The Muslim World’s Most Tolerant Nation

The Muslim world’s most tolerant nation is also its most secular.

TIRANA, Albania—On a summer night in downtown Tirana, crowded cafes, restaurants, and nightclubs surround darkened old Politburo villas in an area known as “the block,” where once only the highest Communist Party officials were permitted to roam. In this Muslim-majority nation, tan brunettes bare pierced midriffs, young men down shots of the national drink—a grape brandy called raki—couples make out on strobe-lighted dance floors, and restaurants serve loin of pork. Although one of the poorest countries in Europe, where less than two decades ago almost no one owned a car, Albania soon became the world’s per-capita Mercedes capital, thanks, in part, to an infamous mafia that made this land a haven for trafficking in everything from sex slaves, arms, heroin, and cannabis to organs harvested from Serbs abducted from Kosovo (or so several journalists and a former U.N. chief war crimes prosecutor have alleged).

Far from implementing anything resembling Sharia, the only ancient law still practiced here is the medieval Kanun, a code whose most famous prescriptions regulate the hakmarrje, or blood feud, the subject of Man Booker International Prize-winner Ismail Kadare’s novel Broken April and the primary means by which Albanian clans and families can restore their honor. (Blood-feuding continues here to this day; a 2001 study cited government statistics classifying vendetta and revenge as the motive for 73 percent of the country’s violent deaths.) So fierce was the inter-clan fighting over the centuries that when a woman’s father and brothers had all been lost to feuding, she was obliged by the Kanun to become the man of the house by swearing an oath of lifelong virginity. So sworn, a virgin kept her vow on punishment of death but was ever after treated by her compatriots as a man.

This flexibility in matters of gender has not, however, translated into acceptance of boundary-crossers of a less exotic sort: Albania and Kosovo were the only European countries in which fewer than 10 percent of respondents told Gallup surveyors that their city or area was a good place for homosexuals. Nevertheless, the conservative governing party recently proposed a law allowing same-sex civil weddings, something no other Muslim-majority nation has considered. In fact, the countries most often described as the Muslim world’s most tolerant—Indonesia, Turkey, Malaysia, Morocco, Lebanon—are all, as the State Department’s Annual Report on International Religious Freedom makes clear, pretenders to the throne; none of them receives anywhere near the unqualified endorsement given to Albania.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Muslim world’s most tolerant nation is also its most secular. A recent Gallup poll (free registration required) found that of every Balkan and Muslim-majority nation, Albania had the smallest proportion of people who said religion was an important part of their daily lives. (Here’s another perhaps-not-so-coincidental correlation: The three Balkan states with Muslim majorities—Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo—are the only ones not scheduled to be granted visa-free travel to the European Union.)

Outside Albania, some might assume the country’s secularism is a product of its Communist past. Enver Hoxha, the country’s Muslim-born Marxist-Leninist dictator, outlawed all religious practices, books, and icons in 1967, declaring Albania the world’s “first atheist state.” Hoxha’s anti-religious fervor was so extreme that even Stalin sought to temper it, tactfully reminding “Comrade Enver” that “the religious feelings of the people must not be offended.”

Yet Albania had been a land of extraordinary secularism long before the Communist Party took power. It was, in the words of an Anti-Defamation League director, “the only country occupied by the Nazis that had more Jews at the end of the war than at the beginning”—though an Albanian Waffen SS division sent more than 200 Jews in Kosovo to their deaths. When a British Zionist traveled to Albania in 1935 to see whether the country could serve as a Jewish national home, a government minister told him, “In Albania religious intolerance is quite unknown. … The Albanian Muslims of today are no fanatics.”

The same could have been said of yesterday’s Albanians, no matter what their faith. Miranda Vickers, in her superb book The Albanians, writes, “During the late middle ages their country had become the battlefield between the Catholic West and the Orthodox East: whenever the West was advancing, the Albanian[s] … espoused Catholicism; whenever Byzantium was the victor and the West retreated, they embraced Orthodoxy.” Lord Byron’s traveling companion to Albania in 1809, J.C. Hobhouse, quoted an earlier traveler who wrote that Albanians “are utterly unable to decide which religion is best,” so they “very prudently follow both. They go to the mosques on Fridays and to the church on Sunday, saying for their excuse that at the day of judgment they are sure of protection from the true prophet.”

This syncretism formed the perfect ground for the spread of Albania’s second-most-popular faith, Bektashism, a secretive, heterodox Shiite sect with which roughly 40 percent of the country’s Muslims identify (the rest are Sunni). The Bektashi are one of several Shiite sects known by Muslim heresiographers as Ghulat (“exaggerators”): those who have exceeded the proper bounds of religion by ascribing divinity to human beings (typically, to Ali, the first Shiite imam). Bektashism, like other Ghulat sects, contains many Christian-like elements: belief in a trinity (of God, Mohammed, and Ali), confessions, drinking wine, and a ceremonial supper resembling the Eucharist.

Bektashism and other Ghulat sects are shrouded in mystery in large part because their members have been persecuted as heretics. The Bektashis are most similar to the Alevis (also known as Kizilbash) of Turkey, where the Bektashis once had their headquarters. Some scholars have said Alevis and Bektashis are two names for one people; at the very least, they appear to share a common origin. Turkey’s Alevis, sometimes called Alevi-Bektashis, are thought to number between 10 million and 20 million. They have no mosques, no muezzins, no ban on alcohol, no obligation of daily prayer, and no fasting during Ramadan. Several Western missionaries, as historian Matti Moosa has documented, have said that the Alevis are “a corrupt Christian sect” and that they accepted “Jesus Christ as the Son of God under the name of Ali” but could not profess this openly for fear of Sunni persecution.

Dedebaba Reshat Bardhi, the head of the Bektashi order, known simply as the dedebaba, or great-grandfather, has a long gray beard, large blue eyes, fair skin, and a mischievous smile. When I meet him on one of the summer’s hottest days at the world headquarters of Bektashism—a monasterylike lodge, known as a tekke, in northeast Tirana—he wears a gold-embroidered green vest and belt over a white silk robe, and his headdress, a white taj with a green turban wrapped around its base, has a single green flap over one ear.

The dedebaba tells me how Hoxha, despite being born to Bektashi parents, declared religious leaders “enemies of the people,” killed two Bektashi leaders (one of them through torture), imprisoned Bardhi for 10 years, and then sent him to work on a farm. “Though I was forbidden from doing so,” he says with a chuckle, “I still spread the Bektashi faith. The manager of the farm asked me why I had so many visitors. I told him, ‘I have many relativesI cannot refuse them!’ ”

As we sip a sweet peach tea, the dedebaba explains that tolerance of other religions is Bektashism’s most important principle. “We all adore the same God,” he says. “All the prophets, from Adam to Mohammed, were sent to spread his message.” The dedebaba’s faith, which contains a strong mystical strain, is often described as a Sufi order. But, he tells me, “though similar to Sufism, Bektashism cannot be considered a part of it.”

He willingly discusses some aspects of his faith: “God, Mohammed, and Ali are a trinity—they are inseparable.” He confirms the existence of others, like ritual meals and confessions, but he says no more: “Not everything in our religion can be said.” Wiping his brow with a white handkerchief, he tells me he has undergone two heart surgeries in the United States. “In Detroit,” he says, “we have a Bektashi tekke. When I go there, it is like a little Albania!”

Since the fall of communism, Albania has experienced a religious revival, encouraged by Sunni Arab donors from the Gulf. The dedebaba tells me there had been several violent attacks on Bektashis, but “these were committed by Wahhabis from Saudi Arabia and not by local Albanians.” In 1998, the United States and Albania foiled a planned attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tirana and arrested several al-Qaida figures, but there has been little extremist activity in the country since then. Nevertheless, several Albanians told me they were wary of the younger and more conservative Sunnis, some of whom attend mosques led by Saudi-trained imams and wear, in the fashion of the prophet, long beards and ankle-length pants.

Many of these young men can be found at the mosque (reconstructed, a plaque says, by the Saudi-based al-Haramain Foundation, whose Albanian branch the United States and the United Nations have designated a supporter of terrorism) on Kavajes Street in central Tirana, where a 32-year-old imam, Ahmed Kalaja, preaches to overflow crowds. Kalaja is smartly dressed in gray slacks and a violet dress shirt. He has closely cropped hair and a youthful reddish face that barely sprouts a wispy goatee. Like almost every Albanian, rich or poor, he has two cell phones, the only way to take advantage of the within-network discounts offered by the two main providers.

He tells me over cappuccinos at a nearby cafe that his parents hid religion from him during the Communist era. While still in high school, shortly after communism was overthrown, he was selected, together with 40 other Albanian students, to study at a religious institute in Damascus, Syria. After four years there, he was among seven Albanian students chosen to continue his studies at the Islamic University of Medinah in Saudi Arabia. He says his studies, as well as those of the other Albanians, were financed by a brother-in-law of the Saudi king.

Kalaja, who returned to Tirana in 2001, says rumors that he preaches Salafism or Wahhabism are false. At the Islamic University of Medinah, he was taught each of the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence. “I felt the greatest connection with the Shafi’i school,” he says, “because it was the one where arguments and logic prevailed. But in Albania, all Sunnis are of the Hanafi school, so that is what I teach here.” He tells me that there are differences between the younger and older generations of Muslims in Albania. “The old imams are not educated. Many of them don’t know even which school of jurisprudence they adhere to. So I am translating into Albanian the main book of the Hanafi school. This way I will be able to say to them, ‘Look, what you are preaching is not Hanafi.’ But there are few conflicts between us.We are still imams of the same community.”

Kalaja says he tries to “adapt to the peculiarities of the Albanian tradition.” He says Albania will always be a society of tolerance, where religion and state are separate. He is surprised to hear of attacks on Bektashis. “It must have been foreigners,” he says. “We have very good relations with the Bektashis. Yes, we think they have deviations, but this does not make them nonbelievers.” The Sunni community’s main problem is with the government, he tells me, which has overstepped its bounds by interfering in religious affairs. “The mayor won’t allow us to build a big mosque, near George Bush Street, in Tirana. We own the land, but we don’t have permission to build.” When I ask him about a rumor I’d heard from one of his congregants—that the mayor had said he would never allow construction of a new mosque—Kalaja tells me, “I don’t want to engage in cafeteria talk. For all I know, it’s a procedural problem. Maybe it’s even our fault.”

Kalaja takes a call on a phone ringing to the sound of Islamic vocal music by Sheik Mishary Alafasy. He apologizes when he hangs up and begins to tell me about the only other aspect of state interference that has troubled him: the banning from school of several female students wearing hijab. But even on this sensitive topic, Kalaja displays a sense of humor that’s hard to imagine in a reputedly conservative Sunni imam from any other nation. “We will pursue the issue of hijab all the way to the constitutional court. And if they still will not allow it,” he says with a laugh, “we will come to America!”