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Kosovo Political Leaders Challenge Islamists

3:01 PM, Jan 20, 2014 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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The young state of Kosovo—with an Albanian majority of more than 90 percent, of whom 80 percent are Muslim—declared its independence in 2008, but now faces a “risk from extremist religious currents, which requires . . . counter-measures at a strategic level.” Further, Kosovar Albanians have an agenda for a return of their people and culture to Europe, not an orientation toward the Middle East.

So argues the Balkan republic’s foreign minister, Enver Hoxhaj (no relation to the deceased former dictator of Albania, Enver Hoxha). A cabinet member representing the Democratic Party of Kosovo (known from its Albanian name as the PDK), Hoxhaj made these comments in an interview with Zeri (The Voice), a major daily in the Kosovo capital, Pristina, on January 3.

Without hesitation, Hoxhaj identified a menace to Kosovo from “various religious currents seeking to spread Islam in our public life, to bring it to bear in our public discourse, to impose a different way of life . . . that may threaten the state of Kosovo.” He added, “certain sectors, [including] the Interior Ministry, other ministries, and various agencies need to be more attentive and to speak out about this.”

Underscoring his and his government’s pro-Western attitude, Hoxhaj emphasized “the security aspect” of Kosovo’s situation. Queried as to whether continued European visa restrictions on Kosovar Albanians were caused by the potential for jihadists to transit through the country, he appealed to “everybody to maintain vigilance, and not to react naively to efforts at exporting Islam via the Kosovo Republic. I think that Kosovo has no need to export or import Islam.” He said radical Islamists are more influential in the Muslim-majority Sandzhak area of southwest Serbia, to Kosovo’s north, and in Bosnia-Herzegovina, than in Kosovo.

Elsewhere in the Zeri interview, Hoxhaj affirmed, “secularism is a sacred value of the Kosovo state, with a past history, expressed in concrete acts.” Referring to a ban on the Islamic headscarf and religious instruction in public schools, enacted in 2011, Hoxhaj said, “as I supported the headscarf decision, I expressed a commitment to the secular state at the level of the individual.”

Hoxhaj added pointedly, “secularism is not something we discovered at the end of 2013. The Albanian political elite through the late 19th and the 20th centuries were always secular. We must reject any attempt to associate a nationalist conception with religious elements. Albanian nationalism has always been secular nationalism, our patriotism has always been secular patriotism.”

The PDK, to which Hoxhaj belongs, heads a coalition in the current Kosovo government. It is the main party representing veterans of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which led an armed struggle for ethnic Albanian independence from Serbia in 1997-99, assisted militarily by the United States and NATO. Kosovo prime minister Hashim Thaci, the top PDK figure, was the most prominent KLA commander during the NATO intervention.

A small but loud radical Muslim fundamentalist party, the Islamic Movement to Unite, known by its Albanian-language acronym as LISBA, attacked Hoxhaj for his remarks. A LISBA communiqué sent to Kosovo media labeled the minister a “profiteer” and an Islamophobe, accusing him of seeking to change the allegedly-Islamic profile of the country’s people.

LISBA asserted, “Islam and the Muslims will remain the main factor in the identity and general welfare of this nation.” The Islamist party offered Hoxhaj, in patronizing fashion, schooling about Islam, faith, and nationality. It concluded its outburst by calling the minister a “mercenary of forces seeking the destruction of the country and people.”

Having made his position clear previously, Hoxhaj did not reply to LISBA. But LISBA, which gained no seats in the Kosovo municipal elections of 2013, has also been criticized sharply by an opposition party representing more militant veterans of the KLA, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo or AAK. Created by a charismatic field commander of the guerrilla force, Ramush Haradinaj, AAK has the fourth largest delegation in the Assembly of Kosovo, the country’s parliament.

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