Listening To The Call Of Islam

"All-aaaaahu Aaa-kbar!"

It's 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, an imam summons the faithful to prayer. Not so long ago, the ancient rallying cry would have earned the holy man a lengthy spell in a prison cell. Today, the chances are he'll have a full house.

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 postwar state atheism, when even sporting a beard (the traditional badge of the Muslim male) was banned, whole generations grew up knowing little about the faith of their forefathers. Now, there is 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 ruling Islamic body. "It's like a small revolution."

But it is not a revolution from within. When the communist regime 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 nervous. "Many of these outsiders were fanatics, who wanted to import their own problems into our country," explains Itland Bicprendi, a former policy adviser. Those problems, he suggests, include religious intolerance, subjugation of women, and the Koran's harsh penal code. The activists' ultimate goal, Bicprendi adds, is a religious state.

That worries many inside and outside the country. Albania provides facilities for the U.S. Navy at the southern port of Sarande and air bases, along the northern border, for American spy planes that gather information over Bosnia. Since 1993, Albania has hosted some 20 joint Partnership for Peace training exercises for countries hoping to join NATO.

"If you're going to have guys with beards jumping up and down shouting `Death to America,' then Washington and Brussels are going to think twice about sticking around," says Christopher Bennett, a Balkans analyst with the International Crisis Group, a Brussels think tank. "That would give the Qadaffis of this world a lot greater leverage."

Many radical born-again Muslims don't dispute that they want a religious state. "There should be no difference between religious law and the laws of Parliament," insists Nexhmedin Kahrimani, an 11th-grader at the Tirana Muslim High School for Boys. The school reopened two years ago, after half a century, thanks to Gulf state backing. "The Prophet's teachings cover all aspects of our daily lives. So why should we have to make another set of them?" he asks.

As one of the star pupils, Kahrimani has offers of scholarships to study engineering in Turkey and Malaysia--well worth the circumcision he had to endure in order to gain entrance to the academy, he says. "If I'd gone to a regular public school, I'd never have gotten a chance like that...never."

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

A major bulwark of resistance to Islamic expansion disappeared when President Sali Berisha's government was voted out of office last June, after it failed to check fraudulent pyramid investment schemes that left millions of Albanians destitute. Before the crisis erupted a year ago, official institutions had worked to dampen overly ardent evangelism. In fact, Berisha's government ordered the expulsion of some 50 foreign Muslim teachers and closed down several theological colleges after an Orthodox Christian church in southeast Albania was defaced by Muslim youths. The government charged they were encouraged by their Libyan tutors. Berisha himself scotched plans to build a new downtown mosque where once stood a giant statue of the communist dictator Enver Hoxha, and he vetoed a proposal by the heads of state-owned radio to allow Tehran to use its transmitters to broadcast religious programs into neighboring Bosnia.

Officials of the new Albanian administration say they can't afford to crack down too hard on the fundamentalists. Hard-line Islamic states are among the biggest contributors of aid to and investment in Albania. In 1996, for example, Iran, which has built five state-of-the-art health clinics in Tirana, averted what could have been a major polio epidemic. It underwrote an emergency mass inoculation program after 12 Albanians died of the disease within a week.

UNDER COVER. In the countryside, a group called Alb-Iran, funded by the Tehran government and Iranian businesspeople, has established more than 100 farming cooperatives. Cynics point out that each Alb-Iran co-op gets a new mosque, too. And although the program's directors insist the gifts come with no religious strings, there's concern that peasants may at least pay lip service to Islam to curry favor with their benefactors. That could be why some 7,000 young Albanian women began wearing the traditional Islamic head scarf last year.


"They do it for economic reasons, nothing else," says Irma Shagla, a feminist and a sociology professor at Tirana University. "Why else would normal, healthy teenage girls want to cover themselves?" Adds Foreign Minister Paskal Milo: "Some might say the reappearance of the veil is like a step backward, when we should be looking forward."

Even so, insists Milo, he can't start throwing his weight around just because he might not like the way some people dress. And with Albania needing all the help it can get, it's in no position to pick and choose its friends. So, like many here, he watches warily as Albania's Muslims heed the call to prayer.