Tribute to Islam from Christian leader
It is one of Europe’s oldest people, yet has a Muslim majority. The whole nation is ethnically homogenous, yet split among three religions. The language is as old as ancient Greek, yet includes many American words. And on top of it, the prime minister is a famous painter.
This unique country is none other than Albania.
Albania held local elections last Sunday, on June 21 which I had the chance to follow first hand in Tirana. I had set this on my mind when I conducted an interview with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama in late April since he drew a very interesting profile of the country.
A specific incident which happened in one of his rallies actually puts the unique characteristics of Albania in a nut shell: When Rama was making his speech on stage, the call to prayer started in the mosque at the square. At that point, he immediately stopped speaking and sat in the corner of the stage, bringing down the house.
So while this act would be considered natural in Turkey, why did it get brownie points in Albania?
The fact that Rama as a Christian prime minister respects the prayer, is certainly one of the reasons. Yet not the only one. It is far beyond.
Albanians built up their first state in the third century BC and have been invaded by many civilizations throughout history. The land defined as Albania today was first invaded by the Roman Empire, which spread Christianity.
Later when the empire split into eastern and western parts, in other words, into Catholic and Orthodox Churches, Albania at first was not impacted. However, in time, when the two churches became completely fragmented, the region of southern Albania retained its ties to Orthodoxy, while the north reverted to Catholicism.
Yet the major change in religion was brought by the Ottomans. During Ottoman governance from the 15th century until 1912, those who converted to Islam were given privileges. Hence the majority shifted to Islam and the nation emerged as a Muslim-majority country.
Today Albania is the only nation composed of a homogenous ethnicity yet with three different religions. According to the last official census of 2011, Muslims constitute around 60 percent of the country whereas Orthodox Albanians are 7 percent and Catholics almost 10 percent.
Most importantly, in sharp contrast to other Balkan countries, there has been no conflict at all between different religions in Albania. Moreover, the religious tensions in the Balkans only raised the sensitivity of the Albanians toward all religions.
And this is exactly why the audience at the rally applauded the prime minister’s attitude during the prayer.
The other reason is that Albanians esteem religious freedom very highly.
Enver Hoxha’s communist dictatorship between 1945 and 1992 in Albania was one of the most violent communist regimes throughout history. During those 47 years, he destroyed everything related to identity and life in Albania. And religion was the aspect affected the most.
With a constitutional change in 1965, Hoxha prohibited religion and made atheism the only official and compulsory ideology. In this way Albania became the first atheist state in history.
Moreover, he destroyed everything related to religion. Churches and mosques were all destroyed. The clergy and worshippers were deported or executed.
And the traumas of this era are still fresh. Today Albanians are still afraid of talking about religion publicly and speaking about their religious affiliation. This explains why 14 percent of the people didn’t reply at all when asked about their religious affiliation at the census of 2011.
Moreover, Albanians are still distant toward religion. Eduart Caka, who is a history professor and the head of the Albanian Center for Academic and Strategic Studies, thinks that Albanians over 40 are still mostly atheist and those practicing among Muslims do not compose more than 10-15 percent of them.
But on the other hand, Albanians who had been relieved of religion for 50 years, are now embracing religious freedom of expression very firmly since they know its value maybe more than any other nation. And this is the other reason why the prime minister’s tribute to the prayer received heavy applause.
In this habitat, naturally religion does not play any role in politics. Albanian politicians do not use any religious reference in their rhetoric.
Yet still, the fact that Rama recently gave a start to the building of the first big mosque in Tirana must have raised his sympathy among Muslims. This seems to have been a factor in his current electoral victory with 70-75 percent of the votes, even if the results have not yet been announced officially.