Good Faith: Religious Dynamics in Albania
Tom Ball discusses Albanian religious dynamics, their relation to Turkish influence and geopolitical interest
For nearly fifty years now China has pursued the policy of ‘stadium diplomacy’, providing African nations across the continent with football stadia on concessionary loans and sometimes even free of charge. Since the completion of its first colourfully-tiered venue on the island of Zanzibar in 1970, the communist party of China has ploughed hundreds of millions of dollars into Africa for the ostensible purpose of building arenas for a sport most Chinese people have never even played. For all its seeming altruism though, the policy is far from being the diplomatic Daddy Warbucks that it might appear to be; while the African continent may have gained a few more places to watch football, China has acquired influence, the transparent commodity that quickly turns tangible when it comes to votes at the United Nations or sweetheart resource deals.
It is clear that at some point during the last decade, Turkey saw China reap the rewards of its stadium diplomacy and decided to facsimile the policy, with the simple alteration of swapping the words ‘stadium’ for ‘mosque’. And now ‘mosque diplomacy’ is already well underway. Looming above the Albanian parliament building on George W. Bush street in Tirana is the Namazgja Mosque, now nearing the final stages of its three-year construction. This new behemoth will be the largest mosque in the Balkans, able to facilitate up to 4000 worshippers at any one time. Upon completion, Namazgja will become the brightest star in a constellation of over 100 mosques throughout the Balkans funded or supported by the Diyanet, Turkey’s directorate of religious affairs.
New minarets along the skyline and an additional call to prayer may not quite have the same circus appeal as vuvuzelas and Yaya Toure; in desirability terms, however, they are near equivalents. Since the fall of the Balkan communist regimes, erected by Tito in Yugoslavia, Ceausescu in Romania and Hoxha in Albania, religion in the region (where Christianity and Islam coexist in roughly equal numbers) has been granted renewed import in both public and private life. Despite the immense size and gauche neo-classical trappings (dubbed ‘McOttoman’ by certain aesthetic detractors) of Namazgja, most Albanians welcome not only the gift, but also the interest from their wealthy neighbour. After the Pyramid Crisis of 1997, when a doomed Ponzi scheme and a brief but torrid civil war effectively wiped clean six years’ worth of growth in the free market, Tirana has sought to attract as much foreign investment as it can, now boasting a new German-made capital airport along with an Italian-funded pipeline. For Edi Rama, the Albanian Prime Minister, the dome-shaped penumbra shading his parliamentary office is a small price to pay if it leads to further Turkish investment in a country whose GDP is still less than a third of the European average.
Turkish interest isn’t without its sceptics, though. The town of Kruje, 20 miles north of Tirana, is the birthplace of Albania’s national hero, Skanderbej, who in the 15th century led a successful rebellion against the Ottoman occupiers and presided over a short-lived autonomous Albanian kingdom. Rearing up from the side of the hills is the Skanderbej museum, a medieval-brutalist hotchpotch tacked onto the remains of the old castle. Enver Hoxha’s daughter, Pranvera, designed the building with no expense spared. Inside, the hallways and the wide halberd-lined corridors clink and echo with the finest marble found on earth, imported over 10,000 miles from South Africa. Tickets are not cheap by native standards, yet during the summer on a weekday you can expect to queue for entry; on a weekend you can expect not to get in. The museum was built in the early 1980s when it was becoming clear to all concerned that Marxist doctrine was not proving to be the national rally point that the bureaucrats had initially hoped. In spite of the scant historical documentation to support the life and times of Skanderbej, he has over the last 30 years become Albania’s pin-up-in-chief, lending his face to the 5000 Lek note (the highest value note in the currency) and his name to everything, from the capital’s new central square to premium lager brands.
The point to this is that Skanderbej, for the most part, derives his semi-legendary fame from killing Turks by the fort-load. There is practically no gallery in his museum that doesn’t house an elaborate sculpture of a seven-foot Skanderbej trampling beneath his spurs the remorseful corpses of Dali-moustached Ottomans (or variations on that theme). It isn’t so much the foisting of Islam that the sceptics of Turkish gift-giving take against – Albania is the envy of Europe with regard to the peaceful coexistence of its religions. The question is a national one. Due to its unique language, Albania views itself as the most ethnically pure nation in the Balkans and rails against integration with its neighbours, as it did during the formation of Yugoslavia. Like the Tatar yoke in Russia, the Ottoman occupation of Albania, which lasted half a millennium, is a black spot in most Albanians’ perception of their nation’s history.
Photo: Skanderbej Museum
Free mosques may not be boots on the ground – in the way that Russia has attempted to keep its former satellites close at heel – but some Albanians see little difference. Sokol Oketa, who works at the Skanderbej museum, thinks President Erdogan is trying to build a new empire in the Balkans. ‘They think they fool us with their presents, but everyone knows that the Turks want to go back to the old days. They want to rule the Balkans again,’ he tells me.
Full-scale domination might be stretching it a bit. But the feeling that Erdogan is looking for a political return on his investment is not one without reasonable support. With much of the Middle East in disarray, commentators believe that Turkey seeks to establish itself as the spokesperson for the Islamic world. Erdogan’s hope, they claim, is that religious allegiance will trump national. Attaturk’s secularist foundations for the Republic of Turkey are being dismantled on a daily basis, it seems, as the president incumbent looks to harness the power of religious community for political gain. If Turkey can bolster the Islamic faith in the region then it may bolster its sway in the affairs of others – the point at which influence becomes tangible.