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Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Muslims in Non Muslim Countries: Albania


I have been writing about Muslims living in Non Muslim Countries for awhile now. But writing about Albania is really peculiar and interesting specially those who do not the dominating religion of the country. Albania despite having an overwhelming Muslims majority, some 58% of the tonal population, a legacy of its centuries of Ottoman rule, is not a Muslim country. 

In fact Albania is constitutionally a secular country, and as such, "neutral in questions of belief and conscience". The most-commonly practiced religion in Albania is Islam (mainly Sunni or Bektashi), the second-most-commonly practiced religion is Christianity (mainly Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant), however there are also many irreligious Albanians.

Albania has been a predominant Christian country till Islam arrived during the Ottoman period in the 15th century and the majority of Albanians converted to Islam in 16th and 17th centuries. The Muslims were generally Sunnis, however a portion opted to be Bektashi (a Shia-Sufi order). By 19th Muslim Albanians formed around 70% of the overall Balkan Albanian population in the Ottoman Empire with an estimated population of more than a million. In the early 20th century, the decline of Ottoman rule through military defeat in the Balkans was imminent. At this juncture Albanians represented by Ismail Qemali declared Independence from the Ottoman Empire on 28 November 1912 in Vlorë. However, the international recognition of Albanian independence entailed the imposition of a Christian monarch. During World War I, northern, central and south-central Albania came under Austro-Hungarian occupation. In the census of 1916–18 conducted by Austro-Hungarian authorities, the results showed that Muslims in the regions of Dibër, Lumë and Gorë were over 80% of the population.

The experience of World War One, concerns over being partitioned and loss of power made the Muslim Albanian population support Albanian nationalism and the territorial integrity of Albania. Seeing the decline of Muslim hold, an understanding emerged between most Sunni and Bektashi Albanians that religious differences needed to be sidelined for national cohesiveness. From 1920 until 1925 a four-member governing regency council from the four religious denominations [(Sunni, Bektashi, Catholic, Orthodox) was appointed.] Albanian secularist elites pushed for a reform of Islam as the process of Islamic religious institutions were nationalized and the state increasingly imposed its will upon them.

Following the government program of reforms, the Albanian Islamic congress in Tirana decided to deliberate and reform some Islamic traditional practices adopted from the Ottoman period. The measures was a break with the Ottoman Caliphate and to establish local Muslim structures loyal to Albania, banning polygamy, and the mandatory wearing of veil (hijab) by women in public. A new form of prayer was also implemented (standing, instead of the traditional prayer ritual. However, the wearing of the veil in 1937 was banned.

In 1939, Italy invaded Albania. The Italians attempted to gain sympathies of the Muslim Albanians by proposing to build a large mosque in Rome, though the Vatican opposed this measure and nothing came of it in the end. Mussolini's son in law Count Ciano also replaced the leadership of the Sunni Muslim community, which had recognized the Italian regime in Albania with clergy that aligned with Italian interests.




After the World War II, the communists took over Albania and attempted to forge a national identity that transcended and eroded these religious and other differences with the aim of forming a unitary Albanian identity.  Thus the religions like Islam were denounced as foreign and through policy the Muslim way of life and Islamic culture was destroyed.  In 1967 the communist regime declared Albania the only non-religious country in the world, banning all forms of religious practice in public. The Muslims and Christians suffered severe persecution. Friday prayers in a mosque were banned and personal possession of religious literature such as the Quran was forbidden.

Mosques became a target for Albanian communists who saw their continued existence as exerting an ideological presence in the minds of people. In 1967 within the space of seven months the communists destroyed 740 mosques, some of which were prominent and architecturally important like the Kubelie Mosque in Kavajë, the Clock Mosque in Peqin and the two domed mosques in Elbasan dating from the 17th century. Other Islamic buildings were appropriated by the communist state and turned into them into gathering places, sports halls, warehouses, barns, restaurants, cultural centers and cinemas in an attempt to erase those links between religious buildings and people. 

In early 1990, the Communist regime started to collapse and it reluctantly allowed for limited religious expression to reemerge. Thus a Catholic church and the Lead mosque in Shkodër were both the first religious buildings reopened. At that time Azem Hajdari (1963–1998) and Sali Berisha, who later served multiple terms as president and prime minister were prominent leaders in the movement for democratic change and between 1992 - 1997 people part of the Albanian government were mostly of a Muslim background. Areas that had been traditionally Muslim prior to 1967 reemerged in a post-communist context once again mainly as Muslim. From then on, Muslims placed their focus on restoring institutions, religious buildings and Islam as a faith in Albania. Most mosques and some madrassas (schools teaching Islam and Qur'an) destroyed and damaged during the communist era were reconstructed or restored in former locations where they once stood before 1967.

In 1967 it officially declared itself an atheist country. Such association of the country with Islam is unfair to non-Muslim Albanians who, at least in Albania, make up the overwhelming majority of the population. Albania is supposed to be an example of religious tolerance where Islam, Catholic Christianity and Orthodox Christianity, and other religions coexist peacefully. However, at present, The Albanian state is secular, with no declared state religion. In 1992 Albania became the only entirely European member of the OIC, generating intense controversy within Albania due to concerns that Albania might drift from a secular European future. The Albanian government viewed membership in the OIC as being a bridge between the Muslim-Christian worlds and also as having a "civilizing mission" role within the Islamic world due to the Western orientation of Albania.

The Albanian state administers most of the mosques while also viewed as the main representative of Muslims in the country. Due to funding shortages in Albania, around 90% of the budget of the Albanian Muslim community came from foreign sources in the 1990s, though from 2009 after the signing of agreements the Albanian government allocates funding from the state budget to the four main religions to cover administrative and other costs.

The Muslim Community of Albania in its statutes claims authority over all Muslim groups in Albania. As Albanian migrants went abroad financial resources were sent back to fund other reconstruction projects of various Sufi shrines. The Bektashi order in Albania views themselves as the centre of a worldwide movement and have reconnected with various Turkish educational and Iran religious organizations emphasizing their common links, something that other Sufi orders in Albania have done.

As for relations with other Muslims countries, Turkey has been supportive of Albanian geopolitical interests within the Balkans. Turkish brand of Islam now dominates the country’s religious institutions as it is culturally more in step with Albania’s Muslims and less vulnerable to radicalized religious interpretation. Albania has established political and economic ties with Arab countries, in particular with Arab Persian Gulf states who have heavily invested in religious, transport and other infrastructure alongside other facets of the economy in addition to the somewhat limited societal links they share.

Two official holidays are: Bajrami i Madh (Big Bayram, Eid al-Fitr) celebrated at the conclusion of Ramadan and Kurban Bajram (Bayram of the sacrifice) or Bajrami i Vogël (Small Bayram, Eid al-Adha) celebrated on 10 Dhu al-Hijjah. During the month of Ramadan practicing Sunni Muslims fast and 5 nights are held sacred and celebrated. The prophet Muhammad's birthday is also commemorated and the Muslim Community of Albania holds a concert in Tiranë. It is attended by Albanian political and Muslim religious establishment representatives alongside Albanian citizens, many non-practicing Muslims.

Watch a video of Muslims of Albania celebrating the Holy month of Ramadan:
For Shiite Muslims, the Day of Sultan Novruz (Nowruz) on March 22 is an official holiday. Ashura, a day commemorating the massacre at Karbala is also held. A pilgrimage on 20–25 August to Mount Tomorr to commemorate and celebrate the Shi'ite saint Abbas Ali.

Halal slaughter of animals and food is permitted, mainly available in the eateries of large urban centers and becoming popular among people who are practicing Sunni Muslims. Muslim dress is not prohibited in Albania in public areas.Religious Muslim law as with other religious law is not recognized by the Albanian courts. The Sunni Muslim Community of Albania however recognizes nikah or religious Muslim marriage although not many people undertake marriage in this form. During the communist period Muslim Albanians were buried alongside Albanians of other faiths and due to that legacy in contemporary times separate Muslim graveyards are uncommon.

Photo | References: | Main reference Source: Wikipedia (Islam in Albania) | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 |
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