Majorly Muslim in Europe

S. Mubashir Noor asks why Albania has seemingly found a way to reconcile faith and state while maintaining a secular identity

Majorly Muslim in Europe
Here’s an intriguing thought: The small European state of Albania is partly why our lives are so technologically enriched. Everything from GPS to television sets to computers owes a debt of gratitude to the Albanian people. Had they not been partisan to interfaith harmony throughout history, there would be no Albert Einstein. He would likely have perished at the hands of the Nazis in World War II, and with him, the building blocks of modern scientific progress.

In 2007, a memorial was unveiled in Jerusalem, Israel, commemorating Albanian Muslims’ help to the Jews in World War II. From 1941 to 1945, Nazi Germany went about systematically exterminating the European Jewry. Mercifully, Albania’s resistance movement kept pockets of the country safe for the 2,000 Jews that poured in, fleeing certain death. One such man was Einstein, who benefited from Albanian help to transit through Europe to America. He stayed in the city of Durrës for three days and then, equipped with an Albanian passport, continued his journey towards freedom.

"Religion, meet state"? Et' hem Bey Mosque, adjacent to Albanian national hero George Kastrioti Skanderbeg in the main square of Tirana

Albania is an anomaly in the Muslim world and a remarkable petri dish of religious coexistence. After the Charlie Hebdo massacre by vengeful Muslim vigilantes, most of the ummah muttered muted condemnations of the act. Not the Albanians. At a massive support rally held for the victims in Paris in January 2015, the leaders of the four religions in Albania – Sunni Islam, Roman Catholicism, Betakshi Islam, and Orthodox Christianity – marched side by side in a show of unity and support. Their stance was clear: human compassion superseded all godly pursuits.

On 21 September 2014, as the black cloud of the Islamic State (ISIS) loomed large over Iraq and Syria, an ordinary man on the streets of Tirana, Albania, held aloft a placard that said: “I love the Bible and Koran because I am Albanian.” This overt display of interfaith harmony so moved the visiting Pope Francis that he proclaimed, “The climate of respect and mutual trust between Catholics, Orthodox, and Muslims is a precious gift to the country.” Albania’s religious freedom, he glowed, was an “inspiring example” for the world.

Dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled Albania from 1944 to 1985
Dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled Albania from 1944 to 1985

Ironically, the man with the placard would have been shot dead 40 years ago for daring to make any religious statement at all. In 1944, under Enver Hoxha’s socialist dictatorship, Albania entered a long winter of religious repression that lasted over four decades. Churches and mosques were converted into warehouses, cinemas, or dance halls. Priests and imams were routinely rounded up and imprisoned, or worse, executed by firing squad. The practice of faith had to be carried out in absolute secrecy and, in 1967, Albania became the world’s first officially atheist state.

Hoxha was a man steeped in Marxist philosophy and fervent nationalism. He often quoted Renaissance poet Pashvo Vasa’s famous line: “The only religion of Albania is Albanianism.” It was only in the late 1980s, as the Iron Curtain disintegrated across Eastern Europe, that his successor, Ramiz Alia, became more tolerant towards religious practice. Paradoxically, many Albanians believe that Hoxha’s intolerance towards all religions, and his singular focus on national identity, is what reinforced interfaith harmony in post-communist Albania.

Leaders of Albania's four main denominations in 2015. L to R Sunni Muslim, Orthodox, Bektashi, and Catholic
Leaders of Albania's four main denominations in 2015. L to R Sunni Muslim, Orthodox, Bektashi, and Catholic

What Albanians call "Turkish Islam" is considered more culturally compatible and less vulnerable to radicalized interpretation

According to a 2011 census, almost 60% of Albanians identify themselves as Muslim, followed by a total of 17% as Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian. Islam came to the Balkans – and to Albania – during the Ottoman era. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries AD, the Albanians converted to the Hanafi strain of their Turk overlords. “Turkish Islam”, as Albanians call it, is considered more culturally compatible and less vulnerable to radicalized interpretation. This, combined with a large degree of ethnic homogeneity, has mostly deterred sectarian strife in the country.
In Tirana, the capital city, Muslims and Christians share a common cemetery

Despite Albania’s difficulties in transitioning to a modern open-market economy, money problems have not surfaced as religious radicalism. The primary reason for this may be that religion has never been used as a divisive tool by Albanian preachers. In Tirana, the capital city, Muslims and Christians share a common cemetery. Similarly, the Albanian flag emphasizes nationalism over denomination, with the double-headed eagle representing the medieval hero, Skanderbeg. To preserve national unity, Albanian writers of old often urged inter-religious marriages, something the communists would enforce by law.

Modern Albania, as a parliamentary republic, declares itself secular, with no state religion and all religions considered equal. Official holidays, to this effect, are observed for all major faiths. A State Committee on Cults manages the relationship between the government and religious groups. Those registered with the committee have the right to hold bank accounts and own real estate. The government has no say in how families raise their children concerning religious practices.

Present-day Pakistan has deviated greatly from its founder’s ideals. Jinnah envisioned a secular Muslim state and would have likely disapproved of the 1956 constitutional declaration of Pakistan as an Islamic republic. History has proven him right: courting religious sentiment for political gain became a quagmire for a procession of well-intentioned individuals. From Ayub to Bhutto to Zia, the progressive Islamization of parliamentary democracy slowly beset Pakistan with religious fault-lines. Unshackling ourselves of this quandary is a Herculean task, yet in Albania lies a model for Muslim secularity worthy of emulation.

The writer is a freelance columnist and audio engineer based in Islamabad