On February 17, 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, becoming the newest country in the world—and one of the most unusual. Most of its citizens are Muslim, an oddity in Europe; further, unlike most Muslim-majority nations, Kosovo is overwhelmingly pro-American, and its relations with Israel are excellent as well. No Arab countries have recognized the new nation’s existence yet, and only Saudi Arabia has said that it will. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, since Kosovars differ more radically from their brothers in the Arab world than any other Islamic people on earth.
Most of this difference is probably news to distant observers. Kosovo lies in the former Yugoslavia on Europe’s Balkan peninsula, a distant corner of southeastern Europe where relatively few travelers venture. The fog of war never really lifted after the combatants’ guns fell silent in 1999. The grievances that animated the warring parties seemed inscrutable to many Westerners, who often didn’t understand why Western powers got involved in the first place. Yet despite their obscurity, Kosovars today stand as a rebuttal to the notion that Muslims will be forever shackled to authoritarian rule and wedded to war with the modern, pluralistic “Other.”
About 90 percent of Kosovo’s 2 million inhabitants are ethnic Albanians; 7 percent are Serbs. Of the Albanians, about 3 percent are Catholic, and all the rest are at least nominal Muslims; the Serbs, meanwhile, are all Orthodox Christians. Against this backdrop, many observers interpreted the Balkan wars that tore Yugoslavia to pieces during the 1990s as an inevitable resurgence of ancient hatreds in a post-Communist ideological vacuum.
But the truth was that Serbian nationalists, led by Yugoslavian dictator Slobodan Milošević, had deliberately crafted their own ethnic nationalism as an ideology to replace Communism, seeking to retain power and seize as much territory as possible as the Yugoslav federation unraveled. On June 29, 1989, just a few months before the Berlin Wall fell, Milošević delivered a thunderous speech to throngs of budding Serbian nationalists in the Kosovar village of Kosovo Polje. Exactly 600 years earlier, on the nearby Field of Blackbirds, the Turks had defeated Serbian ruler Tsar Lazar in an epic battle, ending the sovereignty of Serbia’s medieval kingdom and beginning its absorption into the Ottoman Empire. “No one will ever beat you again,” Milošević promised his audience.
Ethnic conflict was relatively new to the area. “There have been many battles and wars in Kosovo over the centuries,” historian Noel Malcolm writes in Kosovo: A Short History, “but until the last 100 years or so none of them had the character of an ‘ethnic’ conflict between Albanians and Serbs. Members of those two populations fought together as allies at the battle of Kosovo in 1389—indeed, they probably fought as allies on both sides of that battle.”
Nevertheless, Milošević used the ancient grievance, along with others both real and imagined, to kindle Serbian nationalism—“a totalitarian ideology,” as Serbian writer Filip David calls it. Three months after his speech at Kosovo Polje, Milošević revoked Kosovo’s political autonomy and imposed an apartheid-like system on its ethnic Albanian majority. There followed three wars in the breakaway republics of Slovenia, Bosnia, and Croatia, and then a fourth of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo at a time when the United States and NATO were in no mood to tolerate any more violent destabilization in Europe. NATO bombarded Yugoslav targets for two and a half months in 1999 until Milošević capitulated and relinquished control of Kosovo to NATO and Russia.
Though Albanian nationalism is less ideological than Serbian nationalism, it, too, can express itself through ugly outbursts of violence. After ethnic Albanian refugees returned to Kosovo under NATO protection in 1999, some lashed out at Serb civilians, houses, and Orthodox churches. Another wave of anti-Serb violence broke out in 2004, following rumors that Albanian children had drowned in the Ibar River after being chased off by Serbs.
But this violence, like the 1999 war, rose out of ethnic tensions, not religious ones. These were fights not between Muslims and Christians but between Albanians and Serbs—and though, again, most Albanians are Muslim and all Serbs are Orthodox Christian, the distinction is crucial. Kosovo’s Albanian Muslims and Albanian Catholics get along perfectly well with one another; in fact, during the war, they fought side by side. And in the later attacks, ethnic Albanian mobs burned Orthodox churches because they were Serb, not because they were Christian. Catholic churches weren’t touched—because their congregations were Albanian. (This isn’t a matter of anti-Orthodox sentiment among Muslims, either. Though no Albanian Orthodox Christians live in Kosovo, 20 percent of the population in Albania itself is Albanian Orthodox, and relations between them and the Albanian Muslim majority are perfectly fine.)
Some observers, especially in Serbia, have blamed the violence in 1999 and 2004 on Islamist jihadists. Those who live and work in Kosovo, and who are charged with keeping the peace, dismiss the allegation. “We’ve been here for so long and not seen any evidence of it that we’ve reached the assumption that it is not a viable threat,” says Zachary Gore, a U.S. Army sergeant stationed in eastern Kosovo.
Kosovo’s brand of Islam may be the most liberal in the world. I saw no more women there wearing conservative Islamic clothing—one or two per day at most—than I’ve seen in Manhattan. There is no gender apartheid even in Kosovo’s villages. Alcohol flows freely in restaurants, cafés, and bars, where you’ll see as many young women in sexy outfits as you’d find in any Western European country. Aside from the minarets on the skyline, there is no visible evidence that Kosovo is a Muslim-majority country at all.
“Here people are Muslims, but they think like Europeans,” says Xhabir Hamiti, a professor in the Islamic studies department at the University of Pristina in Kosovo’s capital. “Muslims here identify themselves as Muslim Lite,” an American police officer tells me. As Afrim Kostrati, a young bartender, puts it: “We are Muslims, but not really.” And Luan Berisha, an entrepreneur, agrees: “We were never practicing Muslims like they are in the Middle East. . . . First of all, we are Albanians. Religion comes second.”
Religion in Kosovo is a private matter, not a public one. “We never talk about it,” Berisha says. “I just found out, one year ago, that a very good friend of mine is Catholic, and we have been friends for the last ten years.” One Muslim woman tells me how startled she was when she attended a conference in Britain about young people who change the world. “I was shocked to find that the representative of the U.S.A. was a covered lady, originally from Iraq,” she says. “And the representative from Canada was another, originally from Afghanistan.” She herself was wearing shorts.
The reason for Kosovo’s relaxed attitude toward religion lies in its history. Albanians, including those in Kosovo, are the descendants of ancient pagan Greeks and Illyrians; more recently, they were Christian before the majority converted to Islam under Turkish Ottoman rule. Their religion may be Eastern, but Albanians have been culturally European for all of recorded history. “The Greeks hardly regard them as Christians, or the Turks as Moslems, and in fact they are a mixture of both, and sometimes neither,” Lord Byron wrote of them almost 200 years ago. “We Albanians,” writes Catholic priest Dom Lush Gjergji, “descendants of the Illyrians, are Christians from the time of the Apostles. . . . Without Christianity there would be no Albanian people, language, culture, or traditions . . . Albanians consider Christianity their patrimony, their spiritual and cultural inheritance.”
Kosovar Muslims talk the same way. In fact, the feeling is reflected in the Albanian national flag, which flies all over Kosovo, despite minimal support for a “greater Albania.” Its black double-headed eagle is the seal of Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, who led the resistance against the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century. This national hero of a Muslim-majority country was Catholic.
Indeed, another sign of Kosovo’s complex religious identity involves the “crypto-Catholics,” those who just went through the motions of converting to Islam under the Ottomans. Kosovo’s cemeteries hold many tombstones engraved with Muslim names yet bearing the Catholic cross. Even now, the crypto-Catholics’ descendants are still “christened,” so to speak, with Muslim names, and then baptized into the church.
Many Kosovars are starting to convert “back” to Christianity. Café owner Gazi Berlajolli ascribes the trend partly to American influence. “Most of these people were atheists and agnostics, but they don’t want to be seen as atheist Muslims,” Berlajolli adds. “So they needed to convert to something else. They want to be able to put ‘Christian’ on their pages on Facebook.”
There is, however, a small group of radicals inside Kosovo who would like to transform moderate Balkan Islam into the much sterner Wahhabi variety practiced in Saudi Arabia. Several well-funded Saudis and other Gulf Arabs moved to Kosovo after the 1999 war to rebuild destroyed mosques and to impose Wahhabism on the decadent locals. Most ethnic Albanians across the political and religious spectrum in Kosovo resent these intrusions, partly because ornate Ottoman-style mosques destroyed by the Serbian military are being replaced with severe Wahhabi-style monstrosities, but also because hardly any Albanians seek guidance from the backward and authoritarian Arab world. “We don’t call them Wahhabis here,” a well-connected Albanian woman tells me. “We call them Binladensa, the people of bin Laden.” In Kosovo, that isn’t a compliment.
“We never had them before,” a young Albanian journalist says. “We hear these rumors that they are paying people”—to visit mosques and cover their hair, that is. I can’t confirm the rumor, but it’s widely believed, and I heard it from almost a dozen people. If true, it means that even the tiny minority who are willing to adopt the outward trappings of conservative Islam will do so only if they’re paid. If false, the fact that so many believe it reveals a broad contempt for rigid Arabic Islam and a belief that Albanian culture will not bend naturally to it. “You should see how the general public receives these people,” says a Kosovo human rights official. “They certainly are not liked. I don’t think they will succeed.”
Wahhabis are encountering resistance from Kosovo’s religious community as well as from its atheists and agnostics. “We are working very hard to stop these kinds of movements,” says Hamiti. “These kinds of movements are dangerous for all nations, for the faiths, for all religions. The traditional Islam that has been cultivated in these areas is the best guarantee for the future. If we allow foreigners to come here and to push us to war with their ideas, then the situation will be out of our control.”
Tellingly, Kosovo’s only Islamist party got just 1.7 percent of the vote in the last election. Not even during the 1999 war, when ethnic Albanians were desperate for help, were Islamists welcome in Kosovo. Contrast this with Bosnia, which did accept help from mujahideen: after the European community imposed an arms embargo on all warring sides in Yugoslavia, leaving the barely armed Bosnians to twist in the wind, about 1,000 veterans of the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan streamed into the country. “In Kosovo,” Berisha says, “they came to support us and we rejected them. . . . This is not jihad. We are not fighting for religion here. We are fighting for our freedom, for ourselves, and for our families.”
It certainly helped that NATO stopped the fighting in Kosovo long before it could fester as it did in Bosnia. Still, the secular nature of the old Kosovo Liberation Army is worth noting. “In the two years that I covered the conflict in Kosovo, never once did I see the mujahideen fighters I saw in Bosnia, or hear KLA soldiers even allude to any kind of commitment to Islam,” Stacy Sullivan wrote in Newsweek. “Most said they were offended by such allegations, bragged about how they were Catholic before the Ottomans came and converted them, and said their only religion was Albanianism.”
Even so, the KLA was a murky organization with alleged links to organized crime and political gangsterism, and it was dissolved in September 1999, almost immediately after NATO’s intervention. Many of its former commanders ran for office in Kosovo’s first postwar election and lost overwhelmingly to the Democratic League of Kosovo, led by the pacifist Ibrahim Rugova. Kosovo is almost unique in history for rejecting its militant would-be liberators after earning de facto independence. Perhaps this pacifism was exactly what Kosovo needed after the fires of war died down. Foreign soldiers were on hand to provide security. Militant ethnic nationalism or, worse, militant religious sectarianism could easily have turned Kosovo into the Iraq of Europe.
A big reason for Kosovars’ antipathy to radical Islamism is, in a word, America, which has been the political North Star for Albanians inside and outside Kosovo ever since NATO’s intervention in 1999. In 2004, a Gallup survey measured popular opinion of U.S. foreign policy around the world. Only ten countries rated American foreign policy favorably, and among those, Kosovo scored highest, registering 88 percent approval. When one ethnic Albanian I met happened to make the uncontroversial statement that Kosovo was a European country, another broke in. “We aren’t European,” she corrected. “We’re American.”
Repeatedly, I heard that Kosovars were America’s most reliable allies in the world. American flags fly just about everywhere outside the Serbian enclaves—some even in front of official buildings—and are sold at kiosks on the street, along with T-shirts that say thank you usa. The Hotel Victory has erected the world’s second-largest replica of the Statue of Liberty on its roof, and I found another replica in the southeastern town of Vitina. Kosovars are fans of George W. Bush, both because he recognized Kosovo’s independence and simply because he’s the president. Graffiti in one Kosovar village proclaims thanks usa and bush. “You should have seen President Bush’s face when he came to Albania,” says a Kosovar Albanian who works with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). “All over Western Europe he was met by protests, but the entire country of Albania turned out to welcome him.”
And Bill Clinton, who ordered the 1999 military intervention, is lionized. Izeir Mustafa is sculpting a statue of the former president that will soon be erected on a major traffic artery—renamed Bill Clinton Boulevard—leading from the airport into downtown Pristina. Many businesses are named after Clinton. I even found a patisserie and disco bar named “Hillary,” decorated with pictures of the ex-president and his wife.
“Americans are our best friends in the world,” a waiter said to me at one of Pristina’s finest restaurants. “The U.K. is second.”
“Thank you,” I said. “We appreciate that. Some people don’t like us.”
“Bad people,” he said.
Kosovar Albanians also strongly support, of all countries, Israel. “Kosovars used to identify with the Palestinians because we Albanians are Muslims and Christians and we saw Serbia and Israel both as usurpers of land,” a prominent Kosovar told journalist Stephen Schwartz. “Then we looked at a map and woke up. Israelis have a population of 6 million, their backs to the sea, and 300 million Arab enemies. Albanians have a total population of 8 million, our backs to the sea, and 200 million Slav enemies. So why should we identify with the Arabs?”
Berisha echoes the sentiment. “We have very much in common with Israel,” he says. “I would never side with the Muslim side to wipe Israel off the face of the world. Ninety percent of Kosovo feels this way.” Though that number sounds high, I didn’t meet anyone who said he felt otherwise. And Shachar Caspi, a Jewish Israeli restaurateur who moved from Tel Aviv to Kosovo, agreed. “Nobody has given me any problems or been against Israel,” he said. “Nobody here is radical. On the contrary, people are very warm, they are very nice, they have taken Islam to a beautiful place, not to a violent place. When they hear I am Israeli, they react very warmly.”
“Nobody cares?” I asked. Considering the vicious anti-Semitism that infects so much of the Muslim world, it was hard to believe. “On the contrary, people like it,” he said. “They come to speak to us. They want to be in contact. They tell me that in the Holocaust, they used to keep the survivors inside of shelters. And vice versa, in 1999 the first plane that landed in Pristina for [humanitarian] support was an Israeli plane.”
Few outside Albania and Kosovo know about the area’s heroism during the Holocaust, but the ethnic Albanians I met brought it up several times. “We sympathize a lot with the people who have suffered the same fate as us,” Berisha says. “We were Muslims even in the Second World War, stronger Muslims than now, but even then we protected [the Jews] with our lives.” And Hamiti says, “Albanians everywhere are aware that Jews want to help them in this conflict. And Jews are aware and thankful to Albanians for saving their lives during the Second World War.”
After concluding my Kosovo trip, I attended a conference in Tirana, Albania, called “Albania, the Albanians, and the Holocaust.” Among those in attendance were Albania’s prime minister and president. Dan Michman, chief historian at Jerusalem’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, was one of the speakers. “Is it really true that Jews had a 100 percent survival rate here during the Nazi occupation?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he said. “Actually, if you look inside the borders of ‘Little Albania’—excluding Kosovo and the Albanian regions of Montenegro and Macedonia—there were three times as many Jews living here at the end of the Holocaust as there were before the war started.” Albanians, Christian and Muslim alike, refused to surrender Jews to the Nazi authorities, and Jews were safer among Albanians than they were anywhere else in Nazi-controlled Europe.
At the conference, Albanian prime minister Sali Berisha delivered a thundering condemnation of Islamist radicals that you’d be unlikely to hear from a head of state anywhere else in Europe. “Israel will accept an independent Palestinian state,” he said. “But Israel cannot accept the fundamentalists amongst Palestinians because their ideology is identical to that of the Nazis.”
There is a difference between Islam and the culture,” Hamiti says. “Islam is not the culture.” I’ve seen no more convincing evidence that he’s right than the politics and culture of Kosovo, which offer the hope that Muslims need not be enemies of Christians, Jews, and the West, and that Muslim societies are not inherently opposed to religious pluralism and democracy. True, Kosovo’s Muslims are very different from their Middle Eastern coreligionists. They often call themselves “culturally Christian”—because they’re immersed in a Christian-majority region and because they used to be Christians themselves—and one might with even more accuracy call them “culturally European.”
But they are Muslims nevertheless. And while the jihadist movements in the Middle East may appear to be an inevitable product of Islam, in many ways they are simply a religiously themed manifestation of the Arab world’s political backwardness. Perhaps Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians can even—as Mordechai Arbell, chairman of the World Jewish Congress Institute, said at the Tirana conference—“teach the world how people can live in harmony between religions and nations and how they can save each other.”