Tourist town in Gjirokastër district, southern Albania [Pixabay].

Tourist population in Gjirokastër district, southern Albania [Pixabay].

ESSAYJan Gallemí

On 24 November 2019, the French government of Enmanuel Macron led the veto, together with other states such as Denmark and the Netherlands, of the accession of the Balkan nations of Albania and North Macedonia to the European Union. According to the president of the French Fifth Republic, this is due to the fact that the largest issue of economic refugees entering France are from the Balkans, specifically from the aforementioned Albania. The latter country applied to join the European Union on 28 April 2009, and on 24 June 2014 it was unanimously agreed by the 28 EU countries to grant Albania the status of a country candidate for accession. The reasons for this rejection are mainly economic and financial.[1]. There is also a slight concern about the diversity that exists in the ethnographic structure of the country and the conflicts that this could cause in the future, not only within the country itself but also in its relationship with its neighbours, especially with the Kosovo issue and relations with Greece and North Macedonia.[2]. However, another aspect that has also been explored is the fact that Albania's accession would mean the EU membership of the first state in which the religion with the largest number of followers is Islamic, specifically the Sunni branch, issue . This essay will proceed to analyse the impact of this aspect and observe how, or to what extent, Albanian values, mainly because they are primarily Islamic in religion, may combine or diverge from those on which the common European project is based.

Evolution of Islam in Albania

One has to go back in history to consider the reasons why a European country like Albania has developed a social structure in which the religion most professed by part of the population is Sunni. Because of the geographical region in which it is located, it would theoretically be more common to think that Albania would have a higher percentage of Orthodox than Sunni population.[3]. The same is true for Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. This region was originally largely Orthodox Christian in the south (like most Balkan states today) due to the fact that it was one of the many territories that made up the Byzantine Empire until the 13th century, when the nation gained its independence. However, the reason why Islam is so present in Albania, unlike its neighbouring states, is that it was more religiously influenced by the Ottoman Empire, the successor to the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire fell in 1453 and its territories were occupied by the Ottomans, a Turkish people established at that time on the Anatolian peninsula. According to historians such as Vickers, it was between the 17th and 18th centuries that a large part of the Albanian population converted to Islam.[4]The reason for this, as John L. Esposito points out, was that for the Albanian population, changing their religion meant getting rid of the higher taxes that Christians had to pay in the Ottoman Empire.[5].

Religion in Albania has since been shaped by events. As far as we know from programs of study such as those of Gawrych in the 19th century, Albanian society was then divided mainly into three groups: Catholics, Orthodox and Sunnis (the latter represented 70% of the population). The same century saw the birth of many of the well-known European nationalisms and the beginning of the so-called Eastern crisis in the Balkans. During this period many Balkan peoples revolted against the Ottomans, but the Albanians, identifying with the Ottomans through their religion, initially remained loyal to the Sultan.[6]. Because of this support, Muslim Albanians began to be pejoratively referred to as "Turks".[7]. This caused Albanian nationalism to distance itself from the emerging Ottoman pan-Islamism of Sultan Abdualhmid II. This gave rise, according to Endresen, to an Albanian national revival called Rilindja, which sought the support of Western European powers.[8].

The Balkan independence movements that emerged in the 19th century generally reinforced Christian as opposed to Muslim sentiment, but in Albania this was not the case; as Stoppel points out, both Albanian Christians and Muslims cooperated in a common national goal .[9]. This encouraged the coexistence of both beliefs (already present in earlier times) and allowed the differentiation of this movement from Hellenism.[10]. It is worth noting that at that time in Albania Muslims and Christians were peculiarly distributed territorially: in the north there were more Catholic Christians who were not so influenced by the Ottoman Empire, and in the south Orthodox also predominated because of the border with Greece. On 28 November 1912 the Albanians, led by Ismail Qemali, finally declared independence.

The international recognition of Albania by the Treaty of London meant the imposition of a Christian monarchy, which led to the outrage of Muslim Albanians, estimated at 80% of the population, and sparked the so-called Islamic revolt. The revolt was led by Essad Pasha Toptani, who declared himself the "saviour of Albania and Islam" and surrounded himself with disgruntled clerics. However, during the period of World War I, Albanian nationalists soon realised that religious differences could lead to the fracturing of the country itself and decided to break ties with the Muslim world in order to have "a common Albania", which led to Albania declaring itself a country without an official religion; this allowed for a government with representation from the four main religious faiths: Sunni, Bektashi, Catholic and Orthodox, training . Albanian secularist elites planned a reform of Islam that was more in line with Albania's traditions in order to further differentiate the country from Turkey, and religious institutions were nationalised. From 1923 onwards, the Albanian National congress eventually implemented the changes from a perspective very similar to that of Western liberalism. The most important reforms were the abolition of the hijab and the outlawing of polygamy, and a different form of prayer was implemented to replace the Salat ritual. But the biggest change was the replacement of Sharia law with Western-style laws.

During World War II Albania was occupied by fascist Italy and in 1944 a communist regime was imposed under the leadership of Enver Hoxha. This communist regime saw the various religious beliefs in the country as a danger to the security of the authoritarian government, and therefore declared Albania the first officially atheist state and proposed the persecution of various religious practices. Thus repressive laws were imposed that prevented people from professing the Catholic or Orthodox faiths, and forbade Muslims from reading or possessing the Koran. In 1967 the government demolished as many as 2,169 religious buildings and converted the rest into public buildings. Of 1,127 buildings that had any connection to Islam at the time, only about 50 remain today, and in very poor condition.[11]. It is believed that the impact of this persecution subject was reflected in the increase of non-believers within the Albanian population. Between 1991 and 1992 a series of protests brought the regime to an end. In this new democratic Albania, Islam was once again the predominant religion, but the preference was to maintain the non-denominational nature of the state in order to ensure harmony between different faiths.

Influences from the international arena

Taking into account this reality of Albania as a country with a majority Islamic population, we turn to the impact of its accession to the EU and the extent to which the values of the two contradict each other.

To begin with, if all this is analysed from a perspective based on the theory of "constructivism", such as that of Helen Bull's proposal , it can be seen how Albania from the beginning of its history has been a territory whose social structure has been strongly influenced by the interaction of different international actors. During the years when it was part of the Byzantine Empire, it largely absorbed Orthodox values; when it was occupied by the Ottomans, most of its population adopted the Islamic religion. Similarly, during the de-Ottomanisation of the Balkans, the country adopted currents of political thought such as liberalism due to the influence of Western European powers. This led to a desire to create a constitutionalist and parliamentary government whose vision of politics was not based on any religious morality.[12]. It can also be seen that the communist regime was imposed in a context common to that of the other Eastern European states. At the same time, it also returned to a democratic path after the collapse of the USSR, even though Albania had not maintained good relations with the Warsaw Pact since 1961.

Since Albania's EU candidacy, these liberal values have been strengthened again. In particular, Albania is striving to improve its infrastructure and to eradicate corruption and organised crime. So it can be seen that Albanian society is always adapting to being part of a supra-governmental organisation. This is an important aspect because it means that the country is most likely to actively participate in the proposals made by the European Commission, without being driven by domestic social values. However, this in turn gives a point in favour of those MEPs who argued that the veto decision was a historic mistake. For if it does not alienate the EU, Albania could alienate other international actors. According to MEPs themselves, these could be Russia or China.

However, there are two limitations to this assertion. The first is that since 2012 Albania has been a member of NATO, so it is already partly alienated from the West in military terms. But a second aspect is more important, namely that Albania already tried during the Cold War to alienate itself from Russia and China, but found that this had negative effects as it made it a satellite state. On the other hand, and this is where Islamic values come into play, Albania today is a member of Islamic organisations such as the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation). Rejection by the EU could therefore mean Albania's realignment with other Islamic states, such as the Arabs or Turkey. Turkey's own government, currently led by Erdogan's party, has a neo-Ottomanist nature: it seeks to bring the states that formerly constituted the Ottoman Empire under its influence. Albania is being influenced by this neo-Ottomanism and a European rejection could bring it back into the fold of this conception.[13]. Moreover, by moving closer to Middle Eastern Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Albania would run the risk of assimilating the Islamic values of these territories.[14]These are incompatible with those of the EU because they do not comply with many of the articles signed up to in the 1952 Universal Declaration of Rights.

Islam and the European Union

Another aspect would be to ask in what respects do Islamic values contradict those of the EU? The EU generally claims to be against polygamy, homophobia or religious practices that oppose the dignity of the person. This has generated, among other things, a powerful internal discussion as to whether the hijab can be considered as a internship staff that should not be legally prevented. Many feminist groups are against this aspect as they relate it to family patriarchalism.[15]However, other EU groups claim that this is only a fully respectable individual internship staff and that its abolition would be a gesture of an Islamophobic nature. In any case, as mentioned above, Albania abolished both polygamy and the wearing of the hijab in 1923 as not reflecting the values of Islam in Albania.[16]. In this respect, it can be observed that although Albania is a country with an Islamic majority, this Islam is much more influenced by Europeanist currents than by Eastern ones: that is, an Islam adapted to European customs and whose values are currently more similar to those of the neighbouring Balkan states.

Some MEPs, usually from far-right groups such as Ressamblement National or Alternativ für Deutschland, claim that Islamic values will never be compatible with European values because they are expansionist and radical. Dutchman Geert Wilders claims that the Koran "is more anti-Semitic than Mein Kampf".[17]. In other words, they claim that those who profess Islam are incapable of maintaining good relations with other faiths because the Koran itself speaks of waging war against the infidel through Jihad. As an example, they cite the terrorist attacks that the Islamist group DAESH has provoked over the last decade, such as those perpetrated in Paris and Barcelona.[18]. But these groups should be reminded that a sacred text such as the Koran can be interpreted in many ways and that although some Muslim groups believe in this incompatibility of good relations with those who think differently, the majority of Muslims interpret the Koran in a very different way, just as they do the Bible, even if some very specific groups become irrational.

This is clearly the case in Albania, where since its democratisation in 1991 there has been a national project integrating all citizens, regardless of their different beliefs. Rather, throughout its history as an independent country there has been only one period of religious persecution in Albania, and that was due to the repression of communist authoritarianism. One limitation in this respect might be the Islamic revolution that took place in Albania in 1912. But it is worth noting that this revolution, despite its strong Islamic sentiment, served to overthrow a puppet government; no law was enforced after it to impose Islamic values on the rest. So it is worth noting that Albania's political model is very similar to that of Rawls in his book "Political Liberalism", because it configures a state with multiple values (although there is a predominant one), but its laws are not written on the basis of any of them, but on the basis of common values among all of them based on reason.[19]. This model proposed by Rawls is one of the founding instructions of the European Union and Albania would be a state that would exemplify these same values.[20]. This is what the Supreme Pontiff Francis I said at his visit in Tirana in 2014: "Albania demonstrates that peaceful coexistence between citizens belonging to different religions is a path that can be followed in a concrete way and that produces harmony and liberates the best forces and creativity of an entire people, transforming simple coexistence into true partnership and fraternity".[21]


It can be concluded that Albania's values as an Islamic-majority state do not appear to be divergent from those of Western Europe and thus the European Union. Albania is a non-denominational state that respects all religious beliefs and encourages all individuals, regardless of their faith, to participate in the political life of the country (which has much merit given the significant religious diversity that has distinguished Albania throughout its history). Moreover, Islam in Albania is very different from other regions due to the impact of European influence in the region. Not only that, but the country also seems very willing to collaborate on common projects. The only thing that, in terms of values, would make Albania unsuitable for EU membership would be if, just as it has been influenced by the actors that have interacted with it throughout its history, it were to be influenced again by Muslim states with values divergent from European ones. But this is more likely to be the case if the EU were to reject Albania, as it would seek the support of other allies in the international arena.

The implications of the accession of the first Muslim-majority state to the EU would certainly be advantageous, as it would encourage a variety of religious thought within the Union and this could lead to greater understanding between the different faiths within it. There would be the possibility of a greater presence of Sunni MEPs in the European Parliament and it would help to enhance coexistence within other EU states on the basis of what has been done in Albania, such as in France, where 10 per cent of the population is Muslim. It should also be said that Albania's exemplary multi-religious behaviour would seriously weaken Euroscepticism and also help to foster harmony within the Balkan region. As Donald Tusk has argued, the Balkans must be given a European perspective and it is in the EU's best interest that Albania becomes part of it.

[1] Lazaro, Ana; European Parliament adopts resolution against veto on North Macedonia and Albania; euronews. ; last update: 24/10/2019

[2] Sputnik World; The West's attitude to the spectre of 'Greater Albania' worries Moscow; Sputnik World, 22/02/2018. grade Sputnik World: Care should be taken when analysing this source as it is often used as a method of Russian propaganda.

[3] "Third Opinion on Albania adopted on 23 November 2011". Strasbourg. 4 June 2012.

[4] Vickers, Miranda (2011). The Albanians: a modern history. London: IB Tauris.

[5] Esposito, John; Yavuz, M. Hakan (2003). Turkish Islam and the secular state: The Gülen movement. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press

[6] Gawrych, George (2006). The crescent and the eagle: Ottoman rule, Islam and the Albanians, 1874-1913. London: IB Tauris.

[7] Karpat, Kemal (2001). The politicization of Islam: reconstructing identity, state, faith, and community in the late Ottoman state. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[8] Endresen, Cecilie (2011). "Diverging images of the Ottoman legacy in Albania". Berlin: Lit Verlag. pp. 37-52.

[9] Stoppel, Wolfgang (2001). Minderheitenschutz im östlichen Europa (Albanien). Cologne: Universität Köln.

[10] Gawrych, George (2006). The crescent and the eagle: Ottoman rule, Islam and the Albanians, 1874-1913. London: IB Tauris.

[11] Nurja, Ermal (2012). "The rise and destruction of Ottoman Architecture in Albania: A brief history focused on the mosques". Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

[12] Albanian Constituition of 1998.

[13] Return to Instability: How migration and great power politics threaten the Western Balkans. European Council on Foreign Relations. 2015.

[14] Bishku, Michael (2013). "Albania and the Middle East.

[15] García Aller, Marta; Feminists against the hijab: "Europe is falling into the Islamist trap with the veil".

[16] Jazexhi, Olsi (2014)."Albania." In Nielsen, Jørgen; Akgönül, Samim; Alibašić, Ahmet; Racius, Egdunas (eds.) Yearbook of Muslims in Europe: Volume 6. Leiden: Brill.

[17] EFE; The Dutch MP who compared the Koran to 'Mein Kampf' does not withdraw his words. La Vanguardia; 04/10/2010

[18] Khader, Bichara; Muslims in Europe, the construction of a "problem"; OpenMind BBVA

[19] Rawls, John; Political Liberalism; Columbia University Press, New York.

[20] Kristeva, Julia; Homo europaeus: is there a European culture; OpenMind BBVA.

[21] Vera, Jarlison; Albania: Pope highlights the partnership between Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims; Acaprensa

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