Fissures in the Faith: Rise of Conservative Islamists Alarms Kosovans

Arbana Xharra Pristina, Skopje and London

Followers of stricter forms of Islam are demanding more rights in Kosovo, provoking a backlash among secularists.

Young men from a hardline Islamist group disrupt a ceremony to lay the foundation stone for a new mosque in Pristina.

The faithful who cannot fit inside the mosque sit down at its gates, along a pavement carpeted with prayer rugs. The cleric’s amplified voice travels over them, onto the street.

At Friday prayers in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, the main mosque cannot contain the worshippers, or the sound of the sermon they have come to hear.

“Allah’s enemies are leading Muslim youth astray,” warns the cleric. He lists alcohol, drugs and the pernicious influence of the internet as part of a concerted effort “to stop the momentum of Islam”.

“Immorality is on the rise,” he reminds his listeners. “This should not be tolerated. We cannot close our eyes to this phenomenon.”

You need not go far to see the hints of the immorality that the cleric decries. A short walk from the mosque, young men and women mingle over coffee and beers in the trendy bars of downtown Pristina.

Nearby lie the new monuments that tell the story of Kosovo’s recent past. A large bronze statue of Bill Clinton, hand raised in triumph or greeting, adorns a boulevard that bears his name. The former American president is a hero here, hailed for sending NATO jets into action against Serbian forces in 1999.

Another nearby sculpture, a giant model of the English word, “newborn”, celebrates a milestone in the process set in motion by those NATO air strikes – Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008.

Gratitude to the United States – and its allies in the bombing campaign – underpins the territory’s vision of itself as a free nation. But another, indirect consequence of that conflict is now being viewed with suspicion.

An austere strain of Islam is attracting converts across Kosovo. Its rise is challenging the traditions and aspirations of a society that has been defined less by its Muslim faith than by its Albanian ethnicity and its pro-Americanism.

Men pray outside a crowded mosque in Pristina.

Unheard of until 1999, the religious conservatives and hardliners are a tiny but increasingly visible group, with followers in all the big cities and some of the poorest parts of the countryside.

Security officials told the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) that stricter forms of the faith had taken root after the war, following the influx of Islamic aid agencies and the schooling of local clerics in Arab countries.

Interviewed on condition of anonymity, the officials said they believed as many as 50,000 people in the territory had begun following more conservative forms of Islam.

There is no way of independently confirming this figure, which represents a tiny fraction of the overall Muslim population of Kosovo, estimated at around 1.8 million people.

The rise of the conservatives has alarmed secular Kosovans, as well as clerics of a more moderate bent. However, the conservatives also complain that their opponents all too readily – and wrongly – accuse them of links to violent extremists.

BIRN can confirm that some clerics and converts have attracted the scrutiny of domestic intelligence agencies. But it has seen no evidence to suggest that they represent a threat to security.

‘European standards’

The new breed of religious conservatives say Kosovo’s secular constitution discriminates against the pious. They have criticised laws that restrict the emphasis on Islam in education.

Islam has undergone a small resurgence in Kosovo in the years after the war.

They also want the easing of restrictions on religious symbols in state schools, which have prevented Muslim women and girls from wearing headscarves.

Conservative clerics are demanding the right to practice their faith freely. Their followers meanwhile say that they face discrimination in society at large, particularly in the job market.

“After the war, I started learning more about Islam,” says a young woman who was wearing a headscarf on a bus in Pristina and refused to give her name.

“I thought I am free from the Serbian regime and I can practise my religion without fear of prejudice,” she says. “But people still stare at me just because I wear a veil. It is hard for me to find a job or to apply for work in a public role.”

However, the conservatives’ complaints have unnerved many secular-minded women.

“I’m a Muslim, as we have always been,” says Linda, a 27-year-old woman at a café in downtown Pristina who only gave her first name. “But I don’t go to the mosque. I’m really concerned about this new Islam that came in after the war.”

“We didn’t see young men with beards and short trousers until then,” she says, referring to the hairstyle and attire favoured by many converts to rigid forms of the faith.

The relationship between the state and the conservatives is characterised by uncertainty and unease. Both sides have invoked international human rights provisions – either as a defence for their position or as a hindrance against action.

“If someone claims we have religious freedom, it is not true,” says Shefqet Krasniqi, the head cleric, or imam, at the main mosque in Pristina. “We are asking for the same rights that Muslims in London or the US have.”

Meanwhile, the interior minister, Bajram Rexhepi, says concerns about human rights hampered his attempts to curb the activities of suspected Islamist hardliners. He told BIRN he tried to promote a law against “radical sects” during his term as prime minister nine years ago.

Buildings in the old bazaar in Skopje reflect the Ottoman past -- and a more moderate Islamic heritage.

But, he says, he was dissuaded by the “internationals” – the officials in the United Nations mission that helped administer Kosovo from 1999 to 2008.

“I asked them if they would tolerate religious sects who endangered their state. They replied that these were European standards.”

The UN mission in Kosovo says there had been no requirement for such measures.

“Based on a security assessment by the international community in Kosovo, at the time in question there was no need to legislate against Muslim radical groups,” says Olivier Salgado, a spokesman for the mission.

Behxhet Shala, the head of Kosovo’s main human rights body, also says the risk of extremism has been under-estimated by the United Nations and the EU, which are gradually phasing out their role in the territory’s day-to-day affairs.

“The internationals are here today, but they will go back. They are leaving us with a ticking bomb,” Shala told BIRN. He says Kosovo’s poverty and porous borders make it a fertile ground for radicalism.

However, Jean-Francois Fitou, the French ambassador in Pristina, says these conditions are not unique to Kosovo. He says all potential threats must be taken very seriously. But, he added, the response must also be weighed against any potential harm to individual liberties.

“It’s complicated. It’s always a question of balance,” he told BIRN, noting that France – home to the largest Muslim population in western Europe – had also provoked fierce debate with its ban on headscarves in schools.

Resisting ‘secularism’

The collapse of socialist Yugoslavia was accompanied by a religious revival in the region. The Catholic and Orthodox churches in Croatia and Serbia are stronger now than they were before the wars of the 1990s.

Shefqet Krasniqi dismisses the suggestion that he is a Wahhabi.

Kosovo is no exception. New mosques have been built across the territory, often financed by donors from Islamic nations.

But as in the rest of the region, nationalism has shaped the recent past more than religion. Kosovo’s largely ethnic Albanian population often viewed itself as a persecuted minority within Serb-dominated Yugoslavia.

In the late 1990s, they overwhelmingly backed a guerrilla struggle against the Serbs. The NATO intervention furthered that struggle’s aims, and convinced many ethnic Albanian nationalists that their closest allies were in Washington and Brussels.

Most Kosovans are Muslims, and practise a relatively relaxed form of Islam, coloured by Ottoman and mystical Sufi traditions. Many wish to see their territory as a secular nation within the European Union, as envisaged in its constitution and by its current government.

For those who see no contradiction between their faith and their liberal values, the rise of the religious hardliners has been unsettling.

“It’s a shame that we have radicals among us because the majority of Kosovans don’t support them,” says Luljeta Shala, an economist based in Pristina. “We are pro-American, as everyone knows.”

The hardliners appear to be more influenced by Arab interpretations of the faith, than by the Ottoman traditions more common to Kosovo. They are often referred to as Wahhabis, or Salafis, although most of them also reject these labels.

Kosovan women attend the ceremony for a new mosque in Pristina. Religious conservatives are demanding that headscarves be accepted more widely.

The terms derive from Saudi Arabian sects that have become synonyms for puritanical Islam. The hard-liners tend to describe themselves as defenders of the faith who oppose the encroachment of “Western” secularism upon Kosovo.

Fuad Ramiqi, a representative of the Bashkohu movement, says his group favours public protests and non-violent resistance to highlight their demands. They have complained about the ban on headscarves in schools, as well as the prominence of Christian monuments in Pristina.

“We ask the political class… to respect the rights of the Muslim majority in Kosovo,” he told BIRN. “They are discriminating against the majority by trying to present themselves as pro-Western.”

“It cannot be a democratic state that imposes secularism upon me.”

Ramiqi says he regards himself first and foremost as a Muslim, then as a Kosovan. He fought in Bosnia during the 1990s, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara, a ship bound with humanitarian supplies for Palestinians in Gaza, when it was intercepted by the Israeli military in 2010.

Ramiqi is sharply critical of Kosovo’s government, as well as the mainstream religious establishment. However, he insists that his group rejects violence and is not a threat to anyone.

“We are careful because our enemies want to portray us as a destabilising factor in the region,” he says. “There is absolutely no risk in giving people the freedom and right to practice their religious beliefs.”

Secular backlash

Osman Musliu, a critic of the Wahhabis, was beaten inside the mosque. No one has been prosecuted for the attack.

Several conservative clerics have also spoken out against what they regard as the strictures of a secular state, and the dangers of an irreligious society.

But they too dismiss the suggestion that they are Wahhabis. Krasniqi, from the main mosque in Pristina, says that he does not believe in any distinctions or divisions between Muslims.

Nor does he believe that violent extremists represent a threat in Kosovo. “Show me an extremist, radical Wahhabi group,” he asks, rhetorically.

The conservative message has won followers in impoverished and rural areas, even as it has provoked a backlash among secular-minded Kosovans.

In 2010, Ajnishahe Halimi, a women’s rights activist in the town of Skenderaj, organised a petition against an imam in a nearby village who was said to have encouraged girls and young women to wear the headscarf.

Halimi’s campaign attracted several thousand signatures, and the support of local politicians. “I had information that village women were being misled, and a non-traditional form of Islam was being taught,” she told BIRN.

Many signatories to the petition were troubled by the imam’s actions, which – although not illegal – were seen as an attempt to impose religious garb upon young children.

The imam in question, Kastriot Duka, was deported to his native Albania in March 2010. A statement from the Kosovo police says he was expelled because he had violated the terms of his residence permit, which had been granted specifically for aid work.

“The residence permit is issued for the development of humanitarian activities and not [for] other activities, which Mr Duka has exercised in the territory,” the statement said. It is not clear if Duka’s expulsion was linked to the complaints in the petition.

The village where Duka had worked, Marina, is one of the poorest in Kosovo. The region was at the centre of the conflict between ethnic Albanian guerrillas and Serbian forces, and now has a disproportionate number of widows and fatherless families.

Police lead away hardline Islamists who protested against the government at a ceremony in Pristina.

On a visit to Marina this summer, several residents spoke warmly of the expelled imam. They confirmed that Duka had provided Islamic lessons for schoolchildren, and said his actions were entirely in keeping with his role as a cleric.

Duka’s work in Marina was funded by a UK-based Islamic charity, Rahma Mercy. Its chairman, Khalil Patel, says his organisation had been providing humanitarian aid to the villagers since the war in 1999.

He said headscarves had been offered to girls who were studying religion, but insisted it had not been compulsory to wear them. “We created a beautiful environment,” he says. “We gave uniforms for boys and veils for girls.”

Proselytising is not illegal in Kosovo. Many of the charities that operate in the territory have links to Christian or Muslim institutions, and openly incorporate a religious element in their humanitarian work.

Conservative Muslims across the region, however, complain that they are more likely to be branded as extremists.

Bekir Halimi, an ethnic Albanian imam, runs a shop and publishing house in Skopje, the capital of neighbouring Macedonia, less than two hours’ drive from Pristina. The police raided his property in 2008, confiscating computers and other religious material.

The raid was originally reported in the local press as a strike against terrorism, although Halimi had denied any link with violent radicals. The police later returned the confiscated material. Halimi was never charged over any offence – but, he says, the damage to his reputation has not been repaired.

“Nobody reported on the news that we were not involved in radicalism,” he says. Halimi believes the accusations against men such as himself are motivated by petty rivalry, rather than any genuine fear of extremism.

‘No risk of radicalism’

Some critics of extremism also claim they have been assaulted, or had property destroyed, because of their views. They accuse the Wahhabis of thuggery and intimidation. But the exact motive for these attacks remains unclear.

The incidents appear sporadic – three in the space of three years – and only one has led to a successful prosecution.

Government and religious officials attend the foundation ceremony for a new mosque in Pristina.

Musli Verbani, a former imam in the town of Kacanik, gave a sermon in 2007, warning his congregation against extremism. Shortly afterwards, his parked car was set on fire. A local man was convicted over the incident in January 2011 and sentenced to three months in prison.

Other attacks against people who spoke out against extremism have not led to any arrests. Xhabir Hamidi, a professor of Islamic studies at Pristina University and a prominent critic of the Wahhabis, was beaten by masked men in 2008. He believes he was attacked because of his views.

Osman Musliu, an imam from the town of Drenas, was beaten inside a mosque in 2009. “I lost consciousness and my hand was broken,” he told BIRN. “I have always spoken out against the Wahhabis in our midst.”

A senior police official, asking not to be identified, says there was not enough evidence to bring charges over the assaults on Hamidi and Musliu.

Musliu and Verbani say they were disappointed by the response to the attacks from the Islamic Community, the umbrella body that administers the mosques in Kosovo. Both say the institution should have condemned the assaults on its members more forcefully.

However, Ahmed Sadria, a senior official from the community, dismisses the suggestion the institution could have done more, arguing that this was the duty of the police.

“It is not true that we did not react over the beatings. We asked the authorities to find out who did it,” he says. He adds that while the attacks were worrying, the motives behind them remain unclear.

“We cannot allow this to become a phenomenon,” he says, “but I cannot comment on these cases without knowing the reasons [behind the attacks].”

Law enforcement officials in Kosovo say they keep a close eye on Islamist hardliners, and are alert to any potential threats to security.

“There have been arrests, followed by investigations by the directorate of terrorism,” says Shpend Maxhuni, the chief of police in Kosovo.

However, there have not been any major convictions for terrorism. Most of the men suspected of extremism have been charged over the illegal possession of weapons – a widespread problem in the territory and a relatively minor offence.

Kosovan security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, also told BIRN that suspected extremists had been under surveillance at 30 of the 650 mosques in the territory.

The officials said they had investigated seven imams on suspicion of promoting radicalism. However, no charges had been brought against any of the clerics.

Most of the imams on the list, which has been seen by BIRN, work at mosques under the control of the Islamic Community.

Sadria, the senior official at the community, rejected any suggestion that mosques had been infiltrated by dangerous radicals.

“I don’t see any risk here and there is no need to emphasise this issue,” he told BIRN.

While there has been no serious extremist violence in Kosovo, some experts believe that the authorities should continue to listen closely to what the hardliners are saying – even in the absence of any illegal activities.

“I would say that hate speech and radical, extremist sermons can definitely lead to violence,” says Usama Hasan, a senior researcher at the Quilliam Foundation, a London-based think-tank that campaigns against extremism. Hasan cites cases where British Muslims were reportedly radicalised through sermons.

However, legislation in this area can often be cloudy, even in the UK. While incitement to violence is illegal, free speech laws also give some leeway to criticism based on religious grounds.

Back in Pristina, the hardliners from Ramiqi’s Bashkohu movement continue to display their animosity towards the authorities.

On October 8 this year, the ceremony for laying the foundations for a new mosque was briefly interrupted by a small group of men from the movement, wearing the hardliners’ trademark beards and shin-length trousers.

The activists whistled and chanted during a speech by the president, before being led away by the police.


Arbana Xharra is a Pristina-based journalist. This article was edited by Neil Arun. It was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

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Arbana Xharra

Arbana Xharra has won several awards for her investigative reporting in Kosovo.