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.
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.