Harabati Bektashi Tekke Under Siege: The True Picture

by Huseyin Abiva


On August 15th 2002, a group of Islamist fundamentalist ruffians armed with Kalashnikovs and pistols busted into the expansive Harabati Baba Tekke (Sufi lodge) in the town of Tetovo, Macedonia and seized control of a large part of it, professing to be “recovering” the property for the performance their five daily prayers. Nearly eight years later this same band of hooligans remains, impressing their extremism on this picturesque and idyllic Bektashi Sufi compound and harassing its many visitors time and again. With the unspoken consent of the Sunni religious hierarchy of Macedonia (the Riyaset of the Islamska Zajednica vo Republica Makedonija) this band of fundamentalists continues to utilize several structures within the 300 year-old Sufi lodge, most notably the Kubeli Meydan (the hall where Bektashi rituals had traditionally been performed) which they use as an ad hoc mosque, deafeningly blaring the ezan (the Islamic call to prayer) from the loud-speakers they have attached to that structure's chimney, two of which confrontationally face towards the area the Bektashis still maintain control of, as if to add insult to injury! These fundamentalists have even gone so far as to disfigure the historical integrity of compound by tearing out part of the Kubeli Meydan’s wall facing southeast and installing a concrete mihrab (the niche indicating the direction of the holy city of Makkah). They have also chopped down a number of ancient trees that had once graced the tekke’s compound, turning its once-meditative blend of spirituality and nature into an ugly shell of its former glory. Fundamentalist “security agents” have even taken up residence in the old Mihman Evi (guest house) and from there they regularly accost visitors from Europe, the Middle East, America and elsewhere, telling them that this is the property of the Islamic Community and to keep away from the Bektashi “heretics.”

The Harabati Baba Tekke was built in the late 18th century around the tomb of the great Bektashi saint, Sersem Ali Baba, who lived some two centuries prior to that. Copies of vakf (trust) documents exist attesting to the fact that the compound was indeed meant to be a Bektashi tekke from the beginning, not a Sunni-run mosque. In fact, one of these documents affirm that the Sufi compound is to be used as a Bektashi monastery ad infinitum and in the event that this ceases to be the case, ownership of all of the properties of the tekke are to revert back to the family of the donor, Rexhep Pasha. The Harabati Baba Tekke was used as a Bektashi lodge until 1945 when it was confiscated by the communists, who removed its last spiritual master, Baba Qazim Bakalli (d. 1983). In the 1960s the sprawling compound was turned into a tourist attraction and three of the seven buildings that make up the tekke were utilized as a hotel, a restaurant and a disco. The Kubeli Meydan -- the center of Bektashi ritual worship -- was put to use as a small art museum. The drunken depravity of many of the “hotel's” guests led to repeated incidents of desecration (tombstones smashed and urinated on, fornication carried out in the tomb complex etc.) and in 1992 a fire started in the main tomb complex (türbe) by inebriated partygoers caused significant damage to the graves of the many saints buried within. In 1994 the Bektashi community -- led by the late Baba Tayyar Gashi and the late Baba Tahir Emini -- had had enough of this befouling of their sacred site and members of it staged a sit-in; an act which eventually gained them partial control of the complex. A positive resolution to the issue of ownership of the property was well on its way until August of 2002, when the aforementioned Wahhabi religious fanatics claimed the tekke as a mosque.

The irony of the claims of the fundamentalists is that the Harabati Baba Tekke was NEVER used as a mosque. In addition to the testimony offered by the original vakf documents, the fact that the Kubeli Meydan (where these interlopers now hold their prayers) was historically devoid of a mihrab should be a rather significant indication that the five canonical daily prayers were never offered here. Bektashis have no need for mihrabs in their meydans seeing that their ceremonial prayer does not require one. Another discernible sign that the structure was never a mosque is that the Kubeli Meydan does not have a minaret from where the call to prayer is made (ezan). Nevertheless to alleviate this oversight the fundamentalist Islamist intruders have hoisted loudspeakers up the building's chimney.

The overriding question is why would these Islamists need to appropriate this age-old Sufi tekke to use as a mosque? There are over twenty-five mosques on the city of Tetovo, twelve of which are in the locality of the tekke. Why is it that these fundamentalists couldn't see fit to pray in these places? Could there be other reasons for this belligerent invasion? Could it be that the main intention of these fanatics boils down to the control of property. The Harabati Baba Tekke has the potential of generating tremendous wealth due to the fact that its vakf (trust) property-holdings are vast. If the tekke is restored in its totality to the Bektashi community, the funds that could be generated through these properties will be significant and they will provide ample income for the maintenance of the community's needs.

Another question is whether or not the Bektashis are a Muslim “sect,” that should be administered by the Riyaset of the Islamska Zajednica vo Republica Makedonija, which officially represents the Sunni community in the country.Now if one were to accept the Bektashis to be counted as Sunnis (as the Riyaset does) it is understandable that such an issue would not seem sensible. However, the overwhelming preponderance of Bektashis in Macedonia see themselves as Muslim, BUT NOT AS SUNNIS. Moreover, as far as the administration of communities and tekkes is concerned, the large and influential Bektashi community in neighboring Albania has been organizationally detached from the Sunni community since the late 1920s. They have been since that time two different communities organizationally and fully respect the rights of each other! This is unfortunately not the case in Macedonia.

The Riyaset of Macedonia may see itself as the sole representative of Islam in the country, but it is not. The Riyaset will not recognize that the Bektashis are a group of Muslims who differ from themselves. In Muslim and non-Muslim countries around the world the right is given to each Islamic sect and denomination to govern itself. For instance, in India and Pakistan the Sunni and Shi’i communities have separate administrative autonomy. It is as simple as that. Yet we find here in “free” and “progressive” Europe the Sunni Riyaset in Macedonia doing its part in both openly and furtively blocking recognition of the Bektashi community as a self-regulating religious body, and it is a great travesty that the government of the Republic of Macedonia has not overridden such brazen displays of religious bigotry and chauvinism. Despite its own claims to the contrary, it is an obvious fact that the Islamska Zaednica solely represents the Sunni branch of Islam, and the organization itself has, over the last decade, been fraught with internal battles between moderate trends and those fundamentalists who receive their religious indoctrination from the tumultuous Middle East. It is also well-known that for the most part the Riyaset looks upon the Bektashi community as being heretical and deviant, and even goes so far to encourage such attitudes among its members, rather than promoting brotherhood and embracing diversity.

What is more bothersome in this regard is that other Sufi dervish orders (Halvetis, Rifa’is, Kadiris etc.) have been granted a significant degree of legal recognition by the Macedonian government and they are legally a separate community (The Islamic Dervish Religious Community), whereas the Bektashis -- even being a Sufi order! -- have not. This is especially perplexing given the fact that the aforementioned Sufi orders (Halvetis, Rifa’is, Kadiris etc.) are technically described as historically belonging to the Sunni branch of Islam, and hence, would logically fall under the jurisdiction of the Riyaset.

To date the Macedonian government has shown little interest in resolving this case. In fact, the Bektashi community has not been recognized by the government as a separate religious community vis-à-vis the Sunnis, despite its regular appeals since 1993 to be so. The lack of response form the Macedonian government is rather suspicious especially given its positive treatment of other Macedonian Sufi orders.  

If the legal action taken by the Bektashi community in Macedonia to remove these fundamentalist interlopers from its property comes to naught, it will surely be a blow to both religious freedom and religious moderation. The Bektashi community asks for the all peace-loving and benevolent people around the world to come to the assistance of its beleaguered tekke and further the cause of human dignity.

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