Critics suspect Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of deploying mihrabs and minarets to revive his country’s imperial heritage in former Ottoman lands. Secular nationalists in Albania, which was strictly atheist under communism, bristle at seeing their parliament dwarfed by a mosque, and urban planners complain about the project’s bland, “McOttoman” design.
But most Albanians are sympathetic. While post-communist governments allowed Catholic and Orthodox Christians to build cathedrals in Tirana, Muslims were left out in the cold. Worshippers regularly found themselves praying outdoors, unable to squeeze into the city’s tiny 19th-century mosque. It is not clear why Albania’s government waited until 2013 to approve a new one.
Turkey’s role in Albanian Islam goes beyond building mosques. Six of the country’s seven Islamic seminaries are managed by foundations linked to the Gulen community. Turkey’s development agency, TIKA, has completed 248 projects in Albania. Besides the fiscal aid, many Albanians welcome Turkish influence as a counterweight to the spread of Islamic militancy. According to Tirana’s mufti, Ylli Gurra, up to 150 Albanian nationals have joined Islamic State (IS) jihadists in Syria. He blames the zealous salafist foundations from the Gulf monarchies that poured into the region in the 1990s. (Many were expelled after the September 11th attacks.) Mr Gurra says most Albanian Muslims reject such radicalism: “They have more affinity for Turkish Islam.”
In fact, Muslims in Albania are far less devout and more pro-Western than their Turkish co-religionists. Meanwhile, Turkey’s religious outreach is hobbled by an internecine conflict at home. Mr Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development (AK) party once worked hand in glove with the Gulen movement. All that changed two years ago, when the AK launched a vendetta against the movement, accusing it of orchestrating a corruption scandal that had tarred senior government figures. Scores of Gulenist bureaucrats remain behind bars.
During a 2015 visit to Albania for the groundbreaking ceremony of the new mosque, Mr Erdogan asked his hosts to shut down schools run by the Gulenists. Albanian officials turned down the request. Yet in Albania and elsewhere, Muslim communities that benefit from Turkish largesse still face pressure. “Erdogan is forcing them to take sides,” says Kerem Oktem, a Turkish studies professor at the University of Graz.
The Diyanet, meanwhile, has extended its mosque programme to countries whose connection to Ottoman history is tenuous. In 2014 Mr Erdogan suggested that Cuba had been settled by Muslims long before it was spotted by Christopher Columbus, and unveiled a plan to build a new mosque there. Another mosque is under construction in Haiti. The building spree has become a vehicle for broadcasting Turkey’s religious credentials to Muslim audiences domestic and foreign. The ultimate objective is “claiming new territory,” says Mr Oktem. “It’s about the idea that Turkey should be the leader of the whole Muslim world.”