Kosovo struggles to define Islam as devout groups become more vocal
By Rizwan Khatik - Fri Sep 09, 6:26 am
Kosovo’s devout Muslims are demanding more mosques to accommodate the faithful. Although Islam is the country’s dominant faith, critics are wary of fundamentalist groups.
Kosovo’s National Assembly voted down a proposal by a Muslim political party last week aimed at introducing a religious curriculum to the nation’s schools.
The bill, drafted by the Justice Party, was overwhelmingly rejected but it underscored the rising tension in the largely Muslim country between a moderate and secular majority and an increasingly vocal religious minority.
This summer, that tension spilled onto the streets as a group of devout Muslims staged a series of public prayer protests to demand the construction of a new central mosque in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina.
“We deserve a place to pray and meet our obligations, which God has given us,” Fatos Rexhepi told a crowd of several hundred men and boys who gathered across the street from an Ottoman-era mosque for afternoon prayers. “We will never stop praying just so people stop calling us radicals or terrorists.”
A place to pray
“Most of the population of Kosovo is Muslim, and there’s not enough space for us,” says Armend Bajrami, a Bashkohu supporter and a student at the University of Pristina.
Pristina has 22 mosques, and Bashkohu says they cannot accommodate the growing numbers of observant Muslims, especially on Friday afternoons and holidays. So Bashkohu supporters want Pristina’s local government to allocate land for a flagship mosque in the center of the city.
Some also feel Kosovo’s Muslims are being unfairly marginalized. They point to a large Catholic cathedral being erected in downtown Pristina, already one of the most recognizable landmarks in center of the capital.
“We as Muslim people feel discriminated,” says Samir Rexhepi. He questions why Catholics, who make up about 3 percent of Kosovo’s fewer than 2 million people, are getting a large symbol of their faith whereas Muslims, who represent about 90 percent of the population, don’t yet have one.
Fear of fundamentalism
But Bashkohu has met with widespread condemnation. That’s because supporters blocked major intersections and, in some cases, got into scuffles with the police. Many critics see Bashkohu’s cause as a Trojan horse that will bring a more stringent and possibly radical Islam into Kosovo’s mainstream society.
Among those condemning Bashkohu is Xhabar Haliti, the assembly president of the chief Muslim entity in the Balkan state, the Islamic Community of Kosovo, which actually requested land for a mosque a few years ago.
According to Haliti, Pristina does need a new mosque for the growing numbers of worshippers, but because Pristina officials have agreed in principle to granting the space, people have absolutely no reason to be protesting. He sees Bashkohu as the main problem.
“They do not officially represent Islam here – this is one of the most important things,” said Haliti, who is also a professor of religion at the University of Pristina. “We should not let them lead the Islamic issues here in our country.”
Islam, which came to Kosovo some 600 years ago when it became part of the Ottoman Empire, has thrived as a liberal and tolerant religion in Kosovo. But Bashkohu and groups like his are trying to change that, Haliti believes, as torchbearers for a radical Islam that is being goaded from abroad.
Since a NATO bombing campaign drove out Serbian forces in 1999 and ended Slobodan Milosevic’s brutal crackdown on Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority, foreign-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have flooded the territory under the pretense of rebuilding the former war zone.
They included Muslim charities from the Middle East, some of which have been accused of trying to radicalize Kosovo and fomenting militancy. In 2010, police arrested members of a Muslim aid group and seized guns and body armor. The suspects were reportedly Wahhabis – followers of an ultraconservative Muslim sect from Saudi Arabia.
“We have had a problem and we are having a problem with these kinds of NGOs, with some of the leaders … who want to change the way of the interpretation as it was previously in our country,” said Haliti.
Haliti hopes, though, that once Kosovan Muslims get their flagship mosque, they will embrace it as a beacon for tolerant, inclusive Islam.
Author: Nate Tabak, Pristina / ng
Editor: Martin Kuebler