Missionary Muslims Find Albania to Be Fertile Ground

"All-aaaaah Aaak-bar!"

It's early Friday morning rush hour in the Albanian capital of Tirana, and from the top of the minaret adjoining the downtown 18th-century Ethem Beg mosque, a muezzin is summoning the faithful to prayer.

Nominally, at least, some two-thirds of Albania's 3.4 million people are Muslim, a legacy of 400 years of Turkish occupation that ended in 1912. But during 45 years of post-World War II state atheism, whole generations of Albanians grew up knowing little about the faith of their forefathers. Now, Muslim leaders report a mood of spiritual reawakening.

"On Fridays and holy days, the main Tirana mosques are full," exults Hafiz Sabri Koci, chairman of the Muslim Committee in Albania, the country's ruling Islamic body. "It's like a small revolution."

But not a revolution from within. When the Communist regime finally fell in 1991, missionaries from fundamentalist Islamic states such as Iran, Libya, and Saudi Arabia were quick to come calling. And the message they brought to Europe's poorest nation is making some people very anxious.

A major bulwark of resistance to Islamic expansion disappeared when the government collapsed this spring following the failure of fraudulent pyramid investment schemes. Before the crisis erupted, official institutions had worked to dampen overardent evangelism.

"I have to emphasize that most Albanians who go to mosque obey the law and are good citizens. Islam offers them moral and spiritual values [which] help them face the hardship of their lives," explains Foreign Ministry spokesman Itland Biprendi.

But he is concerned that - unlike the many Christian religious revivalists active in Albania - the Islamic activists see a religious state as their ultimate goal.

That's not something Albania's more-radical born-again Muslims would dispute. "We believe there should be no difference between religious law and the laws of parliament. The laws laid down by the Prophet [Muhammad] cover all aspects of our daily lives," insists Nexhmedin Kahrimani, an 11th-grader at the Tirana Muslim High School for Boys. After having been shut down for half a century, the school reopened two years ago due to generous sponsorship from Qatar, one of the Gulf states.

As one of his school's star pupils, Nexhmedin has already received offers of scholarships to study engineering in Turkey and Malaysia when he graduates - well worth the circumcision he had to endure in order to gain entrance to the academy, he says.

Others are less enthusiastic. The Albanian Helsinki Human Rights Committee has sharply criticized the activities of some Arab educational foundations in Albania, alleging they are bribing poor parents with money and "brainwashing" their children with religious fervor.

Last year, the Interior Ministry expelled some 50 foreign teachers of Islam and closed several theological colleges after an Orthodox Christian Church in the southeast of the country was defaced by local Muslim youths, allegedly at the behest of their Libyan tutors.

Yet most politicians say they can't afford to crack down too hard on the fundamentalists just yet. Hard-line Islamic states are among the biggest contributors of aid and investment to Albania.

In the central Albanian countryside, Alb-Iran, a nonprofit foundation funded by donations from the Tehran government and Iranian businessmen, has established more than 100 farming cooperatives, providing modern machinery and dispensing advice about effective marketing, crop rotation, and disease-resistant strains of seed. But cynics point out that in addition to tractors and combine harvesters, each Alb-Iran co-op has also received a brand new mosque.

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