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Albania: ‘A Hardliner’s Nightmare’: Religious Tolerance in Europe’s Only Majority-Muslim Country

Wednesday 1 April 2015, by siawi3

MARCH 31, 2015


It is a Muslim holiday in Durres, a dusty port town on the coast of
Albania. Shops are shut, blinds drawn down and the streets look all
but deserted. On the outskirts, cars stuffed with entire families –
mum dad, gran, gramps and the kids – head in convoy towards a strip of
restaurants strung out along the Adriatic coast, to tuck into platters
of local seafish, prawns and salad. A generation ago, marking Eid, or
any other Muslim or Christian holiday, would have been a high-risk
gesture in Albania. Its notoriously unforgiving Communist regime did
not take a dim view of religion but outlawed it completely. Today,
religion in Albania is back, but not with a vengeance. The great
religious holidays – which in this country tend first and foremost to
mean Muslim holidays – are widely observed, but mostly as family

Albania is unique – the only overwhelmingly Muslim country in the
whole of Europe. But the paradox is that in the centre of the capital,
Tirana, not a headscarf is to be seen, let alone a burqa. A Muslim
city in purely numerical terms, it is a hard-line Muslim’s nightmare
in most other senses. Women wear what they want and go and do as they

In the aftermath of the Paris killings, and the gloom they have cast
over Europe’s future relationship to Islam, the tolerant religious
climate in Albania is drawing interest. To Pope Francis, this slip of
a country in Europe’s forgotten southeast is a sign that “a culture of
encounter is possible”. Addressing diplomats at the Vatican after the
Paris killings, he lavished praise on the country he had visited the
previous September, where he found relatively small Catholic and
Orthodox Christian communities, plus a tiny congregation of Jews,
co-existing happily with a far larger Muslim presence. Life in
Albania, the Pontiff observed, was “marked by the peaceful coexistence
and collaboration that exists among the followers of different
religions in an atmosphere of respect and mutual trust”.

Albanians are half-flattered and half-amused by their country’s
newfound reputation as one of the few places where different faiths
get along. Tucking into his Eid lunch in Durres, one of my dining
companions said Albanians were not actively tolerant so much as
indifferent when it came to faith. Christianity, Islam and then
atheism had all been forced on Albanians, he continued, and the legacy
was a feeling of skepticism towards all dogmatic creeds.

Besar Likmeta, a journalist in Tirana, who follows religious affairs,
says the failure of hard-line Islamists to recruit much of a following
in Albania has much to do with the nation’s “foundation myth”.
Albanians believe their country “was taken away from Europe and
plunged into darkness by the Ottoman Empire – and that Islam was
associated with that”, he says. One result, even among believing
Muslims, is a deep-rooted Occidentalism that the Communist experience
did little to alter: “For 50 years we were completely isolated and
dreaming of coca cola! We don’t look East for answers but West. There
has always been a feeling that we need to return to where we belong.”

Likmeta says Islam undoubtedly revived in the chaos that followed the
fall of Communism, while some Arab-based charities made headway in the
turbulent 1990s among the dispossessed. But, such advances run up
against a flinty pride in national identity. “We have ‘Islam-lite’,”
he says. “People like Eid, and some go to the mosque on Friday, but
things like wearing the hijab are perceived as things that do not
belong to our culture”.

Another major influence on the character of Islam in Albania is the
strength of the mystical and pacific bektashi tradition. It is
alsoseen as significant that the so-called “Gulenists”, loyal to the
US-based preacher Fetullah Gulen, are a force in the Albanian
madrasas, as the movement stresses Islam’s compatibility with science
and democracy.

Jetta Xharra, an Albanian from neighbouring Kosovo, says Albanians on
her side of the border see things in the same way. Her grandfather
came from Albania to Kosovo after the Second World War and became an
activist in a campaign launched by the new Communist authorities to
get Muslim women to take off their veils. “He went from village to
village to convince heads that it was right for women to remove the
veils, and he didn’t meet much resistance,” she recalls. “People felt
religion was something that had divided Albanians and prevented them
from having a homeland.” That sentiment hasn’t changed in the
intervening years, Xharra said: “Albanians in Kosovo feel more
European than they do Islamic.”

Some Albanian Muslims have embraced a more hard-core version of Islam
recently, even if they’re not that visible in the big cities. People
in Albania and Kosovo were startled last year to read that up to 300
Albanians had gone to the Middle East to fight for ISIL militants. The
fighters set up a special Facebook page, lauding the feats of
Albanians in battle, which has since been taken down. The Kosovo
authorities arrested around 40 people last year, including several
imams, accusing them of joining the fight in the Middle East, or of
recruiting others for jihad.

Gjeraqina Tuhina, an Albanian journalist in Brussels, is worried. “The
radicalization of some Albanian Muslims is already happening,” she
says, “although this refers more to Albanians living outside Albania –
from Macedonia, southern Serbia and finally Kosovo.” She blames
poverty, poor education and, in Kosovo especially, a feeling of
isolation from Europe. “It’s worth saying that only small part of
society is being radicalised, but they are very active, as you can see
from their activity on social networks,” she adds.

Xharra, who has studied the profiles of the suspected Islamists
arrested in Kosovo, notes that most were unemployed young men from
remote, impoverished communities. “The main draw for the 40
‘terrorists’ arrested last year for going to Syria seems to have been
the 60 euros a day that they thought they would get if they fought for
Isis,” she says.

Whatever their motives, Islamists in Albania or Kosovo cannot count on
any sympathy from the political establishment. When news broke of the
Paris outrage, Kosovo’s woman President Atifete Jahjaga, and Albania’s
Prime Minister, Edi Rama, both headed for France to join 40 or so
other world leaders standing at the front of the “Unity” march of
solidarity with the victims. Keen to show that almost all Albanians –
whatever their religion – felt just as strongly as he did over this
issue, Prime Minister Rama took two priests and two Muslim clerics
with him.

Marcus Tanner is the author of “Albania’s Mountain Queen, Edith Durham
and the Balkans”