The Lesson of the Albanians On the 103rd Anniversary of Their Independence by Stephen Sylejman Schwartz
Illyria [New York] November 28, 2015
The world continues to suffer the aggression of radical Islam. The bloodshed seen in Paris on November 13 was merely the latest in a series of horrific terrorist acts beginning in 2001. In the United States and elsewhere, suspicion of Islam and of Muslims is high – Syrian and Iraqi refugees from the same Islamist extremism in the Middle East may be excluded from asylum in America.
Of the countries with Muslim majorities Albania, at 70 percent Muslim, and Kosova, with 80 percent Muslim, stand out. They are European countries, where Muslims coexist amicably with their Christian neighbors, both Catholic and Albanian Orthodox. The latter are numbered, through recent history, as 10 percent Catholic in Albania and Kosova, and 30 percent Orthodox in Albania. Albanians in Western Macedonia also count a Muslim majority and significant Albanian Catholic and Orthodox communities. Albanian Catholics and Muslims live additionally in Montenegro (Mal i Zi) and Albanian Muslims in South Serbia. Albanians, both Christian and Muslim, still live in northern Greece (Çamëria). The diverse religious communities cooperate throughout the Albanian diaspora.
In the 5th century CE, the Christian world was divided when the Roman imperial capital was moved to Constantinople. The Illyrians, ancestors of the Albanians, lived on the new border between West and East. That split is reflected in the Catholic influence over northern Albania and Kosova, and Albanian Orthodox dominance in southern Albania. But while the two branches of the Christian communion have fought wars and imposed inquisitorial oppression on one another elsewhere, among Albanians they have preserved a 1,500 year peace.
The struggle of Skënderbeu to resist the Ottoman advance in the 15th century CE did not divide the Albanians, but united them. His contemporary Lekë Dukagjini formulated the Kanun or customary “law of the mountains” that bonded the Albanian nation until the 20th century.
Following the Ottoman conquest, Albanians were armed guards of the empire, the greatest Islamic state in history, and many of them served as grand viziers – notably, the six members of the Köprülü (Qyprilli) family, who acted as chief advisors to the Sultans in the 17th-18th centuries. Yet the effect of the Köprülü ascendancy was, it appears, to reinforce the pluralism of Albanian religious life, rather than to impose Sunni Islam in a monopoly of power.
Albania then stood on the main trade route between Istanbul and Venice. As such, Albanians played a prominent role in the growth of wealth for both cities, as well as for Jewish merchants who had been expelled from the Iberian Peninsula and were welcomed by the Moroccan and Turkish sultans to their lands. As we must admit honestly, Albanians were also famous as pirates in the Adriatic sea.
Albanians have been the object of religious and political encroachment by their Slav and Greek neighbors, but these intrigues failed. The Greek Orthodox Church denied the existence of the Albanian Orthodox Church until the foundation of the latter by Theofan Stilian Noli (1882-1965) in Boston in 1908. At the same time, with the Ottoman state crumbling, Sunni clerics tried to make the Albanians accept a Turkish identity. Before the great Albanian Alphabet Congress, held in Manastir, Macedonia, also in 1908, writing, books, and schooling were segregated among Albanians.
The Catholics of Shkodër, led by the national poet Gjergj Fishta (1871-1940), with the Bektashi Muslim mystic Mit’hat Frashëri (1880-1949), the Protestant Gjergj Qiriazi (1868-1912), and other notables at the Manastir Congress, created the conditions for mass literacy among the Albanians. In this endeavor, religious differences played no role.
Relatives of Mit’hat Frashëri – the three Bektashi brothers Abdyl (1839-92), Naim (1846-1900), and Sami (1850-1904), were otherwise prominent in efforts for enlightenment throughout the Ottoman dominions. The Albanians then and before insisted that while most of them were Muslims, they were not and would not become Turks.
Naim Frashëri stands as a second “national poet” alongside Fishta. The Bektashis to which the family belonged are a Shia Muslim Sufi order, and Naim Frashëri wrote extensively on Imam Husayn, the grandson of Muhammad and progenitor of Shiism. The martyrdom of the virtuous Imam Husayn, killed at the battle of Karbala in Mesopotamia in 680 CE, is seen by Bektashis as paralleling the difficulties of the Albanian nations at the hands of their neighbors and foreign rulers.
Karbala may also serve as a metaphor for the antireligious measures imposed by the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who declared the country the world’s first atheist state in 1967. But religion could not be eradicated from the Albanian soul. Hoxha died in 1985 and the successor regime of his disciple, Ramiz Alia, collapsed in 1991. More than any other ex-Communist country, Albania’s liberation from Communism was symbolized by the reopening of Christian churches, Sunni mosques, Bektashi teqes (meeting houses), and even, lately, a Jewish religious center.
Hoxha was as cruel as the Arab rulers who murdered Imam Husayn and his supporters. Beginning in 1944, the communist commissars wiped out the Catholic intellectuals of Shkodër, consigning many leading figures in the 19th century Albanian Rebirth to execution. Catholics have appealed to Pope Francis for their beatification. Defiance of Hoxha’s tyranny is an inspiring example for the world.
Mother Teresa, of course, remains the most famous Albanian personality in contemporary history, and the practice of her religious order, the Missionaries of Charity, which assists the sick and dying regardless of their faith, symbolizes Albanian religious cooperation.
Today, Albania has been spared the curse of radical Islam. Kosova has experienced negative, anti-Christian propaganda by Muslim radicals, but their appeal is limited. In Macedonia, official Sunni hostility has struck the Bektashis at Tetova. Kosova and Macedonia need to reaffirm the attitude of full religious consensus among Albanians seen in Albania itself and Mal i Zi.
The Albanians have, we may say, a secret to their survival. With a language and culture unique when compared with that of their neighbors and foreign rulers, they could not allow themselves to be divided by faith.
Albanians also have lessons for the world’s Muslims and non-Muslims. They show that a majority-Muslim people may live at peace with its non-Muslim citizens. Small and neglected nations may play a great role in world affairs. Albanians everywhere should take up this challenge now.