Muslims and Christians in Albania and Ethiopia

In November 2015 I visited Albania. Two months later, in January 2016 I was lecturing in Ethiopia. A typical event, when on a lecture circuit an academic visits two vastly different countries that have nothing in common. I thought so, too, before I brushed up my modern history a bit. On closer scrutiny I noticed the insidious Italian link between Albania and Ethiopia. I remembered of the Impero Italiano, also known as the New Roman Empire, centered on the Mare Nostrum (Our Italian Sea), meaning the Mediterranean. This empire reached its short-lived climax in 1940.

Italian Empire in 1940

At that very moment both, Albania and Ethiopia, found themselves within the wartime empire’s boundaries, though at its opposite ends, the former in the north, while the latter in the south. The Italian troops defeated the Ethiopian army in 1936, and fashioned it together with the two earlier Italian colonies of Eritrea and Somalia into an Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana). Three years later, on 7 April 1939, which marks the beginning of World War II for the Albanians, Italy invaded their country and made it into a colonial dependency by the name of the Regno Albanese (Kingdom of Albania) with the Italian monarch, Vittorio Emanuele III, installed at its throne.

The time of reckoning was soon to come for freshly imperial Rome. The tide of war was turning, and the well-advertized Axis alliance of fascist Italy with nazi Germany was of no help, either. Swiftly, Berlin morphed from a big brother-style friend into a menace. In 1941, Ethiopian guerillas assisted by the Allies defeated Italians. The Empire of Ethiopia (መንግሥተ ኢትዮጵያ, Mängəstä Ityop̣p̣əya) was renewed on 5 May 1941, when the Ethiopian emperor returned to the capital of Addis Ababa. Italians guerillas – in the flamboyantly dubbed groups Fronte di Resistenza (Front of Resistance) and the Figli d’Italia (Sons of Italy) – were unable to change this outcome. Eventually, they surrendered to the British or left for Italy, following the Italian armistice of 3 September 1943, when Rome effectively changed sides in the Second World War. The very same event heralded the beginning of German occupation in Albania. The German armies badly overstretched across Europe from the Volga to Paris, Berlin decided to grant independence to Albania on 13 July 1944. However, the collaborationist Albanian government was of no much help, and the Albanian communist resistance forces entered Tirana already on 28 November 1944.

Due to the exigencies of the 20th-century history, for three years Albania and Ethiopia were parts of the Impero Italiano. The period was too brief to create any viable links between these two countries, and perhaps did not even register in the memories of the two states’ inhabitants, either. Although I have a suspicion that some individuals – both, Albanians and Ethiopians – who entered the Italian colonial administration might travel between the Africa Orientale Italiana and the Regno Albanese. It would be fascinating to uncover such cases that would constitute a good illustration of how vastly individual fate might differ from a given national master narrative enshrined in school history textbooks.

Italian occupation so short-lived and inconsequential, with the exception of a couple public buildings in Italian style, it left no visible traces that would underlie any shared commonalities between today’s Albania and Ethiopia. I did not expect to find any. Yes, on the surface of things, to this day espresso is the national drink in Albania, Ethiopia and Italy. But the development of this commonality, though perhaps reinforced by the existence of the wartime Italian Empire, its origin has nothing to do with it. The coffee plant (Coffea Arabica) is endemic to today’s southwestern Ethiopia. But before the Ethiopians conquered this area in 1897, it had been organized as the Kingdom of Kaffa since the late 14th century. Among the region’s population, there are still almost a million speakers of the Kafa (Kefa) language, which due to its Afroasiatic (or rather Omotic) origin is radically different from Ethiopia’s traditional imperial and administrative language of Amharic, which shares its Semitic character with both, Arabic and Hebrew.

The name of the Kingdom of Kaffa is one of the possible origins of the name of ‘coffee.’ The plant began to be cultivated in this kingdom in the ninth century, which suggests the use of coffee as a drink already at that time. During the 14th century, the burgeoning slave trade between the coast of East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula brought coffee beans, the cultivation of this plant, and the custom of drinking coffee to Yemen. The city of Mocha – strategically positioned on the Red Sea coast near the Mandeb Strait, where only 30 kilometers of sea divides Asia from Africa – became the earliest monopolist in coffee trade. Mocha maintained this monopoly through the 17th century. Hence, the use of the adjective ‘Mocha’ for a special type of the coffee bean and various types of coffee drink.

At that time Yemen was part of the Ottoman Empire, which in the case of coffee trade and consumption, spread this custom to the Balkans and further north to Central Europe, where the Ottomans were locked in a protracted military struggle with the Habsburgs between the 16th and 19th centuries. In this way coffee became a popular daily energizing drink of choice in both Albania and Italy. In 1647 the first coffeehouse (kafeneja in Albanian, cafeteria in Italian, or kafe in Turkish) in Europe outside the Ottoman Empire opened in the capital of the Most Serene Republic of Venice (Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia). Afterward cafés proliferated across the West. A firm link steeped in devout addiction to caffeine was forged between Albania and Italy, on the one hand, and Ethiopia, on the other. Interestingly, in Amharic ‘coffeehouse’ is ሻይ ቤት [shai bet], literally meaning ‘teahouse.’ This Amharic term serves the two meanings, but clearly shows that tea (or ሻይ [shai]) used to take precedence over coffee. Nowadays an easy compromise between these two drinks has been struck across Ethiopia in the form of spris, or a nicely layered half-half mix of tea and coffee in a single cup.

Leaving these beverage trivia aside, an equally easygoing coexistence is observed in Ethiopia between Muslims and Christians. The two religious communities, accounting for roughly the same 40 odd per cent of the country’s roughly 100 million inhabitants, live together peacefully, without any incidence of conflict or let alone jihadist-style terrorism. Together with their Christian neighbors Muslims celebrate Christmas, and the former reciprocate by joining the latter in the joy of Eid al-Fitr (عيد الفطر or the ‘festival of breaking the fast’), which concludes Ramadan. Furthermore, Christians, like Muslims in the case of going to mosque, are required to take off shoes before entering church.

Until recently Christians and Muslims married across the religious divide in Ethiopia. Although the face cover for women pops up in some as yet isolated instances, drinking alcohol openly or bare-breasted women in the south do not offend Ethiopia’s Muslims, as they would elsewhere. Non-monotheists, or people cultivating their non-scriptural (‘traditional’) religions are left alone by Muslims and Christians, who take care not to offend them with such pejorative labels as ‘heathens’ or ‘infidels.’

Albania shares with Ethiopia this relaxed polyconfessionalism by not allowing religious difference to dictate politics or divide neighbors. This tolerant attitude is atypical both in the Balkans and this part of sub-Saharan Africa that borders on North Africa’s Muslim polities. The religiously-based conflict between Muslims and Christians was typical both in the Balkans and the Horn Africa during over a millennium in the wake of the emergence of Islam from the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century. Such confessional tension and open strife are still the norm in many places across the Balkans (for instance, in Bosnia, Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia or Serbia), and also in East Africa in the countries that surround Ethiopia (namely, in Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, South Sudan and Sudan).

Except in Albania and Ethiopia. These two states – despite communism, authoritarianism and totalitarianism, poverty, war, foreign occupation, or repeated instances of the near-collapse of statehood – have consistently remained tolerant and accepting of religious difference. Otherwise, they differ almost in everything else. The territory of Albania is almost 40 times smaller than that of Ethiopia, while the latter polity’s population is about 30-fold bigger than the number of inhabitants in the former country. Almost all Albanians speak Albanian, while in Ethiopia its 80 odd ethnic groups speak (and sometimes write) as many languages. Modern Albania emerged as an ethnolinguistic nation-state in 1912, while Ethiopia was a multiethnic empire, which disastrously attempted modernization through the imposition of Amharic language and culture on the entire population, before settling in 1996 for federalism that inventively and flexibly accommodates this exceptionally high ethnic diversity.

However, this tolerant polyconfessionalism in Albania and Ethiopia is not of the same origin. In the former polity it stems from the centuries-old Ottoman tradition of tolerating and protecting monotheist religious communities of various creeds, without compelling them to convert to Islam. This tradition was shattered during the 19th and 20th centuries when inhabitants in the novel nation-states freshly founded across the Ottoman Balkans and Anatolia were forced to convert to a given polity’s religion or to leave. Only Albania withstood this vicious trend. Otherwise, it would have been next to impossible to build the very Albanian nation-state, as the Albanian-speech community was (and still is) divided among Muslims (additionally of Sunni and Bektashi persuasions), Catholics and Orthodox Christians.

The origin of religious tolerance in Ethiopia, although as pragmatic as in the Ottoman Empire, was even more unlikely. In the wake of the expansion of Islam across Northern Africa and alongside the eastern coast of this continent, by the early modern period Ethiopia had become an isolated landlocked Christian polity surrounded by Muslim sultanates. Between 1529 and 1543, Muslim armies of the Adal Sultanate (in today’s Djibouti, eastern Ethiopia and northwestern Somalia), with Ottoman support, repeatedly attacked Ethiopia. Eventually, also thanks to Portuguese military aid, the Christian troops prevailed but at the high cost of huge loss of life, tragic devastation and state fragmentation. Ethiopia recoalesced as a polity in the 18th century, and was made into a unitary empire under a single ruler in 1855. Therefore, the empire managed to fend off another Muslim invasion, which Egypt launched in 1874-1876. Two decades later it was followed by a Christian onslaught (1895-1896) delivered by Italy. And again, Ethiopian troops defeated the invaders, showing to modernizing Japan than a non-Western country does stand a chance against a Western power. (In 1905 the Japanese navy soundly defeated its Russian counterpart in the waters off the Korean Peninsula.)

Expansion of the Ethiopian Enpire

By the first decade of the 20th century the Empire of Ethiopia had nearly tripled its size by invading the adjacent territories in the south and in the east. In the course of this rapid imperial expansion Muslims became a substantial part of the Ethiopian population. Ethiopian emperors clearly realized that in order to preserve such an enlarged Ethiopia they must accommodate Islam as a religion on a par with Christianity. The very same intimation was shared by Ethiopia’s Soviet-style communist government after 1974 and by its anti-communist counterpart after 1991. Otherwise, alienating almost half of modern Ethiopia’s inhabitants would have destroyed this polity as we know it, and for sure would have halved its territory, as clearly indicated by the bloody secession of overwhelmingly Muslim Eritrea, completed in 1993.

The lesson of the Albanian and Ethiopian polyconfessionalism is that conflict between Christians and Muslims is not inescapable as some proponents of the Huntingtonian hypothesis on the ‘clash of civilizations’ would like to maintain. Neither are Islam and Christianity inherently opposed to each other as religions or confessionally determined cultures. It is people and their leaders who may freely choose to use religious difference as a spurious ‘justification’ for conflict and killing the religiously ‘Others,’ typically denigrated and dehumanized as ‘infidels’ or ‘subhumans.’ Likewise, as the examples of Ethiopia and Albania show, the very same humans and their leadership may imagine such a religious difference as a basis for peaceful and mutually beneficial coexistence.

In this case everything hinges on human imagination and its (ab)use. Relations between humans and their groups, in other words, politics is decided not by laws of physics, but by human (political, social) imagination. For instance, it is impossible to defy the law of gravity by will alone, not propped by a technology developed in line with appropriate laws that govern the material world. However, it depends solely on people whether they decide to organize a polity as a unitary state or federation. Physics, gods or fate have nothing to do with that.

January 2016