Is there a European Islam?
This is my first visit to Albania and it is a fascinating, beautiful country: Tirana much more impressive than I had been led to believe; the run-down Durres tower blocks and shanties more in keeping with my preconceptions.
I am here to report on Albania’s reaction to the looming independence of Kosovo and my report will be on Radio Four and the World Service next week and I will link to it when it is ready.
But that is for another day.
On the way up into the town of Kruja, perched on the side of a mountain, we stop at a small road side shrine, a Teke, a green-domed, white walled, small building.
Down a few stone steps is a neat little room, covered with small, Turkish-style rugs. But a little area of the floor is bare, and what looks like limestone.
There’s a hole, about eight inches deep and it doesn’t take much imagination to see it as a footprint.
The shrine’s guardian, 79 year-old Masmut Subashi, tells me this is the footprint of Sari Saltik .
The holy man’s portrait hangs on one wall, robed, with long dark hair, his hands apparently resting on the hilt of a sword. Masmut tells me how he was taken to the shrine by his father as a small boy and now he tends to it. Then he tells me the story of the saint.
A nearby village was terrorised by a monster who demanded a human life every day. Sari Saltik cut off the monster’s seven heads and for 25 years lived in the large cave which the beast had inhabited.
When he left, he first stepped on this mountainside. His next foot print was a hundred miles away and his next in Crete .
He tells us that the legend is that Sari Saltik had a brother who was a Christian, St Anthony, who had his own cave not far from here.
Please don’t hold me to the highest standards of BBC accuracy on this one.
A Muslim saint, a Muslim portrait, acknowledging a Christian brother?
Well, yes, Albania is the headquarters of the Bektashi, a Sufi group.
Muslims are said to make up 70% of the population in Albania, and most of them are not Bektashi, who are Shia, but Sunni.
It’s mildly curious to me that while some people argue Turkey shouldn’t join the European Union because most of its population is Muslim, I have never heard the same argument applied to Kosovo or Albania.
Perhaps it’s because they are so small. Perhaps it’s because, for many, the religion is only nominal. As I write this, in Albania’s capital Tirana , I can hear the call to prayer but the approach to religion seems much more European than the more profound attachments one may find in other parts of the world.
I hasten to add I am not just talking about Islam and the Middle East: America’s devoutness seems very shocking to many worldly Europeans.
Anyway while some websites warn that Albania could be a base for “extremism ” or “fundamentalists” there seems little sign of even moderate conservatism or devotion on the streets or indeed in the villages.
Is it to be found in these lands?
Ervin Hatibi is a poet and intellectual, a Sunni Muslim, who became serious about his religion after living a rather rock-and-roll lifestyle.
While some, like the historian Bernard Lewis, argue that secularism is a specifically Christian phenomenon, Ervin says Islam has its own secularism and should not be seen as a monolithic whole.
“Everywhere Islam is different,” he says.
“As an everyday experience in the Balkans, for centuries it has created unique features. I consider Islam as part of the European landscape. It was for centuries. It kept changing, especially in Europe, the continent of continuous change.
“As a believer I may have fantasies about a society that moves towards certain values, and so will an Albanian Orthodox, or an atheist from a Muslim background or one of the new Protestant Christians, but we all have to live within an Albanian space.
“We have to live in harmony with the will of the majority and this is our culture, a more and more European and Western culture. It has something special that is not only Islam, but Ottoman and from the communist regime, so we have our special flavour that gives more beauty to the European experience and is not something dangerous.”
Is he right ? Could the much derided Ottoman Empire ,multi-ethnic and relatively religiously tolerant, have got something right in the Balkans?