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Resistance to Islamist Infiltration Continues in Kosovo and Albania

7:18 AM, Apr 12, 2013 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Away from the eyes of the world, ideological Islamists pursue infiltration of the moderate Muslim communities in Kosovo and Albania. But in nearly all cases, they continue to be rejected.

Secular, avidly pro-American Kosovo remains a major target. The northeast Kosovo town of Podujeva, which has seen ongoing conflicts between traditional clerics and radicals, was shocked by gunfire at a mosque in March. Podujeva has been a focus of confrontation between fanatics and conventional Muslims since 2011, when the pro-Wahhabi chief Islamic clerical official in Kosovo, Naim Ternava, dismissed imam Idriz Bilalli, an outspoken critic of fundamentalist Islam, as chairman of the Podujeva council of the Kosovo Islamic Community (known as BIK by its Albanian-language initials).

Bilalli nevertheless retained his position as imam of Podujeva’s main mosque. According to the March 24 issue of the daily newspaper Express, published in Pristina, the Kosovo capital, Bilalli’s deputy, Fahrudin Jashari, received a letter recently threatening him, Bilalli, and another anti-extremist imam in the region, Besim Llalloshi.

The letter, which had been left in a box for charity donations at the mosque, warned Jashari, who serves as muezzin or caller to prayer, “If you insist on following Bilalli you will come to a bad end. Better take your distance from him.”

Bilalli offered no probable suspects or motive for the threats, but turned the letter over to local police.

Earlier in the month, a man fired shots at Besim Arbanashi, who claimed to be the new imam of another local Muslim institution, the Llap Street mosque in Podujeva, while hundreds of believers were assembled for Friday prayer. The accused gunman, Sabri Berisha, was arrested for attempted murder, along with three other individuals, two of them from Albania. Berisha’s house was raided and four kilograms (almost nine pounds) of unspecified drugs were allegedly found in his car.

The mosque where the bullets were fired was closed for two weeks, but Arbanashi withdrew his claim to leadership of the congregation. Arbanashi and his competitor for the post of imam, Imri Llugaliu, both claimed backing from the official Islamic apparatus in Kosovo. The episode was murky, but, like other violent clashes involving Kosovo clerics, exposed the turbulence within the religious hierarchy.

The newspaper Express is well-known for its coverage of Islamist penetration in Kosovo, and, as in the past, the most interesting observations on the Podujeva incidents were inserted by readers in the comment section of the paper’s online edition. Individuals signing as “Dushi,” “Dardanija,” and “Arlind” called on the Kosovo authorities to protect the moderate clerics or to grant their right of self-defense. “Arlind” appealed for a law against Wahhabi activities.

Meanwhile, an official republic-wide ban, adopted in 2010, on wearing of headscarves (hijab) by girls in Kosovo schools has furnished a fresh pretext for disruption by the lately-formed Kosovo Islamist party “Join!” (Bashkohu!). This “movement” is directed by a radical agitator, Fuad Ramiqi, and aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. Previously, the headscarf prohibition was effected locally and inconsistently. In 2009, for example, Arjeta Halimi, then 16, from the southeastern Kosovo town of Viti, which has a mixed population of Albanian Muslims, Albanian Catholics, and Orthodox Christian Serbs, was excluded from her school building for wearing hijab. But she was offered the option of taking her examinations separately from other students.

In 2011, after an attempt to overturn the hijab law, the Kosovo Assembly, the country’s national parliament, voted against the headscarf and against religious instruction in the public schools. Yet the controversy erupted again in January 2013 when Njomza Jashari, a high school student in the southern Kosovo city of Ferizaj, was barred from attending classes with her head covered. In reportage by the English-language service of Al Jazeera, the Islamist television network based in Qatar, Njomza Jashari was depicted not merely in a headscarf, but wearing an Arab-style full-body covering, although her face was exposed. Such a costume is notably rare in Kosovo.

Instead of studying at home, as Arjeta Halimi had done, Njomza Jashari was said to spend her time in a local mosque. School authorities agreed, as in the earlier instance, to allow Njomza Jashari to take her final examinations at the end of the year, when other students will be absent. According to Al Jazeera, her parents refused. Her mother, however, appeared on the Qatari network with her hair uncovered and no sign of so-called “Islamic dress.”

Njomza Jashari’s fellow students refused to attend the classes from which she was barred, but as also seen on Al Jazeera, in a demonstration before the school building, none of them wore headscarves. The Islamist “Join!” party and allied small groups began a campaign across Kosovo to support the headscarf “in Njomza’s name.”

Last year Ramiqi, mentor of the “Join!” party, was quoted by Arbana Xharra, a prominent Kosovar journalist, as denying the secular nature of the state. Ramiqi’s argument was based on the presence in Pristina of an unfinished Cathedral dedicated to Mother Teresa, who was born of Albanian parents in Macedonia, and statues of Mother Teresa and of the Albanian national hero Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg (1405-68). A former servant of the Ottoman court who then led the unsuccessful Albanian Christian resistance to the Turks, Skanderbeg became the prototypical Albanian national hero.

Kosovo is about 80 percent Muslim and 10 percent Catholic, and Ramiqi complained in 2011, “If you send someone a postcard showing these monuments, this appears to be a Christian country.”

Issues in Albanian history have provided further excuses for Islamist arguments in both Kosovo and Albania. The Turkish “fundamentalist-lite” government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party or AKP seeks to establish itself economically and politically as a dominant power in its former Balkan possessions, especially Albania, Kosovo, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, which have Muslim majorities (70 percent in Albania) or large minorities (somewhere between 40 and 50 percent in partitioned Bosnia). As a tool of Turkish “diplomacy,” Erdogan’s representatives object to Balkan textbooks that portray the Ottomans as harsh rulers, and demand changes in their presentation of the past.

While Albanians mostly became Muslims, they revived repeatedly Skanderbeg’s resistance to Turkish domination. Most important, they fostered a mid-19th-century national cultural rebirth, beginning with the establishment of Albanian-language education, which had been banned by the Ottoman authorities. Albania became independent of Turkey a century ago, in 1912. Still, in 2011 Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan’s foreign minister, went to Kosovo and declared that Turkey was unhappy that, in his words, “Kosovars learn history as interpreted by Josip Broz Tito or Enver Hoxha,” the Communist dictators of Yugoslavia and Albania. Davutoglu’s remarks, suggesting that Albanian patriotism was a Marxist fabrication, followed similar complaints by Turkish education minister Omer Dincer in a visit to Kosovo.

Preoccupied with maintaining their secular educational system, the Kosovo authorities agreed to form a commission with the Turkish regime to review the historical curriculum. The Kosovar government accepted alteration of texts. Still, as disclosed by the news service Balkan Insight, the changes in chronicling Albanians’ experience with the Ottomans were mild. According to the copies released to the public, history texts for grades five, six, and eight, to be introduced in autumn 2013, include the following emendations:

* Replacing “violence” and “killing” with “conquering” and “imprisonment,” on page 62 of the fifth-grade textbook.

* Deleting the sentence: “Ottomans killed many Albanians,” on page 69 of the same volume.

* Editing the phrase “Ruthless Ottoman rule” to read “Ottoman conquest” on page 83 of the sixth-grade history text.

* Changing “They applied strict measures against non-Muslim people” to “All citizens in the countries conquered by the Ottoman Empire, in their daily lives, were equal before the law.”

Aside from the obviously mendacious claim about equal religious rights under the Ottomans, most of the changes appeared almost comically “Balkan” in their ambiguity. The original author of the seventh-grade text, Isa Bicaj, however, declared, “You can cut off my hand, but I will not use the term ‘arrival’ for the Ottomans. They were conquerors.”

On March 27, the daily Tema, based in Tirana, the Albanian capital, published a petition against the textbook reform signed by 140 prominent historians, journalists, authors, artists, and other intellectuals from Albania and Kosovo. They declared, “We can not cover up historical truths. . . . The proposed changes in the history textbooks represent a form of cultural aggression against the essence of our nation.” The signatories were both Muslim and Christian, as well as some known as non-religious. Among them was the Kosovar Catholic Ndue Ukaj, who had warned in 2011, “Turkey must show greater tolerance toward Albanians, to accept the historical facts and repent for the destruction of numerous invasions.”

The Muslims of Kosovo and Albania persist in repudiating Islamist intrigues from all directions. They deserve appreciation and support. 

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