Perspectives | Religion

Kosovo’s ‘secularism’ is being confused — especially by those trying to defend it

By - 16.02.2018

The state’s relationship with religion is far from clear.

A fundamental pillar of the state of Kosovo since it declared independence in 2008 has often been said to be that of ‘secularism.’ To discuss the concept only within this time period is in many ways a little restrictive, as the relationship between secularism and religiosity has veered over a much longer period. But in the past 10 years, many public officials and commentators seem to have been at the frontline of the defense of ‘secularism.’

Very often, the argument for ‘secularism’ has been made in a confused fashion, against self-developed and often ambiguously pitted markers such as the ‘veil,’ ‘terrorism,’ ‘radicalism,’ and alike, often related to Islam and Muslims.

And while the division between religious affairs and state affairs has often been presented as what is being defended, discussions have in fact tended to have had much more to do with the relation between ‘the secular’ or ‘the religious’ with the public sphere. So, what is purported to be defended (separation of state and religion), and what is actually defended (the secular purity of the public sphere) are actually two separate domains of the discussion on ‘secularism.’

Not only is there unclarity on what defenders of ‘secularism’ (used deliberately in quotation marks throughout) have in mind when they discuss the matter, but also legally and institutionally the issue remains unclear.

The confusion begins with the Constitution. Although read in isolation the language versions of the Constitution are fairly clear, the Albanian version speaks of the state’s “laïcité, while its English version speaks of the state’s “secularism.”

It is the ambiguity in the policy makers’ stance that makes it much more fundamentally important, especially when it comes to the practical consequences of the doublespeak.

This unclarity also becomes obvious when public officials casually doublespeak the two concepts.

For example, in her 2016 Georgetown University lecture, former President Atifete Jahjaga stated that one of Kosovo’s commitments remained “the rebuilding of a laic state, to clearly divide the state from religious affairs.” But when speaking of Muslims in the same lecture, she suggested that the majority of Muslims in Kosovo are “secular.” So, the ‘laïcité’ here must apply to the state, while ‘secularism’ to society.

The doublespeak was even starker when the former deputy foreign minister, Petrit Selimi, attempted to clarify some of the debates regarding religion in his nine point elucidation, in 2012. His first point started with “Kosovo is a secular state,” while his second began “…Kosovo is a laic state” (emphasis added).

Even more fascinating is PDK’s more recently issued letter, in which, among other points, they suggest that they are committed to working for “…ethnic diversity and [for both] a laic and a secular state” (emphasis added).

Now these can be dismissed as being a matter of linguistic semantics. But it is the ambiguity in the policy makers’ stance that makes it much more fundamentally important, especially when it comes to the practical consequences of the doublespeak. Because it has also drawn reactions, especially from some in the community of believers, policy making circles, or both.

In one of his pieces, Amir Ahmeti, a member of the Justice Party — which runs on a socially conservative platform, motivated by “belief in God and dedication to the Nation” — calls for clarification. To him ‘laïcité means the removal of the influence of the ‘church’ from the state, while ‘secularism’ means the separation of state and religion and consequently defends the community of believers from state persecution. Seen from Ahmeti’s perspective, these represent fundamentally two different systems in terms of state-society relations, both conceptually and consequentially.

Regardless of what the scholarly debate says about such distinctions, it is important to note how the affected communities perceive these distinctions. While people like Ahmeti and others have at least been more explicit on how they perceive the distinction between ‘laïcité’ and ‘secularism’ and the consequences that come with them, the state has not done so thus far.

What it means to be modern

Part of the state’s doublespeak (represented through its officials) is clarified (in the mind of believers) only when it takes a position on controversial issues that have been at the heart of tensions not only in Kosovo but elsewhere, such as the banning of women from wearing the veil in public schools.

Until the state takes a position on such issues, there is no public outcry, and logically so because there is no clarity. But only when the state takes a position, either through an explicit policy or through public statements, does it raise reactions. This is because it is then that the state’s position becomes clear.

For example, when in 2013, former President Jahjaga’s understanding of the ‘secular’ and ‘laïcité’ eventually translated into her justification of why the veil should be prohibited in public schools, the Islamic Community of Kosova (BIK) was quick to react, in defense of the ‘secular’ state’s Constitution. In criticizing Jahjaga’s comment as “unconstitutional,” BIK even went as far as stating that the then president’s statement on the veil had an “anti-European spirit.”

The veil in Kosovo and the state’s ‘Europeaness’ come into play often in debates on ‘the secular,’ in which contradictions in the understanding of ‘Europeaness’ and modernity are amplified. While BIK posits Kosovo’s European future and ‘secularism’ in line with the freedom of women to wear the veil in public schools (or elsewhere), some state officials seem to have a completely different conception of where the veil stands with Kosovo’s ‘Europeaness,’ modernity, and ‘secularism.’

Hoxhaj hyperbolizes not only a link between the veil and “religious radicalism” but he goes as far as to stretch a link between the veil and participation of citizens in foreign wars.

Back in the summer of 2014, when Kosovo Police arrested more than 40 individuals suspected of fighting in Syria and Iraq, then Minister of Foreign Affairs Enver Hoxhaj’s statement on the matter was fascinating. He stated, all in one sentence, that he positioned himself “clearly” on the issue of (i) “religious radicalism,” especially when as a former Education Minister he had (ii) “banned the veil in schools,” as well as in his recent attempt to bring about a law that (iii) “sanctions participation in foreign wars.” He immediately continued by stating that he “remains steadfast in the commitment for a European and a laic state.”

Given that Hoxhaj — at that time as a minister, and now as a deputy prime minister — represents the ‘secular’ state, it is important to pay particular attention to his statement. Given the limits of this piece, I will confine myself to two points.

First, note how Hoxhaj hyperbolizes not only a link between the veil and “religious radicalism” but he goes as far as to stretch a link between the veil and participation of citizens in foreign wars. This shows how a state representative’s conception on what it is to be ‘secular’ stands at odds with what the religious community — which represents an important part of civil society in relation to the state — thinks about ‘the secular’; the state linking the veil to ‘the Syrian,’ and the religious linking it to ‘the European.’

This brings me to my second point on Hoxhaj’s statement. When he says that he remains “steadfast” in his commitment to a “European and a laic state,” Hoxhaj homogenizes not only the “European state,” but also the “European state’s” relationship with laïcité.

In Kosovo, the ‘secular’ state has played more of a role in disciplining behavior than a neutral role in relation to religious affairs.

If, for the sake of argument, we agree with Hoxhaj that the non-veil is a marker of laïcité, and the veil is a marker of “religious radicalism,” then almost every European state — where the veil tends to be much more visible than in Kosovo (leaving France aside for a moment) — would be far more religiously radical than Kosovo, and Kosovo far more embracing of laïcité! This is problematic, because the discussion is lost in translation when the veil is used as a marker of not only the ‘non-secular,’ but also the ‘radical.’

Drawing from such public statements is important, because it helps us to see what the ‘secular’ state’s position is on individuals’ or groups’ religiosities.

In Kosovo, the ‘secular’ state has played more of a role in disciplining behavior than a neutral role in relation to religious affairs. In holding the monopoly of the use of legitimate violence, the state’s definition of who wears what and at what age, in this case turns into the machinery that disciplines women; the state purports to hold the right to take women of a certain age from the ‘religious’ parent’s authority, in order to ‘secularize’ them until a certain age. Or, in Enver Hoxhaj’s conception, this would mean that the state ‘deradicalizes’ them!

Hoxhaj is not alone in drawing questionable linkages on this issue. When describing Kosovo as “constitutionally secular,” Stephen Schwartz — an active observer and writer on the topic in the Balkans — takes us to former President Jahjaga and other women in Kosovo, and notes that not only do they hold high political offices, but “they dress according to Western fashion.” Leaving aside the frequent occurrence of men having to comment on what women (should) wear, his statement is representative of the mainstream commentators when they set the (non)veil against (non)modernity.

This position is problematic, because it goes contrary to more recent scientific sociological studies, which show no correlation whatsoever between increase in modernity and decrease of religiosity. In the case of Islam, for instance, sociologists like Ozan Aksoy and Diego Gambetta, in their 2016 study of more than 25 Muslim countries, have found that “among highly religious women the modernizing forces — education, occupation and higher income, urban living, and contacts with non-Muslims — increase veiling.”

Unequal treatment

My last observation on Kosovo’s ‘secularism’ is that the state has had fewer problems with detaching itself from interference by ‘religion’ than the other way around — despite much alarmism in public discourse, the direction of influence is actually largely reversed.

In 2017, the ‘secular’ state allocated close to 1 million euros of its taxpayers’ money to construct churches; one Orthodox church (location unknown), and one Catholic church in Ferizaj. Just like it had allocated more than 80,000 euros, for religious “ceremonies” and “rituals” to the Municipality of Gracanica back in 2015.

Instances of religious symbols within state institutions and schools do sometimes occur. For example, schools that bear the names of Albanian catholic priests who were part of the national renaissance movement during late 19th and early 20th centuries, have statues inside schools not with national or state symbols, but with religious ones. One example can be found in the Gjergj Fishta elementary school in Prishtina, where the statue of Gjergj Fishta as a national symbol, does not bear any national symbols, but bears a cross. The only symbol that is maintained in the ‘secular’ state’s presidential office, is a portrait of the Pope.

But it appears that in these instances, the state could not care less — as long as it is not the veil. Seemingly the issue of the veil in schools has had less to do with the separation of the state from religion, and more with the state’s obsession with a few Muslim women’s clothing.

The state’s policies toward religion should apply equally to all religions, and not only to some.

The secular state should not only be understood as the separation of the state from one particular religion (in this case Islam and its symbols), but also from other religions. Funding churches and activities of one particular religion, while being obsessed with separating itself from another religion, furthermore damages an important aspect of secularism, which is the state’s neutrality toward religions.

Religious communities will always demand more religious freedoms from the secular state. From the perspective of ‘secularism,’ this should not be a problem, because demanding religious freedoms or religious rights is not a demand for abolishing a secular state. It is how the secular state interacts with such demands that can play an important role in the character of the ‘secularism’ that the state embraces.

It is in this aspect that Kosovo’s secularism has been more problematic. The state’s policies toward religion should apply equally to all religions, and not only to some — the latter being the case in how Kosovo has chosen to build its ‘secular’ character of the state, where neutrality is not properly maintained.

So, when speaking of Kosovo’s ‘secularism’ it is much sounder to speak of secularism(s); as Jean Baubérot, a French sociologist of religions, observed, secularism can (if not always) manifest in different forms within a single social setting and within the same time frame.

But it should be added that Kosovo should build a secular character that constantly attempts to maintain its neutrality (and not its animosity), so as not to unnecessarily increase antagonisms between the state and one or more particular religious groups.

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

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