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Kosovo Radical Islamists In New Political Offensive

12:45 PM, Feb 13, 2013 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Kosovo, the Albanian-majority Balkan republic, is probably best known for its fervent pro-Americanism, understandable given the role of U.S.-led NATO forces in assisting its 1.8 million inhabitants against Serbian oppression in 1999. American troops in Kosovo are drawn from National Guard units and have fallen below a thousand, but continue to symbolize a commitment that Kosovars consider indispensable to their future.

kosovo flag

In addition, Kosovo’s Muslim majority of 80 percent is notable for its moderation and the robust presence of spiritual Sufism. Like other Albanians, they insist that their first loyalty is to their nationality, quoting ubiquitously a 19th-century Albanian Catholic poet and governor of Ottoman-ruled Lebanon, Pashko Vasa, who wrote, “The religion of the Albanians is Albanianism.” The constitution of Kosovo defines it as a secular state.

Kosovo borders on Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia—all Slav countries with significant Albanian and Muslim minorities. American influence, heterodox Balkan Islam, an ethnic character that tends to overshadow the strictures of faith, and unsympathetic neighbors offer tempting opportunities for disruptive agitation in the name of fanatical Islam. This may explain why Kosovo has become, more than a decade after the NATO campaign against Belgrade, the leading Balkan battleground between traditional, local Muslim habits and the doctrines of radical Islamist interlopers. Exponents of Saudi-financed Wahhabism and of the Muslim Brotherhood have penetrated the highest levels of the official Kosovo Islamic apparatus, although they encounter adamant hostility when they appear in long-established mosques.

Still, Kosovo has achieved an unfortunate distinction: Early in February, its most prominent radical Islamist adherents announced the formation of the first fundamentalist Muslim political party in the Balkans, the “Islamic Movement to Unite,” or LISBA, its Albanian-language acronym. The party registered with the Kosovo authorities to run candidates for the national assembly.

Known more generally as “Bashkohu!” or “Join!,” LISBA has a public leader, Arsim Krasniqi, though Fuad Ramiqi is widely reported to be its controlling figure. Neither Krasniqi nor Ramiqi would comment to Kosovar media on the intentions of their new party, but its goals may be judged by Ramiqi’s previous public activities. He indicated his interest in electoral politics before 2007. But in that year the Muslim Forum of Kosovo (FMK) with which Ramiqi is affiliated began protesting against a legal ban on girls wearing headscarves (hijab) in public schools.

The Muslim Forum of Kosovo is associated through the fundamentalist European Muslim Network, led by the Islamist media celebrity Tariq Ramadan, with the Qatar-based hate preacher Yusuf Al-Qaradawi. Ramiqi was involved in the 2010 anti-Israeli maritime raid at Gaza, and Turkish media reported the formation of Ramiqi’s new Islamist party, while recalling his Gaza participation.

Ramiqi’s organization has relations with Islamic clerical institutions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia that are aligned with Al-Qaradawi and Ramadan. But none of these countries has yet seen the emergence of an Islamist political party. The Party for Democratic Action or SDA in Bosnia-Herzegovina defends the civic interests of the partitioned country’s Muslim plurality, but with no extreme religious objectives.

Since 2004, Kosovo has had a small, similar entity, the Party of Justice, which elected three deputies to the assembly in the balloting of 2010. Its chief, Ferid Agani, a neuropsychiatrist by profession, serves as minister of health in the current government. The Party of Justice presented itself as conservative in values but not religiously ideological, yet it led an unsuccessful parliamentary attempt, in 2011, to remove public-school prohibitions on the headscarf and on religious instruction.

Agani’s party provoked derision in the Assembly of Kosovo when, among other declarations, it criticized Darwinian evolutionary theory. It is viewed as similar to the “soft fundamentalist” Justice and Development Party led by prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. Additionally in 2011, the American University of Kosovo signed an agreement with Dartmouth University for improvement of Kosovar health education. That led Agani, in his governmental capacity, to visit the New Hampshire campus in November 2012 for talks with faculty and students.

Agani remains in the Kosovo government although his marginal party is increasinly divided. In July 2012 its branches in the towns of Lipjan and Fushe-Kosove, as well as the major city of Gjakova, split. Its most important regional leader, Munir Basha in the southern Kosovo city of Prizren, complained that party voters had supported a conservative economic perspective rather than the inveiglement of Agani in the issues of the headscarf and religious instruction in public schools. Charges that Agani has ignored the needs of the health sector, was manipulating religious controversies, and used the party for his personal enrichment have long been heard.

For their part, Ramiqi and his coterie claimed considerable public attention in 2011 when they began holding Muslim prayer services in the streets of Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. They demanded erection of a “megamosque” to match the Catholic Cathedral of Blessed Mother Teresa, which is under construction in the city center. Ramiqi’s crowds claimed they lacked sufficient facilities for Islamic observances, although Pristina has 22 mosques.

The Pristina municipal authorities granted the Islamists the right to build a new and expansive “Central Mosque of Pristina,” which is intended to include 80 businesses, and has been criticized by some Muslims as a “mall with a minaret.” A property was designated in the Dardanija neighborhood, somewhat distant from the historic mosque quarter in Pristina’s core area and also from the new Catholic edifice. A cornerstone for the “Central Mosque” was laid on October 8, 2012. Kosovo president Atifete Jahjaga, a woman who does not wear Islamic dress, spoke at the ceremony, noting that Kosovo is secular but seeks to protect religious and other community rights. Jahjaga was the target of whistles by Islamists at the scene, who waved signs accusing her of “offending the Koran,” but the intruders were removed by police.

As is typical in Kosovo, news of the formation of Ramiqi’s political party elicited sharp commentary from the public, expressed in the online comment spaces of the newspapers. The Pristina daily Express, energetic in its exposure of Islamist intrigues, included nearly 13,000 words from readers discussing Ramiqi and his party, much of it negative.

It has become common to hear Muslim radicals in Kosovo accused of working for Serbian and other foreign interests. In the Express comment section, an individual signing as “Martin” warned that is it is better for Serbia to have Albanians appear Arabized, and for Erdogan’s Turkey to see Albania as “Turkish.” A reader identified as “Lola” put the case more directly: “Fuad Ramiqi, Shefqet Krasniqi [a prominent Islamist incendiary against the Catholics], are for the destruction of Kosovo.”

Another Express entry, signed “Dardanija,” declared, “Fuad Ramiqi calls for ‘Unity,’ but knows that he is undermining the nation. For the Taliban conspirator there is no aim but personal profit. The government should put Fuad Ramiqi in jail.” Finally, a contributor signing with the sarcastic title “Shejtan” (Satan), offered perhaps the best summary of the recent history of Islamist politics in Kosovo: “I do not believe that this party will succeed as it is not even comparable to the party of Ferid Agani. The Ramiqi group do not aim at forming a better society but only for personal benefit and the destruction of national identity! Ramiqi and Co. do not feel strongly Albanian, but more Muslim and Arab than Albanian. So this party and such people will never gain wide support in Kosovo.”

Try as they will, it seems clear that Islamist radicals face an uphill struggle in Kosovo, however ardent they are to impose their authority.

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