Pristina badly needs a new mosque – but Turkish attempts to court the young Balkan state with investment and advocacy is making some uneasy
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.
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.
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.
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.