Albanian Awakening: The Worm has Turned!

Remarks articulated last week by Hakan Şükür, a famous former football player and current parliamentary deputy, garnered widespread attention and reminded the public that there are ethnic Albanians living in Turkey.


Şükür stated: “For the sake of national unity, racial discourse should be left aside. If we perceive our differences as dividing us rather than as diversity, then we lose. For example, I am ethnically Albanian, and from your point of view [taking ethnicity as the primary factor in designating a member of a nation], I am not a Turk. But this does not lead us to the truth. In doing this, everyone will be in search of who is right. On this point, the state should be in search of justice, and it is.”

Apparently what he said is in line with the political rhetoric of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), and the debate that Hakan Şükür’s statement meant he was rejecting his Turkishness is therefore complete media foolishness. The AK Party has long tried to leave ethnic identity out of the political scene for the sake of national unity. After the media’s misleading reporting, Şükür went on to confirm this stance and placed great emphasis on a “single nation, single homeland, single flag and single language” in an explanatory speech.

The conclusion we draw is not about media bias against the ruling party or its approach to ethnicity and ethnic diversity. The real conclusion this mishap has led us to is that this was a call for an awakening to the Albanian community, whose ethnic identity has remained beneath the surface of society for more than six decades in Turkey.

Roots of multiculturalism in Ottoman period

The ethnic Albanian presence in Turkey is a legacy of the Ottoman Empire. Since the late 19th century, Albanian people in the Balkans have been migrating to the Anatolian heartland due to the wars and political pressures they have faced in their countries. Turkey, particularly during the republican era, allowed the migration of ethnic Albanians to the country.

Ottoman history, particularly that written by nationalists, often curses the involvement of Muslim Albanians in rebellions during the late 19th century that resulted in various lands in the Balkans, including Albania, being lost from Ottoman possession by 1912. On the contrary, Albanian history accuses the Ottomans of exploiting the Albanian nation for more than four centuries. Additionally, since the Albanians fought a war of liberation against the Ottomans, they have historically seen the Ottomans as the “other” and Turkey as the sole successor of this “other.” While both parties constructed myths and national enmities that have remained in the rhetoric of nationalist state politics and circles, ordinary people have continued in a brotherly relationship with each other. The interpersonal and transnational ties built after the mass immigration of Albanians — particularly from Yugoslavia — to Turkey played a large role in this.

To this end, Turkey almost never had an issue with the Albanians as a minority or otherwise. Two factors were at play in this. In the first instance, Albanian immigration was accepted by Turkey because these Albanians had declared — through the visa documents they received at the Turkish diplomatic mission in Yugoslavia — that they were ethnically Turkish and had assimilated Turkish culture.

This was partly true, because they were able to speak Turkish well; Turkish has been spoken in their cities since Ottoman times. Additionally, their own culture had blended with Turkish culture, and hence it was not easy to distinguish urbanized Albanian culture from that of urbanized Turks; differences were only apparent in village life. In fact, the situation remains almost the same even today in Kosovo: Roughly 200,000 people can speak Turkish though only a quarter of them would declare themselves ethnically Turkish. Apparently, the remaining Turkish-speaking population is Albanian. Ultimately, because the wave of immigrants who came to Turkey declared they were Turks and because they were grateful to Turkey for opening its doors to them and providing them a way to earn their livelihood, they did not insist on recognition of their authentic ethnic identity.

Secondly, Turkey never allowed minorities to speak in the political scene in support of their ethnic rights and was always in the business of assimilating minorities into the Turkish nation. Albanians, cooperative and collaborative in helping the Turkish nation flourish, were happy to be part of a nation whose national anthem was written by an Albanian, Mehmet Akif Ersoy. This is partly the case even today.

Effect of Albanians on foreign affairs

In daily life, we rarely hear about the presence of ethnic Albanians in Turkey. Those who identify solely as Albanian voluntarily behave as a constructive bridge between Albania and Turkey and Kosovo and Turkey. As the international literature on the liberation of Kosovo from Serbian rule suggests, the Albanian Kosovar “diaspora” in Turkey contributed a lot to the Turkish-Kosovar relationship throughout the 1990s, when the Albanians in Kosovo withdrew from state institutions and the national education system and began engaging in rebellious attacks against the Serbian state. Their role in building close ties between Turkey and Kosovo during the NATO bombardment of Serbia — in which Turkish jets launched many of the attacks — was again constructive and facilitative. This continued after Kosovo’s independence.

The above picture shows that the Albanians have been loyal people of the Turkish state and Turkish nation and that this loyalty has been shaped by the Albanians leaving out of politics their ethnic affiliation and identity. Hakan Şükür’s statements also verify this.

However, looking at the other side of the coin would give us a more concrete idea about the place at which the Albanian community sits in the triangle of ethnic affiliation, loyalty and nationality. While the distortion of Hakan Şükür’s speech was criticized by the Albanian community en masse, a key figure in the Albanian community in Turkey, Turkish-Albanian inter-parliamentary friendship group president and AK Party İzmir deputy Rıfat Sait, adopting Hakan Şükür’s Albanianness, stated: “I am an Albanian as well. Today, there are around 50 Albanian deputies from different parties in Parliament.”

Indeed, this is something that the public in Turkey is not aware of and has never heard before. Turkey has long suffered from the occasionally racist Turkish nationalism of the ruling cadre and militarist Kurdishism of the Kurdish opposition front, yet these two groups occupy the most seats in Parliament. Albanian deputies are the third-most-represented ethnic group in Parliament, yet their political affiliation does not follow ethnic lines.

When we consider that believers in ethno-political identifiers try to define the boundaries of their group, Rıfat Sait’s assertions make more sense. As a matter of fact, Turkey is a multiethnic country, and the historically oppressed (or voluntarily silent/cooperative) minority groups here have learned a lot from the Kurdish ethnic fight for legal recognition. They are very careful in not standing out with open ethnic claims, though; on the contrary, they behave in a collaborative manner and strive to be perceived as kin communities — brothers sharing a common history, culture and religion. More precisely, they use their position as a bridge between their home country and host country to affirm their ethnic affiliation. The Albanians in Turkey, and particularly Rıfat Sait, by maintaining a close relationship with Kosovo and Albania and by molding those countries’ relations with Turkey accordingly, have introduced a novel form of ethnic struggle for recognition from which other ethnic groups in Turkey may learn a lot.

The recent statements about the Albanian presence in Turkey are indeed a sign of a political awakening that is backed by Turkey’s inter-state relations. Hence, it is a timely move that could possibly be reflected in the draft of the new constitution.

 *Hüsrev Tabak is the deputy director-general of CESRAN International and can be contacted through
** The article first appeared at Today’s Zaman.
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