Constructing a Kosovar state identity challenged by conflicting narratives

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Young Kosovo Muslims take part in a prayer during a celebration of Eid al-Fitr at the Sulltan Mehmet Fatih mosque in Pristina. AFP

By: Amjad Malaeb

Published Thursday, November 20, 2014

The question of identity for the people of newly created countries, or those that were created and shaped by foreign will and colonialism remains a contentious and intractable issue in many countries. For example, there is the old dispute over whether Lebanon is ‘Phoenician’ or ‘Arab,’ or whether Ukraine is ‘Russian’ or ‘European’. The situation is different in Kosovo, however, where the majority prides itself on its ethnic Albanian identity. But has this started to change gradually after the war? One could also ask: What about the identity of the new state and the policies of its government in light of the challenges posed by Islamism?

Pristina – If you asked anyone in Pristina (the current capital of Kosovo) before 1999: What is your main identity, he or she would have said: Albanian. This sentiment was very common and still exists, and religious identity came second or third. But 15 years after the war, if you now ask some Muslim clerics in Kosovo the same question, they would say Muslim and then Albanian.

Sabri Bajgora, Chief Imam of Kosovo, says that national identity among Kosovars is stronger than religious identity. The reason, he explains, is that “the Albanians were under Serbian occupation, which helped strengthen Albanian identity at the expense of religious identity.”

In his capacity as a cleric, Bajgora, in a conversation with Al-Akhbar, says, “Islamic identity comes before national identity.” Bajgora agreed to answer all our questions, including those related to Islamism and Islamic extremism in Kosovo.

To get a better sense of the views of Muslim clerics on the Islamic identity, we had to ask the same questions to other clerics, including coordinator at the Islamic Center in Kosovo, Drilon Yaha, who believes that, “In the view of Islam, muslims in the whole world are one nation,” adding that “there is an Islamic national identity, and if it doesn't exist, then it should be created.”

The position on the Islamic identity among most clerics in the Islamic world may be the same. This notion of the Islamic identity is not the invention of Muslim clerics in Kosovo, as much as it is related to the Islamic creed and how religious scholars interpret it throughout the Muslim world.

To elaborate on the issue of the identity of the people of Kosovo, which seceded from Serbia in 2008, we took the question to some officials. Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kosovo Petrit Selimi and member of the Democratic Party of Kosovo, told Al-Akhbar, “A new national identity emerged after the last war, namely, the Kosovar identity which is separate from the Albanian identity,” which he said was a “very broad notion.”

It is not common for the locals to identify themselves as ‘Kosovar.’ But the war created a new identity and sense of belonging. In conversations with Kosovars, we found that many have come to accept the idea of the new ‘Kosovar identity’ because many Albanians in Kosovo see a lot of differences between their lifestyle and that of the Albanians in Albania.

Yet examining the question of identity may require digging deeper into history, sociology, and geography to find satisfying answers. Indeed, some historical events involving colonialism, conflicts, and ruling regimes play a role in emphasizing one identity and phasing out another.

For example, the Ottoman era is credited for introducing Islam and the notion of Islamic identity to the Balkans, while the Communist era in Kosovo had a role in eroding Islamic identity (that is, if we accept such an identity exists). Furthermore, the ethnic conflict in the Balkans had a role in fostering Albanian nationalism in Kosovo.

Kosovo journalist Migen Kelmendi points out that there were voices after the war calling for converting back to Catholicism to appease Europe and get a shot at EU membership. Kelmendi said, “These voices claimed that in the era that preceded the Ottoman arrival in the Balkans, the prevailing religion was Catholicism and that if we want to now say we are European, we must return to our Catholic roots.”

These proposals angered many Muslims, especially devout ones. Still, it also highlighted the desire some Kosovars have to be part of the West and the European identity, even if at the expense of their faith. Despite the multitude of definitions and views over the identity of the people of Kosovo, the Albanian identity remains the primary way most people here define themselves. The most common designation that describes them is ‘Kosovo-Albanians.’

What does the recently drafted constitution say about this? The document, which was developed with the help of Western powers, which asked for the Albanian identity not to be adopted as the official state identity, states that the Republic of Kosovo is a secular state for all its citizens and does not differentiate between religions, races or ethnicities. It does not adopt any national or religious identity for the state of Kosovo.

Therefore, the government of Kosovo pursues what it sees as ‘preventive policies’ to maintain the secular character of the state. For instance, it has banned wearing the headscarf or any religious symbols such as crosses or crescents in schools and public institutions. It also blocked the introduction of religious education in the school curriculum, while maintaining the right of the students to wear the headscarf or choose to be religious after they turn 18.

Garentina Kraja, advisor to the president of Kosovo, justified these policies by saying that they seek to “protect children from brainwashing.” Kraja added, “If they really want to pursue a religious life, they can go down this path and learn religion when they are intellectually and mentally mature. They would have chosen religion out of awareness rather than indoctrination.”

Interestingly, the ban on the headscarf and religious symbols is not strictly enforced, even though there have been numerous violations. For their part, Muslim clerics and imams complain about the policy on banning religious education in schools.

Despite the problem of identity in the region, most Kosovars believe that one day they will join the EU. The real challenge facing Kosovo right now is the rise of Islamism in the region under the cover of humanitarian aid after the 1999 war.

Politically motivated funding and aid would thus help steer Kosovo away from the ‘Islam lite’ model to an extremist model that some countries could exploit politically. So will the current policies pursued by the government be enough to deter the infiltration of extremism in society? The answer seems to be no since this challenge is more than the fledgling state can cope with on its own.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


This article is very disappointing. How could the author repeat here the myth of the Catholic reconquista in Kosovo which wants to revert Muslims into Christians? How could the author miss the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate that the present Kosovar leadership displays everyday against - not only Islam, but even the Arabs in Kosovo?

The author must make more research, before writing about Kosovo.

I am very disappointed to read this article. I could have expected it to appear in some Christian or Western media, or in al Jazeerah, but not here!!

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