A Faint Ray Of Light Through The Darkness
by Stephen Schwartz
In the aftermath of the hideous massacre in Orlando on June 12, relations between Muslims and Westerners seem to have reached their lowest point in decades, if not centuries. The so-called "Islamic State" (ISIS) employs what the Italian Holocaust writer Primo Levi called "the weapons of night" — terror bombings, mass murder, sadistic tortures and executions.
At moments like Orlando, moderate Muslims feel no less dismayed and discouraged than do non-Muslims. Even the kindest and best-intentioned non-Muslims look at the Muslim believers with understandable fear.
So many Muslims have rallied to the spurious appeal of ISIS it seems often, to both moderate Muslims and sympathetic non-Muslims, that the voice of rationality has been stilled within Islam. Global media have failed to identify and explain to humanity how Muslim moderates fight against terror. Muslim leaders have been deficient in presenting their histories and arguments.
There is nothing to be gained from ignoring how many Americans will blame some intrinsic evil in the faith of Islam for the bloodshed in Orlando, like that in San Bernardino last year, at the Boston Marathon in 2013, and in other terrorist incidents since 2001, reaching cities in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and southeast Asia.
Yet I do not believe there is an "Islam problem." An internal contradiction within Islam sets off the majority against the extremist minority. Cool-headed Western leaders emphasize that defeating terror is impossible without alliances with millions of moderate, conventional, traditional, spiritual, and even conservative Muslims, in Muslim-minority communities as well as Muslim-majority countries.
Still, the carnage continues. The dictatorship of Bashar Al-Assad, with Iranian help, murders Syrian Sunnis. ISIS produces social media depicting beheadings and worse. Refugees plead for help from Turkey and the European Union.
With each new atrocity, the planetary split between Muslims and non-Muslims grows wider. Both sides abandon hope. But panic is bad counsel. Fear when confronted with a violent threat will induce many prospective victims to surrender or flee. An end to the horror may only come when moderate Muslims and non-Muslims form a united effort against hate, social conflict, and sectarian divisions. The alternative is a horror without end.
Where is a common front against tyranny within Islam? Muslim leaders in France, Germany, and Morocco have demonstrated their commitment to defeat of the radicals. But a more important lesson comes to us from the Albanian lands, including Albania proper, Kosova, and areas of Western Macedonia, Montenegro, and South Serbia.
The Albanians comprise six religions, aside from non-believers. In Albania, at least 60 percent are Sunni Muslims, a share that rises to 95 percent in Kosova, according to the CIA World Fact Book. An unknown share of Albanian Islam is occupied by Bektashism, a Sufi sect whose members are the only indigenous Shia Muslims in Europe. About 10 percent of Albanians are Roman Catholic, with Albanian Orthodox Christians accounting for 10-15 percent. Jews and Protestants make up the rest.
The Albanians have a secret: they have never let religion divide them. But Catholics and Bektashis led the "national awakening" of the 19th century, resulting in Albanian independence from the Ottoman empire in 1912.
In the weeks leading to the homicidal frenzy in Orlando, Albanians and their relation to radical Islam was, briefly, a widely-discussed topic. Media reported that ISIS had taken over Kosova and made it a bridge-head to the indoctrination and recruitment of terrorists in Europe.
At the beginning of May, nevertheless, Albania declared nine local men guilty of recruiting for ISIS. The group was detained by Albanian authorities in March 2014 after the country criminalized participation in foreign military adventures. The accused were found to have sent 70 Albanian Muslims to fight in Syria and were sentenced to 128 years in prison. Their leader, Bujar Hysa, was jailed for 18 years.
When June arrived, a Kosova-based institution, InterfaithKosovo, held its fifth annual conference. The 2016 meeting focused on the role of women in opposing extremism. These incredibly-valuable and little-discussed events bring together participants in all religious communities, from countries as diverse as Georgia in the Caucasus, Serbia — represented by human rights activists as well as Serbian Orthodox clerics from Kosova — Israel, Cuba, and Italy.
The InterfaithKosovo annual meetings demonstrate that regardless how much alarmist rhetoric is spread regarding ISIS and the Albanians, Kosova and its authorities remain committed to tranquil and humanistic dialogue in the face of fanatical violence.
Finally, back in America, the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center in Staten Island, NY, marked the beginning of the Islamic holy fasting month of Ramadan, at the end of May, by hosting a photographic exhibit, developed in cooperation with Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Institute of Religion, along with Wagner College in New York, on the rescue of Jews in Albania during the Holocaust. The AICC of Staten Island is headed by a prominent moderate, Imam Tahir Kukaj.
The Albanian Muslims represent a faint ray of light visible through the darkness of blood and hate that has enveloped Islam. They possess a spirit unalterably opposed to the intolerance of ISIS and other such groups. Albanians are a small nation too long disregarded and ignored. It is time for them to take their proper place in the forefront of defending civilization, Islam, and coexistence between neighbors. Their light should burn brightly, visible to the world.