In Muslim-majority Kosovo last week, as the fasting month of Ramadan came to an end and families prepared for the reopening of public schools, the parliamentary Assembly of the Republic rendered its judgment on a controversy that has agitated the country for more than a year: It voted not to permit the Islamic headscarf (hijab) or any religious instruction in public schools.
The August 29 vote rejected two amendments to the Kosovo Constitution on pre-university education. Amendment 7 would have prohibited “discrimination against Muslims in school,” and was viewed as a measure favoring girls wearing the headscarf. It failed 43 to 39. Amendment 8 would have introduced religious education in the public schools, a proposition discussed in Kosovo since the end of the 1998-99 war. It was voted down 64 to18.
The balloting was preceded by a lively debate. Education minister Rame Buja warned the parliament that Kosovo has constitutionally defined itself as a secular state, and the amendments could therefore be considered in violation of the legal charter. A small Islamist group, the Justice party, led the charge for the amendments. The party has three representatives out of 100 legislators elected by direct ballot, and one member in the cabinet, its chairman Ferid Agani, serving as health minister. The Justice party, which had long presented itself as politically conservative but not openly as a religious party, is included in a curious mélange called the Alliance for New Kosovo (AKR in its Albanian-language initials). AKR is headed by Behgjet Pacolli, a businessman with a dubious reputation thanks to his extensive construction contracts in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. As the junior partner in a governing coalition formed in March 2011, Pacolli’s AKR is wedded to the dominant political successor of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) led by Prime Minister Hashim Thaci.
Opposition to the amendments was pressed by the Alliance for Kosovo’s Future (AAK), representing more militant nationalists among the KLA’s former soldiers, and standing outside the government. AAK representatives declared that Albanians are a nation of three religions—Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox Christian—and that religious doctrines should be kept out of the public schools.
Justice party deputy Gezim Kelmendi provoked the sharpest exchanges in the debate when he said religion had been included in Kosovo’s educational curriculum prior to the establishment of Communist rule in the former Yugoslavia after World War II, and that all European Union countries include religious instruction in public schools.
But AAK’s Adrian Gjini reminded Kelmendi that there were no Albanian-language schools in Kosovo before World War II, adding that in Western schools students are taught Darwinian evolution, and that Kosovo should not vary from that model. Kelmendi, the Islamist politician, responded with criticism of Darwinism that elicited loud derision from the AAK deputies.
Justice party head and health minister Agani, as a member of the assembly, also intervened actively in support of the two amendments. A psychiatrist by profession, Agani said that Kosovo society as a whole, and especially the young, suffered from the absence of religious instruction in schools. As evidence, he cited a higher suicide rate in the Balkan republic when compared with the 1960s.
Teuta Sahatcia, a female member of the main opposition party, the Democratic League of Kosovo, which was not affiliated with the KLA, replied to Agani’s claims by noting that there were no religion classes in schools in the 1960s, so that no correlation with suicide rates could be made. Flora Brovina, a well-known doctor, human rights activist, author and member of the ruling PDK, insisted that the amendments would openly breach the constitution, which defines Kosovo as a secular state.
Prime Minister Thaci, seemed lukewarm on the issue, commenting that he considered the amendments as reflective of European values and believed they would not conflict with the constitution. His party’s deputies, nevertheless, refused to follow his hints, and voted against the new measures.