Enver Hoxha tried to make Albania the world’s only officially atheist state. He failed miserably

Albania – a little country in the south-east of Europe with a population of less than three million – has a big lesson for the West.

This month sees the chaos unfolding from Scotland's new Hate Crime and Public Order Act. The law, which came into force on April 1, makes statements deemed to 'stir up hatred” in relation to age, disability, religion, sexual orientation or gender a crime, and applies to things said even in the home. Incidents can be reported anonymously and Police Scotland, having promised to investigate every allegation, has already received far more complaints than it can handle.

Beyond the issues of overwhelming public services and wasting taxpayers' money, Scotland's new legislation raises concerns about the changing values of Western society. The law is part of a trend in which governments are increasingly policing “hate speech”. Lawmakers in Canada are proposing that even those suspected of contemplating a “hate crime” should be put under house arrest.

While on the face of it, such laws seek to enforce secular values of equality and protect groups historically suffering from discrimination, they inevitably affect people's ability to express themselves freely about core aspects of human life, especially those concerned with reproduction, relationships and sexual behaviour,

Five springs ago, I spent a month in Tirana, looking at the state of the country 30 years after the fall of the dictatorship that cut it off from the rest of the world for nearly half a century. Albania's isolationist form of Communism was like no other. Enver Hoxha pursued a nationalistic ideology based on scientific materialism and focused on his own godlike status. Religion, interposing a higher authority between the Albanian citizen and the leader who embodied the country's “true” values, posed a particular threat. “The only religion of Albania is Albanianism,” he wrote, citing the 19th century poet Pashko Vasa.

Hoxha knew the task of destroying religion would be a difficult one. When he came to power in the 1940s, Albania was home to Muslims and Christians of both Orthodox and Catholic denominations, as well as the site of the world headquarters of the Bektashi, a mystical sect of Islam. In a letter of 1967 he instructed Labour Party branches “to be cautious, but ruthless” in their attempts to eradicate religion, as it was “still very influential among the people”.

Over the decades of his rule, thousands of priests and imams were imprisoned or executed. Churches and mosques were closed down and either demolished or turned into state-run institutions. The regime harnessed youthful zeal for its own purposes, co-opting students and young people to carry out much of the destruction. In 1976, the Article 37 of the Albanian constitution declared: “The State recognises no religion, and supports atheistic propaganda in order to implant a scientific materialistic world outlook in the people”.

Albania, the home of Mother Teresa, had become the only country in the world to have banned religion.

Hoxha's totalitarianism aimed beyond the control of external behaviour, seeking dominion over hearts, minds and souls. It was illegal to even possess religious books or materials. Edvin Peci, who studied philosophy in the last years of regime, recalled how the definition of acceptable thought became tighter and tighter. Hegel, being an idealist philosopher, was banned, and only some of Marx's thought was permitted. “In the end, we were just allowed to read what our leader wrote,” he said.

A comprehensive network of volunteers helped to enforce the law. By the end of the regime, it was estimated that as many as one in three inhabitants in Tirana worked for the secret police. Neighbours, friends and family members informed on each other, wives betraying husbands, brothers spying on sisters and children telling on their parents.

Ana Stakaj, the women's programmes manager at the Mary Ward Loreto Foundation, told me how her father almost went to prison for possessing certain books: “Thank God there were also people who were good, even if they were in power, and they said, ‘just get rid of the books’. The books ended up in the nearby river and he was saved.”



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As in other Communist countries where religious beliefs could get you into trouble, people found ways of expressing their faith in secret. Franz was born to a Catholic family under the Hoxha regime, his name an oblique tribute to St Francis, the saint on whose day he’d been born. His parents told their children about Christianity and celebrated Christmas covertly. “They bought presents before, so that it didn't show,” said Franz. “And they didn’t tell us it was Christmas, in case we said something to a friend, and he told his mother, and she told someone ...”

When the regime fell in 1991, his father took him straight to church and Franz found himself among a congregation engaged in collective ritual for the first time. “For me, it was strange.” He laughed at the memory. “Oh, you do the cross here” - he made the sign of the cross on his chest – and stand up there”.

The major faiths wasted no time in rebuilding their institutions. Pope John Paul II laid the cornerstone for the new St Paul's Cathedral on a visit to Tirana in 1993. The Orthodox community rebuilt their cathedral as a multi-million complex that became one of the largest places of worship in the Balkans. I attended services in both churches on Easter Day and found them full, of both people and religiosity.

The Bektashi World Centre on the hill on the capital's outskirts reopened in 1991 and was restored to its full mosaiced beauty with various grants. In an interview, the Bektashis' eighth spiritual leader Edmond Brahimaj told me about the persecution his sect had suffered, with many of their buildings confiscated and imams killed. Restoring the buildings was the easier part of rebuilding the faith, he said; there were not many prepared to serve as imams and young people still wanted to leave a country offering few opportunities. But after the dark days of the dictatorship, the Bektashi had won legal recognition as a religion in their own right, separate from Islam and with their own national holidays.

Today, the majority of Albanians say they are religious, with 57 percent of considering themselves Muslim, 10 per cent Catholic, 7 percent Orthodox and 2 percent Bektashi, according to the 2011 census. Almost 14 percent of respondents declined to say whether they followed any particular faith, but only 2.5 percent declared that they were atheists.

But Albania's period of intense religious persecution has left a complex legacy. As Alba Cela, director of the Albanian Institute for International Studies, pointed out, identifying with a particular religion in a survey doesn't equate to belief or spiritual practice: “The identity of Albanians is predominantly ethnic and not religious; you are Albanian before you are anything else,” she said. “Fifty years of communism destroyed a lot of religious practices and religious affinity.” Even practicing believers espoused more moderate versions of their religion than previously, helping to create a culture of tolerance and religious harmony, she added.

The coda, that oppression may hold within it the seed of toleration, adds an odd twist to Albania's dark times. But they left a legacy of distrust which serves as a warning. “The way Communism was done in Albania destroyed human values,” said Stakaj. “People learned to keep things private, especially thoughts: your thoughts are always secret.”

Albania's modern history illustrates the impossibility of suppressing the religious impulse or eradicating the human tendency to hold different beliefs and values. My time in Tirana strengthened my hope that, as a new censorious zeitgeist sweeps the West, we don't have to go through another cycle of suppression to remember that freedom of thought is essential for human dignity.

Albania, home to both Enver Hoxha and Mother Teresa! Share this article with your friends! 

Alex Klaushofer is an author and journalist who has written extensively on social and religious affairs and politics in Britain and the Middle East. Her short travelogue, 'Spyless in Tirana: An Albanian adventure', is out now.

Image credits:  Monument to the Albanian national hero, Skanderberg, in the capital, Tirana. 


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  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2024-04-12 18:36:57 +1000
    Well, I think he had a point. Street preachers and pastors don’t contribute anything of value to society. They simply fleece everyone who sits in their pews every weekend and guilt them into giving up their hard-earned cash.

    If they were really interested in helping people, they wouldn’t be building stained-glass windows or encouraging people to have children they can’t afford or look after.
  • Michael Cook
    published this page in The Latest 2024-04-12 16:53:57 +1000