Thursday, August 7, 2008

Life in a Muslim Country?

"So, what's it like to live in a Muslim country?"

I hear that a lot from lots of my stateside colleagues, friends, and family members. Let me tell you, life in a Muslim country was oppressive. I was forced to always wear long pants and a collared shirt, preferably long sleeved. When the call to prayer was sounded, I had to go sit on a bench on the street and wait for the shops to open back up after prayer. I couldn't find an alcoholic drink of any kind, anywhere. When I went out in public with female co-workers, they had to cover up entirely with only their face showing. Any infraction of the religious rules risked a scolding by the religious police (muttawa) who were alway accompanied by armed civil police. The muttawa would hit you with a long stick and yell at you about your infraction and, if you didn't fix the problem immediately, the civil police were ready to use more persuasive methods. And don't get me started on the public executions. Let's just say I never, ever wanted to even think about jaywalking after I saw a few heads parted from their owners! Yeah, life in Saudi Arabia was tough.

But you meant in Albania, right? I thought you meant life in a Muslim country. Albania is not a Muslim country. It's a country with a majority of citizens who would probably identify themselves as Muslim if asked. The last time anyone asked was in the 60's or 70's so all estimates of population and religious affiliation are WAG's. (Wild Ass Guesses).

So why does everyone say Albania is a Muslim country? It's the inescapable burden of history combined with recent isolation. As in almost every aspect of Albanian life and culture, these factors play a huge part in modern perceptions of the role of religion.

Before the Ottoman conquest of Albania, the majority of the inhabitants of this land were either Catholic or Orthodox Christians due to the influences of Rome and Byzantium. Prior to that I imagine many worshipped Roman or Greek gods, depending on whose yoke they lived under. The point being that in a country that has experienced repeated invasion and occupation, religious affiliation was often a function of who is the oppressor d'jour.

The Ottomans recognized this and used their governance as a prod to conversion. Muslim families in Albania paid lower taxes, did not have to involuntarily send their children to train as soldiers in Istanbul, and were generally better treated than their non-Muslim neighbors. Surprise, surprise: 60-85% of the population converted to Islam during the 500 years of Ottoman rule in Albania.

The breadth and depth of conversion can be traced today back to the amount of control the Ottomans exerted in an area and how long they held the territory. One author I read compared it to a tide that filled the lowest areas first and remained there longest before receding. In the mountain fastness of the Northern Albanian Alps, the Ottomans never really managed to bring the people under effective control, hence they remained mostly Catholic. Ditto for the remote areas of the south where Orthodoxy held sway in the isolated villages. In central Albania, along the invasion and trade routes of the river valleys, the Ottomans came and stayed and established effective government and commercial structures and made more converts. Around Elbasan, Tirana, and Fier the majority still identifies itself as Muslim.

Fast forward to today. You ask someone, "What faith are you?" Statistics say about 60% will answer, "Muslim." If you dig a little deeper, many times you find out this means the person's family is historically Muslim, not that the individual is a practicing believer. The spectrum is wide and varied.

Some are observant Muslims who fast during Ramadan, abstain from alcohol and pork, and adhere strictly to the tenets of the religion. Other Muslims are actually Bektashi, a sect seen as heretical by other Muslims. The sect began in Turkey and was driven out to eventually make Albania the world center of Bektashism. They combine elements of Islam, Zoroastrianism, and some Christian ideas. Very tolerant, may or may not abstain from pork and alcohol, and not inclined to jihad at all. Still others will identify themselves as Muslim because their family comes from an area which was under Ottoman sway for a long time and is still identified as being a Muslim family even if they don't believe or practice any faith.

It's an oft-quoted truism that "The religion of Albanians is Albanianism." Religious tolerance between the denominations has been held up as an example of how disparate communities can live together peacefully by many educated experts... and George W. Bush. Historically it has been true. Under the Ottomans, there was no conflict between those who converted and those who didn't. The common dislike of the Ottomans united them. Albanians of all faiths united to push out Serbs, Austrians, Greeks, Italians, and Germans when they felt their nation was imperiled. Under communism this unity was brutally enforced by the regime as they tried wipe out all traces of organized religion and gather all the citizens around the nation. And by nation, they meant Party.

This worked fairly well in uniting the people, not because the regime did anything right, but because Albanians naturally unite around any power center that claims to make the Albanian nation the center of their focus. It was like trying to force all children to love ice cream by outlawing all other dessert choices. You won't get any of them to disagree with love of ice cream, but some will be disgruntled that they can't get their hands on a little custard every now and then. I mean, really, religion has never been a threat to Albanians national unity... until now.

After thousands of years of changing religious affiliations by Albanians in response to their circumstances, I claim they are in more danger than ever of being divided? Yeah. Here's why. The influx of religious influences since the fall of communism is different than ever before. This is the first era in which proselytizing and conversion is being done without an accompanying invasion and occupation. The Saudi Wahhabists who are trying to establish fundamentalist mosques and medrassas aren't doing so to increase the size of the Saudi Empire. The born-again Christians are not here trying to convert the people to support a crusading occupier. The Jehovahs' Witnesses aren't fighting for establishment of support for a Jehovan state. They're coming to build numbers for their faiths only. The successful governance of the territory and the peaceful inter-relations of the community matter not one iota to them.

Proof? For the first time in Albanian history, fundamentalists of all stripes are intentionally taking actions to antagonize one another. Christians of all ilk are planting huge crosses high above towns, symbolically indicating their dominance of that region. They seem to take great joy in doing this above historically Muslim villages and towns. Elbasan is one example. Mosques under the sway of hard-line imams are mounting bigger speakers on the minarets close to Christian churches. Jehovahs? Their biggest impact seems to be convincing lots of Albanian teenagers that life sucks so they throw themselves off the balcony or eat rat poison.

I kid! I kid the Jehovahs!

The final proof is made of concrete, right in the center of Tirana. First the Catholics erect "the biggest cathedral in the Balkans." Not to be outdone, the Orthodox Church is almost done with "the largest Orthodox cathedral in the Balkans," squeezed right in between the Ministry of Defense and the Socialist Party Headquarters. The Muslims feel left out and want the state to give them permission to build "the biggest mosque in the Balkans" in the center of town.

Don't get me wrong. As an American I understand the importance of separation of church and state and don't support any effort to outlaw a religion. I do understand the divisive nature of fundamentalist religion and support a state role in limiting the types of actions believers can take in the name of their faith. I'm just not down with this whole jihad thing, be it Christian, Muslim, or Jehovahn! Albania would be better off if they spent more time building a functional civil society and less on divisive religious displays.



Thomas F. said...

Hi, I am a Christian expat, working in a church in Albania, so of course you hit me close to home. Allow me one comment nevertheless.

Where I come from, Albania's (and to some degree Kosova's) history of peaceful coexistence is one that tears down prejudices and challenges how one may look at religion and faith. I agree with you that Albania is not a muslim country per se. But one cannot and should not argue with people who call themselves muslim that they are not. They are just another brand of muslim than what so often is displayed in western media.

Secondly, and I am sorry if I get ahead of myself, but it seems to me that you take for granted that religious activities always are divisive only? Really? Isn't this exact peaceful cohabitation both a reinforcement of something truthfully Albanian as well as supporting and building the society? I believe that it's possible to both be a valuable asset to society as well as being religious. I would like to be so myself.

Of course, I'm not going to defend any of the jihad motions, whatever religion they may spring from, and I am sure you've got more knowledge on the matter than I do, but the Christian-evangelical albanians I meet are focused on using their skills, education etc. to build up their country - and they claim that this notion to not flee springs from an understanding of responsibility, coming from the Christian perspective that they have.

Just my very long two cents. Once again, thank you for a good read and a great blog.

Anila said...


I'm Albanian and I couldn't agree more with this blog's entry.

I remember years ago being asked the same question "what's like to live in a Muslim country" from an American colleague. That was the first time that I had even heard the notion that Albania could be classified as a Muslim country ... Funnily enough my colleague was so very sure of this definition ... because she had read it herself in some state department's brief :).

Anyway, Albania is not a Muslim country. Religion is not one of the dimensions that comes into play when Albanian people define themselves. Most Albanians tend to believe in God but are less attached to the institutional aspect of the religion. It is common to hear from an Albanian that "... surely there is just one God, no matter what name you call him by". Well yes what can I say... God is a "he" in the Albanian language ...

Unfortunately it appears that a few religious groups outside the country are taking advantage of the existing tolerance towards any and all beliefs and are trying to push their extreme beliefs and agendas. Hope the society will cope on in time.

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