Those who feared Kosovo’s declaration of independence would lead to an Islamic state in the heart of Europe’s Balkan Peninsula will be happy to learn that its parliament voted to ban Islamic headscarves in schools by a modest margin and overwhelmingly to ban religious instruction in schools.
I, for one, am not the least bit surprised. Hardly anyone there wears the headscarf in the first place. I see about the same number of headscarves in Seattle as in Kosovo’s capital Pristina. Kosovo is culturally European, not Middle Eastern. It is as unlike Egypt and Saudi Arabia as any place on earth possibly can be.
In case you missed it when I first published it, I wrote a dispatch from Kosovo and Albania (roughly 90 percent of Kosovars are ethnic Albanians) for City Journal three years ago.
Here are some excerpts:
Kosovo’s brand of Islam may be the most liberal in the world. I saw no more women there wearing conservative Islamic clothing—one or two per day at most—than I’ve seen in Manhattan. There is no gender apartheid even in Kosovo’s villages. Alcohol flows freely in restaurants, cafés, and bars, where you’ll see as many young women in sexy outfits as you’d find in any Western European country. Aside from the minarets on the skyline, there is no visible evidence that Kosovo is a Muslim-majority country at all.
“Here people are Muslims, but they think like Europeans,” says Xhabir Hamiti, a professor in the Islamic studies department at the University of Pristina in Kosovo’s capital. “Muslims here identify themselves as Muslim Lite,” an American police officer tells me. As Afrim Kostrati, a young bartender, puts it: “We are Muslims, but not really.” And Luan Berisha, an entrepreneur, agrees: “We were never practicing Muslims like they are in the Middle East. . . . First of all, we are Albanians. Religion comes second.”
Religion in Kosovo is a private matter, not a public one. “We never talk about it,” Berisha says. “I just found out, one year ago, that a very good friend of mine is Catholic, and we have been friends for the last ten years.” One Muslim woman tells me how startled she was when she attended a conference in Britain about young people who change the world. “I was shocked to find that the representative of the U.S.A. was a covered lady, originally from Iraq,” she says. “And the representative from Canada was another, originally from Afghanistan.” She herself was wearing shorts.
The reason for Kosovo’s relaxed attitude toward religion lies in its history. Albanians, including those in Kosovo, are the descendants of ancient pagan Greeks and Illyrians; more recently, they were Christian before the majority converted to Islam under Turkish Ottoman rule. Their religion may be Eastern, but Albanians have been culturally European for all of recorded history. “The Greeks hardly regard them as Christians, or the Turks as Moslems, and in fact they are a mixture of both, and sometimes neither,” Lord Byron wrote of them almost 200 years ago. “We Albanians,” writes Catholic priest Dom Lush Gjergji, “descendants of the Illyrians, are Christians from the time of the Apostles. . . . Without Christianity there would be no Albanian people, language, culture, or traditions . . . Albanians consider Christianity their patrimony, their spiritual and cultural inheritance.”
Kosovar Muslims talk the same way. In fact, the feeling is reflected in the Albanian national flag, which flies all over Kosovo, despite minimal support for a “greater Albania.” Its black double-headed eagle is the seal of Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, who led the resistance against the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century. This national hero of a Muslim-majority country was Catholic.
Indeed, another sign of Kosovo’s complex religious identity involves the “crypto-Catholics,” those who just went through the motions of converting to Islam under the Ottomans. Kosovo’s cemeteries hold many tombstones engraved with Muslim names yet bearing the Catholic cross. Even now, the crypto-Catholics’ descendants are still “christened,” so to speak, with Muslim names, and then baptized into the church.
Many Kosovars are starting to convert “back” to Christianity. Café owner Gazi Berlajolli ascribes the trend partly to American influence. “Most of these people were atheists and agnostics, but they don’t want to be seen as atheist Muslims,” Berlajolli adds. “So they needed to convert to something else. They want to be able to put ‘Christian’ on their pages on Facebook.”
After concluding my Kosovo trip, I attended a conference in Tirana, Albania, called “Albania, the Albanians, and the Holocaust.” Among those in attendance were Albania’s prime minister and president. Dan Michman, chief historian at Jerusalem’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, was one of the speakers. “Is it really true that Jews had a 100 percent survival rate here during the Nazi occupation?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he said. “Actually, if you look inside the borders of ‘Little Albania’—excluding Kosovo and the Albanian regions of Montenegro and Macedonia—there were three times as many Jews living here at the end of the Holocaust as there were before the war started.” Albanians, Christian and Muslim alike, refused to surrender Jews to the Nazi authorities, and Jews were safer among Albanians than they were anywhere else in Nazi-controlled Europe.
At the conference, Albanian prime minister Sali Berisha delivered a thundering condemnation of Islamist radicals that you’d be unlikely to hear from a head of state anywhere else in Europe. “Israel will accept an independent Palestinian state,” he said. “But Israel cannot accept the fundamentalists amongst Palestinians because their ideology is identical to that of the Nazis.”