Michael Totten

The Bin Ladens of the Balkans, Part I

Around a thousand mujahideen, veteran Arabic fighters from the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan, showed up in Bosnia in the mid-1990s to fight a jihad against Serbian Orthodox Christians. They thought they would be welcomed, and they were right. The European community imposed an arms embargo on all of Yugoslavia during the Bosnian civil war which preserved the imbalance of power and arms in favor of Slobodan Milosevic and his nationalist Bosnian Serb comrades in arms. The Bosnian army was multi-ethnic and multi-confessional — it included Serb and Croat Christians as well as Bosniak Muslims — but its leaders chose to accept help from the so-called “Afghan Arabs” because they were desperate.

The radical Arab mujahideen matured slightly between the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, and they probed the anti-Milosevic guerilla movement known as the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) to see if they could lend a hand there, as well. Kosovo, though, isn’t Bosnia. 90 percent of the population is ethnically Albanian, and most of them are at least nominally Muslims, but the KLA wasn’t too keen on throwing open the doors to their country to violent Middle Eastern fanatics. “In the two years that I covered the conflict in Kosovo,” journalist Stacy Sullivan wrote, “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. 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 likes of Al Qaeda wanted to “help.” Representatives of Osama bin Laden approached a Brooklyn man named Florin Krasniqi and said they wanted to send men into Kosovo to fight a jihad against Serbs.

Krasniqi is an Albanian-American roofer who ran what he called the Homeland Calling Fund to raise money for the KLA back home. He raised 30 million dollars from Albanian-Americans and sent cargo planes stocked full of weapons and uniforms from the United States to Northern Albania where the goods were then smuggled over the border into Kosovo. “We were approached by fundamentalist Muslims from every direction — Al Qaeda — but most of the leaders of the KLA just didn’t feel right about working with them,” he said to Dutch filmmaker Klaartje Quirijns in the documentary film The Brooklyn Connection. “I would have cooperated with the devil to free my country. I didn’t care who they were.” Later, he said he realized the KLA commanders were right to turn down help from Islamist extremists

And it’s a good thing they did, or Kosovo’s Islamist problem might be much more severe than it is.

“Prizren

Downtown Prizren, Kosovo

The KLA may have refused entry into Kosovo to radical groups from the Middle East during the war, but that hasn’t stopped dubious characters from the Gulf states from showing up in Kosovo anyway since the war ended. Saudi-funded NGOs volunteered to help rebuild mosques destroyed by the Yugoslav Army and Serbian nationalist paramilitary forces, which is fine and good as far as it goes, but there’s a catch. The same individuals hope to transform Kosovo’s liberal Balkan Islam into the much sterner Wahhabi variety practiced in the harsh deserts of Saudi Arabia.

“We don’t call them Wahhabis here,” a prominent Albanian woman told me. “We call them Binladensa, the people of Bin Laden.” Believe me, in Kosovo that isn’t a compliment.

I’m accustomed to spending quality time in moderate Islamic environments. I lived in the most liberal and cosmopolitan Sunni neighborhood in Beirut next to the American University, and I’ve vacationed with my wife in famously moderate Muslim countries like Tunisia and Turkey. Kosovo surprised even me and forced me to redefine my very conception of what a moderate Muslim even is. Kosovo is so thoroughly modern and secularized that if it weren’t for the mosques on the skyline there would be no visible evidence that Kosovo is a Muslim-majority country at all. Kosovo looks no more religious than France.

At least 99.5 percent of Kosovo’s women dress like women elsewhere in Europe. I saw one or two women wearing hijabs, Islamic headscarves, per day at the most, even in villages. Some days I didn’t see any.

“Cafe

A row of bars and cafes, Prizren, Kosovo

“Young

Young Albanian women in the small town of Vitina, Kosovo

Alcohol is widely available. You don’t have to find establishments that cater to tourists (there are no tourists in Kosovo) in order to get a drink like you do in false-moderate Muslim countries like Jordan. There are more bars per block in the capital city Prishtina than anywhere I have ever lived. Supposedly the dating scene in Kosovo is still fairly conservative, but the locals could have fooled me. Young women frequently dress in sexy outfits that show off their bodies. They dance, boozed-up, in clubs the way they do in Manhattan — only somehow, amazingly, with glasses of scotch balanced on top of their heads. Pork is on the menu. Pornography is sold on the streets, even outside the capital. What kind of Muslim country is this?

It’s European.

“Porn

Erotic literature for sale on the street, Prizren, Kosovo

In Anbar Province, Al Qaeda in Iraq shot people for smoking. They warned local vegetable vendors not to place cucumbers and tomatoes next to each other in markets because it’s “perverse.” (Cucumbers are male while tomatoes are female, or so goes the logic.)

They’d have to machine-gun the entire nation of Kosovo into a mass grave to get their way. Their hatred of the place must surpass even that of the worst Serbian nationalists. Its very existence as a culturally liberal Muslim-majority country threatens to destroy their ideology. Their absolute worst nightmare — and the thing they are ultimately fighting to stop — is the transformation of the Arab world into something resembling Kosovo.

I met an American police officer in the charming provincial city of Prizren. “Muslims here identify themselves as Muslim-lite,” he said, “like Pepsi-lite.”

That’s right. “We are Muslims,” one waiter told me, “but not really.”

Not even the small towns and villages of Kosovo are conservative by Islamic standards. Kosovo is the least Islamicized Muslim-majority country I have ever been to. The only possible exception is Albania. Islamic civilization — if such a dubious thing even exists — is far more varied than it appears from outside, especially in the media which thrives on sensationalism. Prishtina has no more in common culturally with thoroughly Islamicized cities like Cairo and Riyadh than Cairo and Riyadh have with Seattle.

*

I had coffee at a restaurant called Pishat with Professor Xhabir Hamiti from the Islamic Studies Department at the University of Prishtina. “This is a famous restaurant,” he said. “Madeleine Albright ate here.”

He earned his degrees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia.

“When were you in Lebanon?” I said. “Before the war?”

“It was in 2002,” he said, “so after. But there were still signs of the civil war. I noticed in Lebanon, Shias and Sunnis, Hezbollah and these kind of parties, they hate each other more than they hate Christians. It’s very bad.”

“It’s true,” I said.

“Hezbollah are idiots,” he said. “They are not Muslims.”

“They say they are,” I said. I can never quite figure out if Muslims who say this kind of thing are in denial about their more sinister co-religionists or if they mean to excommunicate them.

“Their behavior is not Muslim,” he said. “Look to the practices. I hate them.”

“Why is it that Islam in the Balkans is more open and tolerant than in the Middle East?” I said.

“Because our mentality is different, completely different,” he said.

“Is it because you’re European?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “Another reason is because we have cultivated tolerance between different religions.”

“Tolerance

Billboard celebrating tolerance, Prishtina, Kosovo

“I know there is more tolerance here because I can see it and I can feel it,” I said. “But at the same time, there was a huge war.”

“A huge war, yes,” he said, “but it was not a religious war. In Bosnia we can say that Islam is the only element divides Bosnians from Serbs, because they speak the same language and have approximately the same culture. The faith was the one element that divided Serbs from Bosnians.”

Serbs are by definition Slavs who belong to the Serbian Orthodox Church. Bosniaks are Muslims — at least by family heritage, if not belief — who are otherwise ethnically identical to Serbs and Croatian Catholics. In Kosovo, it’s different. Kosovo is ethnically divided between Serbs and Albanians. Albanians are then religiously divided between Muslims and Catholics. Muslims are the overwhelming majority, but in Albania itself they only eke out a 70 percent majority, with the remaining third split unevenly between Catholics and Orthodox Christians.

“But here,” Professor Hamiti continued, “we haven’t had anything to do with Serbs and the Slavic language and the Slavic culture. Our culture is different, our language is different and they hate us. They wanted us to leave Kosovo. Since 1800 they tried to force Albanians to go other places. We have places in Serbia that have been inhabited by Albanians — I come from Serbia — many cities have been Albanian. They know that. They forced them to leave that part and come here and were converted to Islam in the 18th and 19th centuries. Since then the Serbs have taken the policy, a very bad policy, that since you have embraced Islam you are Turks, and you should go to Turkey. So for Albanians you can say this is a very important point. Never use religion to fight against Serbs. They didn’t, for example, say lets take guns and fight Serbs in the name of God. Because they also know that they have Albanians who are Orthodox, and we have also Christians and Catholics.”

Albanian culture is radically different from that of the rest of the former Yugoslavia. The wars in Bosnia and Croatia weren’t religious wars either, but they were fought more cleanly along religious lines. Hideous wars of ethnic cleansing were fought by South Slavic Catholics (Croats), Bosniaks (Muslims), and Serbs (Serbian Orthodox Christians) who were otherwise nearly identical culturally, linguistically, and even genetically. Bosnians managed to hold together a multi-confessional alliance between Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats, and Muslim Bosniaks, but the Serbian nationalists and Croatian nationalists didn’t. Albanians, meanwhile, are similarly split between Catholics, Muslims, and Orthodox Christians, but fighting wars against each other over this kind of thing is unthinkable. It just does not happen.

Kosovo’s war, then, wasn’t religious. It was ethnic. Christians did not fight Muslims; Serbs fought Albanians. Serbian nationalists ethnically-cleansed Kosovo’s Catholics right along with the Muslims.

“Church

Vandalized Serbian Orthodox Church, Prizren, Kosovo

90 percent of all Kosovar Albanians, Catholic and Muslim alike, were displaced from their homes by Milosevic’s armed forces during their ethnic-cleansing campaign. In 1999 they were allowed to return to their homes under NATO protection. Enraged mobs then set to firebombing Serb houses and Serbian Orthodox churches.

Five years later, in 2004, violence exploded in Kosovo once again following rumors that Serbs chased Albanian children into the Ibar River where they drowned. Serb and Albanian gunmen fired shots at each other from their respective sides of the river. Mobs of enraged Albanians burned Serb churches and houses for three days. According to U.N. spokeswoman Isabella Karlowitz, 16 churches and 110 houses were destroyed. Dozens were killed. Hundreds were wounded.

Neither Catholic citizens nor Catholic churches were touched in either of these spasms of violence. The fact that the violence was ethnic rather than religious doesn’t mean it was better, but it does mean it was different from how it is sometimes perceived from abroad.

“Inside

Inside Catholic church, Prizren, Kosovo. Catholic churches are unguarded in Kosovo because they are threatened by no one.

I saw several Serbian Orthodox churches that were damaged by vandals and arsonists. NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) now has to protect some of the Serb holy sites in potentially volatile areas with barbed wire and even armed guards.

“Church

Vandalized and guarded Serbian Orthodox Church, Prizren, Kosovo

“Warning

A Kosovo government warning to would-be vandals outside a Serbian Orthodox church

Tens of thousands of Serbs have abandoned Kosovo and moved to Serbia. It’s important to note,though, that there is no corresponding migration of Albanian Catholics.

“Catholic

Catholic church tower, Prizren, Kosovo

Catholics are deeply respected in both Kosovo and Albania. The Albanian national hero, Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, was a Catholic who led the anti-Turkish resistance in the 15th Century.

“Skanderberg

Statue of the great Catholic warrior Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, downtown Prishtina, Kosovo

The twin-headed eagle on the official Albanian flag and the unofficial Kosovo flag bears his seal to this day. Even the name Albania in the local language — Shqip”ria, or Land of the Eagles — is thought to have been coined by the great Catholic warrior.

“Mother

Mother Teresa statue, Prishtina, Kosovo

Kosovo’s second national hero is Mother Teresa. She, too, was an Albanian Catholic, and she took her vows at the Church of the Black Madonna in Eastern Kosovo.

“Virgin

Virgin Mary statue outside the Church of the Black Madonna, Eastern Kosovo

The names of villages in Kosovo are written in both the Albanian and Serbian languages, and all over the country I saw Serbian names blackened out with spray paint.

“Blacked

Serbian language translation is blotted out by spray paint on a village sign

Ethnic relations between Albanians and Serbs are obviously terrible even today. Relations between Kosovo and Serbia are no better.

“The Serbian government and people are still thinking that Kosovo is not an independent state,” Professor Hamiti said. “And they are creating the myths, you know the myths? That Kosovo is like Jerusalem for them. Unfortunately I am afraid that they will continue these myths and in the future, and will try and create problems. They are saying look what you have done, you have created an independent Islamic state.”

“The rest of the world doesn’t know what to think,” I said. “There are no journalists here. If the Serbs say there is a fundamentalist state here, people don’t know, they think it’s true.”

“We are Muslims,” he said, “we cannot deny that, but as you see in the street, it is completely different. Here people are Muslims, but they think like Europeans. You should write about this because people don’t know it.”

“What about the very conservative Muslims coming here from Saudi Arabia and building mosques?” I said. “Do you think this is a problem?”

I think it’s a problem. It is even a problem in the United States.

“Ottoman

Ottoman-era mosque, Prizren, Kosovo

“New

Rebuilt mosque, Vitina, Kosovo

“Yes,” he said. “It is a problem in my opinion. But, as you know, during the war we had 250 mosques destroyed and burned. The Serbs wanted to call this war a religious war to get sympathy from Europeans. They still do that. After the war many humanitarian organizations came here, in general from the Gulf — Kuwait, Qatar, others. We haven’t had rules, we haven’t had a government. All things have been under the U.N., so they opened the door to these kind of organizations. They operated legally. We couldn’t have control. Why? Because they have the money. And that is why we have not been in the position to stop these kind of steps. They say We have money. We can help you build a mosque, and we will make the architecture. And they have also misused their position toward us. This was in the beginning, after the war. Now it is a better situation, because now they cannot do anything they want.”

“Who stopped them?” I said.

“There have been moments when the U.S. and the international community have made pressure on them,” he said.

“The involvement of Wahhabis causes concerns in the U.S.,” I said. “Do they control what is said inside the mosques?”

“In some mosques, yes,” he said.

“How do they do that?” I said. “Money?”

“Yes,” he said. “They are from outside, and I am convinced that neither here or in Albanian churches will Albanians allow them to continue. We are working very hard to stop these kinds of movements. 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. We should take the Islamic situation in our hands. We are Europeans. We are Muslims, but we think the European way. We are aware that we are the border of Serbia which is Orthodox, with Catholics, with Sufis and others, and we should continue to cultivate tolerance with different religions. And we need the support of all the institutions who are against the conservative Muslims.

“I am a Muslim,” he continued, “I am a scholar, I know how to deal with Islam in my country. There is no need for Arabs to come here. I have no need for their suggestions, no need for their explanations. Our policy should be open, for all countries. They are Muslims, we are not against them, but we are against the way they are using Islam in my country. We have our own schools, this is not new here. They have been here for 600 years. We created our Islam ourselves here, and we can continue our Islam with our own minds. If they want to support us, they should support the faculty. Support me as a scholar, not create their own schools, their own mosques. Because that makes trouble.”

“Ottoman

I understood already why the KLA told the mujahideen, the radical Arab Islamists, to stay out during the war, but I wanted to hear a local person explain it from his or her perspective.

“The KLA,” I said. “Why did they say no to the mujahideen?

“In Bosnia,” he said, “the mujahideen called the war a holy war, and they wanted to call the war here a holy war. But it was not a holy war, it was a war against the Serbian regime and paramilitary forces. So to prevent this we told them No. You can’t have an attitude like that. You can send money to buy guns, but you cannot be with us in the war. That was a good idea. They destroy everything they touch.”

We both said “Chechnya” at the same time.

“So people in Kosova,” I said, “thought fighting the right kind of war was more important than winning? Or did you expect NATO to intervene so the mujahideen were not necessary? What was the exact thought process?”

“The KLA commanders needed to fight the mujahideen mentality,” he said. “The mujahideen would go through the KLA but create another team. There would be a team who fights in the name of God and a team who fights in the name of nationalism. So in order to prevent this kind of problem, they were told no from the beginning. If you want to help us with guns against the Serbian regime, you can help.”

Helping the Kosovar Albanians against the Milosevic regime earned the United States a heck of a lot more friends in Kosovo than any offers of help from Islamists did. Nevertheless, Professor Hamiti is well aware that large majorities in many, if not most, Muslim countries remain anti-American. Huge numbers believe Americans are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan because they hate Muslims. This belief, of course, requires a person to be completely oblivious to what happened in Kosovo.

“You know that’s not true,” I said. “We’re not against Muslims.”

“I know,” he said. “I saw it with my own eyes in the U.S. Religion is very free, everybody is free to do whatever he wants, to worship the god he wants. I saw it with my own eyes.”

“What do you think about Iraq?” I said. “You and Kosovo in general?”

“The Muslims here are on the side of the Americans,” he said. “They had to stop this kind of dictatorships in the Middle East. [Saddam Hussein] killed many innocent people, and he was going to continue his wars against his neighbors. That was a good step, to remove him from his position. But the pictures that we see on the TV are bad pictures, for us, and I think also for Americans. Who wants to see American soldiers die in Iraq? Or who wants to see innocent people, women, children, old people, die? I think there is going to be a solution. But they cannot leave, they cannot leave. Shias and Sunnis hate each other more than they hate Americans.”

*

Professor Hamiti wasn’t the only person I talked to about the so-called Binladensa. Two prominent Kosovar Albanian women agreed to talk to me as long as I would not quote them by name. Both work in official and diplomatic circles. Nothing they said is particularly controversial, but their opinions don’t necessarily represent the institutions they work for. I’ll refer to them here by the female Albanian names Fana and Lumnije, which are pseudonyms.

The three of us had coffee at an outdoor restaurant in a wooded part of the countryside near a small river.

“Forest

Southeastern Kosovo

“How successful are the Wahhabis here?” I said.

“They are successful in rebuilding mosques,” Fana said, “and they pay people to get covered, to shorten the pants.”

Conservative Arab women wear headscarves — or even veils or enveloping abayas — while Wahhabi men wear short pants that ride high above their ankles. I saw an average of one or two Albanian women each day wearing a headscarf, but I never noticed even a single man anywhere in Kosovo wearing Wahhabi pants. There can’t be all that many around.

“They pay people to dress differently?” I said. I heard this from all sorts of people in Kosovo and have no way to verify whether it’s true or not. Either way, it seems to be a mainstream belief among Albanians. I also heard rumors that Hezbollah once paid women in Shia villages of Lebanon one hundred dollars a month to wear headscarves until they gave it up as both expensive and futile. Genuinely conservative women will wear them without needing baksheesh from Hezbollah, while liberated women are hard to bribe. Lebanon’s relatively modern “dress code” among bourgeois Muslim women was hard won and will not be rolled back so easily.

“I have heard about it,” Fana said. “I don’t know for sure. Most likely true, they have money. Gulf money, not just from Iran. But Albanians are very traditional, so it is difficult to get them to change their traditions. It is difficult for the Wahhabis to get roots here in Kosovo.”

“Fountain

Ottoman fountain and courtyard, Prizren, Kosovo

“You should see how the general public receives these people,” Lumnije said. “They certainly are not liked. I don’t think they will succeed.”

“I see an occasional person who I can tell is from one of these mosques,” I said, “but I don’t see very many.”

“They are only in certain places,” Fana said. “I don’t even see them around much. And now they have this new mosque in the city center and they are gathering there. They destroyed the old mosque and built a new one five years ago.”

“Actually,” Lumnije said, “the old mosque was damaged by an earthquake.”

“Just damaged,” Fana said.

“They could have restored it,” Lumnije said. “It was an Ottoman mosque, very old.”

“Did they knock it down?” I said.

“Yes, completely,” Fana said. “The walls were one meter thick stone. All that was destroyed was the roof, and they could have renovated it.”

I wanted to know what Albanians were doing to curtail the influences of these people so Kosovo really doesn’t become what its critics fear it is turning into.

“It is a bit tricky, Michael,” Lumnije said, “because in the Kosovo constitution all European standards are applicable. And if you look at it from the point of view of European conventions and human rights, they have a right to religion. Yesterday we had a case where a young girl was denied entrance to a school because she was covered. As human rights officers, it is a problem we have to deal with because she has a right to preserve her religion. That is her choice.”

“We don’t have a law that says she can or can’t come to school,” Fana said to Lumnije. “It is European law, but we have no law.”

“Yes,” Lumnije said, “but these are very tricky cases in Europe also. In France it was a big problem. I attended summer school in 2003 in England, in South Wales. We had one international night, and I was shocked to find that the representative of the USA was a covered lady, originally from Iraq. And the representative from Canada was another, originally from Afghanistan. The topic for the conference was Young people changing the world. It had nothing to do with religion, but they were representing the U.S. and Canada.”

“That is surprising,” I said, “but very American.”

“And Lumnije, coming from a Muslim country, was wearing shorts!” Fana said.

All three of us laughed.

“They were arguing with me all the time,” Lumnije said. “What kind of a Muslim woman are you?

“Green

Young Albanian women, Prizren, Kosovo

I can understand why the women from Iraq and Afghanistan argued with Lumnije, even though, frankly, they were being reactionary. Albanian Islam is so different from Islam in Iraq and — especially — Afghanistan, that it must have been truly shocking when conservative women from those countries met a thoroughly Western-looking and Western-thinking woman who claimed to adhere to the same religion. Kosovo surprised even me, and I’m accustomed to spending time in relatively secularized Muslim countries.

“How many Wahhabis are here?” I said, meaning the medium-sized city they lived in. We were not in the capital.

“Here?” Fana said. “Maybe 100. Maybe 50.”

“Are they dangerous?” I said.

“No,” she said. “They don’t do anything.”

“I will tell you one thing,” Lumnije said. “The problem is that this issue has not been raised, except for when they talk about the mosques. I haven’t noticed any journalists tackle this thing. I am sure this issue will soon arise, but until the 17th of February everybody was obsessed with the independence issue. Now I am sure it will come up. What happened yesterday at the school, when one covered girl was not allowed to enter, I am sure this case will come up and they will start to deal with it. I hope that they will deal with it at some essential level, regulating it by law. In “OSCE”:http://www.osce.org/kosovo/, for example, there is one girl who is covered, but she is a professional interpreter, very well-educated. At one point the Kosovar delegation went to Germany and they hired an interpreter and she was supposed to go. When they saw that she was covered they refused to take her.”

“The Kosovars refused to take a covered woman to Germany as a professional interpreter,” Fana said, “and the U.S. sends a covered Iraqi woman to Wales as a representative!” She laughed out loud at the irony.

“They didn’t want Kosovo to be perceived as a conservative Muslim country,” Lumnije said.

“And I definitely think they were right,” Fana said.

“Women

Don’t misunderstand what these women are saying. The Kosovars who refused to take a covered woman to Germany were not trying to deceive the Germans. Hardly any women in Kosovo dress like that. The number I saw was only a fraction of one percent. Sending a woman abroad to represent Kosovo while wearing a headscarf — that would be deceptive, or at least misleading. I went entire days in Kosovo without seeing a single woman wearing one of those things. It makes sense for Kosovo’s women to be represented abroad by someone who looks like them.

“Most people know nothing about your country,” I said to Fana and Lumnije.

“The majority of us would not like to be perceived as a Muslim country in the real sense of the word,” Lumnije said. “Because we are different. Even geographically we are European.”

“We are not European,” Fana said and laughed, “we are American! We are the 51st state!”

“Kosovo is the most reliable,” Lumnije said.

“It is a small country,” Fana said, “but you can rely on us completely.”

*

I’m not particularly worried that Kosovo will become a jihad state like Iran, or a jihad statelet like the Taliban-ruled parts of Afghanistan and the Hezbollah-controlled portions of Lebanon. Anything is possible, but it’s pretty unlikely. There are too many anti-Islamist antibodies in the society.

“We’ve been here for so long,” United States Army Sergeant Zachary Gore said to me in Eastern Kosovo, “and not seen any evidence of it, that we’ve reached the assumption that it is not a viable threat.” I trust American soldiers when it comes to the assessment of threats. I have seen them at work in Iraq, and they are less complacent about dangerous Islamists than any other people I have ever met.

“I don’t think Kosovo will ever follow the path of the Middle East,” entrepreneur Luan Berisha told me. “I sincerely believe it. We as Muslims were never fundamentalists in any kind of aspect. All of my family has been Muslims for over 300 years. We were never practicing Muslims like they are in the Middle East. We are quite open, quite liberal in that respect. The biggest proof of that is within Albania we have Catholics, we have Orthodox, and we have Muslims. First of all we are Albanians. Religion comes second to us. It is not like the countries in the Middle East where the religion comes first. To us, religion comes second. First of all is to create a better life for us.”

Kosovo is hardly more religious than anywhere else in Europe, but Albania itself is perhaps the least religious of all. Before the thoroughly oppressive atheist-communist state run by Enver Hoxha during the Cold War, around 30 percent of Albanians were Christians while 70 percent were Muslims. Now hardly anyone belongs to any religion. Every mosque but one in the entire country was physically demolished by the deranged totalitarian state.

“For 50 years Albania was under a horrible dictatorship,” Berisha said. “For the 50 years they were under Enver Hoxha nobody dared to practice any religion. There was no god for them. There was only Hoxha. For 50 years it was very bad. Bosnia has suffered a lot, but what Albanians have suffered is unbelievable. Nobody can even explain it to themselves, honestly. Really, he brainwashed them away from religion. People don’t believe in anything. As soon as you don’t believe in anything, you have a problem with everything. You don’t even know where to start. And now they are slowly starting to come back into beliefs. It took them 18 years, but a lot of people are changing, and actually quite a few Muslims are no longer calling themselves Muslim, but are saying I am Christian. Which is fine because they don’t know what Islam even is. They never touched it. They never went to a mosque.”

Albania and Kosovo aren’t the only countries in the Balkan Peninsula where ethnic Albanians live. They also inhabit a portion of southeastern Montenegro near the Albanian border. Their little region on the coast is beautiful, prosperous, and appears to be more thoroughly Europeanized even than Kosovo.

Ethnic Albanians also live in Macedonia near the Albanian border, and their region of that country is very troubled indeed. I traveled there to meet with some Albanian Sufis who are under attack by radical Sunnis. For a host of complex reasons which I will explain in the next chapter, the Binladensa of the Balkans in Macedonia are successfully Islamicizing, and even Arabizing, parts of the country.

To be continued…

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