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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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May 19th, 2011
10:05 PM
My congratulations mate on this very interesting and colorful article. I thought it was spot on and i am sure you would have had the same experience in any part of the region inhabited by Albanians. Keep your articles coming.

January 24th, 2011
9:01 PM
As a Kosovar-Albanian, i would say this article sounds pretty spot on. Obviously its not right to generalise an entire population as everyone is different but the war between serbia and kosovo was 100% nothing to do with religion. Most countries around serbia as it is today that were a part of former yougoslavia seperated themselves from serbia through violence which was initiated by serbia to keep the former republic of Yugoslavia together. The balkan countries range from different religions but yet experienced the same thing. I dont think its fair to say that people would actually use religion to portray themselves in certain ways. All the countries from the former republic of yougoslavia were being driven by an authority that they didnt believe was fair and so wanted independence. Thats what it comes down to.

Trefor Walters
April 15th, 2010
9:04 PM
I think Dave S' comment from April 2010 really hits the nail on the head. I've been saying something very similar regarding atheism vs Christianity for years. However, the focus is always on the centre of the action, the fighting, the religion, the politics, not on the factors on the outside that fuel them. Trefor Jason Zadrozny - Persuasive Language

Dave S
April 12th, 2010
10:04 AM
It's amazing to read this article and the comments, knowing what I know about history. I can see the distortions and lies in both the article and many of the comments. Here's the truth: The issue isn't between Christianity and Islam, or civilisation and Islam, it is between Western Christianity and Orthodox Christianity. The so-called Muslims of Bosnia and the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo are just cannon fodder in an ancient rivalry between two Christian cultures. The ethnic Albanians, (like others e.g. the Chechens) have played up to this, knowing what power the "international community" (the USA led coalition of the insidious) have on the world stage. Portraying yourself as the persecuted when in reality, you're the persecutors is an easy trick to play on the Christian mind, and when the received wisdom is that those nasty Russians and Serbs are part of an evil empire, it's a synch to get the West's sympathy for anything that's against them. And all because of collective guilt over the sacking of Constantinople 806 years ago.

February 14th, 2010
10:02 AM
hiii, i see a lot of serbs-cannibals are posting comments here! yooo you serbs zip it plz! just for ur information, i am muslim from Kosovo , i pray 5 times per day, i am an actor and model here in new york where i moved to study physical therapy almost three years ago,now i just got married to my beautifull christian wife, she is a journalist; Albanian from Kosovo, we enjoy living together as we enjoy sharing peace in the world, oki today is valentines day, is the day to celebrate our love , may God bless it !!! this is the Albanian reality for those who didnt know!!!

November 13th, 2009
10:11 AM
this article is totally wrong

a shala
October 11th, 2009
6:10 PM
serbs got what the asked for,not only in kosovo but in croatia and bosnia also.

Jonathan Davis
October 4th, 2009
12:10 PM
As much as I like Michael Totten and love his on-the-scene reporting from places like Iraq and Lebanon, he is dead wrong about Kosovo and is, in my opinion, strongly biased against Serbs in his reporting about Kosovo and Serbia. I have analysed and exposed both his errors and his biases on this topic and this article on my own blog. Feel free to come and get a dissenting view of Mr Totten's assessment of Kosovo from an Irish-South African based in Belgrade. See also:

December 15th, 2008
3:12 AM
Jesse you self advertising d..k. It was in Albania that practicing religion was abolished not in Kosovo. You seem like do not know much about the place so please be quiet and keep your seat on the back of the room. You still will get the help you from Serdja Trafkovic

September 3rd, 2008
3:09 PM
Kosovo is Serbia!

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