By Olsi Jazexhi
The author is a lecturer at Aleksander Moisiu University in Durres and University of Elbasan Aleksander Xhuvani in Elbasan, Albania
The article is firstly published at http://www.worldbulletin.net/haberler/194642/is-albania-still-a-secular-state
Eid Prayer in Albania’s capital Tirana, did not proceed as usual on September 1, 2017. The Muslim Community of Albania (MCA) held its mass communal prayer in the central Scanderbeg Square after which the prayer was vocally attacked by numerous Albanian politicians and journalists. This attack was sparked by the way in which the Muslim Community had “hidden” the statue of Scanderbeg during the Eid prayer by placing two large monitors between the statue and the worshippers.
Even though the MCA did not actually intend to cover the statue, a photo taken of the event by fundamentalist Christians showed the statue concealed. This picture (initially posted on Catholic supremacist Facebook pages) went viral. Leading colleagues and journalists close to Prime Minister Edi Rama attacked the Muslims, claiming that they had intentionally covered the statue of Albania’s national hero with a “burka.” Some Christian politicians and journalists accused the Muslims of being terrorists, Taliban and Ottomans, even going so far as to demand the arrest of Tirana’s Mufti for “allowing this Ottoman desecration” of Scanderbeg. The mass hysteria fanned by social media and countless news portals led some Albanian politicians and journalists of Catholic background to demand military protection for Scanderbeg’s statue, while Kastriot Myftaraj, a well-known Albanian Islamophobe and fan of Anders Breivik, openly declared “we will squash those who desecrate Scanderbeg like bugs!”
Even though the Muslim Community of Albania was quick to react to these accusations and publicly declare that they had not intend to cover the statue, social media continued to rage with inflammatory messages against Muslims and Islam. Many Christian and secular Albanians accused their Muslim compatriots of being “traitors,” “remnants of Turkey” and “Turco-Arabs” who must be deported to Turkey or Arabia, given that they refuse to pay Albania’s official national hero the proper respect.
However, many Muslims do not see Scanderbeg as a national hero because. As many historians and documents show, he did not fight for Albania (given that Albania was only created in 1913) but rather he fought for the Pope. Scanderbeg was hailed by the Vatican as a “Soldier of Christ,” a Roman Catholic feudal lord who committed massacres against Albanian and Turkish Muslims.
Nevertheless, the debates that started online spilled into television, where a Muslim imam and the author of this article presented both the religious and historical facts that disprove Scanderbeg fighting on behalf of the Albanians nation. During these TV debates, documentary clips of Scanderbeg were played showing him massacring Muslims in the same way as Ratko Mladić slaughtered the Muslims of Srebrenica. The Muslim argument was put then forward: How can we accept Scanderbeg as a national hero when his biography is the story of a religious war against Muslims, Albanians, Turks and others? The veneration of Scanderbeg is far from a unifying force and it incites religious and ethnic hatred and racism. Ever since the fall of communism, his legend has been taken up by a number of Christian fundamentalist groups calling on Albanian Muslims to abandon Islam and revert to Catholicism, since this was why Scanderbeg fought the villainous Turks.
The debate of whether Scanderbeg is or is not a national hero of all Albanians quickly involved the Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama. In a speech delivered to Parliament, he attacked those Muslims who rejected him and claimed that no one could dispute Scanderbeg in Albania. A few days later, he proclaimed 2018 the “Year of Scanderbeg,” which means that during 2018 the Albanian government is going to undertake a number of activities to commemorate this Medieval character’s life and deeds.
The debate over Scanderbeg revealed a worrying trend that has developed in Albania since the fall of communism. Under Enver Hoxha’s regime, the government was very careful to portray Albanian national identity in secular terms. Thus, Scanderbeg was never presented as a hero of the Catholic Church. After the collapse of communism the new rulers of Albania sought to introduce new “heroes and myths” into Albania’s national identity. Under the influence of Italy and Vatican, fascist quislings and anti-Semite Catholic clerics and politicians, like Gjergj Fishta and Ernest Koliqi, are regaled in Albanian school textbooks and official ceremonies as national heroes and patriots. Their well-documented collaboration with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany is completely swept under the rug; instead, they are presented as great national patriots of Catholic background who sought to create a greater Albania.
Edi Rama continues the same disquieting trend. After becoming Prime Minister, he declared himself a Catholic, even though he comes from an Orthodox Christian family. After being sworn in as the first Catholic Prime Minister in the history of Muslim-majority Albania, he took all the cabinet ministers from his party to the Vatican, where they were blessed by the Pope. Rama then invited Pope Francis to visit Albania in 2014 and the government spent 2.6 million USD of state funds to make this visit as lavish as possible. During the Pope visited Tirana, Rama’s anti-terrorist police unit detained over 300 Muslim citizens, who were then illegally confined for as long as the Pope stayed in Albania.
The Papal visit saw the streets of Tirana decorated with pictures of the forty Catholic clerics the local Catholic Church and the Albanian government declared martyrs of the Church. Many of these “martyrs” were executed between 1945 to 1974 by the government of Albania for supporting the Fascist invasion and occupation of Albania and opposing a secular Albanian state. However, history has now been rewritten, tradition re-invented, and the Pope blessed this Catholic rewriting of Albanian history in the same way as we see it revised nowadays in Croatia or Ukraine, where anti-Semite and Nazi collaborators have ended up as national heroes.
While the constitution states that Albania has no official religion and that the state is neutral in matters of religion, Prime Minister Rama has continuously tried to depict Albania as a Catholic (or at least a non-Muslim majority) state. After coming to office in 2013, Artan Shkreli, a born-again Catholic adviser to Rama, redesigned the Prime Minister’s offices by decorating the walls and tables of Prime Ministry with Catholic maps showing Albania as part of “Christian Europe.” When the Pope visited Tirana in 2014, Rama reminded him that “Albanians should be respected for all the blood and suffering they gave for Christianity, giving up forty martyrs to the Church only a few decades ago.” Rama described the Pope’s visit as furthering the country’s drive to “re-join Europe” and repeatedly declared to both the Pope and Western media that “Albania is not a Muslim country; it’s European.”
The pro-Catholic bias of the Albanian government is seen in every public institution of Albania. Albania’s only airport is named after Mother Theresa. She is also honoured as a national hero and her day of beatification is celebrated as national holiday, even though she was not born in Albania, did not speak Albanian and did not do anything directly for Albania. In the courts, hospitals, and schools throughout the country, pictures of the hijab-covered Mother Theresa stand as national symbols, while hijab-wearing Muslim women are often fired from jobs under the pretext of secularism. Since the fall of communism, the school textbooks endlessly preach to children that the two greatest heroes of the Albanian nation are Scanderbeg, who fought against the Turks to defend Christianity and his feudal holdings, and Mother Theresa, who served the Catholic Church to the extent that she was declared a saint by the Pope.
Many of Rama’s advisers are born-again Catholics. One such is the aforementioned Artan Shkreli, who has publicly defended the quisling rulers of Albania who collaborated with Fascist Italy in first half of the 20th century. In 2015, Shkreli advised Rama to bulldoze the Orthodox Church of Saint Athanasius in Dhërmi and in its place to build a Catholic Church honouring Nilo Katalano, a missionary who tried to convert the Orthodox of Himara to Catholicism in the seventeenth century. Shkreli’s plan threw Albania into a diplomatic row with Greece, which strongly protested this act of discrimination against Albania’s Orthodox community. Another “born-again” Catholic adviser of Rama’s is General Sander Lleshi, who advises the Prime Minister how to tackle radical Islam. In 2013, in an article entitled “NATO: Our Alliance” Lleshi described NATO as the successor to the alliance between Catholic Rome and Scanderbeg against the Ottoman Empire (and Islam, of course).
The Catholic supremacy that the current Albanian government seeks to proclaim often causes Rama’s government to commit serious infringements on the rights of Orthodox and Muslim Albanians. On September 16, 2017, when the NATO Military Committee held a conference in Tirana, Rama’s government ordered the closure of the Ethem Beg Mosque. Rama did this so that the foreign guests would not see Albania as a Muslim-majority country. Thus, he forced the Muslim Community of Albania to close the central mosque of Tirana for the first time since January 18, 1991, when it was re-opened after the collapse of communism.
While the Albanian state likes to portray itself as Catholic or “European,” under the guise of the “war on terror” dozens of Albanian Muslims have been imprisoned as “terrorist supporters” of the jihad in Syria. The Albanian government has rightfully jailed a number of jihadi supporters, but quite often, it is over-zealous when it comes to Muslims. In January 2017, the anti-terror police arrested and jailed Emine Alushi, a madrasa teacher from the city of Shkodra, after she was filmed saying “ISIS is good.” She is currently under house arrest, even though merely saying “ISIS is good” does not constitute a crime in Albania. While Alushi remains under house arrest for uttering this phrase, not one of the many Catholic and other anti-Muslim extremists who publically call for the annihilation of Muslims and for the levelling of every mosque in Albania has been detained or placed under house arrest.
The latest uproar of Scanderbeg’s statue in Tirana, where many politicians and journalists labelled Albanian Muslims “terrorists,” “Talibans,” and “Ottomans” and called for their extermination and deportation to Turkey, reveals a worrying development in the future of religious tolerance and co-existence in Albania. While many Muslims in Albania reject Scanderbeg as a national hero, in the same way leftist in the United States reject General Lee or many Kosovars dismissed the myth of Tsar Lazar, the attempt by the Albanian state to impose Catholic symbols on all Albanians is a very distressing trend.
When Albania was created as a state in 1920, the fathers of Albanian nationalism agreed to adopt secularism as the “religion” of the state. However, nowadays when Catholic supremacists seek to monopolize all the major symbols of the Albanian state and present Muslims and Islam as leftovers of Turkey, Muslims fear for their future.
When Ratko Mladić seized Srebrenica in 1995, he declared to his soldiers: “On this day I hand Srebrenica to the Serbian people. The time has finally come to exact revenge on Turks who live in this area.” These are the very same things Albanian children read in their textbooks about Scanderbeg, their “national hero,” who did to Muslims and Turks in the 1400s what Mladić did in 1995. Catholicization of the modern Albanian identity and the disappearance of secularism makes many Muslim Albanians fear for their future.