The tiny nation of Albania has been pulled out of communist isolation and thrust into the era of globalization, and with it into the very real ideological and religious conflicts of the 21st Century. A crossroads and regular battleground between East and West of two thousand years, Albania is on a path toward trouble.
I began visiting Albania well over a decade ago. When I stepped off the plane on my initial visit to Albania in March 1994, I wondered whether I had landed on the moon or traveled back in time to the era of Stalin. The donkey-drawn cart that took our luggage from the plane to the terminal assured me it wasn't the moon.
My visit had been preceded by the installation of the first traffic lights in the country three months earlier. The change wasn't dramatic, as they were treated by drivers there as mere suggestions, if recognized at all.
As the plane descended to Rinas Airport outside the capital of Tirana, the most immediately recognizable feature that could be observed was the military pillboxes that proliferated throughout the Albanian landscape, like cement-gray dandelions meant to repel the paranoid Enver Hoxha's envisioned joint US-Soviet invasion of the country. Unlike that era's perceived threat, Albania's internal struggles today, are very real.
In the past 13 years I've seen much of the country, from Shkoder in the North to Sarande in the South, and from Durres on the Adriatic Sea to Lake Ohrid on the border with Macedonia. Everywhere I went I have been a grateful recipient of the amazing hospitality for which Albanians are known (just ask anyone who has been there). In some respects I was somewhat of a trailblazer, as some of the small towns and villages I visited I was the first non-Albanian most had ever seen, let alone a real live American.
During those trips I would marvel as I witnessed this formerly isolated country bravely emerge from decades of atheistic darkness (when even the North Koreans considered Albania the "Hermit Kingdom") and the people heartily embraced, and at times stumbled over, their new-found and hard-won political, economic and religious freedoms.
When I was in-country and working in the capital of Tirana as a consultant to their electric power industry, I lived with an Albanian family who could best be characterized as nominally Muslim, which at the time would have been an accurate description of most Albanians. We lived and laughed together, ate together, talked politics and religion together, and every evening we would tune in Baywatch on an Italian satellite channel (the first time I had ever seen the program - honest!), which would inevitably prompt a number of questions about American life. Needless to say, watching Pamela Anderson jogging down the beach had a way of immediately breaking down cultural barriers between the family's four teenage boys, their father and me as we spoke the universal male language of winks, nods and catcalls. All in all, any differences between us only enlivened the already delightful company, and those differences forged tremendous respect for one another that continues up to the present.
It was during a long road trip with a Ministry of Energy official to visit a hydropower plant on one of my early visits that I observed a number of new mosques being built in virtually every town we drove through, which was a bit of a surprise for a country that just a few years earlier had been officially atheistic. Inquiring about this, my friend - a high-ranking member of the Albanian government and the Democratic Party - shook his head and said, "Yes, Mr. Patrick. The Saudis are building everywhere they can. This is causing many problems all over, but since they bring with them millions of American dollars, there isn't much that we can do to keep them out." And this admission came from a Muslim!
That same week I was having lunch with a friend from the American Embassy, and during our conversation he told me that I needed to be more cautious about my safety while I was in country. He said that he couldn't go into any detail, but things were changing in the country - for the worse. It was later that I learned of the plot by al-Qaeda to blow up the American Embassy in Tirana, a building I had been in dozens of times and where my friend still worked. They would later successfully attack the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
These two conversations took place before the country's descent into chaos in late 1996 (the designation of that period as a "civil war" attributes more structure and motive to the event than there was) and the subsequent ethnic/religious conflict in neighboring Kosovo that drew even more radical Islamists and wanna-be jihadis (along with their Arab Gulf money) to Albania. Since that time, the country has undergone a profound change.
In the early years after the fall of Communism, religious conflict in Albania was unheard of; today, it is commonplace as the country is racked by the same cultural battles that we see played out in the news everyday.
A recent Washington Post article by Mary Jordan notes the uproar by Muslims last year when a statue of Mother Theresa - undoubtedly the most famous Albanian ever - was built in Shkoder, a city that is predominantly Christian. The frantic pace of mosque construction has continued at a break-neck pace, as dozens of new Wahhabi-financed mosques have opened in every major city, staffed by foreign-trained Wahhabi imams.
Much of the present religious tension in Albania is being spawned by the foreign attempts to keep the country in the Dar-al-Islam, the House of Islam, land held tenuously since the time of 15th Century Albanian national hero, George Castrioti Scanderbeg. Scanderbeg, hailed as "Champion of Christendom" by Pope Nicholas V, relentlessly fought the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II to preserve Albania as a bulwark for Christian Europe against Ottoman aggression. Scanderbeg was able to defend the ancient Christian lands of Albania against the relentless campaigns of Islamic imperialism until his death, but his successors were not able to hold out.
Ottoman rule rent asunder the historic religious fabric of the Albanians, and Wahhabi extremism threatens to do it again. Remember that the country barely had a few years respite between the enforced atheistic uniformity of Hoxha's regime and the beginning of the War on Terror.
Once more, Albania faces extraordinary odds. Yet it might be that the country's survival over decades of brutal atheism may be the key to preserving its hard-won freedoms. The developing story of Albania and the perils of the 21st Century is very much our own. Paying attention to their story, their failures and successes, along with their long history in this battle, may be the lessons we must eventually learn to save ourselves in the ideological and religious long-war that lies ahead.
Long live the sons of Scanderbeg!