Turkeys gift of a mosque sparks fears of ‘neo-Ottomanism’ in Kosovo

It is six years since Islamic leaders and government officials laid the cornerstone of Pristina’s new central mosque – a slab of stone now hidden beneath weeds in a parking lot.

Pulling back the weeds reveals it is covered with bright red graffiti – death threats to Kosovo’s chief mufti, along with the words: “No Turkish mosque or there will be blood.”

There has been controversy over the design, including rejection of plans drawn by esteemed architects including Zaha Hadid in favour of a hulking carbon copy of any number of centuries-old, Ottoman-style mosques.

But now it seems this spot in the city’s Dardania district will finally get its new mosque. Construction is to begin in spring.

The mosque is a gift from Turkey to this Balkan state of 1.8 million, which celebrated its 10th anniversary of independence this year. The decade has been fraught. Twenty years after the war with neighbouring Serbia that killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands more, Serbia still considers Kosovo its territory. Some of the country’s leading Muslim religious leaders – Kosovo is 95% Muslim – say dozens of mosques that were destroyed still haven’t been rebuilt.




Six years after it was laid, the cornerstone of Pristina’s planned central mosque is covered with graffiti in an overgrown parking lot.



Six years after it was laid, the cornerstone of Pristina’s planned central mosque is covered with graffiti in an overgrown parking lot. Photograph: Michael Colborne

“In Europe they don’t have a single village without a church, but here in Kosovo are at least 50 villages without a mosque,” remarks chief mufti Naim Tërnava in his offices near the city’s Imperial Mosque. On Islamic holidays, the throng of worshippers at this Ottoman-era mosque, built in 1461, often spills on to the street outside. Tërnava is taken aback by the heated debate over Pristina’s new mosque – for him, it is a practical necessity, “for the worship of God, and nothing else”.

Kosovo is still struggling to carve out a place for itself in a restive part of Europe amid poor economic prospects. The young state needs all the friends it can get.

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Among its suitors is Turkey, which has made huge investments there and been a firm advocate for its international recognition and eventual accession to Nato and the EU. As the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, put it in a 2013 visit to the country: “Turkey is Kosovo, and Kosovo is Turkey.”

Those words resonate in a Turkey whose assertive foreign policy has been characterised as “neo-Ottomanism”. Kosovo plays no small role in Turkey’s imperial history: the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 saw the defeat of the medieval Kingdom of Serbia and the beginning of the Ottoman conquest of south-eastern Europe. The empire went on to rule Kosovo for nearly 500 years, bringing with it Islam and many other cultural influences.




Kosovo’s new central mosque will be based on the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, Turkey.



Kosovo’s new central mosque will be based on the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, Turkey. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

A large mosque wouldn’t seem out of place in Pristina, so why the controversy? When the then mayor of Pristina, Isa Mustafa, laid the foundation stone, land had already been donated by the local municipality. Mustafa went on to become Kosovo’s prime minister, a position he held until last year, but the mosque was never built.

The city’s Islamic community claims it took a long time to select the winning design and make sure it would “fit the location”. Pristina’s municipal government dragged its feet in approving the mosque, but this year finally granted permission, subject to a construction permit.

Opposition to many new mosques across Europe is rooted in fear of Islam, but with 19 of every 20 people here Muslim, resistance to Pristina’s new mosque does not fit neatly into that trend. Some locals resent what they see as a symbol of Turkey’s overbearing influence, while others are suspicious of the creeping return of faith to a secular, post-socialist public space.

Among the project’s most vocal opponents are local architects. Even though the public tender stressed the need for an original building, the design chosen is classical Ottoman. The project is being overseen by the Turkish state’s directorate for religious affairs, Diyanet, which has built dozens of other mosques across the Islamic world in recent years, in a move some describe as a key vehicle of Turkey’s power play.

Diyanet says the mosque will be based on the famous 16th-century Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, north-western Turkey. In short, Pristina’s new mosque will more closely resemble the hundreds built across the Balkans under Turkish rule – only much larger.

“Over 30 designs were submitted just months after the call for designs was made in 2012. Even Zaha Hadid proposed a design,” says the architect Arbër Sadiki. “But before the competition closed, interviews started appearing in the press in which the mufti described what the new mosque would look like.

“Designs were supposed to be original, but the chosen one is just a copy of an Ottoman mosque. The decision looks more political than architectural to me. I know amazing architects doing work on contemporary mosques in Turkey. Why can’t we put Pristina on the map with something similar?”

Under Josip Tito’s Yugoslavia, Pristina’s old bazaar and many historical buildings in its Ottoman-era downtown were destroyed as part of a modernisation campaign that secularised public space. As a result, explains Sadiki, modern Pristina is mostly a postwar city, and little constructed since the 1970s has been distinctive. Pristina’s most notable building today is its modernist, domed national library, built in 1982.

But some Kosovar Muslims are bitter, and have protested against the lack of space to accommodate them at prayer. They see double standards at work, given that a massive Catholic cathedral was constructed without issue in 2007, even though Christians comprise just 3% of Kosovo’s population.




OODA’s unsuccessful design for Pristina’s new central mosque.



OODA’s unsuccessful design for Pristina’s new central mosque. Photograph: OODA

Pristina isn’t the only city in Kosovo where ostentatious Turkish-funded mosque construction has taken place. In Mitrovica, about 20 miles north, clashes in the 2000s led to the city’s division into southern (Albanian and Muslim) and northern (Serb and Orthodox Christian) halves. The smaller northern district flaunts its Serb identity, with a new Orthodox cathedral and a much-photographed mural proclaiming “Kosovo is Serbia, Crimea is Russia”.

The larger southern part of town is festooned with Albanian flags and monuments to fighters from the Kosovo Liberation Army – as well as Kosovo’s largest mosque, which opened in 2014 and is named after the Istanbul district Bayrampaşa that funded its construction. Inside it is a riot of colour and ostentatiously Ottoman.

There was no mosque like it in the city before – between 150 and 200 were destroyed in Kosovo during its vicious war of secession from Yugoslavia, many of them simple and modestly designed. For Mitrovica’s Muslims, the Bayrampaşa mosque is a symbol of redemption, if not reconciliation.

Back in Pristina there is a sense Turkey has taken advantage of western disinterest to expand its influence in a place Ankara treats like part of its backyard.

“External actors here have an interest in making the Kosovo conflict one of faith rather than politics – for example, [the former Serb leader] Milošević played on European Islamophobia and fears of extremism to delegitimise our struggle for independence,” says Xhabir Hamiti, professor of Islamic studies at Pristina University.

“People ask: why aren’t western investors coming here? Is it because we are Muslim? The sense is that the only door open to us leads to Turkey – and some want to walk through it.”

  • Una Hajdari contributed to this report, which was enabled by Reporters in the Field, a Robert Bosch Foundation programme hosted with media development network n-ost.

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