Iran’s Cultural Activities in Albania (Western Balkan)

Iran’s Cultural Activities in Albania (Western Balkan)
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During Enver Hoxha’s communist rule, Albania had no diplomatic relations with the Shah of Iran, so the Albanian communist leader had supported the Islamic Revolution of Iran and its leader Ayatollah Khomeini. The first priority of the Islamic regime’s ideologues was fighting the communist ideology in Iran. After the Islamic Revolution in1979, debates and controversies between Islamist and communist ideologues ended with the expulsion, discrediting, and silencing of communist exponents from the political scene.1 Therefore, the new regime in Tehran had shown no interest in establishing any diplomatic or cultural relations with Tirana2’s communist regime. Nevertheless, relations between Iran and Albania would change after the fall of the communist regime in Albania. After the 90s of the last decade, Iran established its embassy in Tirana, where it would start its cultural activities.

The first Iranian cultural organization in Tirana was the “Saadi Shirazi” Cultural Foundation, which was established in 1995. The aim of this foundation was "to enliven the Iranian-Albanian cultural ties, make known in Albania the traditions of the Iranian civilization and serve the friendship between these two ancient peoples."3 Saadi Shirazi Foundation, as a representative of the Islamic Culture and Communication Organization in Albania, from the beginning until the last year, had managed developing very important cultural activities and establishing wide cooperation with Albanian intellectuals, scientists, and academics. The scientific-cultural journal "Perla", a section of this Foundation, had become one of the most serious scientific journals in this country. Through this magazine, the Iranian Embassy and the Saadi Shirazi Foundation had managed to build cooperation links with many cultural and educational institutions of the country, but also with the most serious Albanian scholars support, such as prof. Gazmend Shpuza, prof. Jorgo Bulo, prof. Shaban Sinani, prof. Muzafer Korkuti, prof. Emil Lafe, etc.

Among the many cultural activities of this Foundation was the publication of literary works of Albanian poets who had written in Persian. Persian, as one of the three main languages of the Ottoman Empire, was used more in the poetic creativity of that time, therefore many Ottoman poets, including Albanian ones, wrote poetry in this language. Nevertheless, the Ottoman Empire’s Persian did not carry the identity layer of the modern Iranian nation, which today carries the Persian language of Iran. So, the Persians had only a literary and mystical identity within the borders of the Ottoman Empire; ergo, it reflected the poetic and mystical spirit of the Ottoman ethos. Whereas according to the leaders of the Saadi Shirazi Foundation, the Persian creativity of Albanian poets is identified with the current Iranian nationalist language and culture, and the Ottoman context of this creativity is completely avoided. Through such a narrative, without taking into account the cultural heritage of the Ottoman Empire in Albania, the Iranians make efforts to use the Persian creativity of the Albanians to create cultural ties and proximity between Iran and Albania, hereby extend their cultural influence in this country.

The Islamic Republic of Iran in Albania has also worked and invested in Islamic fields. Before the 2000s in Tirana, it had founded the "The Quran" Foundation, whose leaders came from the Organization of Madrassas Abroad (Sazman-e Madares-e Kharej az Keshvar) and later from Al Mustafa University. This foundation has organized courses for the teaching of the Quran in various mosques in the cities of Albania and these courses it has hired Albanian imams. In addition, this Foundation has published books on the exegesis of the Quran, but always through the prism of the Shiite narrative. The Quran Foundation had also opened the high school for girls, “Saadi College”. Although Saadi College has acted according to the rules and curriculum of Albania, in conversations with the girls who studied there, it is learned that the leaders of the college, in various ways, have tried to teach Shiite Islam by organizing various ceremonies outside the curriculum, such as, festive birthday ceremonies of the Shiite Imams, or the ceremonies of the month Muharram, etc.

The rejection from Albanian people and Iranians slow progress forced the latter to continue their activities under local organizations. Thus, in 2005 the Iranians closed the Quran Foundation and, in its place, opened the Cultural and Religious Association "Flladi" (Breeze), which is led by Sheikh Vullnet Merja. The latter is a Shiite theologian educated in Beirut, Lebanon. The purpose of this association is “the introduction and recognition of the Ahl al-Bayt of the Prophet Muhammad to the Albanian-speaking Muslim believers. Among other activities is the live program on National Radio, which is broadcasted every Thursday from 18:00 to 19:30”.The content and authors of the literature published by this association are Shiite, and the narrative of the broadcasted programs on National Radio is Shiite propaganda. It should also be noted that the Flladi association has a wide cooperation with the leaders of some Albanian sects, which provide them with Iranian Shiite knowledge and literature. This can also be read as an attempt to install the Shiite narrative of Tasawwuf and Islam in general.

Within the cultural activities of Iran in Albania should be mentioned Rumi Foundation, established in 2007.5 This Foundation is apparently founded to articulate a more philosophical and sophisticated interpretation of Iranian Islam. In his beginnings, he translated and published philosophical and mystical works by serious Iranian and Western authors, such as Sayed Hossein Nasr, William Chittick, etc., but then the ideological orientation of this institute takes a more radical direction, and it begins translating and publishing the works of a very extreme Iranian scholar such as Ayatullah Misbah Yazdi. The latter in Iran is known as a radical cleric who has created an exclusionary and discrediting discourse towards the progressive forces and elites in the country and is particularly known for his radical attitudes towards Western values. The spread of his ideas in Albanian society would seriously damage the democratic values in Albania.

Notwithstanding, the comfort of Iranians in Albania would be shaken by the placement of the MEK (Mujahedin-e Khalq) group’s members in Tirana. On the other hand, with the establishment of this group in Albania, the number of Iranian organization staff in this country began increasing, and this made official Tirana sensitive. As a result of these developments, in 2019, the Albanian state decided to close all Iranian cultural organizations operating in Albania, even declared the ambassador and the first secretary of the Iranian embassy undesirable persons in Tirana. Since then, Iran and Albania have had diplomatic relations at the lowest level, and no Iranian cultural organization officially functions in Albania. From our observations and studies, no obvious influence of Iran or Shi'ism can be noticed among Albanian citizens. Also, there is no certain Shiite community in Albania.

While the greatest achievement of Iranian cultural investments is observed in the leaders of the Bektashi sect, who in recent years have begun to present their sect as part of Shi'ism. In the old Bektashi texts written in the Albanian language, but also the classical texts of the members of this sect, there is no evidence that Bektashism was part of Shi'ism. Even when comparing the rituals and beliefs of the Bektashis with those of today's Shiites, one can in no way speak of the same identity of these two Islamic currents. Therefore, the identification of Bektashis with Shi'ism is contrary to theological and historical facts, and this may create space for the Iranian regime to further extend its presence in Albania.

Mehrzad Boroujerdi, Iranian Intellectuals and the West: The Tormented Triumph of Nativism. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1996.
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