Despite a centuries-old tradition of religious tolerance among Albania’s 2.8 million people, the Islamic State (ISIS) has found a small but devoted following.
More than 100 Albanians have traveled to the Middle East to join the terrorist group, and a few have gained prominence.
Their call to Islamist militancy has been echoed by a handful of ultra-conservative mosques that have sprung up in Albania in recent years, some of them built with help from Islamic charities and missionaries from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf region.
Ironically, for nearly 50 years until the collapse of communism in 1990, the country’s Marxist leaders proclaimed Albania to be the world’s first atheist state, officially banning religious observances and persecuting imams and priests.
But the fall of Communism provided an opening for extremists. Islamic charities, some with the backing of oil-rich Gulf kingdoms, began building mosques and madrassas. Young students were offered scholarships to study theology under the tutelage of fundamentalist clerics in Saudi Arabia.
In the past decade, Albania has witnessed a proliferation of independent mosques, unaffiliated with the Muslim Community of Albania, the organization that presides over the country’s moderate worship centers.
Extremist messages find fertile ground in poorer neighborhoods and villages, where official corruption is high and unemployment among young adults often exceeds 40 per cent.
“Religion has never been the problem here; it’s education. It’s the lack of a developed civil society. And it’s poverty, especially in the remote areas,” Ylli Manjani, the country’s justice minister, remarked in an interview with the Washington Post.
Albania’s government has now passed laws forbidding participation in the Islamic State, and the security services have cracked down on recruits making the trek to Iraq and Syria. Some mosques were closed or forced to change leadership.
Three clerics and six others were sentenced in May to prison terms of up to 18 years for encouraging young Albanians to embrace violent jihad.
In Kosovo, whose 1.8 million mostly ethnic Albanians were liberated by NATO from Serbian domination in 1999, extremist clerics and secretive associations funded by Saudis and others have also transformed a once-tolerant Muslim society into a font of extremism.
Newly-arrived clerics sought to overtake the Islamic Community of Kosovo, an organization that for generations has been the custodian of the tolerant form of Islam that was practiced in the region.
Saudi-sponsored charities often paid salaries and overhead costs, and financed courses in religion, as well as English and computer classes. Many were funded by Al Waqf al Islami, a Saudi organization that was one of 19 eventually closed by investigators.
Families were given monthly stipends on the condition that they attended sermons in the mosque and that women and girls wore the veil.
“They promoted political Islam,” according to Fatos Makolli, the director of Kosovo’s counterterrorism police, who spoke to the New York Times. “They spent a lot of money to promote it through different programs mainly with young, vulnerable people, and they brought in a lot of Wahhabi and Salafi literature.”
Some 200 Kosovars took advantage of scholarships after the war to study Islam in Saudi Arabia. Many returned with missionary zeal.
Kosovo now has 240 mosques built since the 1999 war and blamed for helping indoctrinate a new generation in Wahhabism.
The influence of the radical clerics reached its apex with the war in Syria, as they extolled the virtues of jihad and urged young people to go there.
Over the last two years, the police have identified 314 Kosovars, including two suicide bombers, 44 women and 28 children, who have gone abroad to join the Islamic State, the highest number per capita in Europe.
Kosovo’s interior minister, Skender Hyseni, recently reprimanded some of the senior religious officials.
“I told them they were doing a great disservice to their country,” he stated. “Kosovo is by definition, by Constitution, a secular society. There has always been historically an unspoken interreligious tolerance among Albanians here, and we want to make sure that we keep it that way.”
It won’t be easy.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.