Muslims’ support for European integration: Albania and Turkey Compared

Arolda Elbasani
Beken Saatçioğlu
Islam in Albania and Turkey

In Turkey’s June 2011 elections, the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) won another landmark victory to form its third, consecutive majority government. The firm return of Islamic political identity to the public sphere has led to many questions about the direction of Turkish politics and the future of Turkey’s European integration. Many agree that the AKP has overseen an impressive period of transformation and delivered on the most ambitious reforms required to proceed towards EU accession. Yet others point to the dramatic decline of domestic and EU accession reforms and creeping Islamicisation during the AKP’s second term in power as evidence of its EU-fatigue. The Albanian Muslims Community (AMC), the central organization of the Albanian Muslims belongs to the same spectrum of liberal Islamic movements which have found a position for themselves in a secular system. Unlike the AKP, however, the AMC is organized as a civil society organization and enjoys limited organizational sources and capacities. At the same time, the AMC has shown consistent support for the parallel battle of democratisation and European integration. Why do Muslim-inspired organizations espouse different positions towards European integration and the democratization reforms that it entails? What explains AMC’s uniform and AKP’s withering support for the EU Integration project?

The AMC’s commitment to EU integration

The AMC was created after the lifting of the communist ban on religion in 1991 and enjoys the special status of a nation-wide organization responsible for managing and interpreting all Islamic-related issues in the country. The extension of religious rights, permissive state policies as well as transnational linkages and assistance from abroad have allowed the AMC to rebuild its basic infrastructure and offer religious and social services to its followers. Yet, the regeneration of independent organizational structures after decades of atheist policies proved very challenging. The AMC for example lacks even an independent budget, which is instead pooled together from various sources as different needs arise.

Moreover the AMC operates in a general socio- political environment characterized by hostility towards Islam. Although post-communist Albania has established a model of secularism, which allows for religious rights and their organizational autonomy, intellectual and political debates have often articulated non-discriminatory attacks on Islam. The widespread contestation of Islam in the public sphere has weakened both it as a belief system and the faith of the majority. A renowned student of Albanian religion has rightly noted that ‘post-communist politics have signified the end of the pre-communist monopoly of Islamic institutions and [its] inversion … into a “surviving majority”’.1 If one adds AMC’s organizational weakness to this constellation of forces allying against Islam, democratic rights and European ‘protection’ of democracy emerges as a window of opportunity to consolidate its position in politics and society. In fact, the AMC has taken the lead to construct a ‘European version of Islam’, which stresses the peculiarly ‘liberal tradition’ and compatibility with European values.

Other Islamic groups organized around young graduates, who have returned to Albania after studying theology in foreign madrasas, have mobilized to improve what they believe to be the ideological and economic ‘bankrupt’ situation of Islam vis-à-vis other forces in politics and society. AMC’s central authority is certainly challenged by various groups who are organized around local imams and/or new Islamic ideas that its Albanian advocates have encountered when studying abroad. Yet, all the existing groups, even the so-called Albanian ‘Wahabbists’, have followed their Muslim forefathers at AMC when stressing that ‘they remain loyal and devoted citizens to the principles of democracy and human rights in which our United Europe believes today’ while adding that ‘the Muslims of Albania have a great need for the democracy and the human rights that our common continent has constructed’.

In short, fragile organizational capacities and anti-Islamic attacks have certainly determined Albanian Muslims’ consensual choice for Europe and democracy. At the same time, however, the tradition of liberal Islam, inherited by the AMC and the main locus of local imams, has reduced the ideological clash between competing Islamic groups, and thus facilitated the consensual choice for Europe.

AKP’s stronger organizational capacities and shifting support for EU integration

The AKP has emerged as the biggest and most successful Islamic-inspired party in Turkey’s secular politics. It has been in government since 2002 based on its remarkable share of the popular vote in the last three consequent elections. The party owes its popularity and unprecedented electoral success to its mobilization strategies and its target of a broad coalition combining former center-right voters, moderate Islamists, moderate nationalists and even a certain segment of the former center left.

Since 2002, AKP capitalized on the goal of EU membership, which it declared as its top foreign policy objective. Like the AMC, the AKP initially saw EU enlargement as an excellent window of opportunity for the consolidation of its position in the highly secular political context. As a relatively new and Islamic-rooted party, the AKP sought the protection of democratic rights vis-à-vis secular actors which had previously intervened in politics to the detriment of Islamic parties. A pro-EU stance additionally promised to grant the AKP much needed political support in the domestic political sphere. Indeed, when the party first came to power, it was still in a legitimacy crisis with current Prime Minister Erdoğan (then AKP leader) being banned from politics and the secular establishment accusing the AKP of hiding an ‘Islamist agenda’. The EU anchor was thus crucial for lending credibility to AKP’s liberal, democratically-oriented program. It also helped to establish that the party’s ‘conservative democracy’ ideology and European democratic values are compatible, since the former promotes religious values at the level of individual freedoms without however seeking religious transformation of the state.

Hence, the AKP successfully managed Turkey’s EU accession process by adopting key democratic measures, which led to the opening of membership negotiations with the EU in October 2005. Newly adopted legislation, however, was often geared towards empowering the AKP in its power struggle with secular forces. Legislation targeting ‘civilianization of politics’ and ‘fundamental political freedoms’, though certainly consolidating Turkish democracy, also worked to enhance the AKP’s autonomy from secular pressures. In particular, changes in the structure and role of the National Security Council, a formerly influential institution enabling the military’s involvement in politics, marginalized the Turkish military as a political actor and a fierce defender of secularism. At the same time, not all the EU’s political conditions were translated into comprehensive legislative changes. Reform demands that threatened to harm the AKP’s position as a ruling party were either ignored or resisted. For example, EU requirements targeting political accountability (i.e. improvement of judicial independence and intra-party democracy) as well as removal of MPs’ immunity from prosecution were overlooked despite the Commission’s insistence on these topics in its progress reports.

The AKP’s selective approach to EU reforms became even more apparent after the 2007 elections when the party expanded its electoral support so that it was unrivaled party in the Turkish political scene, becoming thus less dependent on the EU’s political empowerment. Consequently and in contrast to the AMC, it could ‘afford’ to lessen focus on the EU integration and democratization agenda, which resulted in weaker compliance with the EU. Deviation from the EU’s standards has been particularly notable in terms of freedom of expression and the press. As of April 2012, 95 journalists remained imprisoned, up from 57 in 2011. The number of prosecutions under the Anti-terror Law has simultaneously risen, reaching 150 in 2010, six times as many as in 2009. Consequently, Freedom House has lowered Turkey’s press score to 54 in 2011 from 47 in 2007, while both the OSCE and the European Commission have warned that rising pressures on the media may amount to self-censorship.

To conclude, relatively strong organizational capacities, extreme secular pressures and a liberal tradition of Islam have combined to shape the AKP’s support for EU integration and related reforms. As in Albania, the party’s political needs in the domestic secular environment have closely influenced its EU trajectory while its liberal, ‘conservative democracy’ ideology has additionally facilitated its pro-EU, pro-reform approach at least in the pre-2007 period.

This is an extended summary of a longer paper that was originally published in the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB) Discussion Paper Series and is available for download here.

Arolda Elbasani is a visiting fellow at Columbia University. Beken Saatçioğlu is Assistant Professor at the Istanbul Kemerburgaz University.


1 Nathalie Clayer, ‘God in the “Land of the Mercedes”: The Religious Communities in Albania Since 1990’. In Österreischiche Osthefte, Sonderband, ed. Peter Jordan, 277-314. Wien: Peter Lang, 2003, 13.