for decades by Muslim Albanians.”
You posted this on your Twitter profile as well, which leads us to assume that you feel such a thing is accurate. If this is due to ignorance (which we really hope is the case) or on intent, it is not just a political mistake, but a major historical error.
Firstly, Albanians in both the Republic of Kosovo and in Albania are neither colonizers, nor migrants to the Balkans. The Albanian nation, Mademoiselle, unlike what you may have been told, is indigenous. It has inhabited the Illyrian peninsula (nowadays called Balkans) together with other Hellenic and Thracian tribes, city-states, kingdoms, long before any other type of population invaded the region.
There are various historic accounts, including those by Herodotus, that put the borders of the Illyrian population from the branches of the Danube River – Drava and Sava – in the north, to the Ambracian gulf in the south. The modern Albanian, spoken by those in the Republic of Albania and Republic of Kosovo is a direct descendant of the language spoken by the Illyrians and there is no other similar language in Europe or the World. In the current Republic of Kosovo, in which the Illyiran kingdom of Dardania existed in antiquity, at the late 1800s, 82 percent of the population was Albanian. After Slavic colonization, in the 1920s and 1930s, it fell to 65%. Today, 95% of the population speaks Albanian.
Your former party, just as your uncle Mr. Le Pen, seems to have a problem with the religion in Albanian territories, which truthfully is our greatest asset. As a nation we belong to the three main Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. (Namely, Sunni and Shia Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, members of the Bektashi Order, Protestants and others, including Jews. Many have found refuge here, throughout the centuries. Albania was among the only countries to provide a safe haven to Jews when they were persecuted by the Nazis.)
Many, being ignorant of our culture and history, often categorize Albanians as a ‘Muslim nation’. But that’s not how we and our ancestors have ever identified; that would be a reduction of our identity. Regardless of religious plurality and harmony, the Albanian national identity is and has always been traditionally secular. As a nation, despite centuries under the Ottomans, we have always turned our eyes fixed to the West and its values. Our ancestors’ countless uprisings for liberty during the centuries prove this. We are Europeans Mademoiselle, whether you like it or not.
Before and after the independence from the Ottomans, the Albanian politicians and intellectuals focused on reviving the Albanian culture, identity and country. King Zog for example, a Muslim himself, had banned burqa, hijab, Sharia law (imposed by the Ottomans) and did his best to de-Ottomanize the country, promote the secular Albanian identity and the Western values. He married Géraldine Apponyi de Nagy-Appony, the Hungarian Catholic countess, and baptized his son with a traditional Albanian Catholic name (Leka). His government was represented and supported by Albanians of all religions, including the Christians who were always equally represented not as a minority but as an integral part of the nation. Had Christian Deputy Prime Ministers, ministers and diplomats, just as today.
Our national hero is Scanderbeg, the Medieval Albanian Catholic prince who defended his homeland, Christianity, and the West. Our national flag is his emblem – the black double-headed eagle. Our compatriots are proud of our Christian roots and history. Fascinated by our identity, the prominent conservative thinker, Sir Roger Scruton, noted that Albanians are among the first in the World that prioritized national identity and loyalty above religion. This is our national credo; we are all Albanians regardless of our personal religions.
We live in total harmony and each of the feasts are public holidays. The writers of this reply are Christians. However, we celebrate with our Muslim compatriots all their feasts, as they celebrate with us ours. We intermarry; we are there in each other’s times of need and celebrate together our achievements. We are united by our past, our tradition and our love for our country. For sure, this harmony may be a unique occurrence that rarely happens. There isn’t – and there has never been – religious extremism here. On the contrary, religious fanatics deny our identity, national creed and flag – they are an insignificant minority which has no support nor does represent us. Just as the Far Right and Islamist terrorists, who may hold French citizenship, do not represent the French. That being said, as a nation, we do not have an inferiority complex. We’re proud of our origins, history, and traditions; religious diversity is what enriches and unites us without the need of denying our history, nor identity. We’re proud Europeans.
II: On Kosovo
Your implication that Kosovo is the cradle of Serbia, which the Albanians have colonized, is actually a 19th century Serbian nationalistic historiographical myth. An infamous myth and ideology, which has been refuted by contemporary historians, international and local, including Albanian and Serbian scholars. But perhaps the most prominent study on the topic was made by the well-known British Professor of Cambridge, at Trinity College, Sir Noel Malcolm.
Slavs, the ancestors of Serbs, had settled in the Balkans between the 6th and 7th century. Meanwhile Albanians are natives – descendents of Illyrians – and as such already lived in the Balkans. The ancestors of Albanians, whom you refer as Muslims, were evangelized and baptized by St. Paul himself (Rom. 15:18–19) centuries before the Slavs and Serbians in particular. Christianity was embraced by our ancestors even before it became mainstream for the Romans. St. Jerome (Hieronymus) was born in Illyria, just as the first Christian Roman emperor and saint, Constantine the Great, who legalized Christianity. The other greater Christian Roman emperor of the Illyrian heritage was Justinian the Great, born exactly in Dardania – region which today is known as Kosovo. There have been four Albanians who have sat on the throne of Saint Peter as Pope of Rome (ex. Clement XI), just as there have been saints (Mother Teresa, the Albanian Martyrs, etc.) and many other important Christian and European figures.
Kosovo has always been inhabited by Albanians, back then as Christians. After the 7th century, Slavs migrated to the Illyrian peninsula, but not yet to Kosovo. After the Great schism, most of the Albanians remained loyal to the Pope, meanwhile the Serbs practiced the Greek, later the Slavic rite, embraced the Eastern Church. It was only during the 13th and 14th century when the Serbian aristocracy had conquered Kosovo. During the mid-14th century, Tsar Dušan, who had conquered and ruled most of the Balkans, had banned Catholicism and considered it as a “Latin heresy” and among the Slavs it was often labelled as “Arbanaška vera” (en. the Albanian’s religion). During his reign, Catholics were persecuted, many churches were demolished, and even forced to convert to Serbian Orthodoxy.
On the other side, Albanians led by Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg – named by the Pope “Athleta Christi” and defender of the Western Civilization – resisted and defeated Mehmed Fatih and his empire for 25 years. Europe survived an Ottoman invasion, also because of us. After his death, Albanian territories fell under the Ottoman rule for 5 centuries. And in case you are not informed, during the time that our ancestors were organizing uprisings for liberation, the Kingdom of France became one of the main allies of the Ottomans (1536–1798). One could even dare say that it was among the reasons why the Ottoman rule in the Balkans lasted that long. France has often sabotaged Austria’s, Venice’s and Spain’s attempts to help the Balkan Christian, particularly Albanians.
During these centuries, mostly abandoned by the West, many Albanians were forced to abandon their religion during the late 17th and 18th centuries. Partially because of the persecution and the imposed high taxation, which was practically unbearable. For many, this conversion was only formal, because they would profess their faith privately. In Albanian, crypto-Catholicism is known as “Laramanizëm“. In 1703, Pope Clement XI, of Albanian origin, called a special Synod for Albanians encouraging them to profess their faith publicly. After Kosovo’s independence crypto-Catholic communities, including whole villages had reverted to Catholicism. (Crypto-Catholicism had become a phenomenon which lasted until recently.) Nonetheless, Serbs were not replaced in Kosovo. After five centuries under Ottoman rule, Kosovo was liberated by the Albanians nationalist movement. Unfortunately, the Great Powers handed it to Serbia, alongside many other ethnic Albanian territories, against its will.
Thus, the myth of Kosovo as the “cradle of Serbia” was born. Ethnic cleansing and albanophobia were promoted by the highest officials, including the Serbian PM Vladan Djordjević who wrote a book (Arnauti i velike sile) in which he claimed that Albanians were “subhuman”, “people with tails”, “uncivilized”, “Turks”, etc. During those times, thousands of Albanians were either murdered or deported. In the 1930s, three Kosovan Albanian Catholic priests, among them blessed Shtjefen/Etienne Kurti, had written a memorandum addressed on the Situation of the Albanian Minority in Yugoslavia, presented to the League of Nations. Unfortunately, their cry was ignored. Eleven years later, Serbs massacred brutally the Albanian Catholics in Gjakovë, this during vigil of the Catholic Easter in 1941.
The same genocidal ideology was promoted by Slobodan Milošević and the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts during the late ‘80s and ‘90s. As a result, circa 700.000 Albanians were forced to flee the country, 10.000 Albanian civilians (including children and elderly) were murdered, circa 20.000 women were raped – among the greatest massacred were committed in the Catholic Albanian villages.
Meanwhile the resistance, supported by the Albanian intellectuals, Albanian Catholic prelates, parties, and population, was led by UÇK/KLA – which was formed by Albanian generals and soldiers of all religious background, including many prominent Albanian Catholic generals. They fought for liberty and self-determination – a right which was denied to them for centuries. (More on this, you can read Albert Bikaj’s detailed article on the War and the history of Christians of Kosovo.)
As conservatives, we are aware of the crisis which the West and France are facing. We understand that there is a migration crisis. Yet, it is not the only one. There is a social, economic, intellectual and above all a spiritual crisis, as well. And the migrational and demographical crisis has its own historical context, namely a partial consequence of colonisation, wrong economical, domestic and foreign policies – you name it. But when it comes to France on particularly, We would emphasise the spiritual crisis, which is obviously a consequence of the dechristianisation and hostile secularism. Instead of falsely accusing and demonizing us, it would be better to focus on the real problems that the West is facing. As His Holiness, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has often stressed, “Muslims…feel threatened, not by the foundations of our Christian morality, but by the cynicism of a secularized culture that denies its own foundations.” Therefore, instead of opposing Islam and immigration, you and the other Western politicians, could work on affirming and reviving your own faith, which is the root and soul of your identity, nation, culture and country.
France, alongside the other Western countries, could learn much from Albania and Kosovo, which are a good example of religious harmony – founded on a clear national identity. Albanians are conscious and unapologetically proud of our ancient roots, traditions and history. Without roots and a conscious identity, there’s no future. We want to hope and believe that France and the West will make it.
Lastly, we hope we join the European Union one day. A Union of sovereign nations, Christian democratic, preferably conservative, with free markets and individual responsibility nations, which come together to cooperate and work with each other. A Union that truly welcomes us without prejudices nor contempt. A Union in which we have our righteous place and can contribute, learn from one another, and rediscover our forgotten shared history. A unity as the Founding Fathers of the EU wished to see.