Perspectives | Religion

The desperate desire to be ‘European’

By - 14.02.2023

Albanian internalized Islamophobia is so normalized that it goes unnoticed.

On December 9, 2022, journalist Vehbi Kajtazi tweeted a picture of Halil Kastrati, a well-known representative of a Kosovar Muslim charity organization, alongside politician Bekim Jashari, the nephew of Kosovo Liberation Army co-founder Adem Jashari. Both were in Islamic dress. “I never thought that one day I would see an heir of the Jashari family in this dress and in this condition,” Kajtazi captioned the photo. “It hurts.”

The tweet provoked a heated debate centering on the question of whether Islam and Albanianness can be compatible. Kajtazi, alongside many others, equated Albanian Muslimness with backwardness. As the question of Albanian identity regularly leads to heated debates, the fact that this tweet became widely debated is hardly surprising. Much more worrying is the ease with which anti-Islam arguments have been used in these discussions to claim that “true” Albanian identity should be disconnected from Islam.

Considering that Kosovo is a Muslim-majority country, this trend is even more confusing. According to the last official census of 2011, more than 95% of the population identify as Muslim. And yet, the tendency to downplay Muslimness is ever present in Kosovo, as well as other Albanian cultural spaces.

This creates a tension between the lived experiences of most Albanians as Muslims and the way secular elites anxiously construct Albanianness through the disavowal of the Ottoman (that is, Islamic) past. This anxious disavowal is internalized Islamophobia, which has become so normalized in public discourse that it frequently goes unacknowledged and unchallenged.

These contradicting social realities aren’t formed in a vacuum. They are embedded in a hegemonic European framework where whiteness and Christianity are considered the norm and thus made invisible. This understanding of Europeanness only works if it is built on racelessness and colorblindness as dogmas. 

A typical way of how racelessness plays out is the conventional assumption that race only exists in the U.S. and means that you are either white or Black in your phenotype and physi­otype. Lost in this superficial European understanding is the fact that religion — whether identifiable from a person’s appearance or name, or derived from the person’s family background —  can also be used to racialize and dehumanize others.

Internalized Islamophobia has become so normalized in public discourse that it frequently goes unacknowledged and unchallenged.

An example of this is the way that “Personen mit Migrationshintergrund” (persons with a migration background) — generally a euphemism for non-white people under which Albanian migrants are included — are treated in Germany. This ranges from hate speech on the Internet to discrimination in the labor market and racist murders such as the 2016 terrorist shooting in Munich, where a white supremacist killed nine people in a McDonald’s restaurant, including three young people from the Kosovar diaspora. 

And these are not the only victims from the Albanian diaspora in Germany who were murdered for racist reasons. In 1992, Sadri Berisha, a Kosovar Albanian guest worker, was beaten to death by seven neo-Nazis in his home near Stuttgart. However, due to the dogma of racelessness, German society is still hesitant to call these incidents racist and instead uses terms like xenophobia.

Much of Europe functions on a default that Europeans are white and that social hierarchies built on race are an exclusive peculiarity of the U.S.

The dogma of colorblindness operates similarly to racelessness, and in terms of Kosovo and the broader Albanian cultural space, it particularly affects Roma, both at home and in the diaspora. Like the idea of racelessness, much of Europe functions on a default that Europeans are white and that social dynamics and hierarchies built on race are an exclusive peculiarity of the U.S. This erases non-white European communities like the Roma and non-white diasporic communities.

Current decolonial/postcolonial scholarship on continental Europe convincingly point out that race is “both at the center of postwar European identity and doubly invisible,” as Fatima El-Tayeb points out in her 2011 book “European Others: Queering Ethnicity in Postnational Europe.”

Whiteness, racelessness and colorblindness

Whereas racelessness and colorblindness are also the norm in the European periphery, they work differently there. For instance, what one hears about Islam and Muslims in Albanian public discourse is far more racist than what one hears in the U.K. or France. Although Albanians’ anxiety about their assigned place in (or outside) Europe is one of the reasons for this aggressive tone, this can be no excuse for blatant anti-Muslim racism.

In other words, these socio-political dynamics, which could be described as an investment in whiteness, also apply to Albanian discourses. But there is one important caveat. While many Albanians yearn to present themselves as white and European (with differing degrees of success) their entry into generic whiteness, say, white French, is not fully complete, largely due to their positionality as members of a Muslim-majority population from the periphery of Europe. Albanians share this positionality with other Muslim-majority communities such as Bosniaks and many Balkan Roma.

The Albanian investment in whiteness comes close to Bosniaks’, in that both are keen on emphasizing a pre-Ottoman history to affirm their “European” identity. In the Albanian case, internalized Islamophobia has a clear purpose: to seek unambiguous acknowledgment as white and European in its socio-political meaning. It has normalized the erasure of the ongoing relevance of Islam in contemporary Albanian identity. Consequently, anti-Muslim statements can be uttered without being conceived as Islamophobic.

Queerphobia and Islamophobia

Although theorizing whiteness from the Albanian perspective as a social construction is a complex task, pioneering work has also been done here recently. Piro Rexhepi’s book “White Enclosures: Racial Capitalism and Coloniality Along the Balkan Route” (Duke University Press, 2022) is one such example. It deconstructs European modernity from a decolonial/postcolonial perspective while centering the positionalities of Muslim-majority populations in the Balkans. 

In terms of internalized Islamophobia in Albanian discourses, Rexhepi’s book argues that the pressure for Albanians to fashion themselves as “white, secularized, and attached to Euro-American ideals” has been a precondition for them “to be permitted to stay in Europe.” As he illustrates in his book, Albanians have constantly been portrayed as “others” who don’t belong to the European race or religion. This has given way to a secular nationalism that generates its references from European anthropological research of the 19th century. Therefore, Rexhepi argues that contemporary claims for Albanian “racial purity” are reinforced to prove to “Europe” and themselves that despite Islam they are racially European.

It is often heterosexual and secular men who are the loudest representatives of internalized Islamophobia in mainstream Albanian discourse. A common thread in secular attacks on Albanian Muslim men who travel to hajj and post pictures in Islamic attire is the “unmanliness” of this robe-like dress. In “White Enclosures,” Rexhepi explains that this conflation of homophobia and Islamophobia is tied to “hetero-European orientations of Albanians” that tend to scapegoat queer Muslim sexualities “as a renegade of the Ottoman past that continues to haunt the Albanian orientation toward Europe.” 

It is often heterosexual and secular men who are the loudest representatives of internalized Islamophobia in mainstream Albanian discourse.

Another expression of internalized Islamophobia among Albanians is that evidence of the existence of anti-Muslim racism is widely ignored or dismissed. This might explain why no mainstream media outlet in Kosovo has written about the European Islamophobia Report, for which I’ve been the section author for Kosovo for the last four years. 

To give one example from the 2021 report on Kosovo: during the debate on hijabs in high school, former Kosovar Ambassador to Italy Alma Lama said, “The wearing of Arab headscarves for girls in and out of schools is a big social step backwards. Any other interpretation is deception.” This is another example of internalized Islamophobia and was widely seen as an acceptable way of looking at the issue.

The need for Albanian anti-racists  

In August 2022, the campaign “Ndryshojeni Udhëzimin Administrativ për shaminë” (“Change the administrative rules about headscarfs”) was launched to legalize the wearing of the hijab in Kosovo’s high schools. Although the initiative was well received by the public, the government’s final decision on the topic is still pending. Regardless of the outcome, events like these show that the normalization of internalized Islamophobia in mainstream discourses is being increasingly challenged in recent years. 

In 2019 Eric Zemmour, the extremist right-wing presidential candidate in the 2022 French election, (mis)used Kosovo as an illustration for his anti-Muslim world view according to which white and Christian Europeans are being outpopulated due to high birthrates of Muslim diasporic communities in Europe (a trope that was common in Yugoslav-era Serbian nationalist discourses about Kosovo).

“The Great Replacement? Look, Seine-Saint-Denis [a suburb of Paris with a large immigrant population] is France’s Kosovo,” Zemmour said. “A population replacement is happening there. In Kosovo, it ended with war and independence.” Zemmour is not alone in this racist assessment. Many like-minded politicians in Europe regularly misuse Kosovo’s history in Islamophobic ways — and here the tendency is rising as well. 

The current strategy of avoiding the uncomfortable debate about internalized Albanian Islamophobia needs to end. Perhaps one way forward would be to acknowledge that many Albanians’ internalized self-hatred can be partly explained by overcompensation in relation to “genuine” whiteness, be it Czech, Swedish or German. 

The steady rise of far-right ideology in Europe only makes this debate more urgent. In these right-wing narratives it is accepted as a fact that Kosovo is a country that confirms the legitimacy of racist panics about a Muslim demographic takeover of Europe. Therefore, Albanians urgently need to develop an anti-racist consciousness and stance. We need not only to counter the anti-Muslim racism directed against us, but to theorize our own Muslimness.

Feature image: Kosovo 2.0.

  • 23 Feb 2023 - 02:39 | Kiefer K:

    Great and interesting piece of work.