I wasn’t raised in a religious family. I associate religion mainly with childhood memories of Bajram — baklava and early morning visits with my father to close relatives. At lunchtime, we’d return home for a feast as some of the best meals and drinks were enjoyed on that day.
Today in Kosovo, whenever we talk among friends of Bajram, the Albanian name for the Muslim holiday Eid, it turns into a reminiscence of a sense of home and food. Our experience wasn’t necessarily about religiosity, though it was an expression rooted in it. More so, it might hold true only to one particular group, because for others it evokes other memories and sentiments. But that religion has moved to the public sphere is evident in the newly found force it has to shape and challenge ideas on the role of religion in society, culture, ethics, morality, gender, politics and identity.
Throughout this magazine, we don’t profess to provide an answer or solution to religious claims and assertions. What we bring with this issue is a collection of articles and stories that speak to the experiences and narratives shaping belief systems, while exploring the complexity of the political, economic and social life that no longer can refuse the influence that religion plays on them. By looking at issues of how religion is present and functions in the public and private sphere, how it interacts or clashes with the state, how it places itself on the market and how it communicates with the media, we unravel how religion continues to inform the identity of people, particularly in politics. So, the point is not the gradual vanishing of religion from the modern world, rather its ongoing transformation.
As we began putting together this issue, we discovered the prevalence of religion has to do with the extent there is participation — whether as access to state services and institutions, social inclusion or the creation of economic resources. Today, more than ever, as politics of identity and the nation-state are failing to make the individual the primary principle of identity, alternative communities are emerging through new forms of religious assertion and display. Talal Asad, a prominent thinker on the failures and achievements of secularism, in his “Formations of the Secular,” argues that people are feeling less and less represented and need a moral dimension to secularism. As such, they embrace references of their religious identity to challenge current political and social agendas, whatever they might be.
We’ve found such experiences serving as either a polarizing factor or a binding one, as responses have taken different shapes, depending on where they are located. Our cover story, “Faith led astray” by Enver Robelli, explores such effects in post-communist, post-war, economically reforming Balkan countries. He speaks of a religion at a crossroads of extremism and moderation, where after years of Islam practiced “as a cultural value,” as the governments of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are failing to remedy economic hardship and provide for political projects in a post-socialist and post-9/11 world, religion is re-emerging through troubling affirmations of politics of religion in the public sphere. But he makes a more important call to the need for an Albanian Muslim clergy that could serve as an example of interfaith tolerance, within Kosovo and abroad.
In Switzerland, they might be doing just that. In a country that once served as the economic backbone to Kosovar Albanian immigrants and a continuing Kosovar-remittance economy, a group of Albanian imams has united their voice through a moderate Muslim platform. The Union of Albanian Imams, comprised of Albanians from Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania, is seeking to combat extremism and fundamentalism by strengthening their role in society; the tool they have chosen is classes on language, culture and politics. (“In Switzerland, moderate Islam digs in for fight.”)
Their voice, though, is struggling to be heard, which is typical when alternative platforms emerge in response to strong, pre-existing conservative sentiments. So the Union of Albanian Imams partly emerged as a response and counter-initiative to the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland (IZRS), who, themselves, believe and propagate a more radical form of Islam. In return, the IZRS sees its creation as a response to growing European right-wing rhetoric on Islamophobia, as Christian symbols are returning to politics and right-wing rhetoric is calling to a cultural, social and moral platform that is exclusive to those different from them. (“Europe’s conceptual Christians,” by Teresa Reiter).
Trying to pinpoint a start and finish line, as mainstream media often do, is the wrong type of reading, because it excludes the complex history of religious practice and institutions. However, the above examples in this issue demonstrate the sensitivity and vulnerability of language and communication. And when used as references for defining and differentiating between a sense of “us” and “them,” “good” and “evil,” “right and “wrong,” religion not only becomes a tool of manipulation, but is left, right and center for sources of conflict.
That is something we’ve witnessed ourselves in this region. Although not the primary cause, in the wars that came to characterize the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, religion was used to determine and gather support, but also to draw lines among the ethnic groups. Photographer Andrew Testa places the blame on journalists just as much, as by differentiating only the Bosnians through their religion as “Bosnian Muslims,” it ended up reinforcing the assumption that “the confluence of Catholicism, Islam and Orthodox Christianity must be the source of all conflicts.”
Examples from this region are not alone; they hold up in different countries just as well. In “Central Asia’s religious crossroads,” Grif Peterson speaks to a different post-communist trajectory, as governments in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are using legislation to hinder religious groups from association. Meanwhile, in “Baha’i lessons in hardship,” Jenna Hand looks into how Iran’s government oppression of the country’s largest religious minority has extended into the classrooms, by trying to exclude the community from a right to education. Choosing to oppress educational opportunities is no coincidence, and it’s something we’re well aware of in Kosovo from the 1990s Serbian regime, as not only does it repress participation in public space, it also shrinks people’s space to question and make calls against their inequality.
That is why, when we heard that a new initiative by religious authorities in Turkey is working toward making Istanbul’s 3,100 mosques more accessible and fitting for female worshippers, we were drawn to the story because it shows how through public request new spaces are being formed. We’ve included other stories along these lines, such as Robin Holmes’ personal essay on breaking away from his family and community as a Jehovah’s Witness in “Choosing my confession.” His breaking point came when he began questioning the overflow of religious literature in his family’s home library. Our profile of Albin Kllokoqi, who through rock music is interpreting Christianity, Yll Rugova who through social networks has established Kosovo’s first organized atheist and agnostic community, and our reviews of books and films, show the new cultural dimensions of religion through literature, art, entertainment and social media.
Ultimately, the common thread to our magazine is that religion is not vanishing — whether it’s an entry point to social relations, serves to distance ourselves from it, a reason for oppression or inequality, or a way of evoking memories, people everywhere have stories to share, and they’re using and engaging with different means and instruments to make their calls heard.
Our magazine cover is a collection of products bought at shops around mosques and churches in Kosovo. As we found them, we were intrigued and drawn to the commercial, moral and political significance they were assigned — D&G and Armani perfumes produced in Saudi Arabia, the “Secret Man” alcohol-free perfume from the United Arab Emirates, a bracelet depicting some of the key Christian figures and saints, and the Orthodox church carrying the four S’s for “Only Unity Saves the Serbs,” which became a sign of state oppression during the 1990s.
These things come to us in the form of commodities, political symbols and moral messages as they locate themselves in the market and become a part of culture. I remember how I used to look forward to Bajram visits with my father, as my relatives would give me money to mark Bajram celebrations and show generosity. Today, it seems that more than ever this kind of giving and the purchase of goods require a form of singular loyalty and assertion of religious belonging. And as long as the expectation of return is followed by advice on appropriate conduct and imposes indebtedness or moral and ethical restraint, our experiences and memories will shape new identities and publics in this post-secular world.