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Arab Spring Gives Way to Summer of Protest in Balkans

Is anti-Christian Muslim radicalism brewing in Kosovo?

11:30 AM, Jul 6, 2011 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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On Friday, July 1, Pristina, the capital of the Kosovo Republic, saw some 1,000 Albanian Muslims praying in the main, downtown open-air square, while demanding space for a new and large mosque. The demonstration was the second such event in two weeks.

Arab Spring Gives Way to Summer of Protest in Balkans

For those who know Kosovo, the phenomenon was surprising and bizarre. Pristina has notable mosques built in the classical Ottoman style. They include two in the very center of town, only yards from the place where the demonstration was held. The Stone Mosque, so-called because of the stone cap on its minaret (the cap would more typically be metallic), is also known as the Kosovo mosque because it is believed to have been erected to commemorate the 1389 Turkish victory in the battle of the same name.

Across the way, the Imperial Mosque dates from the 15th century and provides a larger prayer space; it has come under the domination of a radical preacher, Shefqet Krasniqi. Nearby is a more recent Saudi-built mosque. Others constructed with financing from the Gulf states are found elsewhere in the city. Indeed, being 90 percent Muslim, Kosovo has more than 500 mosques. While at least 40 percent were vandalized by Serbian forces during the 1998-99 Kosovo war, most have been reconstructed and refurbished.

The July 1 pro-mosque demonstration took place after Friday collective prayer at the Stone Mosque, which would seem to negate the claim made by its promoters, a group that calls itself the “Join!” movement (Bashkohu! in Albanian), that they lack adequate facilities for religious observances. The night before, the Kosovo police warned participants not to block any public thoroughfares, since the organizers of the “protest” had refused to apply for a permit to assemble, and one man had been arrested in the similar demonstration by some 300 Muslims the week before. Notwithstanding its Muslim-majority culture, Kosovo is a rigorously secular state. When the July 1 mass meeting was held, however, police were replaced by a “security force” from the so-called “Join!” movement, who were dressed in blue and white shirts, and who prevented journalists from approaching the gathering.

In Kosovar media, the need for a new, big mosque as a pretext for the demonstrations was rejected, and attention was focused on the individual who organized them and the “Join!” group – Fuad Ramiqi, a Kosovar Islamist involved in the Gaza “flotilla” last year, as reported here. With the new “flotilla” crossing the Mediterranean from Greece to Gaza at least delayed, Ramiqi had an incentive to keep busy by starting trouble in Kosovo. But the Kosovo public, and international media, also noticed that the outdoor assembly was distinctly anti-Catholic in tone. Catholics account for 10-25 percent of all Albanians, and represent an important social and cultural force in Kosovo.

Catholic Albanians in the republic and around the world have contributed to the establishment in Pristina of a cathedral named for Mother Teresa, who was born in Macedonia of Kosovar Albanian parents. The proposal for the cathedral was approved by the local authorities in 2002. Before his death in 2006, Ibrahim Rugova, the first president of Kosovo after 1999, and a Muslim by birth, participated in the blessing of its cornerstone. Construction, which is still underway, began in 2007, at a busy site in the newer, easterly part of the city, near the University of Pristina.

The anti-Catholic attitude prevalent among Ramiqi’s group was obvious enough to foreign reporters; the Associated Press noted that “a banner appeared on a mosque wall showing a green light by a photograph of a Christian cathedral and a red light beneath one of a mosque.” A member of the protesting group, who identified himself as Ramzi Berisha, commented plaintively, “We just want a place for us… to pray out of the open.” The Wahhabi preacher Shefqet Krasniqi, mentioned above, supported the demonstrations demanding a grander mosque and also claimed that Muslims in Kosovo are forced to pray outside, “in the street under the summer heat and in the winter when it is cold.” But outdoor Muslim prayer is rare in Kosovo except at funerals… and Islamist agitational events.

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