Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said in an interview that Republican front-runner Donald Trump is threatening America’s standing on the world stage and exploiting a “lack of education” to stir up dangerous anti-Muslim sentiments among his followers.
Speaking to Foreign Policy on Wednesday, Rama said the rhetoric Trump is using as part of his push to secure the GOP nomination — including calls to ban Muslims from entering the United States — could spark the types of religious tensions his country has managed to avoid. (Rama himself is a Catholic, but is married to a Muslim.)
“I would very much hope that he would understand that what he’s talking about is not at all a way to make America great again but is embarrassing America in the eyes of the world and in the eyes of all that see America as the shining city on the hill,” he said in the interview at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington. “He is exploiting a void of lack of information, lack of education, [and] lack of culture about religions, about faiths.”
The Albanian prime minister’s dislike for Trump’s policies doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Rama is tremendously proud of his country’s multicultural cohesion, and noted that Albania was the only European country that had more Jews after World War II than it did before the Holocaust because its Muslim population was willing to shelter Jews and help hide them from the Nazis. The country had 200 Jews before World War II; afterward, it had a population of more than 2,000.
Rama said that his majority-Muslim country has managed to cut the number of Albanians traveling to Iraq and Syria to fight for the Islamic State from around 80 in 2014 to zero last year. And he told FP that his country’s public school system is about to implement a pilot program designed to teach students about other religions and faiths so they don’t find themselves wanting to emulate the “radical extremists that call themselves Muslim fighters” or becoming sympathetic to the nativist and anti-Muslim rhetoric of “Donald Trump and others in Europe that are really the shame of our civilization.”
At 6 feet, 6 inches tall, Rama — who will meet privately with U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday — is the only head of a government to have once represented his country as a player on its national basketball team. He towers over his aides, but was surprisingly soft-spoken during the 25-minute interview, even when angrily criticizing Trump.
A trained painter who first joined Albanian politics as the minister of culture, youth, and sports in 1998, Rama was elected mayor of the capital, Tirana, in 2000. He spent 11 years in that post and was elected prime minister in 2013. As mayor, he oversaw Tirana’s transformation from a dismal collection of Soviet-style, gray, concrete buildings to one of the most colorful metropolises in the world. His critics accused him of focusing too much on Tirana’s physical appearance and not enough on its more endemic struggles, including corruption, poverty, and joblessness. But Rama told FP that “beautifying the city when the city had so many other problems was a way to open up to the community and to get the community on board to fight the other problems.”
“I think that you can’t solve the problem of poverty without creating the conditions for people to live in a more beautiful space, in a more clean and dignifying environment,” he said.
As prime minister, Rama has his sights set higher: full membership in the European Union, which would be an economic, security, and political boon to his country of around 3 million people. The White House is trying to help him get there by spending some $25 million this year on good governance and law enforcement initiatives, key precursors for winning admission to the EU. Albania has been an official candidate since 2014, and Washington successfully supported Albania’s earlier bid to join NATO in 2009. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Albania for the first time in February, and Rama said his meetings at the White House on Thursday will serve as an opportunity for Washington to reiterate its support for the country.
As Albania presses forward with its bid to join the EU, the government in Tirana has been particularly focused on denigrating its drug industry, and last September, Albanian police announced they had destroyed 99.2 percent of his country’s cannabis plants. Rama said he will also meet with FBI Director James Comey this week to discuss ways U.S. law enforcement personnel can aid Albania in its fight against corruption, drug smuggling, and other crime.
Unlike its neighbors, Albania has not yet become a stop on the Balkan route many migrants took to get to Austria and Germany before Macedonia, Croatia, and Slovenia closed their borders this year. Rama said his government has coordinated closely with the Italian police to prepare in the event migrants begin rerouting themselves through Albania and onward to Italy by sea. But he has watched carefully as anti-migrant rhetoric has become increasingly common in Western Europe, including in France after Islamic State militants killed 130 people there in November.
Now, with EU membership a genuine possibility, Rama confronts the prospect of joining a body that includes countries where increasingly right-wing and anti-Muslim rhetoric has surged, and some leaders espouse rhetoric and policies he abhors.
“Europe has its own Donald Trumps here and there that came before Donald Trump that practically embarrassed Europe with their views on immigrants, with their views on Muslims, with their views on the union itself,” he said. “You have Daesh and you have this kind of, you know, coldblooded extremists on the other side of the coin. It’s incredible.”
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