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Islamic resurgence in Albania.

Albania is the only country in Europe with a Muslim majority, yet for 47 years all religious practice was discouraged and eventually outlawed. Now, since liberalisation, Albania's Muslims are re-asserting themselves. Larry Luxner writes from Tirana.

After enduring half a century of persecution by Communists, Albania's Bektashi Muslims are again asserting themselves as a legitimate religious minority in the very nation which once served as the sect's world headquarters. At least six other obscure Islamic orders are flourishing in the newly democratic nation, which earlier this year chose 48-year-old Sali Berisha, a cardiologist of Muslim background, as the first freely elected president in Albanian history.

The Bektashis constitute a liberal offshoot of Shi'a Islam; they follow the teachings of Sheikh Haji Bektash, who claimed to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Sulejman Dashi, a Tirana architect specialising in the restoration of medieval structures, says Albania's oldest mosque was built in 1380 in the town of Berat, around the time the Ottoman Empire began setting its sights on Albania.

"My father was a Sunni Muslim, and my mother was a Bektashi," the architect said. "When I was a child, we went to the mosque. My grandfather was a devout Muslim and taught us the Koran."

According to Dashi, there are some 800 mosques scattered around Albania, as well as 360 Bektashi holy places or teqes, as they are known locally.

Albania is Europe's only country with a Muslim majority, but for the past 47 years, all religious practice was discouraged and eventually outlawed. In an official census taken in 1945 -- the year after the Communists came to power -- 72% of Albanians said they professed Islam, 17% Orthodox Christianity and 10% Catholicism.

Through the long years under Ottoman rule, prior to World War II and the Communists' victory, many Albanians came to practice the religion of their occupiers, Islam, though others were won over by the Orthodox Church of neighbouring Greece, and still others -- influenced by the Vatican -- chose Roman Catholicism.

Italian historian Renzo Falaschi, in his biography Ismail Kemal: Bey of Vlora, observed: "With their indomitable and adamantine character, the Albanians imposed even more adaptations to Islam than vice-versa," he wrote. "It could be said they (the Albanians) have accepted Bahaism spiritually, Illuminism philosophically and practically, the European nationalism of the 19th century. On the whole, they have created an Islam that has the meditation of the East and the dynamism of the West."

That unusual combination of meditation and dynamism persisted into the early 20th century, when Albania unexpectedly became the world headquarters of the Bektashi order.

"At one time, there were more than 15m Bektashis in the world, mainly in Turkey, Yugoslavia, Egypt, Iraq and Bulgaria," said Baba Reshat Bardhi, whose flowing beard and tasi, or traditional head covering, distinguishes him as leader of the world's Bektashis.

"Our main centre was in Ankara, and our chief was an Albanian from Kolonia, Salih Dedei," said Bardhi. "In 1928, when Kemal Ataturk started his reforms and didn't want us to wear beards or tasi, Salih left Turkey and came to Albania. That's why Tirana became the Bektashi centre of the world."

In fact, until the Communist takeover in 1944, Albania was noted for its religious tolerance. During the Fascist and Nazi occupation of World War II, Albania refused to turn over its 300-member Jewish community to the Germans. Because of the shelter provided by their Muslim and Christian neighbours, only five Albanian Jews perished.

Yet following the Communist victory over the Nazis and the declaration of an Albanian People's Socialist Republic, former Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha warned Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic clergymen alike not to preach against his hard-line government, Bektashi leader, Baba Bajram Mahmetaj, confirmed.

Bajram himself ignored the order and told fellow Muslims that the Communists would eventually destroy religion itself. For this he was imprisoned for 15 years, then sent into internal exile in northern Albania for another 15 years.

"There was so much torture that if I tell you, you'll say I'm lying," recalled Bajram, now 80. "They beat us, tried to drown us in canals, made us do hard labour in the swamps and marshes."

Under Hoxha's rule, all contact with foreigners was forbidden. Beards, rock music and religious symbols were all against the law; so was watching television broadcasts from neighbouring Yugoslavia.

In 1967, Hoxha took his Marxist views a step further and declared Albania the world's first officially atheist state. By May of that year, 2,169 mosques, churches, monasteries and other religious institutions had either been closed, converted to other uses or destroyed. "The last and most parasitical form of exploitation of the masses has been swept away," Hoxha proudly told the world.

"The mosques became stables for cows, and the churches became gymnasiums for volleyball," lamented Albanian Jewish historian Joseph Yakoel, who has since emigrated to Israel.

Adds Sabie Bagosi, a devout Muslim woman who visits the Kruje mosque regularly: "During the time religion was forbidden, people came here illegally and lit candies and prayed. But they were afraid because if caught, they were put in prison."

With the passage of time, religious and political repression by the Communists got worse, not better. In 1976, said a tour guide for the state-owned agency Albturist, Enver Hoxha published a list of names including Soveita, Dolores and others with a foreign-sounding influence which were starting to become popular with Albanian parents. The use of these names was prohibited by law.

"When you gave birth to a child," explained the guide, "you had to consult the name list to make sure it wasn't prohibited."

The Bektashi mosque, surrounded by dilapidated apartment buildings on the outskirts of Tirana, was reinaugurated in March 1991 shortly after the government lifted its ban on religion. At the same time precious Islamic works of art were brought out and displayed after 24 years in hiding.

Not far from the Bektashi shrine lives Rukije Skifteri, who neighbours refer to as "the Dervish lady". Here, in a one-room house sandwiched between two apartment blocks, the old woman -- wrapped in a white prayer shawl bearing flowing Arabic script -- chants Koranic blessings to between 50 and 100 visitors a day, and even more on Thursdays and Fridays.

The woman, whose tiny sect was founded by Ramadan Dervishi more than 300 years ago, says that because of Albania's self-imposed isolation, Muslims here have lost all connections with their brethren outside the country.

"A lot more people are going to the mosques now than before, but they don't know how to worship as Muslims, they have forgotten," she said.

Shqipe Malushi, an Albanian-American writer living in New York, has studied her country's pre-1967 religious customs extensively.

"During the recitation of Koranic verses known as dhikr, many use the word Allah, or the profession of faith with rhythmic wording accompanied by movements of the body or breath control to the extent of completely holding the breath," according to Malushi. "The whirling dervishes are, of course, famous for their dancing ritual, with practices confined to music and poetry. The so-called howling dervishes are known for their practice of hurting themselves during the ecstatic state reached in performing their loud dhikr."

In addition to the dominant Sunnis, the Bektashis and the Dervishes, Albania also has Rufais, Helvetianes and at least six other obscure Muslim groups -- some numbering fewer than 100 adherents.

Tirana, Albania's capital and largest city, with some 200,000 inhabitants, also boasts its most important Islamic landmark -- the Ethem Bey Mosque.

A recent Friday afternoon visit to this imposing mosque, dwarfed by its towering minaret above and crowds of beggars and black-market vendors out front, revealed hundreds of men facing towards Makkah and praying to Allah, in the same way Muslims everywhere pray.

Hassan Hafiz, the mosque's 61-year-old Imam, estimates there are only 200 or so practising Imams like himself throughout Albania, and that less than 3,000 Albanian Muslims can read Arabic.

"After religion was abolished, the Muslims practiced in secret. Those that were caught were subject to ridicule," he recalled.

Last year, when religious worship was allowed once again, Hafiz and 180 other Albanian Muslims were permitted -- for the first time ever -- to make the pilgrimage to Makkah.

"I was very happy to go. It felt like being reborn," Hafiz said. "It was our first trip ever out of Albania."
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Title Annotation:Mosaic
Author:Luxner, Larry
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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