'Islam-lite' Kosovars determined to stay secular

Kosovo’s secular majority are uneasy over a drift towards a more conservative Islam, writes MARY FITZGERALD in Pristina

Kosovo's secular majority are uneasy over a drift towards a more conservative Islam, writes MARY FITZGERALDin Pristina

THE CALL to prayer drifting from the spindly minarets of Pristina’s Ottoman era mosques struggles to be heard over the din of the city. Pristina is home to 22 mosques, but most are too small, causing worshippers to spill on to surrounding streets on Fridays and religious holidays.

The lack of space has led to calls for the construction of a large, flagship mosque here in the capital of Europe’s youngest Muslim- majority state. The debate over this and other issues, including the wearing of the hijab, or headscarf, in schools, contains echoes of similar handwringing elsewhere in the continent when it comes to the place of religion in public life.

While 90 per cent of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority identify themselves as Muslim, this has more of a cultural than a religious resonance centuries after Ottoman Turks first brought Islam to the region. In general, Kosovar Muslims wear their faith lightly – overall mosque attendance is low and several other tenets are either observed casually or not at all.

“We are nominal Muslims,” says Dren, a researcher at a Pristina- based NGO. “We don’t go to the mosque much; we drink alcohol and eat pork. That’s just the Kosovar way.”

However many within Kosovo’s secular-minded majority are uneasy over what appears to be a drift towards more conservative interpretations of Islam in some parts of the country.

“You see more women wearing hijab and more men wearing beards,” says Brikena Hoxha of the Kosovo Stability Initiative, a Pristina-based think tank. “This is new for us.”

The emergence of an increasingly vocal minority of devout Muslims has unsettled those who would prefer that the majority faith in Kosovo – which unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008 – remains “Islam-lite” as one Pristina resident puts it.

Last summer a push to amend the constitution – which declares Kosovo a secular state – to allow the hijab and religious instruction in public schools, foundered in parliament. The Justice Party, which some Kosovars compare to Turkey’s ruling AKP, led the attempt to insert a clause prohibiting “discrimination against Muslims in school”.

The party, which holds three out of 100 assembly seats, presents itself as conservative but not overtly religious.

Its leader, health minister Ferid Agani, talks of Kosovo drawing on its Ottoman heritage to forge closer links with Turkey, as well as joining the 57-state Organisation of Islamic Co-operation.

In 2010, Kosovo’s deputy foreign minister, Vlora Citaku, was blunt in her justification of the government’s then decision to ban the hijab in schools.

“The scarf in Kosovo is not an element of our identity,” she told the BBC, adding that it was “a sign of submission of female to male, rather than a sign of choice”.

Many attribute Kosovo’s pockets of increasing piety to the influence of scores of Islamic charities and NGOs, many of them funded by wealthy Gulf Arabs, that converged on the country after Nato’s bombing campaign drove out Belgrade’s forces in 1999.

In addition to helping rebuild some 218 mosques damaged or destroyed during the war, these organisations supported educational and health projects and took care of war orphans.

Others offered financial assistance to small businesses and the many Kosovars who struggle to remain just above the poverty line.

But some charities also attempted to propagate more rigid interpretations of Islam, including the puritanical Salafist strain found in Saudi Arabia. It is not uncommon to hear stories of such groups paying women to wear hijab or men to grow beards.

“My neighbours told me they were given €300 a month to do this,” says Brikena Hoxha. “They said it was the only way they could survive.”

A sign on a building in the grounds of Pristina’s historic Sultan Mehmet al-Fatih mosque identifies it as an Arabic language centre, the construction of which was funded by the Saudi government and al- Haramain, a Saudi-based charity the UN has linked to al-Qaeda.

The centre, which opened in 2000, appears not to be in frequent use. On a bookshelf inside sit dusty copies of the Koran translated into Albanian by the King Fahd Institute in Saudi Arabia.

“Some of the Islamic NGOs misused their mission by dealing with religious issues based on their own specific interpretation, thinking that the people here do not understand the real Islam,” says Xhabir Hamiti, a professor of Islamic studies and president of the Assembly of the Islamic Community of Kosovo, an official regulatory body that selects and trains imams.

A number of charities with alleged links to extremist groups were shut down following September 11th, 2001, but others continue to be monitored for suspicious activity.

Two years ago residents of a village in northern Kosovo raised a petition against Kastriot Duka, a self-declared imam from Albania whose views, including advocating the veiling of pre-adolescent girls, alarmed locals. Duka was associated with a British-based Islamic charity named Rahma, whose website boasts of rescuing the Muslims of Kosovo and Albania from “a state of ignorance”. He was later deported.

Tensions between those who cleave to recently arrived, more austere readings of Islam and those who adhere to the more familiar sort rooted in the country’s history have emerged when it comes to control of mosques and other religious institutions.

“Those who claim that they are bringing the real Islam to Kosovo do not represent the official and traditional Islamic teachings in our society,” says Prof Hamiti. “The majority of Muslims here are against any kind of extremism and radicalism based on religion.”

The campaign around the demand for a central mosque in Pristina has proved controversial due to the involvement of a group called Bashkohu, or Come Together. Its members, who have organised several protests on the issue, question why a large Catholic cathedral is being erected in downtown Pristina while the city’s mosques are straining at the seams. Many, however, are wary of Bashkohu’s conservatism and suspect its motives.

All this plays out against a backdrop in which Kosovo’s government, mindful of the fledgling state’s dream of EU membership and dependence on external actors including the US, strives to present itself as a liberal, progressive nation that tilts towards the West. “We are Muslims but we think in the European way,” says Prof Hamiti. “We do not see Islam as an obstacle to joining the EU.”