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Albania Wary of Extremist Inroads

By Benet Koleka
Reuters
Saturday, April 2, 2005; Page B08

TIRANA, Albania -- A typical Saturday night in this predominantly Muslim capital means a few beers, a spin at the local disco and, for that late-night snack, a pork kebab. Albania wants it to stay that way.

To protect its own tolerant brand of Islam from extremists, the Balkan country wants to stop importing foreign-trained preachers and make sure religion does not get in the way of its efforts to join the European Union.

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Many European countries worry about foreign imams bringing fundamentalist rhetoric from the Middle East into their mosques. In Albania, the threat is seen from fundamentalists who visit the country under the cover of aid missions, and from religious schools vying to cater to an upsurge in religious interest since the collapse of the atheist rule of dictator Enver Hoxha in 1990.

Hoxha, a dogmatic Stalinist, banned all religion during his four decades in power. Nowadays most Albanians identify with a religious group but do not practice their faith devoutly.

About 60 percent of the population consists of moderate Sunni Muslims, but analysts say the national spirit is more attuned to the liberal overtones of Bektashism, a sect derived from a mystic Shia order that flourished in Turkey under the Ottomans.

Bektashis, making up an estimated 15 percent of Albanians, are allowed alcohol and do not require women to wear a veil. Bektashi poets and intellectuals played a key role in Albania's 19th-century enlightenment and nation-building.

"An Albanian of Muslim stock very likely drinks wine, eats pork, enjoys parties and marries someone from another religion," said Artan Fuga, sociology professor at Tirana University.

In recent years, thousands of young men wanting to learn more about Islam have traveled to religious schools abroad, most attending month-long crash courses in the Salafi branch of Islam, which promotes a strict, traditional interpretation of Islamic doctrine.

When they return, young Salafist preachers are known to clash with the Muslim leadership over its practices, build new mosques and deliver hard-line sermons.

The government now plans to build a theology school "to end the export-import of students with Islamic countries" and use databases to keep tabs on those who studied abroad.


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