July 21, 2008

The Bin Ladens of the Balkans, Part I

Around a thousand mujahideen, veteran Arabic fighters from the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan, showed up in Bosnia in the mid-1990s to fight a jihad against Serbian Orthodox Christians. They thought they would be welcomed, and they were right. The European community imposed an arms embargo on all of Yugoslavia during the Bosnian civil war which preserved the imbalance of power and arms in favor of Slobodan Milosevic and his nationalist Bosnian Serb comrades in arms. The Bosnian army was multi-ethnic and multi-confessional – it included Serb and Croat Christians as well as Bosniak Muslims – but its leaders chose to accept help from the so-called “Afghan Arabs” because they were desperate.

The radical Arab mujahideen matured slightly between the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, and they probed the anti-Milosevic guerilla movement known as the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) to see if they could lend a hand there, as well. Kosovo, though, isn’t Bosnia. 90 percent of the population is ethnically Albanian, and most of them are at least nominally Muslims, but the KLA wasn’t too keen on throwing open the doors to their country to violent Middle Eastern fanatics. “In the two years that I covered the conflict in Kosovo,” journalist Stacy Sullivan wrote, “never once did I see the mujahideen fighters I saw in Bosnia, or hear KLA soldiers even allude to any kind of commitment to Islam. Most said they were offended by such allegations, bragged about how they were Catholic before the Ottomans came and converted them, and said their only religion was Albanianism.”

Even so, the likes of Al Qaeda wanted to “help.” Representatives of Osama bin Laden approached a Brooklyn man named Florin Krasniqi and said they wanted to send men into Kosovo to fight a jihad against Serbs.

Krasniqi is an Albanian-American roofer who ran what he called the Homeland Calling Fund to raise money for the KLA back home. He raised 30 million dollars from Albanian-Americans and sent cargo planes stocked full of weapons and uniforms from the United States to Northern Albania where the goods were then smuggled over the border into Kosovo. “We were approached by fundamentalist Muslims from every direction – Al Qaeda – but most of the leaders of the KLA just didn’t feel right about working with them,” he said to Dutch filmmaker Klaartje Quirijns in the documentary film The Brooklyn Connection. “I would have cooperated with the devil to free my country. I didn’t care who they were.” Later, he said he realized the KLA commanders were right to turn down help from Islamist extremists

And it’s a good thing they did, or Kosovo’s Islamist problem might be much more severe than it is.

Downtown Prizren, Kosovo

The KLA may have refused entry into Kosovo to radical groups from the Middle East during the war, but that hasn’t stopped dubious characters from the Gulf states from showing up in Kosovo anyway since the war ended. Saudi-funded NGOs volunteered to help rebuild mosques destroyed by the Yugoslav Army and Serbian nationalist paramilitary forces, which is fine and good as far as it goes, but there’s a catch. The same individuals hope to transform Kosovo’s liberal Balkan Islam into the much sterner Wahhabi variety practiced in the harsh deserts of Saudi Arabia.

“We don't call them Wahhabis here,” a prominent Albanian woman told me. “We call them Binladensa, the people of Bin Laden.” Believe me, in Kosovo that isn’t a compliment.

I’m accustomed to spending quality time in moderate Islamic environments. I lived in the most liberal and cosmopolitan Sunni neighborhood in Beirut next to the American University, and I’ve vacationed with my wife in famously moderate Muslim countries like Tunisia and Turkey. Kosovo surprised even me and forced me to redefine my very conception of what a moderate Muslim even is. Kosovo is so thoroughly modern and secularized that if it weren’t for the mosques on the skyline there would be no visible evidence that Kosovo is a Muslim-majority country at all. Kosovo looks no more religious than France.

At least 99.5 percent of Kosovo’s women dress like women elsewhere in Europe. I saw one or two women wearing hijabs, Islamic headscarves, per day at the most, even in villages. Some days I didn’t see any.

A row of bars and cafes, Prizren, Kosovo

Young Albanian women in the small town of Vitina, Kosovo

Alcohol is widely available. You don’t have to find establishments that cater to tourists (there are no tourists in Kosovo) in order to get a drink like you do in false-moderate Muslim countries like Jordan. There are more bars per block in the capital city Prishtina than anywhere I have ever lived. Supposedly the dating scene in Kosovo is still fairly conservative, but the locals could have fooled me. Young women frequently dress in sexy outfits that show off their bodies. They dance, boozed-up, in clubs the way they do in Manhattan – only somehow, amazingly, with glasses of scotch balanced on top of their heads. Pork is on the menu. Pornography is sold on the streets, even outside the capital. What kind of Muslim country is this?

It’s European.

Erotic literature for sale on the street, Prizren, Kosovo

In Anbar Province, Al Qaeda in Iraq shot people for smoking. They warned local vegetable vendors not to place cucumbers and tomatoes next to each other in markets because it’s “perverse.” (Cucumbers are male while tomatoes are female, or so goes the logic.)

They’d have to machine-gun the entire nation of Kosovo into a mass grave to get their way. Their hatred of the place must surpass even that of the worst Serbian nationalists. Its very existence as a culturally liberal Muslim-majority country threatens to destroy their ideology. Their absolute worst nightmare – and the thing they are ultimately fighting to stop – is the transformation of the Arab world into something resembling Kosovo.

I met an American police officer in the charming provincial city of Prizren. “Muslims here identify themselves as Muslim-lite,” he said, “like Pepsi-lite.”

That’s right. “We are Muslims,” one waiter told me, “but not really.”

Not even the small towns and villages of Kosovo are conservative by Islamic standards. Kosovo is the least Islamicized Muslim-majority country I have ever been to. The only possible exception is Albania. Islamic civilization – if such a dubious thing even exists – is far more varied than it appears from outside, especially in the media which thrives on sensationalism. Prishtina has no more in common culturally with thoroughly Islamicized cities like Cairo and Riyadh than Cairo and Riyadh have with Seattle.


I had coffee at a restaurant called Pishat with Professor Xhabir Hamiti from the Islamic Studies Department at the University of Prishtina. “This is a famous restaurant,” he said. “Madeleine Albright ate here.”

He earned his degrees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia.

“When were you in Lebanon?” I said. “Before the war?”

“It was in 2002,” he said, “so after. But there were still signs of the civil war. I noticed in Lebanon, Shias and Sunnis, Hezbollah and these kind of parties, they hate each other more than they hate Christians. It’s very bad.”

“It’s true,” I said.

“Hezbollah are idiots,” he said. “They are not Muslims.”

“They say they are,” I said. I can never quite figure out if Muslims who say this kind of thing are in denial about their more sinister co-religionists or if they mean to excommunicate them.

“Their behavior is not Muslim,” he said. “Look to the practices. I hate them.”

“Why is it that Islam in the Balkans is more open and tolerant than in the Middle East?” I said.

“Because our mentality is different, completely different,” he said.

“Is it because you’re European?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “Another reason is because we have cultivated tolerance between different religions.”

Billboard celebrating tolerance, Prishtina, Kosovo

“I know there is more tolerance here because I can see it and I can feel it,” I said. “But at the same time, there was a huge war.”

“A huge war, yes,” he said, “but it was not a religious war. In Bosnia we can say that Islam is the only element divides Bosnians from Serbs, because they speak the same language and have approximately the same culture. The faith was the one element that divided Serbs from Bosnians.”

Serbs are by definition Slavs who belong to the Serbian Orthodox Church. Bosniaks are Muslims – at least by family heritage, if not belief – who are otherwise ethnically identical to Serbs and Croatian Catholics. In Kosovo, it’s different. Kosovo is ethnically divided between Serbs and Albanians. Albanians are then religiously divided between Muslims and Catholics. Muslims are the overwhelming majority, but in Albania itself they only eke out a 70 percent majority, with the remaining third split unevenly between Catholics and Orthodox Christians.

“But here,” Professor Hamiti continued, “we haven’t had anything to do with Serbs and the Slavic language and the Slavic culture. Our culture is different, our language is different and they hate us. They wanted us to leave Kosovo. Since 1800 they tried to force Albanians to go other places. We have places in Serbia that have been inhabited by Albanians – I come from Serbia – many cities have been Albanian. They know that. They forced them to leave that part and come here and were converted to Islam in the 18th and 19th centuries. Since then the Serbs have taken the policy, a very bad policy, that since you have embraced Islam you are Turks, and you should go to Turkey. So for Albanians you can say this is a very important point. Never use religion to fight against Serbs. They didn’t, for example, say lets take guns and fight Serbs in the name of God. Because they also know that they have Albanians who are Orthodox, and we have also Christians and Catholics.”

Albanian culture is radically different from that of the rest of the former Yugoslavia. The wars in Bosnia and Croatia weren’t religious wars either, but they were fought more cleanly along religious lines. Hideous wars of ethnic cleansing were fought by South Slavic Catholics (Croats), Bosniaks (Muslims), and Serbs (Serbian Orthodox Christians) who were otherwise nearly identical culturally, linguistically, and even genetically. Bosnians managed to hold together a multi-confessional alliance between Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats, and Muslim Bosniaks, but the Serbian nationalists and Croatian nationalists didn’t. Albanians, meanwhile, are similarly split between Catholics, Muslims, and Orthodox Christians, but fighting wars against each other over this kind of thing is unthinkable. It just does not happen.

Kosovo’s war, then, wasn’t religious. It was ethnic. Christians did not fight Muslims; Serbs fought Albanians. Serbian nationalists ethnically-cleansed Kosovo’s Catholics right along with the Muslims.

Vandalized Serbian Orthodox Church, Prizren, Kosovo

90 percent of all Kosovar Albanians, Catholic and Muslim alike, were displaced from their homes by Milosevic’s armed forces during their ethnic-cleansing campaign. In 1999 they were allowed to return to their homes under NATO protection. Enraged mobs then set to firebombing Serb houses and Serbian Orthodox churches.

Five years later, in 2004, violence exploded in Kosovo once again following rumors that Serbs chased Albanian children into the Ibar River where they drowned. Serb and Albanian gunmen fired shots at each other from their respective sides of the river. Mobs of enraged Albanians burned Serb churches and houses for three days. According to U.N. spokeswoman Isabella Karlowitz, 16 churches and 110 houses were destroyed. Dozens were killed. Hundreds were wounded.

Neither Catholic citizens nor Catholic churches were touched in either of these spasms of violence. The fact that the violence was ethnic rather than religious doesn’t mean it was better, but it does mean it was different from how it is sometimes perceived from abroad.

Inside Catholic church, Prizren, Kosovo. Catholic churches are unguarded in Kosovo because they are threatened by no one.

I saw several Serbian Orthodox churches that were damaged by vandals and arsonists. NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) now has to protect some of the Serb holy sites in potentially volatile areas with barbed wire and even armed guards.

Vandalized and guarded Serbian Orthodox Church, Prizren, Kosovo

A Kosovo government warning to would-be vandals outside a Serbian Orthodox church

Tens of thousands of Serbs have abandoned Kosovo and moved to Serbia. It’s important to note,though, that there is no corresponding migration of Albanian Catholics.

Catholic church tower, Prizren, Kosovo

Catholics are deeply respected in both Kosovo and Albania. The Albanian national hero, Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, was a Catholic who led the anti-Turkish resistance in the 15th Century.

Statue of the great Catholic warrior Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, downtown Prishtina, Kosovo

The twin-headed eagle on the official Albanian flag and the unofficial Kosovo flag bears his seal to this day. Even the name Albania in the local language – Shqipëria, or Land of the Eagles – is thought to have been coined by the great Catholic warrior.

Mother Teresa statue, Prishtina, Kosovo

Kosovo’s second national hero is Mother Teresa. She, too, was an Albanian Catholic, and she took her vows at the Church of the Black Madonna in Eastern Kosovo.

Virgin Mary statue outside the Church of the Black Madonna, Eastern Kosovo

The names of villages in Kosovo are written in both the Albanian and Serbian languages, and all over the country I saw Serbian names blackened out with spray paint.

Serbian language translation is blotted out by spray paint on a village sign

Ethnic relations between Albanians and Serbs are obviously terrible even today. Relations between Kosovo and Serbia are no better.

“The Serbian government and people are still thinking that Kosovo is not an independent state,” Professor Hamiti said. “And they are creating the myths, you know the myths? That Kosovo is like Jerusalem for them. Unfortunately I am afraid that they will continue these myths and in the future, and will try and create problems. They are saying look what you have done, you have created an independent Islamic state.”

“The rest of the world doesn’t know what to think,” I said. “There are no journalists here. If the Serbs say there is a fundamentalist state here, people don’t know, they think it’s true.”

“We are Muslims,” he said, “we cannot deny that, but as you see in the street, it is completely different. Here people are Muslims, but they think like Europeans. You should write about this because people don’t know it.”

“What about the very conservative Muslims coming here from Saudi Arabia and building mosques?” I said. “Do you think this is a problem?”

I think it’s a problem. It is even a problem in the United States.

Ottoman-era mosque, Prizren, Kosovo

Rebuilt mosque, Vitina, Kosovo

“Yes,” he said. “It is a problem in my opinion. But, as you know, during the war we had 250 mosques destroyed and burned. The Serbs wanted to call this war a religious war to get sympathy from Europeans. They still do that. After the war many humanitarian organizations came here, in general from the Gulf – Kuwait, Qatar, others. We haven’t had rules, we haven’t had a government. All things have been under the U.N., so they opened the door to these kind of organizations. They operated legally. We couldn’t have control. Why? Because they have the money. And that is why we have not been in the position to stop these kind of steps. They say We have money. We can help you build a mosque, and we will make the architecture. And they have also misused their position toward us. This was in the beginning, after the war. Now it is a better situation, because now they cannot do anything they want.”

“Who stopped them?” I said.

“There have been moments when the U.S. and the international community have made pressure on them,” he said.

“The involvement of Wahhabis causes concerns in the U.S.,” I said. “Do they control what is said inside the mosques?”

“In some mosques, yes,” he said.

“How do they do that?” I said. “Money?”

“Yes,” he said. “They are from outside, and I am convinced that neither here or in Albanian churches will Albanians allow them to continue. We are working very hard to stop these kinds of movements. These kinds of movements are dangerous for all nations, for the faiths, for all religions. The traditional Islam that has been cultivated in these areas is the best guarantee for the future. If we allow foreigners to come here and to push us to war with their ideas, then the situation will be out of our control. We should take the Islamic situation in our hands. We are Europeans. We are Muslims, but we think the European way. We are aware that we are the border of Serbia which is Orthodox, with Catholics, with Sufis and others, and we should continue to cultivate tolerance with different religions. And we need the support of all the institutions who are against the conservative Muslims.

“I am a Muslim,” he continued, “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. Our policy should be open, for all countries. They are Muslims, we are not against them, but we are against the way they are using Islam in my country. We have our own schools, this is not new here. They have been here for 600 years. We created our Islam ourselves here, and we can continue our Islam with our own minds. If they want to support us, they should support the faculty. Support me as a scholar, not create their own schools, their own mosques. Because that makes trouble.”


I understood already why the KLA told the mujahideen, the radical Arab Islamists, to stay out during the war, but I wanted to hear a local person explain it from his or her perspective.

“The KLA,” I said. “Why did they say no to the mujahideen?

“In Bosnia,” he said, “the mujahideen called the war a holy war, and they wanted to call the war here a holy war. But it was not a holy war, it was a war against the Serbian regime and paramilitary forces. So to prevent this we told them No. You can’t have an attitude like that. You can send money to buy guns, but you cannot be with us in the war. That was a good idea. They destroy everything they touch.”

We both said “Chechnya” at the same time.

“So people in Kosova,” I said, “thought fighting the right kind of war was more important than winning? Or did you expect NATO to intervene so the mujahideen were not necessary? What was the exact thought process?”

“The KLA commanders needed to fight the mujahideen mentality,” he said. “The mujahideen would go through the KLA but create another team. There would be a team who fights in the name of God and a team who fights in the name of nationalism. So in order to prevent this kind of problem, they were told no from the beginning. If you want to help us with guns against the Serbian regime, you can help.”

Helping the Kosovar Albanians against the Milosevic regime earned the United States a heck of a lot more friends in Kosovo than any offers of help from Islamists did. Nevertheless, Professor Hamiti is well aware that large majorities in many, if not most, Muslim countries remain anti-American. Huge numbers believe Americans are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan because they hate Muslims. This belief, of course, requires a person to be completely oblivious to what happened in Kosovo.

“You know that's not true,” I said. “We’re not against Muslims.”

“I know,” he said. “I saw it with my own eyes in the U.S. Religion is very free, everybody is free to do whatever he wants, to worship the god he wants. I saw it with my own eyes.”

“What do you think about Iraq?” I said. “You and Kosovo in general?”

“The Muslims here are on the side of the Americans,” he said. “They had to stop this kind of dictatorships in the Middle East. [Saddam Hussein] killed many innocent people, and he was going to continue his wars against his neighbors. That was a good step, to remove him from his position. But the pictures that we see on the TV are bad pictures, for us, and I think also for Americans. Who wants to see American soldiers die in Iraq? Or who wants to see innocent people, women, children, old people, die? I think there is going to be a solution. But they cannot leave, they cannot leave. Shias and Sunnis hate each other more than they hate Americans.”


Professor Hamiti wasn’t the only person I talked to about the so-called Binladensa. Two prominent Kosovar Albanian women agreed to talk to me as long as I would not quote them by name. Both work in official and diplomatic circles. Nothing they said is particularly controversial, but their opinions don’t necessarily represent the institutions they work for. I'll refer to them here by the female Albanian names Fana and Lumnije, which are pseudonyms.

The three of us had coffee at an outdoor restaurant in a wooded part of the countryside near a small river.

Southeastern Kosovo

“How successful are the Wahhabis here?” I said.

“They are successful in rebuilding mosques,” Fana said, “and they pay people to get covered, to shorten the pants.”

Conservative Arab women wear headscarves – or even veils or enveloping abayas – while Wahhabi men wear short pants that ride high above their ankles. I saw an average of one or two Albanian women each day wearing a headscarf, but I never noticed even a single man anywhere in Kosovo wearing Wahhabi pants. There can’t be all that many around.

“They pay people to dress differently?” I said. I heard this from all sorts of people in Kosovo and have no way to verify whether it's true or not. Either way, it seems to be a mainstream belief among Albanians. I also heard rumors that Hezbollah once paid women in Shia villages of Lebanon one hundred dollars a month to wear headscarves until they gave it up as both expensive and futile. Genuinely conservative women will wear them without needing baksheesh from Hezbollah, while liberated women are hard to bribe. Lebanon's relatively modern “dress code” among bourgeois Muslim women was hard won and will not be rolled back so easily.

“I have heard about it,” Fana said. “I don’t know for sure. Most likely true, they have money. Gulf money, not just from Iran. But Albanians are very traditional, so it is difficult to get them to change their traditions. It is difficult for the Wahhabis to get roots here in Kosovo.”

Ottoman fountain and courtyard, Prizren, Kosovo

“You should see how the general public receives these people,” Lumnije said. “They certainly are not liked. I don’t think they will succeed.”

“I see an occasional person who I can tell is from one of these mosques,” I said, “but I don’t see very many.”

“They are only in certain places,” Fana said. “I don’t even see them around much. And now they have this new mosque in the city center and they are gathering there. They destroyed the old mosque and built a new one five years ago.”

“Actually,” Lumnije said, “the old mosque was damaged by an earthquake.”

“Just damaged,” Fana said.

“They could have restored it,” Lumnije said. “It was an Ottoman mosque, very old.”

“Did they knock it down?” I said.

“Yes, completely,” Fana said. “The walls were one meter thick stone. All that was destroyed was the roof, and they could have renovated it.”

I wanted to know what Albanians were doing to curtail the influences of these people so Kosovo really doesn't become what its critics fear it is turning into.

“It is a bit tricky, Michael,” Lumnije said, “because in the Kosovo constitution all European standards are applicable. And if you look at it from the point of view of European conventions and human rights, they have a right to religion. Yesterday we had a case where a young girl was denied entrance to a school because she was covered. As human rights officers, it is a problem we have to deal with because she has a right to preserve her religion. That is her choice.”

“We don’t have a law that says she can or can’t come to school,” Fana said to Lumnije. “It is European law, but we have no law.”

“Yes,” Lumnije said, “but these are very tricky cases in Europe also. In France it was a big problem. I attended summer school in 2003 in England, in South Wales. We had one international night, and I was shocked to find that the representative of the USA was a covered lady, originally from Iraq. And the representative from Canada was another, originally from Afghanistan. The topic for the conference was Young people changing the world. It had nothing to do with religion, but they were representing the U.S. and Canada.”

“That is surprising,” I said, “but very American.”

“And Lumnije, coming from a Muslim country, was wearing shorts!” Fana said.

All three of us laughed.

“They were arguing with me all the time,” Lumnije said. “What kind of a Muslim woman are you?

Young Albanian women, Prizren, Kosovo

I can understand why the women from Iraq and Afghanistan argued with Lumnije, even though, frankly, they were being reactionary. Albanian Islam is so different from Islam in Iraq and – especially – Afghanistan, that it must have been truly shocking when conservative women from those countries met a thoroughly Western-looking and Western-thinking woman who claimed to adhere to the same religion. Kosovo surprised even me, and I'm accustomed to spending time in relatively secularized Muslim countries.

“How many Wahhabis are here?” I said, meaning the medium-sized city they lived in. We were not in the capital.

“Here?” Fana said. “Maybe 100. Maybe 50.”

“Are they dangerous?” I said.

“No,” she said. “They don’t do anything.”

“I will tell you one thing,” Lumnije said. “The problem is that this issue has not been raised, except for when they talk about the mosques. I haven’t noticed any journalists tackle this thing. I am sure this issue will soon arise, but until the 17th of February everybody was obsessed with the independence issue. Now I am sure it will come up. What happened yesterday at the school, when one covered girl was not allowed to enter, I am sure this case will come up and they will start to deal with it. I hope that they will deal with it at some essential level, regulating it by law. In OSCE, for example, there is one girl who is covered, but she is a professional interpreter, very well-educated. At one point the Kosovar delegation went to Germany and they hired an interpreter and she was supposed to go. When they saw that she was covered they refused to take her.”

“The Kosovars refused to take a covered woman to Germany as a professional interpreter,” Fana said, “and the U.S. sends a covered Iraqi woman to Wales as a representative!” She laughed out loud at the irony.

“They didn’t want Kosovo to be perceived as a conservative Muslim country,” Lumnije said.

“And I definitely think they were right,” Fana said.


Don't misunderstand what these women are saying. The Kosovars who refused to take a covered woman to Germany were not trying to deceive the Germans. Hardly any women in Kosovo dress like that. The number I saw was only a fraction of one percent. Sending a woman abroad to represent Kosovo while wearing a headscarf – that would be deceptive, or at least misleading. I went entire days in Kosovo without seeing a single woman wearing one of those things. It makes sense for Kosovo’s women to be represented abroad by someone who looks like them.

“Most people know nothing about your country,” I said to Fana and Lumnije.

"The majority of us would not like to be perceived as a Muslim country in the real sense of the word," Lumnije said. "Because we are different. Even geographically we are European.”

“We are not European,” Fana said and laughed, “we are American! We are the 51st state!”

“Kosovo is the most reliable,” Lumnije said.

“It is a small country,” Fana said, “but you can rely on us completely.”


I’m not particularly worried that Kosovo will become a jihad state like Iran, or a jihad statelet like the Taliban-ruled parts of Afghanistan and the Hezbollah-controlled portions of Lebanon. Anything is possible, but it’s pretty unlikely. There are too many anti-Islamist antibodies in the society.

“We've been here for so long,” United States Army Sergeant Zachary Gore said to me in Eastern Kosovo, “and not seen any evidence of it, that we’ve reached the assumption that it is not a viable threat.” I trust American soldiers when it comes to the assessment of threats. I have seen them at work in Iraq, and they are less complacent about dangerous Islamists than any other people I have ever met.

“I don’t think Kosovo will ever follow the path of the Middle East,” entrepreneur Luan Berisha told me. “I sincerely believe it. We as Muslims were never fundamentalists in any kind of aspect. All of my family has been Muslims for over 300 years. We were never practicing Muslims like they are in the Middle East. We are quite open, quite liberal in that respect. The biggest proof of that is within Albania we have Catholics, we have Orthodox, and we have Muslims. First of all we are Albanians. Religion comes second to us. It is not like the countries in the Middle East where the religion comes first. To us, religion comes second. First of all is to create a better life for us.”

Kosovo is hardly more religious than anywhere else in Europe, but Albania itself is perhaps the least religious of all. Before the thoroughly oppressive atheist-communist state run by Enver Hoxha during the Cold War, around 30 percent of Albanians were Christians while 70 percent were Muslims. Now hardly anyone belongs to any religion. Every mosque but one in the entire country was physically demolished by the deranged totalitarian state.

“For 50 years Albania was under a horrible dictatorship,” Berisha said. “For the 50 years they were under Enver Hoxha nobody dared to practice any religion. There was no god for them. There was only Hoxha. For 50 years it was very bad. Bosnia has suffered a lot, but what Albanians have suffered is unbelievable. Nobody can even explain it to themselves, honestly. Really, he brainwashed them away from religion. People don’t believe in anything. As soon as you don’t believe in anything, you have a problem with everything. You don’t even know where to start. And now they are slowly starting to come back into beliefs. It took them 18 years, but a lot of people are changing, and actually quite a few Muslims are no longer calling themselves Muslim, but are saying I am Christian. Which is fine because they don’t know what Islam even is. They never touched it. They never went to a mosque.”

Albania and Kosovo aren’t the only countries in the Balkan Peninsula where ethnic Albanians live. They also inhabit a portion of southeastern Montenegro near the Albanian border. Their little region on the coast is beautiful, prosperous, and appears to be more thoroughly Europeanized even than Kosovo.

Ethnic Albanians also live in Macedonia near the Albanian border, and their region of that country is very troubled indeed. I traveled there to meet with some Albanian Sufis who are under attack by radical Sunnis. For a host of complex reasons which I will explain in the next chapter, the Binladensa of the Balkans in Macedonia are successfully Islamicizing, and even Arabizing, parts of the country.

To be continued…

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at July 21, 2008 12:58 AM

Thanks Michael. I got into a flame war with another conservative writer last year who is trying to convince Americans that Kosovo is the next Afghanistan. I wrote about my time there and how wonderful the people are, the occasional ethnic attack not withstanding, it was the tail end of the war when I was there after all. But you have validated my claims and I appreciate it much.

The Kosovars need to be supported. We have enough Muslim enemies. Let's keep the ones who are friends and stop the fools who want to make enemies out of them.


Posted by: Ray robison Author Profile Page at July 21, 2008 7:56 AM


We've seen real conservative Islam, hypocrite conservative Islam (transparent burkas in Jordan), moderate Islam, and liberal Islam. The Kosovo you're showing is not the next Afghanistan. I don't know if there are more than a handful of Islamist nutbars in Kosovo, but I very much doubt it. Islamism requires isolation to survive.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at July 21, 2008 9:33 AM

Thx again for another fantastic article.
I do wish some magazine would buy your stuff, it's so great. I guess the pamphlet idea hasn't taken off, tho. Too bad.

I think it's far more the "religious tolerance' than just that Kosovo & Albania are "European", but I guess the tolerance comes from that European history. Funny sad how Shia & Sunni wars haven't led them to develop more tolerance.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad Author Profile Page at July 21, 2008 10:10 AM

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 07/21/2008 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.

Posted by: David M Author Profile Page at July 21, 2008 11:10 AM

Tom: I do wish some magazine would buy your stuff, it's so great.

Well, I've already written about Kosovo for Commentary and Standpoint, and I have another piece coming out in City Journal, too.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at July 21, 2008 11:12 AM

I have found your writings on Kosovo very interesting but I have seen numerous pictures of burned out churchs and interviews with Serbs that indicate they are not at all welcome in Kosovo now. I also have to question references to genocide since the death tolls were 100's of thousands less than we were told they were to justify bombing civilian targets in Yogoslavia.

Posted by: Wizard13 Author Profile Page at July 21, 2008 11:35 AM


Yes, you are right. Ethnic relations between Serbs and Albanians is abysmal.

The death toll in the war, by the way, was less because NATO stopped Milosevic long before it could turn into another Bosnia.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at July 21, 2008 11:40 AM

I've seen more women covered up in abayas and other assorted islamic ninja costumes here in New York City than I did touring through nearly all of Albania two years ago (from up north in Skhodra down to the southern tip in Butrinti and nearly everything in between).

In Elbasan (right in the middle of the country), we did come across one mosque that had the most "taliban-looking" folks I'd seen in the country (and they didn't seem to like us snooping around either). I'm not sure it is muslim kosher, but I snapped a photo from just inside the mosque doors:


Yes, those are the short panted bearded folk that most Albanians we know chuckle at (but I do hope someone is keeping an eye on them nonetheless).

Posted by: popcontest Author Profile Page at July 21, 2008 11:50 AM

Granted, this mosque was literally steps away from an orthodox church ( http://tinyurl.com/6yoplt ) and what looked like an old Jewish community center ( http://tinyurl.com/6kuj3s ).

(sorry for multiple posts, but Michael's spam filter is keeping me from posting my URLs properly).

Posted by: popcontest Author Profile Page at July 21, 2008 11:56 AM

Elbasan is a place I am looking forward to getting back to (the old village is literally within the walls of a square-shaped Roman-era castle -- and the food was fantastic!). If you want to see some other photos, check out the blog we created covering the trip (I will be updating it when we head back in September):


(again, sorry for the multiple posts)

Posted by: popcontest Author Profile Page at July 21, 2008 11:59 AM

For a second I thought you showed two pictures of Muslim women in hijab, but then saw it was the Virgin Mary and Mother Theresa.

Anyway, it is very clear that most Kosovars are ultra liberal Muslims, as opposed to the ultra religious types in Saudi.

What is needed is a moderate Islam to arise, somewhere in the middle of the Kosovars and the Saudis.

I find it a problem in most religions. The middle road is so very hard to find.

Posted by: Marc Author Profile Page at July 21, 2008 12:06 PM

Marc -- the only way a religion may spread wide (by its very nature) is through a radical, usually literal, interpretation. If the Albanian Muslims felt their lives (and yours) depended on their religion, they would be seeking ways to convince others to follow. They lack the conviction and therefore the will do care (not that this is a bad thing).

Such Albanian muslims are comparable to the nominal Catholics who believe abortion is ok (despite what their Pope says). Such people are also pretty much incapable of converting anyone to their religious point of view, because they openly lack consistency and conviction. If someone really believes the words of the Quran or the Bible – REALLY BELIEVES IT – they will seek ways to convince other people to believe it as well.

Another good example of this behavior is found with Al Gore & his global warming religionists...the true man-made global warming believers (doomsayers) are the ones seeking to spread the gospel. Those on the sidelines – those who are agnostic or do not care – are not controlling that battlefield.

In the case of AlGore who claims science is on his believers’ side, you defeat them with better science (this is already happening). In the case of radical islamists who believe they can convert whole populations through force, you beat them with overwhelming retaliatory force. In short, to defeat a religion, you must show the constituency that their conversion tactics are powerless...

Likewise, Saudi Arabians are not going to change their brand of Islam because of the Albanian interpretation is more appealing to the people living there (and of course it is). Unfortunately, the only way to eliminate the radicals is to defeat them on the terms they set.

Posted by: popcontest Author Profile Page at July 21, 2008 1:28 PM

Well, Marc cracked me up, just a little bit.

Those of us with no experience of the area can admittedly view the Balkans as an alphabet soup, short on vowels. I appreciate some insights, now and then. I read a fine and lengthy piece in the New Yorker, probably 10 years ago, that sketched some geography and drilled down on the factions, but the New Yorker became unreadable to me once Herzberg took over and I ceased renewing my subscription. I kind of like creating my own magazines, online, but Commentary has been doing a good job.

Posted by: CJrun Author Profile Page at July 21, 2008 3:24 PM

A quick, hopefully not too upsetting query: I can't help but wonder if there is a dark underbelly to Kosovo you are missing.

I have a number of friends who are and have been doing academic field work in Kosovo, particularly looking at the prevalence and power of organized crime. Have you not witnessed this to be a problem?

Also, while you have given a very nice picture of Kosovar Albanian ideas of Serbs in general, I wonder how tolerant the society really is toward its Serbian residents. Certainly they have long demonstrated their fair share of xenophobia, isolation, and intolerance. However the constant vandalism of Serbian religious and national sites, efforts by the Kosovar administration to rewrite the histories of pivotal churches and other significant sites, and reports of gang violence against ethnic Serbs appear from an outsider's perspective to be incredibly concerning.

Do you perceive that all of this is really overblown, or is there something more here? Thank you as always for your spectacular on-the-ground reporting!

Posted by: zellmad Author Profile Page at July 21, 2008 3:41 PM


Those are two of the biggest problems in Kosovo: organized crime and terrible relations between Serbs and Albanians. I wouldn't put all the blame on the Albanians like you seem to be doing, but there's certainly enough to go around.

I'm not trying to downplay anything. I'm publicizing it, and accurately describing it as an ethnic problem rather than a religous problem.

The only Albanian Orhtodox Christians are in Albania proper, not Kosovo, but if they were in Kosovo they would "side" with the Albanian Muslims and Catholics against the Orthodox Serbs.

I'm not writing about organized crime because I doubt there is much interest in it outside the country. It has little or no effect on people who don't live there.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at July 21, 2008 3:48 PM

Hi Michael,

sorry, it seems that I didn't get a few things across clearly.

#1, I am definitely not putting all the blame for terrible interethnic relations on the Albanians.

#2, I am well aware that there are few if any Albanian Orthodox in Kosovo. As to the conflict being ethnic rather than religious, it seems that the line between religious, national, and ethnic divides gets pretty blurry here, particularly when looking at the implicit (if not explicit in Kosovo) Orthodox roots of Serbian nationalism.

#3, I am most certainly not accusing you of intentionally downplaying any of the concerns I raised. I asked because I am curious if your lack of emphasis on these issues was a matter of focus, style, personal choice, or if they simply are not as prevalent as I perceive them to be (again never actually having been there).

Look forward to reading more! Keep up the great work.

Posted by: zellmad Author Profile Page at July 21, 2008 9:32 PM

Looks like you've found your next Lebanon. A place of "civilized" muslims.

Posted by: Joe Rushty Author Profile Page at July 22, 2008 12:40 AM

" Saudi Arabians are not going to change their brand of Islam because of the Albanian interpretation is more appealing to the people living there (and of course it is)."

99.999% Albanians didn't convert because they studied the Quran and said: "This is it!" it was more to keep arms and so the local leaders could keep their lands. Much is made about Ottoman taxes, but very few if any Albanians paid taxes, Christian or Muslim.

Islam didn't change a thing in how Albanians behave or act, and by nominally changing religion the nationality was not lost (if a Serb converts he is no longer a Serb) so many converted. It was more a 'Yeah, I am a Muslim, now leave me the hell alone,' and many were crypto-Christians.

I have a, let's say, feeling that as soon as Arabs recognize Kosovo many 'charities' will be sent back to where they came from.

Interesting history bit: It was an Albanian, Muhammad Ali Pasha, founder of modern Egypt, with mostly Albanian soldiers, who was sent by the Sultan to wipe out the Wahabbis in 1810's. He soundly crushed them, but apparently some writings survived ;) Oh well. http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=wahhabis+muhammad+ali+albanian

Posted by: nameless-fool Author Profile Page at July 22, 2008 5:54 AM


Actually, in the case of Islam, Islam's spread outside of the Arab, North African lands was at the hands of pretty moderate Sufis, usually traders.

If you look at the largest Muslim nations in the world, like Indonesia, you'll find a Muslim army never set foot in the country, rather the religion came on the back of Sufi traders.

Sufis tend to be moderate, it is the reason why many of their practices are banned in Saudi Arabia.

Posted by: Marc Author Profile Page at July 22, 2008 6:58 AM


Agreed and understood (regarding the spread of moderate Islam outside of Arabia). My point is for us to consider what were the opposing tactics and rewards at the time of conversion.

It seems the primary religion of Albanians has been "Albaniaism" itself. An primary incentive to convert to Islam 500 years ago was the protection of that Albanian autonomy. If someone decided they wanted to replace Albaniaism with something else, what they would have to attack is the tactics and rewards of Albanianism.

BTW -- The appeal of a dictator in fomenting nationalism becomes a bit more clear in this light. Defeating Hitler required overwhelming force followed by incentive to return to the western world (that incentive was not offered after WW1). And we did not defeat the Soviet Union so much as we led it down the path of suicide. This might have been fine, however the ultra-nationalist notion/religion of a Great Mother Russia was never destroyed/replaced and now she is re-gaining some strength.

Posted by: popcontest Author Profile Page at July 22, 2008 8:47 AM

Maybe some foreigners that deal with Albanians need to redefine their concepts when naming people - who have never testified the shahadah in their life - as Muslims... Or when naming people - who practice no salah whatsoever - as Muslims. And that's the case in Kosovo.

The article also does a poor job coping with the fact that most people in Albania are atheists not because someone brainwashed them to, but because religions have always been foreign and antagonistic to Albanian culture and, as such, in principle, unwelcome. There never was any protest of any kind about the supposed forceful or undesired suppression of religion in the country. The Albanian dereligionization process had begun since the nation declared its independence in 1912. It was asked for, and carried out deliberately by every Albanian regime on a state level. The national areas that remained outside of the crippled state that came out of the London Conference of Ambassadors, were subject to the Serbian policy of islamization of Albanian nationals annexed by Yugoslavia and their eventual deportation in Turkey "as Muslims" (where Muslim = Turk, go ask any Serb).

In the end all this situation of astonishment or surprise when realizing that you - I mean any foreigner - have been brainwashed by systematic Serbian propaganda into considering Albanians as majority-Muslims, gets somewhat boring. In fact Russia and Serbia throughout the time that the Albanian state was officially - meaning constitutionally - atheist, continued to call it a Muslim country... Think!

It's for you..., it has always been for you, their pathetic propaganda.

Don't get the attitude of my comment wrong. In the end of the day, the article remains interesting and makes for a breeze of fresh air between walls of anti-Albanian propaganda roaming through the net and media. Greets.

Posted by: firebreather Author Profile Page at July 22, 2008 9:15 AM

Joe Rushty beat me to it. I was going to Michael ask if the Kosovo of 2008 resembled Lebanon of the 1950s and 1960s.

Also, it seems to me that, for the most part, there is a fair bit of one-sideness -- in reading these articles and communications I came away feeling the Serbs are being portrayed as the "bad guys" and Kosovars and Albanians as the "good guys". I'd probably grant the Serbs a little more slack, considering what it must have been like to be under the boot of Muslims and Ottoman Turks for 600+ years.

Posted by: djs44 Author Profile Page at July 23, 2008 10:07 AM

Kosovo is much more functional than Lebanon. You'll notice there are no terrorist groups, insurgents, Islamist militias, or any of that crap. Kosovo has many problems, but Hezbollah isn't one of them.

Yes, the Serbs suffered under the Ottomans. So did the Albanians. Their national hero, Skanderbeg, let the Albanian resistance against the Turks.

I'm not making out "the Serbs" to be the bad guys. Slobodan Milosevic, though, was unquestionably a bad guy. He was rightly charged with genocide and crimes against humanity. 90 percent of Kosovo's Albanians were driven from their homes. 90 percent. Can you imagine the U.S. doing that to Iraqis?

Milosevic and his ilk (the just captured Radovan Karadzic, etc) killed more people in Europe than anyone since Hitler and Stalin. That's just a fact. I am not going to give such people good press. Serbia's new presidnet, Boris Tadic, deserves some good press. And he's getting it.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at July 23, 2008 10:20 AM

great report, you definitely opened my eyes to whats really in the hearts of people of the region. It shows that being a muslim dose not mean being an islamist. btw after seeing some of your photos I think the Albanian women could rival any of the women across the globe in hottness. Keep up the good work.

Posted by: ramsis Author Profile Page at July 25, 2008 2:04 PM

This article speaks the truth!


You might have not had a chance to get to interview the young people in Sami Frasheri High School. I don't remember if any girl in my classroom was a virgin when I was freshman.


from Kosovo

Posted by: TrueAlbo2006 Author Profile Page at July 28, 2008 11:44 AM

Certainly, the article is very much Balanced. But, Kosovo is going through a "Sexual Revolution"...Drugs, Sex and Rock and Roll......

Religion is dead. I think our government in Kosovo should start to turn these mosques into Housing Projects for the poor since they're empty and worthless for the society.

Cheers from


Posted by: TrueAlbo2006 Author Profile Page at July 28, 2008 11:47 AM

Michael, excellent article. Truly fascinating account of the region, history, culture. This is on par or even better quality that from writers at the Atlantic or National Geographic. Thank you for your outstanding work.

-Mike R. (NJ)

Posted by: kamaz Author Profile Page at July 28, 2008 11:49 AM

I just read this New York Times article online that fits perfectly with the theme of this article. Thousands of right wing extremists are protesting the arrest of Karadzic in their biggest demonstration since Kosovo declared independence.


Richard Lamondin

Posted by: Richard Lamondin Author Profile Page at July 29, 2008 1:10 PM

Hi Michael,

Overall, a great piece. As usual I have my objections to parts - the bits related to Serbs and the history of Kosovo, which I have noted here:


Please could those who want to comment do so where this is published to avoid hijacking this comment section.

Posted by: Limbic Author Profile Page at July 31, 2008 6:56 AM

Dear Michael

I am horrified with the level of Islamophobia and hate against Muslims and Islam that you display in your article. Your joy that Albanians are not Muslims like the Middle Easterners, si sickening.

You need to stop thinking in Bushist ways. Muslims are human beings, and in fact they are much better than you the Americans like to think of yourselves.

I am disgusted!

Posted by: albanian Author Profile Page at July 31, 2008 3:46 PM


Congratulations on this article, it was indeed truer then a lot I have seen thus far.

I will tackle some issues because I feel America doesn't have any idea that with Albania they have possibly a very high full house to play politics and have a solid market in the eastern Europe.

There are many books from the west I like about recent history and I would recommend the one by Noel Malcolm on that note to anyone interested in the Balkan affairs. Another book is the one by Tachis Michas - Unholy Alliance which displays what the orthodox have done in the Balkan.

I am an Albanian Orthodox and as much as I try to defend myself with people like Christodolous, Archbishop Pavle, Alexei of Russia and the Romanian Orthodox Church it is very very hard to defend my faith to Catholic Albanians, Muslim Albanians or the majority which is Atheist Albania, but I do believe in God and that is the most important thing, not in propaganda.

Albanians come from Illyrians who in turn come from a very ancient race called Pelasgians. It it said that the Pelasgians were the people of God, the divine people in the Illiad of Homer. As a race it has been historically claimed by the Greeks and Albania, and to this day no one knows yet with clarity who are the real survivors of this race. Anthropology has been inconclusive since the Greeks and the Albanians have mingled in the south for centuries. According to Illyricum Sacrum, a 5000 pages multivolume opera written by the Vatican the Albanians have had 4 Popes in power at the Vatican, where the latest is a descendant of a fighter of Scanderbeg from the Albani family. During the times of Clement XI this opera was written and many times through the Basilian Priests and the descendants of Scanderbeg in Italy the Vatican has tried to find its way to drive the Turks out of the Balkans but it never worked for various reasons. Illyricum Sacrum to this day displays the history of Albania as one of not Catholics or Orthodox but of "Apostolic Christians". In fact St. Peter came in Durres(Dyrrachium) first before going to Italy, and even St. Paul came in Illyria. Over the centuries, with the split of the Roman Empire whose most famous emperors like the Valentinian Dinasty, Justinian, Constantine etc are of ethnic Illyrian pre-slavic stock, the Albanians split as well into Catholics and Orthodox. Traditionally the north has been Catholic. Nonetheless during the Turkish invasion people gathered in the most heroic underrated and never portrayed by the big channels of western media war on Turkey. Scanderbeg is probably the most important military figure in the world and I am not insane to say this. Just typing his name on OCLC World Book Catolog will display more then 100 biographies written from the 1500's to the 1850's and continuing to this day in languages such as French, English, German, Saxon, Danish, Italian, Albanian, Croatian, Greek, Bulgarian etc etc. Without mentioning other Vatican exclusive books, the topic of Scanderbeg alone is enough to fill an entire library floor. He was supposed to lead the Crusades along with the Hungarians and the Polish Kingdom but the Pope died and failed to name him the Byzantine Emperor.

During the Ottoman Empire Albanians were NOT ALLOWED to read and write, no schooling. There is a misconception that everyone was not allowed and it is not true. It is known that the wives of the Sultan came mostly from Greece and Serbia and not Albania. There is even a day in modern day Puke, Albania where all women wear black and cover themselves. This comes from a written record of the 17-th - 18th century when the Sultan requested 100 virgins forcefully, and the village sent 100 men covered. When the Sultan saw this he beheaded all of them and sent their heads back in the Village. To this day, the women of Puke honor this sacrifice. For more on this I would suggest the Croatian Milan Suflay, friend of Albert Einstein who was brutally murdered by the Serbs, and also the "Princess of Albania" Edith Durham of England during her trips in the 1900's in the Balkans. Other sources that are still alive are the villages of the Arbereshi(Albanians who fled in the 1500's and live in Italy) who conserve a remarkable lovely accent of the Illyrian Language(old Albanian) and the only Orthodox people in the world who conserve to perfection the ancient rites(you won't be able to find those ceremonies even in Holy Mt. Athos, Greece).

As for the post Santo Stefano Treaty and Albanian-American relations let me remind you that after that treaty there were 500,000 Bulgarian,Serb,Greek,Montenegrin soldiers ready to take out Albania and partition it between themselves. It didn't happen because we fought but we lost more then 2/3 of our original territory. The Conference of London afterward brought an end to any dream of living united and Albania became the only country in the world to be basically bordering Albanians. If it wasn't for Woodrow Wilson we wouldn't even have a state probably.

I cannot stress it enough that Albania was the only country during WWII to end up with more Jews then it started... talk about Muslim fundamentalism !!!!!! Even in that day where religion was stronger people didn't care, imagine now.

Albania was the only country in the world to basically tell Kruschov to go .... himself and linked with China. The only founding member of the Warsaw pact who came out of it when they saw what Russia was trying to do with Yugoslavia, ie. threaten the existence. It is to this day still claimed in Russian politics that Kruschov made the biggest mistake by bringing about the break of relations with Albania because it was the farthest ally and it had few submarines with Nuclear Missiles that through it could have controlled the entire Mediterranean. Eventually Enver Hoxha became the beneficiary of this insane ammunition and no one dared to touch Albania for decades.

After the fall Albania saw the most rapid brain drain ever seen. Most of the intellectuals went first in Greece and Italy. After being treated like animals in those countries a majority of them fled in Canada (especially the old established cultural families) and a minority in US. When it comes to working class almost 1,000,000 Albanians if not more live in US alone and that number can be significantly higher. After Sr.Bush it was Pres. Clinton who took charge of getting things right in the Balkans and later it was Bush and Ms. Condolezza Rice's efforts who restored dignity to the Kosovars. If anyone goes in Albania but even in Macedonia which is almost 40% Albanian and in Kosova Albania and says that they're Americans they have been and will be treated like heroes.

Try doing that in Greece or Italy and you'll see the look in their face, even though they got the lucky enough to be part of the Marshall Plan and we still live in poverty.

It doesn't cost anything to US to restore full dignity to this country(Kosova and Albania) and make it the Hong Kong of Eastern Europe because it is SAFE (next year we join NATO as full member) and it is the most pro-American nation on earth. To this day the Bondsteel Camp in Kosovo is the largest military base of US and there are talks that two more will be built, transferring the power from noisy Cyprus,Greece and Italy to a vigorous, healthy and pro-American not by chance, not just because of Kosova independence but because of a tradition that goes back as much as the independence of Albania and the creation of this State.

Posted by: Florimont Author Profile Page at September 3, 2008 9:21 AM
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Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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