Albania: Freedom Unconsidered
[The Albanians embraced Islam nearly as a whole, which is remarkable when seen in the light of Albanian history. Their ancient origin was from the Illyrian people who inhabited the Adriatic littoral of the Balkan peninsula. The rugged terrain of this region served as a natural barrier against outside invaders and greatly slowed the spread of foreign ideas, such as Christianity and linguistic borrowing. Before the outlawing of religion in 1967, Albania’s population was 75% Muslim, 15% Orthodox Christian and 10% Roman Catholic. Eighty-five percent of Albanian Muslims followed Hanafi school of thought. The majority of urban dwellers were Muslim and most of central and northeast Albania was populated by Muslims.
As the Eastern Roman Empire began to crumble away in the Balkans, Albania was invaded by the expanding Serbian State and by the Kingdom of Naples. The Serbs managed to gain minor footholds throughout the country while Naples was able to capture and control all of the coastal towns. After the death of the Serbian king Dushan in the mid 14th century, the Albanian chief Gjergj Balsha managed to set up an independent principality centered around the northern city of Shkoder. In 1385, Ghergj Balsha perished in a battle with the Ottomans. Following their victory over a combined force of Hungarians, Serbs, Bosnians and Wallachians on the banks of the Maritza River, Ottoman troops expanded their hold over large portions of the south-central Balkans.
By 1479, the entire country, except for Durres, Dulcigno and Antivari, was under Ottoman suzerainty. The lenient terms of capitulation required by Islamic law gave Albanians the right to retain their religious beliefs. It was not until the early seventeenth century that Islam began to gain hold in Albania. This is proof in itself that the so-called theories that Islam was forced upon Albanians and other Balkan peoples hold no ground in historical fact. Islam gave them a way to God without the entanglements of intermediaries and without the complex theological doctrines that typified medieval Christianity. Islam also gave Albanians a voice in the administration of not only their own lands but of the whole Ottoman State. Prominent Vizirs and Pashas hailed from Albania, and were appointed to their posts long before the majority of Albanians professed Islam.
Albania proclaimed its independence on Nov. 28, 1912. Albania’s territorial integrity was insured by the Great Powers, albeit not without a price. In return for foreign protection, a foreign Christian prince, William of Wied, was placed as monarch of Albania. In June 1924, the American-educated Orthodox Bishop Fan Noli was placed in power. Later, in 1928, Ahmet proclaimed himself king of Albania, who was known as King Zog. He set about to de-Islamize Albania on the model of Kemal Ataturk of Turkey.
Following the second world war, the Albanian Communist Party (ACP) began the total destruction of Islam. In 1945, all waqf properties were nationalized and hundreds of ulema were executed. No contact was allowed with Muslims in predominantly Muslim lands. Public religious instruction was made illegal. The final blow came on Feb. 6, 1967, when Albania was proclaimed the world’s first atheistic state. All of the country’s 530 mosques were locked up. Those that were allowed to remain open were turned into museums, gymnasiums and even artist’s studios. Pig farms sprang up throughout the country and all were encouraged to eat pork products.
Although Christians make up only some 25% of Albania’s population, they hold more than half of the membership of the Albanian politburo. The first Juma’ prayer in over twenty years was held Nov. 23, 1990 in Tirana.]
During the recent great wave of change that has swept through the countries of Soviet dominated Eastern Europe, the U.S. and her allies have grown eager to encourage free elections and a general opening of society. This massive support, from both the treasuries and media of the West, has not been allocated to the two “maverick” communist states of the Balkans, Yugoslavia and Albania, both of which broke away from Moscow’s clutch in the 1950s.
Nearly a year after the popular revolts freed much of Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia and Albania have begun to give in to internal cries for the end of the communist monopoly on the government. During the latter part of last year, free elections were held throughout the six republics that constitute Yugoslavia. The results of the election proved to be a mixed blessing, for although they gave the masses a popular say in government, they also unleashed the traditional hatreds between the various ethnic groups. Albania, the last vestige of Stalinism in Europe, has finally succumbed to the will of her people, but why Albania (and to a lesser extent, Yugoslavia) has been denied the sympathy of the West is a question that needs to be answered. Albania has long been noted in the West as the “Tibet of Europe.” Travelers to the country during the pre-communist era noted its rugged mountains, the intensely independent and tribalist nature of its rural population, and to Western eyes, its complete backwardness. When the scramble for influence in the Balkans began in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Khalifate, the surrounding powers chose to ignore any major involvement in Albania rather than expend the tremendous amount of money and troops to subdue and develop the country. This, however, did not mean that the Western powers had allowed Albanians to chart their own course to self-determination. The Great Powers did manage to place the Protestant Prince William of Wied as monarch of Albania; and in the 1930s, Mussolini, in his bid to revive the Roman Empire, invaded Albania and annexed it to Italy. But the country remained an insignificant theater during both World wars and the subsequent cold war.
The confessional make-up of the Albanian people also served to gain Western contempt and disregard. Before the outlawing of religion in 1967, Albania’s population was 75% Muslim, 15% Orthodox Christian and 10% Roman Catholic. The Muslim population was further divided between the 85% who followed the Hanafi school of the Ahli-Sunnah wal Jama’ and the 15% who were affiliated with the highly syncretic Bektashi sect. The majority of urban dwellers were found to be Muslim and most of central and northeast Albania was populated solely by Muslims. Catholics were found primarily among the inhabitants of the extremely mountainous northwestern region around the city of Shkoder, and the Orthodox were scattered throughout the towns and villages near the present-day Greek-Albanian border.
The Albanians unique distinction of being the only European people to have embraced Islam nearly as a whole is remarkable when seen in the light of Albanian history. Their ancient origin was from the Illyrian people who inhabited the Adriatic littoral of the Balkan peninsula. The rugged terrain of this region served as a natural barrier against outside invaders and greatly slowed the spread of foreign ideas, such as Christianity and linguistic borrowings. By the fourth century C.E., however, Illyria began to succumb to the Christian religion, with the great coastal towns such as Durres and Vlore becoming bases for missionary activity in the inland mountains. When the schism between the Catholic Church of Rome and the Orthodox Church of Constantinople occurred in 1054, Albania was divided into spheres of influence by the two great churches, with the Shkumbi River as the dividing line. To the north of the river, the Catholic Church would have its hand on religious life as the Orthodox did in the south. This division exacerbated the dialectical differences between Northern Albanians, known as the Ghegs, and Southern Albanians, called Tosks. The literary language of Albania was Latin in the north and Greek in the south.
As the Eastern Roman Empire began to crumble away in the Balkans, Albania was invaded by the expanding Serbian State, which was situated to the northeast, and by the Kingdom of Naples. The Serbs managed to gain minor footholds throughout the country while Naples was able to capture and control all of the coastal towns. The interior was to remain under the control of tribal chiefs who paid nominal fealty to the two occupiers.
After the death of the Serbian king Dushan in the mid 14th century, the Albanian chief Gjergj Balsha managed to set up an independent principality centered around the northern city of Shkoder. Nearly all of the coastal cities were freed from Neapolitan control. This political independence was, however, to be short-lived. In 1385, Ghergj Balsha perished in a battle with a new invader: the Ottomans.
Following their victory over a combined force of Hungarians, Serbs, Bosnians and Wallachians on the banks of the Maritza River, Ottoman troops expanded their hold over large portions of the south-central Balkans. By the 1380s, the Muslim army, operating from bases along the Vardar River, began probing into the mountains of Albania. The city of Kroya was opened in 1415; Valona, Kanina and Berat in 1417; Gjirokaster in 1419; Ioannina in 1431; and Serres in 1433. In 1430, the captured area became Ottoman sanjak province and in 1440, one Iskander Bey was placed as the sanjak-bey or governor.
Iskander Bey (aka George Kastriotes), the son of an Albanian chief, had been reared as a hostage in the Ottoman court in Adrianople (Edirne). [Albanians prefer the spelling GJERGJ KASTRIOTI and Scanderbeg. Both American and German ‘Atlas of World History’ use the spelling George Kastriotis and Skanderberg]. With Kastriotes being an Albanian and an apparent convert to Islam, the Ottoman hierarchy saw him as an ideal governor of the newly acquired Albanian territories. However, three years after his placement he apostatized to Catholicism and led a 25 year revolt against the Ottomans.
After the death of Kastriotes in 1468, Albanian resistance withered. By 1479, the entire country, except for Durres, Dulcigno and Antivari (which were under the control of Venice), was under Ottoman suzerainty. Many of the highland tribes welcomed the Ottoman armies as liberators, due to their reluctance to form a united Albania under the leadership of Kastriotis’ dan. The lenient terms of capitulation required by Islamic law gave Albanians the right to retain their religious beliefs.
It was not until the early seventeenth century that Islam began to gain hold in Albania. This is proof in itself that the so-called theories that Islam was forced upon Albanians land other Balkan peoples) hold no ground in historical fact. In his exhaustive study of the spread of Islam, T.W. Arnold stated that ‘There can be little doubt of the influence exerted by the zealous activity and vigorous life of Islam in the face of the apathetic and ignorant clergy. If Islam in Albania had many such exponents as the Mullah, whose sincerity, courtesy and friendliness are praised by Marco Bizzi [a papal nuncio sent to Albania in the early 1600s], with whom he used to discuss religious questions, it may well have made its way (1979, The Preaching of Islam).
In the face of decay of the Christian Church and its clergy, Albanians sought a renewed spirituality in a faith that was well suited to their independent-minded nature. Islam gave them a way to God without the entanglements of intermediaries and without the complex theological doctrines that typified medieval Christianity. Islam also gave Albanians a voice in the administration of not only their own lands but of the whole Ottoman State. Prominent Vizirs and Pashas (the most notable were the Koprulu family) hailed from Albania, and were appointed to their posts long before the majority of Albanians professed Islam.
As the Christian armies of Austria and Russia began to conquer the lands of the Ottoman Balkans in the late seventeenth century, tens of thousands of Muslims chose to flee to the Anatolian heartland rather than remain under Christian occupation. The Sultan’s Christian subjects repaid the tolerance and religious freedom given to them under four centuries of Muslim rule with rebellion and treason. In such areas as Bosnia, Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria, where Christians outnumbered Muslims, vengeful massacres carried out by Christians occurred, often under the watchful eyes of the invading European armies.
Amidst this sea of turmoil and collapse, Albania was to prove itself a bastion of Islam, successfully fending off any Christian invaders. When the Ottomans were forcefully ejected from all of Europe (except for eastern Thrace) as a result of the Balkan Wars (1912-13), Albanians were left to deal with the advancing armies of Serbia and Montenegro without assistance from the armies of the Khilafa. To prevent Albania’s absorption by the neighboring states, its independence was proclaimed on Nov. 28, 1912 under the leadership of Ismail Kemal Bey. Albania’s territorial integrity was insured by the Great Powers, albeit not without a price. In return for foreign protection, a foreign Christian prince, William of Wied, was placed as monarch of Albania. He was, however, driven out on the eve of the outbreak of the First World War and when the Muslim insurgents chased him and his entourage out of Durres, they raised the Ottoman flag and declared themselves for the Khilafa.
War would cut short any hope for a stable Albania governed on the principles of Islam. Secular opportunists such as Esad Pasa and Ahmet Bey Zogolli lined themselves up to make their bid for power. The country was occupied by the Serbs and Montenegrins who were then pushed out by the Austrians.
Following the war, the victorious allies occupied the country, with Italy given extensive holding of all the central provinces. A provisional government was set up by the Italians and when they evacuated the country a pro-Italian administration was left behind. In June 1924, the American-educated Orthodox Bishop Fan Noli was placed in power. Having a Christian clergyman ruling over a Muslim state was to prove too much for many. Six months later, Noli was thrown out by Ahmet Bey Zogolli. In 1928, Ahmet proclaimed himself king of Albania and became known simply as King Zog. He set about to de-Islamize Albania on the model of Kemal Ataturk of Turkey. The Shari’ah was subordinated to the newly adopted Swiss Civil Code and all Muslim clergy were forced to carry out the directives of the State. These inter-war restrictions on the practice of Islam were to prove to be a foreshadowing of what was yet to come.
In the spring of 1939 Mussolini’s Italian legions invaded Albania, threw Zog out of the country and annexed it to the “New Roman Empire.” The Italian presence would drag Albania into the chaos of the Second World War. Resistance, which was almost second nature to the Albanians would soon arise.
The largest partisan armies were the Balli Kombetar, a conservative republican group; the Legaliteti, which sought the return of Zog; the Albanian Communist Party that held a Stalinist line; and the Trotskyite Zjarri (Fire) and Te Rinjte (Youth) factions. These mutually hostile groups would fail to form a united front against the Italians and their puppet Albanian troops.
When the Italians capitulated to the Allies in 1943, the German army quickly moved into Albania. The Communists, under the command of Enver Hoxha, began to exert pressure on other resistance groups to conform to communist ideology. This hostility caused the Balli Kombetar faction, under the leadership of Midhat Frasheri, and the Legaliteti, under Abas Kupi, to side with the Germans against the communists. But as the Germans faced collapse elsewhere, their Albanian garrison was slowly withdrawn to more important fronts. The communists, with massive support from the British and Tito’s Yugoslav communist partisans, were able to eliminate their rivals. On Nov. 29, 1944, Albania was “liberated” from German and “feudal-bourgeois” forces.
The Albanian Communist Party (ACP) began its iron-fisted rule in the name of Marxism-Leninism. The main target of the ACP was the total destruction of Islam. In 1945, all waqf properties were nationalized and hundreds of ulema, accused of collaboration, were executed. No contact could be made with Muslims in predominantly Muslim lands. Public religious instruction was made illegal. The Sunni community was to be under guidance of four muftis and the Bektashis under a single deed. Religious life was governed by strict regulations. Muftis were to be appointed by the state, prayers were only to be said in Albanian, and only those mosques that were absolutely necessary for community use were to remain open.
The final blow came on Feb. 6, 1967, when Albania was proclaimed the world’s first atheistic state. All of the country’s 530 mosques (this is a pre-war count) were locked up. Those that were allowed to remain open were turned into museums, gymnasiums and even artist’s studios. Pig farms sprang up throughout the country and all were encouraged to eat pork products. It is interesting to note that the communist regime to this day has retained cordial relations with most Muslim countries of the Middle East. The ACP’s campaign against Islam was to proceed without so much as a protest from either East or West.
What managed to emerge from the ruins of Islam and Christianity in Albania is a potent mixture of Stalinism and Albanian nationalism. It is important to note that Sunni Muslims had little hand in the development of secular Albanian nationalism. The celebrated slogan of communist Albania, “The religion of the Albanian is Albanianism,” was penned by the Christian poet Pashko Vasa Shkodrani (1825-1892). State heroes include Father Kristo Negovani (1875-1905) and Petro Nini Luarasi, who were both Christian clergymen. Christian Albanians have gained much from the secularization of Albania. Although Christians make up only some 25% of Albania’s population, they hold more than half of the membership of the Albanian politburo.
Along with Christian elements in Albania, the Bektashi sect also gave a helping hand to the anti-Islamic nationalist movement. The two Frasheri brothers, whose poetry is much loved by Albanian nationalists, were among the attendants at the predominantly Christian sponsored “League of Prizren” which occurred in 1878 and saw the birth of Albanian nationalism. The Bektashis are a bizarre blend of Islam, Christianity and pagan elements. It was started by one Fadlullah Hurufi (d. 1401), who proclaimed that he was the incarnation of Allah. Their beliefs include the teaching that all religions are equal, the rejection of Islamic practices such as fasting in Ramadan and the five daily prayers, the taking of a ritual meal (similar to Christian communion) and the confession of sins to a “Baba,” or head priest. Bektashism was viewed by many Albanian nationalists as an ideal vehicle for the achievement of their goals. Its view that all religions are equal and its sole use of the Albanian tongue was proof that it was an original Albanian faith (despite the fact that the sect’s founder was from the notorious Qarmatiyyah sect of eastern Arabia) and one that surpassed the deep confessional differences that separated Muslim and Christian Albanians.
It is not surprising to note that more than 6,000 Bektashis fought in the communist bands during the Second World War. The ACP also found support among the Bektashi community. Faja Martaneshi and Fejzo Mallahkastra (both of whom were Babas) were members of the General Council of the Democratic Front and they were elected to the People’s Assembly in 1945. Ironically, these two babas were assassinated by the head of the order, Hilmi Dede, in 1947 for collaboration with the communists.
After the great upheaval that rid East-ern Europe of Communism, it seemed that Albania would remain untouched by the wave of social change. Things were, however, far from hopeless, massive popular protest against the government began in spring of 1990. In July, hundreds of people seeking asylum crammed into the Italian and West German embassies. At least 10,000 demonstrators packed Skanderbeg (Iskander Bey) Square in Tirana, demanding that the government adopt major reforms. Stiff measures were taken by Ramiz Alia’s regime (Enver Hoxha’s successor), banning all unauthorized gatherings. Demonstrations have continued, however, and Enver Hoxha’s domineering status in Tirana’s Skanderberg Square was demolished by students during a protest in the last half of February of this year.
Alia was eventually forced to concede to demands to allow political plurality. In December, hoping that such a move would encourage economic aid from the West to Albania’s weak economy, the government granted formal approval to the opposition Democratic Party. Early in January of this year, two more parties, the Ecological Party and the Republican Party, were formed. The opposition was able to force Alia to postpone the scheduled Feb. 10 elections to March 31, stating they were ill-prepared for the earlier date. When elections did come, the Democratic Party seized 75 seats out of the 250-seat single chamber assembly. The communist grip was weakened but not destroyed. The communists managed to sway the bulk of the rural population by playing upon rumors that the Democratic Party was anti-nationalist.
Following the election, several Albanian cities were wracked by anti-government riots, showing displeasure with the election results. On April 2, four Democratic Party members were mysteriously killed in the northern city of Shkodre, and virtually the entire city erupted in violent protest against the communist authorities.
During this last spring, thousands of Albanian citizens attempted to flee to neighboring Greece and Yugoslavia. In Greece, those Albanians who were not of the Greek minority were turned back at the frontier. None were allowed into Yugoslavia due to that country’s oppression of its own Albanian population.
The opposition has been given the right to publish its own daily publication, Rilindja Demokmtike (Democratic Revival). The paper features articles critical of communist rule and its first issue was so popular that all of its first print copies were sold out within two hours. There have also been concessions given to religious freedom. It is no longer a crime against the state to openly practice or discuss religion. The first Juma’ prayer in over twenty years was held Nov. 23, 1990 in Tirana. A recent tour by a group of Tablighi Jama’at brothers (reported in depth in Crescent Inremational) late last fall had revealed that Islamic teachings were virtually unknown to the youth, and only a few elderly came forward to announce that they were Muslims. The jama’at brothers did note, however, that the youth showed great curiosity when the group made the Adhan and prayed.
It is apparent that it will take several decades to re-Islamize Albanian life. Although Islamic literature is now, for the most part, allowed, very few outside organizations have shown interest in having any sent to be distributed. The situation is grave, and Christian missionaries have begun to arrive in Albania to attempt to fill the religious void. While Muslim wealth was squandered on a senseless war, the West will do its best to see that Islam never rises again in Albania…
ALBANIA – GENERAL PROFILE
Area 28,748 sq km
Population 1988 3,147,000
Population Growth 1.91%
Population Density 109/sq km
ALBANIA – LANGUAGES, ETHNIC GROUPS & RELIGIONS
Languages: Albanian, Greek
Greek & Other 4%
Albanian Orthodox 20%
The original article contains more data on Albania.
By H. Abiva
The Message International, 1991
Web version prepared by Dr. A. Zahoor.