Perspectives | Religion

Why is there discrimination against Muslims in Kosovo?

By - 26.08.2020

Ninety-five percent of Kosovars are Muslim, so why do pious people face oppression?

Islam in Kosovo is rarely talked about. And when it is, then mostly as a problem. A current case in point is the ongoing controversy over the construction of the new Prishtina mosque.

Inside and outside Kosovo, many are fearful of Islam’s growing public visibility that has been announcing itself over the past decade. The most-cited reason is that the revival of Muslim religiosity in the Balkans and Kosovo is often associated with some form of malign influence by foreign powers such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and, for some, Turkey. 

And indeed, Turkish-financed mosques and allegations of neo-Ottoman agendas aside, the Islamist infiltration of Kosovo from abroad is real and needs to be addressed. Only four years ago, the smallest of the Balkan countries achieved unwanted fame for allegedly having had the highest number of citizens per capita joining the terror organization ISIS in Syria. In Brussels, this is considered to be a major problem for security and development. 

But as real as this problem may be, the other side of the coin is that it has brought about a specific kind of societal atmosphere in Kosovo, which is just as problematic. 

It was in 2018, when speaking to my friend Ben, that he told me about his recent job interview with a Prishtina-based electronics shop. Knowing only too well about young Kosovars’ difficulties in finding employment, I was delighted at this positive news. 

Ben was a smart, friendly and well-dressed person, who was very good with people and would no doubt make a top-notch salesman for whatever today’s tech giants had on offer. In fact, with the education and language skills he had, he really was meant for something much more intellectually demanding. Surely, though, he would nail this one.  

But Ben did not get the job. Of course, employers’ reasons are a whole universe of their own and competition on the Kosovar labor market is more than fierce. But when Ben told me that the interviewer had actually been very satisfied with him and had offered to hire him on the spot, he left me puzzled. 

“What happened?” I probed. 

“She demanded me to shave off my beard,” Ben replied. 

“I see…” I responded.

Although according to official statistics about 95% of Kosovo are Muslim, overtly practising believers such as Ben are often seen as an oddity by their more or less secularized peers. With the growing number of pious Kosovars as of late and the meanwhile heated discussion over foreign Islamist influences, this situation has increasingly hardened. In fact, it has given room to both explicit and implicit discrimination against visibly devout Muslims in Kosovo.

Could it be that EU policy discourse is at the root of this new identity-based discrimination in Kosovo?

This phenomenon is not new. Earlier articles on K2.0, as well as in different Kosovar dailies, have already brought up the issue and, in 2010, even the BBC reported on Kosovo’s ban of the Muslim headscarf from public schools in a quest to ‘Europeanize’ the country and preserve its secular national identity.

But as a researcher, all of these incidents got me thinking: If Kosovo aspires to join the EU, and EU discourse carries a lot of weight in Kosovar politics, then if the EU fears the rise of Islamist forces in Kosovo, could it be that it is precisely EU policy discourse that is in some way at the root of this new type of identity-based discrimination in Kosovo?

This question, too, I was not the first to pose. In 2015, Kosovar academic Piro Rexhepi already argued in two of his publications that it was “EU apparatchiks” who were applying “taxonomies of Islamophobia [that] produce Muslim populations in the Western Balkans as suspect communities in need of disciplinary violence under the promise of EU integration.” 

Or differently put, the subtle but clear message of Brussels officials to Kosovo allegedly was: “If you wanna join the club, you gotta be tough with those bearded ones.”

That overt practice of Islam in Kosovo has been politicized and framed as an apparent security problem in itself was moreover shown by the sociologist Gëzim Krasniqi in 2011. 

Also my own research on the topic since 2016 has found unsettling evidence of a type of “Orientalist securitization” of pious Kosovar Muslims both in public discourse and social life, stigmatizing more conservative practitioners of Islam as a “culturally foreign” threat to Kosovar society in a fashion otherwise known from various Western European countries. 

As a result, a 2017 report by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs found that “many practising Muslims feel under attack” in Kosovo and that the Kosovar government’s implementation of its justified anti-terror policy may, alas, easily overshoot the target. 

But could all this be retrieved to the discourse of EU officials dealing with Kosovo?

I set out to dig deeper into the professed link between what European officials think and what Kosovar officials do about practising Muslims in Kosovo.

As straightforward as Rexhepi’s thesis was, his evidence was not, relying on a few hints in the convoluted legalese of a couple of EU policy documents. These were meant to show that the Brussels administration was directly or indirectly imposing its allegedly Islamophobic lens on Kosovo’s policymaking and thereby making life hard for the faithful. 

To really find out if his argument held true, I reckoned, one clearly would have to talk to such European representatives. 

So in 2018, I set out to dig deeper into the professed link between what European officials think and what Kosovar officials do about practising Muslims in Kosovo.

To do this, I interviewed a sample of 24 European political actors — which I defined as employees of European organizations dealing with Kosovar policy or as European employees of international organizations doing so — stemming from 18 different organizations in Brussels, Berlin and Prishtina. They included various European institutions, agencies and representations, as well as national embassies and foreign ministries of EU member states, members of parliament, think tanks and development agencies, NATO, the OSCE and UNDP.

The results of my little ethnography of the European Kosovo policy bubble struck me as even more interesting than expected. 

To cut a long story short right from the start, the majority of those interviewed viewed overtly pious and more conservative Kosovar Muslims as influenced by foreign Islamist powers through: some kind of ideological brainwashing; the targeted provision of assorted material incentives; or some kind of “rebellious” appeal to their personal identity in opposition to Kosovo’s corrupted status quo and “the West.”

These imaginations parallel claims by European politicians, journalists and analysts about Kosovo slowly being turned into a type of “Balkan caliphate.” While it was not my mission to assess the truth of these beliefs, these findings show that such a European discourse does indeed condone treating Muslims that are “too Muslim” as suspects of potential terrorism.

But the story doesn’t end here.

These domestic elites hold personal stakes in conveying an image of Kosovo that is “not actually Muslim, but at the risk of being Islamicized.”

Delving further into the data at hand, I wondered how the interviewees actually knew what they knew. 

Well, the answer is that Kosovar elites — that is, government officials, public representatives, think tankers and local staff at international organizations — had told them so. These are the Kosovars that European expats and high-ranking visitors mostly interact with, and it is these English-speaking and for the most part very secular Kosovars that naturally shape the European officials’ idea of what Kosovo is all about. 

Furthermore, it is also these domestic elites who hold personal stakes in conveying an image of Kosovo that is “not actually Muslim, but at the risk of being Islamicized.” Because such an image means three things: that no one inside the EU needs to fear Kosovo because of Islam; that the EU is urged to keep supporting Kosovo and in particular its current leaders in order to ensure security; and that Kosovo’s secular elites can always refer back to “Europe” to justify enforcing a model of modern society exactly to their liking. 

Because the idea that Islam is just a historical burden for Albanians, if not that Albanians really are crypto-Christians, is not only popular among the likes of Ismail Kadare and Ramush Haradinaj. The consequence is that it is EU-sceptic leaders like Albin Kurti that have not fallen short of promising Kosovo’s practising Muslims what actually is one of the EU’s core values: freedom of religion. 

So, what now?

I realize that these findings may come across like a slap in many people’s faces at once. But while it is not the task of academic research to give policy recommendations, I do believe the practical implications of this recently published sociological investigation are clear. 

Only if European representatives reach out to a wider sample of Kosovar Muslims, if they make their best attempt to get to know as many parts of Kosovo’s multifaceted society as they can, and if they do not only have the elites represent the country to them, can the European discourse about Islam in Kosovo be widened and the image of pious Kosovar Muslims be refined. 

More often than not, invoking the EU gives political legitimacy to Kosovar domestic policies. If that is so, it is upon the EU to ensure that this is not being abused. The EU must not let itself be cited to legitimize a securitization discourse that goes against its very own values, causing visible collateral damage for Kosovo’s believers and further disenfranchising them from the European project. 

Ultimately, a firm stance on what the EU stands for and what not would also help Ben.

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.