Pristina: Kosovo’s Liberal Islam

Claims that Kosovo is a nest of radical Islam are baseless

On February 17, 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. Some are concerned about what NATO, the United Nations, and the European Union have nurtured there since the military and humanitarian intervention in 1999. James Jatras, a U.S.-based advocate for the Serbian Orthodox Community, put it bluntly last year when he said Kosovo was a “a beachhead into the rest of Europe” for “radical Muslims” and “terrorist elements.” It’s an assertion without evidence. “We’ve been here for so long,” said United States Army Sergeant Zachary Gore in Eastern Kosovo, “and not seen any evidence of it, that we’ve reached the assumption that it is not a viable threat.”

Nine in 10 of Kosovo’s citizens are ethnic Albanians, and more than 90 per cent of them are at least nominal Muslims. Most are so thoroughly modern and secularised that moderate doesn’t quite say it. The only word that can fairly describe Islam as practiced by the majority of Albanian Muslims is liberal. No nation can be entirely free of extremists, but Kosovo is one of the least religiously extreme Muslim-majority countries on Earth. Radical Islamists aren’t there in significant numbers now, and they aren’t likely to be in the future. Some places may be fertile ground for radicalism in the future, but Kosovo isn’t one of them for many of the same reasons that Christian theocracy isn’t coming to Western Europe.

I arrived here shortly after the declaration of independence, and the first thing I looked for – as always when I visit a Muslim-majority country – was the treatment and status of women.

Women who dress with their hair, ankles, and sometimes even faces showing in places like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan are often beaten or worse.

In Kosovo, by contrast, almost all women, even in small villages, dress like women in the rest of Europe. Streets, cafés, restaurants, and bars are not all-male affairs as they are in much of the Islamic world, where women spend almost all their lives behind walls. If it weren’t for the occasional mosque minaret on the skyline, there is little visible evidence that Kosovo is a Muslim-majority country at all. Kosovo looks, feels, and is European.

A small number of well-heeled Islamic extremists from the Gulf states have moved into Kosovo to rebuild damaged mosques and transform liberal Balkan Islam into the more severe version found in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. They’ve had a small amount of success with a similar project in nearby Bosnia, but they’re meeting stiffer resistance from Kosovo’s religious community as well as from secular citizens.

“We are working very hard to stop these kinds of movements,” said Professor Xhabir Hamiti, of the Islamic studies department at the University of Pristina. “These kinds of movements are dangerous for all nations, for all faiths, for all religions. We are Muslims, but we think the European way. I am a Muslim, I am a scholar, I know how to deal with Islam in my country. There is no need for Arabs to come here. I have no need for their suggestions, no need for their explanations. We created our Islam ourselves here, and we can continue our Islam with our own minds.”

It would be wrong to suggest Kosovo has no Islamists at all, but in the last election in late 2007, the country’s single Islamic party gained only 1.7 per cent of the vote. Kosovo is not the Middle East, and Albanians are not Arabs. The majority converted to Islam relatively recently under Turkish Ottoman rule, and Albanian culture was first solidly Christian. “We Albanians,” Dom Lush Gjergji recently wrote, “descendants of the Illyrians, are Christians from the time of the Apostles… Without Christianity there would be no Albanian people, language, culture, or traditions… Albanians consider Christianity their patrimony, their spiritual and cultural inheritance.” Gjergji is a Catholic priest, but I heard similar comments from many who self-identify as Muslims. “Albanian people are not very religious,” said Agron Rezniqi, of the Friendship Association between Kosovo and Israel “We come from Catholicism, and for that, we are not such strong Muslims.”

Perhaps the best evidence available that Albanian Muslims, in both Kosovo and Albania proper, differ radically from their Arab world counterparts is their relationship with Jews and with Israel. Jews in Albania had an almost 100 per cent survival rate during the Nazi occupation. The country was known as a safe haven where Jews could find protection under the noses of the German authorities. According to Dan Michman, chief historian at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, there were three times as many Jews in Albania at the end of the Second World War as there were at the beginning.

Both Albania and Kosovo have excellent relations with Israel, and Israelis are more than welcome to travel and even live among Albanians. An Israeli from Tel Aviv named Shachar Caspi opened a bakery and a bistro bar in Pristina. “Nobody has given me any problems or been against Israel,” he told me. “[Kosovars] had good relations with Jewish people even back in the old days. And nobody here is radical. On the contrary, people are very warm, they are very nice, they have taken Islam to a beautiful place, not to a violent place. When they hear I am Israeli, the way they react, they react very warmly.”

Much of the angst about Kosovo’s alleged radicalism centres on the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), an organisation that no longer even exists.

It was a short-lived guerrilla movement that rose up against Slobodan Milosevic’s régime, first to fight for independence from an apartheid-like system, and later as a defence against mass murder and ethnic-cleansing. The KLA was always thoroughly secular and in no way resembled a Balkan Hamas or Hezbollah.

Its leaders also distinguished themselves from their Bosnian counterparts when they flatly refused assistance from Arabic mujahideen who wanted to fight a holy war there against Serbs. Albanians don’t fight religious wars, not against themselves, and not against others.

There has been no fighting or even tension between Muslim and Christian Albanians, only between Serbs and Albanians.

The danger in Kosovo isn’t that international peace keepers are nurturing a jihad state. Rather, a premature withdrawal may lead to a resumption of the fighting between Serbs and Albanians that they moved in to stop in the first place.

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