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When completed in 2019, the Great Mosque of Tirana, a hulking new mosque in Albania, will be the biggest in the Balkans, with room for 5,000 worshipers. It’s located in Albania’s capital city, but it looks more like the great old mosques of Istanbul. That’s because Turkey is funding this mosque’s construction. Although Tirana’s Muslims have been asking for a new mosque for decades (after communism, many were left praying on the streets), not all are happy about the new Ottoman-style mosque, including many Muslims, who make up 60 percent of the population. It’s left many in Albania, which was under Ottoman rule for more than four centuries, feeling like pawns in the Turkish president’s games. In fact, many Albanians wonder if the mosque is really for them at all or if it’s part of a new approach to Turkish diplomacy, focusing on exerting soft power and positioning Turkey as defender of Muslims across the Balkans. For now, most Albanians accept the new mosque, but reject Turkish influence. “Turkey’s not a big brother,” says Dorian Shatku after Friday prayers at a local mosque.
With its four minarets towering over the Albanian parliament next door, no visitor can miss the Great Mosque of Tirana.
When completed in 2019, the hulking new central mosque will be the biggest in the Balkans, with enough room for 5,000 worshipers. And it more closely resembles the great old mosques of Istanbul than any here in Albania, a country ruled by the Ottoman Empire for over four centuries.
That's because Turkey is funding this mosque’s construction and overseeing its design, at an estimated cost of €30 million ($34 million), as it’s done with dozens across the Balkans and beyond.
Not all Albanians are happy about that – including many Muslims, who make up an estimated 60 percent of the population. Tirana’s new central mosque has already become a symbol for those Muslims who feel like a “discriminated majority” in one of Europe’s few Muslim-majority countries, in the words of prominent Albanian intellectual Fatos Lubonja – and like pawns in Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s great game.
Despite Albania’s Muslim majority (the remainder includes 10 percent Roman Catholics and 7 percent Orthodox Christians), there have long been political undercurrents that view Islam as incompatible with being “European,” says Mr. Lubonja, a writer and political analyst.
During Albania’s 19th-century national awakening, he explains, the nascent Albanian intellectual class suppressed religious identity in favor of a non-religious nationalism: “Albanianism.” They chose a national hero, Skanderbeg, who spent decades fighting against Ottoman rule – and, thus, Islam – in the 1400s.
“Muslims here still feel frustrated because of their Muslim identity,” says Lubonja, who spent 17 years as a political prisoner under communist dictator Enver Hoxha’s regime. In Albania, “Islam has always been a synonym for backwardness, the religion of occupiers.”
Rebuilding religious society
Today Albanian society remains largely secular, due in no small part to Mr. Hoxha’s brutal rule over the country for more than 40 years. He proclaimed Albania an officially atheist state in 1967, and under his rule, mosques across the country were abandoned, destroyed, or converted into museums. After communism collapsed in Albania in the early 1990s, many were reopened.
But not enough. According to Ilir Dizdari, the former head of the Albanian State Committee on Cults (which manages relations between religious communities and the state), today Tirana has the same number of mosques as it did in the 1960s, despite the city’s population having quadrupled.
Tirana’s Muslims have been asking for a new mosque for decades. After communism, many were left praying on the streets or in the Namazgah Park near the parliament building, a popular spot for outdoor prayers during Islamic festivals. While new Catholic and Orthodox cathedrals were built with little controversy after the fall of communism, plans for a new mosque never got off the ground. Even after Albania’s then-President Sali Berisha laid a foundation stone for it in 1992, the Roman Catholic speaker of the country’s parliament protested the plans.
And so that foundation stone in Namazgah Park lay forgotten until 2010, when then-Mayor Edi Rama announced that a new, modernist mosque would finally be built. Mr. Rama’s opponents accused him of playing to the Muslim vote before elections.
As Rama became Albania’s prime minister in 2013, his dedication to a central mosque project coincided with Ankara's mosque-building campaign. The public debate around the mosque soon became a debate about Turkey, and whether a “neo-Ottoman”-style mosque was the right fit in a country that takes great pride in having rebelled against Ottoman rule.
Even the most senior Muslim religious official in Albania, Grand Mufti Skënder Bruçaj, admitted that Turkey’s role in the mosque project had been divisive. However, he stressed that the most important thing for him is that a central mosque is finally being built.
“If we had the money, we would have done something different,” admits Mr. Bruçaj in his offices opposite the construction site. “But things were decided before … it’s not easy for us.”
Some remain irritated that their own government wasn’t willing to fund it.
“The mosque was necessary, but it should have been built by the Albanian state,” says one woman, who declined to give her name, after Friday prayers at the small Kokonozi Mosque near Tirana’s old bazaar.
“That we were unable to build it shows that we are weak,” remarks Gjoka Blebie, on Tirana’s sprawling Skanderbeg Square. “Why not do it ourselves?”
A new Turkish diplomacy
Many Albanians wonder if the mosque is really for them at all. Niuton Mulleti, a lecturer in political science and international relations at Tirana’s Epoka University, points out how unusual it was that Mr. Erdoğan himself appeared at the mosque’s official groundbreaking ceremony in 2015.
“It would be unimaginable to see the president of Italy at the opening of a Catholic church,” says Professor Mulleti, “and controversial to say the least to see the Greek prime minister at the opening of Tirana’s Orthodox Cathedral.”
The Turkish state, through its international development agency TIKA, is also investing millions in restoring a handful of small Ottoman-era mosques throughout Albania. Such mosque (re)construction efforts are part of a longstanding strategy of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which first came to power in 2002. Under the guidance of former Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Erdoğan embarked on a new approach to Turkish diplomacy that focused on exerting soft power – including across parts of the Balkans with large Muslim populations – in a strategy some have characterized as “neo-Ottoman,” though Mr. Davutoğlu himself rejects the moniker.
That influence has recently served another purpose: Ankara is pressuring Balkan countries to hand over Turkish citizens deemed linked to the “Gülen terrorist organization” – as Turkey classifies the Islamic social movement led by Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen – which it blames for a failed coup attempt in 2016.
In 2016, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu even called Albania the “center” for Gülenist activities in the Balkans, while pro-government Turkish media has portrayed Grand Mufti Bruçaj as a Gülen supporter. After initially dragging its heels, Albania’s government has vowed to cooperate in Ankara’s crackdown since Erdoğan’s re-election: Prime Minister Rama recently reaffirmed his support to tackle the Gülen network.
It’s one reason why Erdoğan gains by positioning himself as defender of Muslims across the Balkans and beyond. And while he’s certainly seen this way by some Muslims across the region, this is far from the case in Albania, where Erdoğan’s increasingly autocratic model holds little appeal for Albanians who want to eventually join the European Union.
“Turkey’s not a big brother,” Dorian Shatku says after prayers at Kokonozi Mosque. “Most Turks I know oppose Erdoğan.”
'Skyscrapers are the symbol of our new religion'
Elton Hatibi, a researcher who has studied Islam in Albania, sees Albanian politicians’ “Turkophilia” as strategy rather than conviction. “Albania is a small country which knows how to play the ‘big brother’ card well,” he explains.
“But people vote with their feet,” adds Mr. Hatibi. “Albanians once moved to Istanbul to make their fortune. These days, they go to the EU to do real business, and Turkey for holidays.”
Other Albanians have even less time for Erdoğan. In the park next door to the mosque, a group of older men playing chess are more than happy to share their opinions about what’s being built just across the way – and about the man responsible for it.
“Erdoğan is a dictator,” says Agim (who declined to provide a last name), an atheist who grew up in a Muslim family. “He’s worse than Enver Hoxha.”
“While I don’t care much for mosques, particularly not in an Ottoman style, for me the new mosque isn’t the most terrible thing,” reflects Lubonja, the writer and former political prisoner. “Skyscrapers are the symbol of our new religion.”
“Islam could become the religion of the poor, and be instrumentalized against new elites who claim to be European – those same corrupt elites who have promised to bring capitalism and modernity for over 20 years.”
Reporting for this story was supported by Reporters in the Field, a Robert Bosch Stiftung program hosted together with n-ost, a media network.