Albanian Muslims Grapple with Religious Identity
A Turkish brand of Islam now dominates the country’s religious institutions, as local Muslims struggle to find their own spiritual path.
By Altin Raxhimi Tirana
Bamir Topi, the president of Albania, is caught unwittingly on film as he, like any other theatre goer, settles into his seat and looks around to see who else has come to watch the show at Tirana’s main concert hall.
Agron Hoxha fast-forwards the unedited video. The footage shows the host, a prominent local actress of Orthodox Christian origin, as she recites verses by Muslim mystic Rumi and passages from the Koran. She introduces the artists on the stage to a full audience at the capital’s Palace of Congresses.
Tenors and sopranos and mezzos and contraltos chant ilahis, the Muslim answer to Georgian chants, backed by the strings of the Albanian State TV Orchestra.
“The Arabs do not like this,” Hoxha, the public relations chief of the Muslim Community of Albania, MCA, says of the ilahis and the glittery show.
The ‘Arabs’ Hoxha refers to are actually Albanian Muslims; they are believers who embraced forms of Islam that were heavily influenced by some Arab schools of thought after the collapse of communism in the 1990s.
Atheist under communism
Albania was strictly atheist under the Stalinist regime that was in place for the second half of the 20th century. When communism collapsed, overseas Islamic charities came, largely from the Arab peninsula and north-eastern Africa, to assist the Muslim community.
These foreign Islamic groups were the main financial backers for the resurgent MCA, the official organisation that runs Islamic affairs in the country. Albania’s Islamic community was starved of funds and poorly organised, as public worship was outlawed under communism.
Secret worship under communism
Enver Hoxha, the hardline communist leader who ruled Albania for much of the second half of the 20th century, imposed a ban on religion and, in 1976, declared Albania the first atheist state in the world. All forms of religious worship were banned and criminalized. Some believers – of all faiths – practised their religion in secret.
Tahir Zenelhasani, now an Islamic educator in Albania, recalls how, during one Ramadan in the late 70s, his father was checked on by three party executives to see if he was fasting. They placed coffee and cigarettes in front of him. His father’s fasting was an open secret in their village, Zenelhasani says.
However, one of those supposed to find out whether he was practicing religion had quietly entered his office earlier, drank the coffee and stubbed out a cigarette in the ashtray, so protecting Zenelhasani’s father.
The ban of religion was lifted when communism collapsed in 1990.
The current conflict between the older generation, who secretly practised Ottoman Islam, and younger people, influenced by ‘Arab’ schools of Islam, has been compounded by the absence of significant number of believers among the generation in between, and of home-grown religious leaders - a direct result of imposed atheism.
Seventy per cent of Albania’s 3m population are of Muslim origin, but the number of practicing believers is much smaller. The younger generation discovering religion for the first time after communism, did so via schools and mosques established by foreign, often Arabic, charities.
Up until 2001, Arab and north-east African Islamic organisations funded and ran all but one of the country’s madrasas – schools that provide religious instruction – and built about 400 mosques.
Albanian followers of largely Arabic schools of Islamic thought – including Wahhabism and Salafism - were criticised by fellow Muslims, who found these ‘imported’ brands of Islam culturally alien.
Others were suspicious of so-called Arab groups whose interpretation of Islam was highly controversial in their home states.
Some believe ‘the Arabs’ brought in a strict, intolerant brand of Islam influenced by Arab countries where Christian minorities were virtually inexistent, such as Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
Conflicts arose between opposing factions, young ‘Arabs’ who come of age during the nineties found themselves at odds with their elders, many of whom had secretly practised Ottoman Islam under communism.
Differences in prayer styles, whether joined hands should be placed above or below the navel, became the subject of fierce debate. Other disputes included whether to allow marriage between first cousins, banned by Albanian law and among Ottoman Muslims but permitted in many foreign countries.
“At some point in the early 90s, everyone (young Albanian Muslim believers) went through a Salafi stage,” remarks an imam in Tirana, who prefers not to be identified.
During that period, at least 500 Albanians studied theology in Saudi Arabia who then returned to Albania, a country with just 570 mosques, say sources within the Muslim community.
These Arab-influenced followers are easily identifiable: bearded sombre men, initially wearing pants ending above their ankles, huddling in specific jam-packed mosques in Albania’s capital Tirana.
They dislike ‘the Turk’, who they regard as lax and ignorant in religious practice, believing them to adhere to traditions contrary to Islam. They regard the MCA as corrupt and inept.
‘Turk-Arab’ stand off
A group of ‘Arabs’ defied the MCA last March by creating its own official organisation - the League of Albanian Imams. The split was a result of an old stand-off between them and MCA officials.
In the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks on America, the government was forced to examine the background of foreign Islamic charities operating in the country. Some appeared on US and UN lists of organisations suspected of having links to, or funding, terrorist groups. These were closed down or expelled from Albania.
Other groups, some of whom were not on the US or UN lists, chose to leave voluntarily.
“The Arab charities responded to emergencies,” says Tahir Zenelhasani, who runs an Islamic cultural centre in Tirana which draws funding from Arab and Turkish sources.
“When the environment here became unfriendly, they felt it was better to pull out. The Turkish approach was more institutional. They clearly know how to manage.”
Called Madhhabs in Arabic and Islamic scholarship, different Islamic traditions developed, interpreting Islamic law differently. There are four main schools of thought.
The largest school, the Hanafi, was predominant in the Ottoman and Mughal Empires. The Islamic communities in the Balkans and in Turkey have, by and large, adopted it as their official school.
The Hanbali school, prevalent in Saudi Arabia, has some praying differences with the Hanafi, school, which had caused problems between youths and traditionalists in Albania. Most Salafi movements follow the Hanbali legal school, as does Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s brand of Islam.
“There was more stress on form in the 90s,” says Roald Hysa, a believer who prays the traditional Hanafi way; hands held together under the navel, kneeling and with the feet kept open at the width of the shoulders.
The Shafi school, predominant in parts of Egypt, was also brought to Albania by some Egyptian missionaries in the 90s.
Maliki legal interpretation is prevalent in Northern Africa and some parts of the Arab peninsula, but its presence in Albania has been relatively small.
While Arab organizations propped up the cash-starved resurgent Islamic community in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of communism, Turkish religious doctrines have gained favour since.
Turkish Islam is regarded as culturally more in step with Albania’s Muslims and less vulnerable to radicalized religious interpretation.
Private Islamic Turkish charities established religious and non-religious schools in Albania which have become known for good discipline and high academic standards. Diyanet, the Turkish state’s Muslim affairs department, has representatives in the country who are working with Albanian officials and institutions.
“The battle within the Muslim Community has always been between a pro-Arab faction and a pro-Turk faction,” says Pirro Misha, a Tirana-based secular intellectual who monitors religious developments in the country. “It seems now that the Turkish faction is winning decisively.”
Albania’s European ambitions
While Misha has fiercely criticised the more radical expressions of religion by some of ‘the Arabs’, he is worried that the new Turkish influence might just be one element of Ankara’s increasing political and economic ambitions in the region.
“That might damage the European aspirations of the Balkans,” he says.
None but one of the current 30 members of the MCA administration have studied in Arab countries, a reversed ratio compared to ten years ago. Its three-story headquarters was renovated with a 300,000 euro grant from Turkish government’s aid branch TIKA.
A dozen Albanians study theology in Turkey every year now, and Albanian believers have asked the Diyanet, to arrange their hajj – something that was managed by Arab charities and organisations in the past.
Problems have emerged, however. When SEMA, the religious foundation run by the Turkish Gulen movement, took over the madrasa of Tirana, for example, it imposed intensive Turkish language courses.
Zenelhasani’s association complained these language classes put extra pressure on students already following study programmes crammed with Arabic lessons and religious instruction, in addition to the ordinary school curriculum.
Named after its founder, the 69-year-old Anatolian preacher Fetullah Gulen, the Gulen Movement is one of the most important religious groups in Turkey. It has a controlling interest in the country’s largest newspaper Zaman. Its followers are strongly represented within Turkey’s political administration and business elite.
The Gulen Movement has expanded internationally by building educational systems. Supporters say its stress on education and moderate practices, that emphasise incorporating secular values into Islamic worship, makes it ‘friendlier’ to the West. Gulen’s vehement condemnation of any form of terrorism or violent protest has also earned him many western allies.
Critics, however, say the Gulen Movement is simply a carefully marketed form of Islam that is superficial and presents a romantic view of the Ottoman Empire.
This is a view echoed by those who distrust Turkey’s renewed influence in the country - Albania came under direct Ottoman rule for 500 years until the 1912-13 Balkan Wars - as neo-Ottomanism. They believe Turkey merely wishes to expand its influence in former territories of the Ottoman Empire.
In Albania, the Gulen movement has built a chain of non-religious schools, from nursery to university level, which are run by a non-religious foundation. The madrasas are run by the movement’s religious foundation in Albania, Sema.
Five out of seven of Albania’s madrasas are now under Sema’s management. One has been given to another Turkish group, Istanbul Vakfi of Sufi sheikh Osman Nuri Topbas. Another, a madrasa for girls in the second largest city of Durres, is run by the Qatar Foundation.
‘The Turk’, the Albanian believer influenced by Turkish Islam, is most often a youth who has studied at Gulen schools in Albania. Typically, he is a clean-shaven, courteous, jacket-and-pants wearing ‘ordinary guy’ who is integrated in society. He will be a non-drinking Muslim, but would not object to hanging out with bon viveurs at alcohol-serving bars.
The Turkish groups playing a role now, like the Gulen movement, are modern schools of thought that did not exist when Albania was part of the Ottoman Empire. Such movements emerged as Turkey sought to accommodate religious worship within a fiercely secular state, supported by the political class loyal to the country’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
This renewed religious influence is, of course, understandable. The Ottomans, current-day Turks, brought Islam to Albania and elsewhere in the Balkans, when they ruled an empire that stretched from Iran to the Hungarian plains in central Europe and north-eastern Africa.
On the balcony of a bar in a western suburb of Tirana, the Saudi-trained theologian Justinian Topulli acknowledges there was intolerance in the past, but stresses that the so-called ‘Arab’ faction has mellowed.
“I have friends who think of the stupidities they made back then and laugh in shame,” says Topulli, a 27-year-old father of two with a degree from the University of Medina in Saudi Arabia.
A six-angled star, an ornament that looked like the Star of David, was mysteriously erased from the oldest mosque in Tirana. A group of teenagers studying at a Sudanese-funded madrasa in Cerrik in the mid-90s had scratched Allah is Great across 17th century frescoes in Christian Orthodox churches.
The Sudanese foundation was expelled from the country for inciting religious intolerance among the students, and the madrasa was promptly given to Gulen’s Sema foundation.
Long-bearded Topulli is one of the founders of the League of Albanian Imams. He says it was created as a reaction to what he believes is the degradation of the image of Albania’s Islamic community.
He is concerned that ‘Arab’ Albanian Muslims have been excluded from the debate, and wants the Islamic community to make room for other views on prayers styles, how to determine the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan and the celebration of Eid al-Fitr.
“We don’t want to impose our own [views], but we want to have our ideas included in the public discourse,” says Topulli.
What the ‘Arabs’ have “is mostly a problem of access,” says Besnik Sinani, who has studied the Islamic communities in Albania for his degree at New York University in the US.
“There will be [problems] if groups like the League of Imams do not have a voice in Muslim affairs,” he warns.
Olsi Jazexhi, a Toronto-based commentator on Islam and nationalism in Albania, calls “the Arabs” the “penniless ones”, who must be reintegrated within the mainstream Islamic community in Albania.
However, Genti Kruja, a senior MCA official, denies that so-called ‘Arabs’ have been excluded. “No one denies Arab-trained clergy access,” he says. “They run Albania’s most important mosques and many of the regional departments.”
The Turkish influence is definitely on the increase, while the so-called Arab one is on the wane. But many see the infighting within Albania’s Muslim community as a straightforward power struggle. The pro-Turk faction is criticised for describing the ‘Arabs’ in terms that imply support for extremism and even terrorism.
The presence of the Albanian president at the ilahi concert this year, sponsored by SEMA and the MCA, demonstrates the government’s active support for Turkish schools of Islam.
At the end of the concert, the MCA’s public relations chief – who is also a product of the Gulen education system - can be seen, along with some stage performers, thanking Topi for attending.
While official support for Turkish Islam may be politically expedient for Albania’s leadership, the MCA is fighting to maintain, even gain, credibility among its believers. Albania’s Muslims are still searching for their own religious path.
“We want an Albanian Islam,” says Ramiz Zekaj of the Albanian Institute for Islamic Thought and Civilization, a Tirana-based think tank. “We cannot have one if we don’t even control our own educational institutions.”
This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence's Alumni Initiative, established and funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation.