December 21, 2008

The (Really) Moderate Muslims of Kosovo

by Michael J. Totten

Here's a long piece I wrote some time ago for City Journal which is now available online for free. Hope you enjoy it.

On February 17, 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, becoming the newest country in the world—and one of the most unusual. Most of its citizens are Muslim, an oddity in Europe; further, unlike most Muslim-majority nations, Kosovo is overwhelmingly pro-American, and its relations with Israel are excellent as well. No Arab countries have recognized the new nation’s existence yet, and only Saudi Arabia has said that it will. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, since Kosovars differ more radically from their brothers in the Arab world than any other Islamic people on earth.

Most of this difference is probably news to distant observers. Kosovo lies in the former Yugoslavia on Europe’s Balkan peninsula, a distant corner of southeastern Europe where relatively few travelers venture. The fog of war never really lifted after the combatants’ guns fell silent in 1999. The grievances that animated the warring parties seemed inscrutable to many Westerners, who often didn’t understand why Western powers got involved in the first place. Yet despite their obscurity, Kosovars today stand as a rebuttal to the notion that Muslims will be forever shackled to authoritarian rule and wedded to war with the modern, pluralistic “Other.”

About 90 percent of Kosovo’s 2 million inhabitants are ethnic Albanians; 7 percent are Serbs. Of the Albanians, about 3 percent are Catholic, and all the rest are at least nominal Muslims; the Serbs, meanwhile, are all Orthodox Christians. Against this backdrop, many observers interpreted the Balkan wars that tore Yugoslavia to pieces during the 1990s as an inevitable resurgence of ancient hatreds in a post-Communist ideological vacuum.

But the truth was that Serbian nationalists, led by Yugoslavian dictator Slobodan Milošević, had deliberately crafted their own ethnic nationalism as an ideology to replace Communism, seeking to retain power and seize as much territory as possible as the Yugoslav federation unraveled. On June 29, 1989, just a few months before the Berlin Wall fell, Milošević delivered a thunderous speech to throngs of budding Serbian nationalists in the Kosovar village of Kosovo Polje. Exactly 600 years earlier, on the nearby Field of Blackbirds, the Turks had defeated Serbian ruler Tsar Lazar in an epic battle, ending the sovereignty of Serbia’s medieval kingdom and beginning its absorption into the Ottoman Empire. “No one will ever beat you again,” Milošević promised his audience.

Ethnic conflict was relatively new to the area. “There have been many battles and wars in Kosovo over the centuries,” historian Noel Malcolm writes in Kosovo: A Short History, “but until the last 100 years or so none of them had the character of an ‘ethnic’ conflict between Albanians and Serbs. Members of those two populations fought together as allies at the battle of Kosovo in 1389—indeed, they probably fought as allies on both sides of that battle.”

Nevertheless, Milošević used the ancient grievance, along with others both real and imagined, to kindle Serbian nationalism—“a totalitarian ideology,” as Serbian writer Filip David calls it. Three months after his speech at Kosovo Polje, Milošević revoked Kosovo’s political autonomy and imposed an apartheid-like system on its ethnic Albanian majority. There followed three wars in the breakaway republics of Slovenia, Bosnia, and Croatia, and then a fourth of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo at a time when the United States and NATO were in no mood to tolerate any more violent destabilization in Europe. NATO bombarded Yugoslav targets for two and a half months in 1999 until Milošević capitulated and relinquished control of Kosovo to NATO and Russia.

Though Albanian nationalism is less ideological than Serbian nationalism, it, too, can express itself through ugly outbursts of violence. After ethnic Albanian refugees returned to Kosovo under NATO protection in 1999, some lashed out at Serb civilians, houses, and Orthodox churches. Another wave of anti-Serb violence broke out in 2004, following rumors that Albanian children had drowned in the Ibar River after being chased off by Serbs.

But this violence, like the 1999 war, rose out of ethnic tensions, not religious ones. These were fights not between Muslims and Christians but between Albanians and Serbs—and though, again, most Albanians are Muslim and all Serbs are Orthodox Christian, the distinction is crucial. Kosovo’s Albanian Muslims and Albanian Catholics get along perfectly well with one another; in fact, during the war, they fought side by side. And in the later attacks, ethnic Albanian mobs burned Orthodox churches because they were Serb, not because they were Christian. Catholic churches weren’t touched—because their congregations were Albanian. (This isn’t a matter of anti-Orthodox sentiment among Muslims, either. Though no Albanian Orthodox Christians live in Kosovo, 20 percent of the population in Albania itself is Albanian Orthodox, and relations between them and the Albanian Muslim majority are perfectly fine.)

Some observers, especially in Serbia, have blamed the violence in 1999 and 2004 on Islamist jihadists. Those who live and work in Kosovo, and who are charged with keeping the peace, dismiss the allegation. “We’ve been here for so long and not seen any evidence of it that we’ve reached the assumption that it is not a viable threat,” says Zachary Gore, a U.S. Army sergeant stationed in eastern Kosovo.

Kosovo’s brand of Islam may be the most liberal in the world. I saw no more women there wearing conservative Islamic clothing—one or two per day at most—than I’ve seen in Manhattan. There is no gender apartheid even in Kosovo’s villages. Alcohol flows freely in restaurants, cafés, and bars, where you’ll see as many young women in sexy outfits as you’d find in any Western European country. Aside from the minarets on the skyline, there is no visible evidence that Kosovo is a Muslim-majority country at all.

Read the rest in City Journal.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at December 21, 2008 8:58 AM


Thank you for very interesting read.

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at December 22, 2008 6:57 AM

Michael, I read it in City Journal, which I subscribe to, and am glad to read it again. Keep up the good work.

I've also read Black Lamb and Gray Falcon several times and recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about this part of Europe. It was written 70 years ago and is still in print. You provide the postscript.

Posted by: Mike K Author Profile Page at December 22, 2008 4:01 PM

Yet another excellent piece. It is well to keep in mind that the logic of belief is not necessarily the logic of believers.

Just as well, because I point out in my review of Andrew Bostom's "The Legacy of Jihad", the underlying logic of Islam is unfortunate.

Posted by: Lorenzo Author Profile Page at December 26, 2008 3:30 AM

Very informative. Thank you for sharing this excellent article :)

Posted by: lynne Author Profile Page at December 26, 2008 4:37 PM

Did all of this go away?

This has been attested to by Paul Andrew Kirk (see the last comment below the main article here), an American who served two tours with the U.S. military in Kosovo. Kirk says:

Islamic extremism is on the rise in Kosovo. KFOR [the NATO-led military mission] soldiers have been attacked in Gjilan [actual name in Serbian: Gnjilane], Ferizaj [Uroševac], and Prizren when I was there. You just won't see or hear about it in the news. More mosques have been built in Kosovo in the last five years than schools, roads, health clinics, and all other sanitation projects combined. Compliments of Muslim charities from the Middle East.

February 20, 2008
"There was not anti-Semitism in the past, but with the Saudi charities here now we are seeing a Wahhabi influence for the first time" - one of the 50 remaining Jews in Kosovo
It bears repeating that all of the Wahhabists' material comes from the Qur'an, ahadith and Sira -- anti-Semitic material which may be ignored, but has not been repudiated on a large scale by Muslims and Islamic institutions.

"Kosovo Jews uncertain about future," by Dana Spritzer for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency:

... There are some 50 Jews left in Kosovo. Belonging to three families, or clans, they all live in the city of Prizren, a rare gem of ancient architecture amid a landscape devastated by war, poverty and Communist-era concrete.
The United Nations took over the administration of Kosovo in 1999 after a brutal conflict between Kosovo Albanians seeking independence and Serbian troops controlled by strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
Ethnic Albanians account for 90 percent of Kosovo's population of 2.2 million. The Albanians are Muslim, but largely secular. [...]
Distressed by a war they watched from the sidelines and facing an uncertain future, the Jews of Prizren are gloomy. When the war started, the other Jews in Kosovo - the 50 living in the capital city of Pristina - fled to Serbia, where they spoke the language and felt a part of the culture. But those in Prizren, where Jews speak Albanian and Turkish - there is a large Turkish population there - stayed.
Now, with Kosovo having broken away from Serbia, those like Votim Demiri, Quono's father, who made a decent living under communism, find it hard to leave the homes they built, despite fears of growing tensions with their neighbors.
"There was not anti-Semitism in the past, but with the Saudi charities here now we are seeing a Wahabi influence for the first time," Demiri said, referring to the fundamentalist Islamic ideology Saudi Arabian clerics have tried to export, with little success, in the Balkans. "I think the newspapers these days are not portraying Jews in such a positive light."
"Little success" is debatable. Not that it wouldn't be great to see the Saudis' efforts fail miserably, but the extent to which they're failing or not relevant to Kosovo Muslims' hostilities toward Jews only underscores the fact that there is more to Islamic anti-Semitism than the current wave of Saudi influence.

Wahhabism tightening grip over Kosovo; Ahtisaari’s plan for independence may help terrorism flourish
New Europe (Belgium) - 30 September 2007 - Issue : 749

By: Tejinder Singh

Islam has flourished in the Balkans over the centuries with a peaceful and modern outlook but over the last decade, especially now with the talk of Kosovo independence, there are questions being raised about the external influence in once-tranquil religious relations.

Wahhabism, a fundamental form of Islam with origins in Saudi Arabia has been rearing its ugly head of intolerance in the Balkans starting from Bosnia a decade ago. With the recent manifestation of its hardcore modus operandi in Kosovo, which has more than a 90 percent Muslim population, the ongoing impact of Wahhabism demands serious attention. First, let’s look at origins of Wahhabism. In the deserts of the Middle East, Muhammad al-Saud, a tribal leader, had in 1750 formed an alliance with Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab, a religious leader and al- Wahhab’s name defines the Islamic interpretation that remains the Saudi Arabian kingdom’s ideology. The present Saudi Arabia was formed in 1902, when Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud captured the town of Riyadh but its greatest victory came in 1924, when it captured Mecca from the Hashemite dynasty that had controlled the city for centuries.

With the arrival of the 70s, the mud houses and camel caravans in Saudi Arabia started coexisting with the ultra-modern infrastructure. The newly found wealth of “Petro-dollars” brought phenomenal changes in a few decades. But like every “gift,” this one also came with a package and that has thrown young Saudis to face many nontraditional problems.

According to official estimates, the last two decades have seen the native-born population in Saudi Arabia doubling to nearly 18 million but on the other hand the per-capita income during the same period dwindled to almost half of what it was. Add to that unemployment figure of about 30 percent in the adult male population with no chance of finding a job in sight. Now, compare that to the average monthly stipend of about USD 30,000 for a low ranking hierarchy prince in the Saudi ruling family, and, according to rough estimates the number of them is as high as 25,000. In the process, the Saudi government gets about 50 percent of the oil revenue as the rest is pocketed by the Saudi royal family at source. Ironically, most Saudis are aware of this fact and that fuels the unhappiness in the Vox Populi.

It is thus not the lack of wealth but a disproportionate distribution system that is one of the major factors that attracts Saudi youth to terrorism which according to sources has the silent support of most people under 30. Getting uncomfortable with domestic unrest, the Saudi ruling family in 1980s decided to export this home-grown militancy to Afghanistan to fight Soviets and the rest is history.

Today, Wahhabism needs new breeding grounds along with training and survival fields. It will not be long after the “independence” of Kosovo that the Kosovoan version, of “Muttawa,” the religious police since 1926 of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia that enforces prayer five times a day, monitors mobile SMS and arrests women for failing to cover themselves completely, will be a reality on the streets of Kosovo. One look at the local media reports in Kosovo and neighbouring arena will suffice to convince any sceptic about the dangers of Wahhabism form of Islam. The UN and Kosovo police in the southern part of the divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica on September 19 arrested one of the leaders of the Wahhabite movement in southern Serbia and Kosovo, according to local media reports.

According to these reports the arrested man was Bajram Aslani, allegedly the main Kosovo connection with the recentlyarrested Wahhabi group in Novi Pazar, Southern Serbia. The local reports suggested that the Belgrade Special prosecution for Organised crime on September 14 pressed charges against a group of 15 Wahhabites from Novi Pazar for terrorism and unlawful possession of arms.

Some of the defendants were arrested near Novi Pazar on March 16 and large quantities of weapons, ammunition and explosives were found during the operation. Moreover, in late April reports stated that in the village of Donja Trnava near Novi Pazar, the police had a clash with two Wahabis, which resulted in the killing of one of them, Ismail Prentic, and the wounding of one police officer.

Two recent explicit cases involving Wahhabis in Kosovo can be put forward in addition to every day media reports of Wahhabis being arrested, exchanging fire with law-enforcing agencies or simply taking over mosques that have been there for hundreds of years in Turkish style and converting them to conform to Wahhabi way of architecture and worship. The first case is in the Gazimestan area which has historic values with a famous medieval battlefield dating back to 1389, stretching from Pristina to Mitrovica. In addition to the remains of Serbian Prince Lazar and Ottoman Sultan Murad, there in the vicinity are two shrines called “Turbe” existing for hundreds of years and have never got disturbed until recently when these were vandalised.


Another important case that did stir strong local resentment happened in Prizren, an old historic town that has a history of multiethnic population represented by an Orthodox Church, a Catholic Church and a Mosque, more than 350 years old from the days of Ottoman Empire. According to local sources, the mosque was getting refurbished with Saudi money and the new Imam allegedly preaches Wahhabism. The local Muslim population is disgruntled with the actions of the new Imam who without consultations first made living quarters for himself as an extension of the ancient Mosque and then replaced “irreplaceable” decorative wooden work on the inside ceiling and other parts with new aluminium frames thus the Mosque lost forever its historic heritage.

Another practice that is prevalent in Kosovo today is Wahhabis allegedly paying poor people to wear visible signs of Islam. According to local sources the alleged rate today varies from 100 Euro to 300 Euro per month depending on how much of face or body is covered in Islamic clothing.
Money talks and it sure does as is evident with its contribution to the replacement of moderate Islam in Kosovo with the financing of “Islamic studies” trips for youngsters. After a stint of such religious learning abroad in Saudi Arabia or Egypt, lasting around six to 12 months, the youngsters upon returning back in Kosovo sport Islamic beards and robes instead of their jeans.

Posted by: Exposing Islam Author Profile Page at December 29, 2008 10:45 PM

Are you kidding me?

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at December 29, 2008 11:14 PM

Michael you have to comment on Hashim Thaci and Agim Ceku being the prime ministers of Kosovo. They were KLA members and seemingly contradict your statement that the ALbanians have rejected militants as their political leaders.

Posted by: catebl1 Author Profile Page at December 30, 2008 9:40 AM

Dear Michael

I'm quite disappointed with your piece and did not enjoy it.

Firstly the Battle of Kosovo was on the 28th of June 1389 not the 29th June. Please conduct your research with more vigour.

Secondly there is no conclusive evidence that the Albanians are descendents of the Illyrians. When it is proven I'm happy to accept that. That does not necessarily mean that present day Kosovo and Metohija had the same ratio of Albanians/(Illyrians) to Serbs as it did during the beginnings of the Serbian state when Kosovo was the cradle of its civilization. I think your article could have expanded on why there is such a contrast in the ratio of Albanians to Serbs in present day Kosovo. Doesn't 90% Albanian compared to 7% Serb indicate something is wrong with your hypothesis of Albanians being "moderate?"

Thirdly this perceived fondness for Israel that you mention is misguided. The Albanians claim to support Israel because the US does- not because of any similarities in geography and demography. They would support the devil himself if it would achieve their goals. The Albanians religion is Albanianism (by their own admission)and they will convert, sell and buy whatever religion places them in positins of power. If the tide was turning against the US the Albanians would turn against it also. Why didn't you ask your Albanian hosts about the Skendenberg Division during WWII and see how fond they were of a potential Israeli state and the Jewish people?

Fourthly the US did not intervene to stop Milosevic. Milosevic's crack-down against KLA terrorists paled in comparison to Turkey's war with the Kurds or even Israel's counter-terroist operation against Hamas or Sri Lanka's fight against the LTTE and thelist can go on. NATO/US intervened as part of the grand strategy to encircle and humiliate Russia. The 'Kosovars' are just pawns as they were for Hitler and Mussolini in WWII; the axis in WWI and countless Ottoman Sultans during the Ottoman rule of Serbia. Russia gave the US and NATO a back-hander (remember Georgia/Ossetia) in August and put a stop to future expansion. With a veto at the UNSC for UN member status and no mass support for Kosovo (not even in the Arab Islamic world)it seems the 'Kosovars'/US have both bet on the wrong horse and it was all for nothing.

I hope the EU enjoy the unwanted baby that the US left at their doorstep.

I would like to see how friendly the 'Kosovars' will be the next time you see them Michael especially when they realize this independence is a sham.

Other than that for an independent journalist the fact that you have totally ignored the plight of Serbs,Roma, Gorani (slavic Muslims) and Ashkali all of who are being persecuted by the Albanians as I type speaks highly of your independence.

Please update your article.

Posted by: milan Author Profile Page at December 30, 2008 5:33 PM
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