Belmont Club

The ethnic and the religious

Michael Totten looks at the influence of Wahabi groups in Kosovo. These groups made their debut during the civil war, when the anti-Milosevic forces were forced by necessity to welcome all comers. Totten recounts:

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.

At the seeming root of the antipathy between the Kosovars and the Wahabis is a de-facto schism between European Muslim culture and that of the Middle East. Michael Totten notes that while the two may have some nominal points in common, there are deep and probably irreconcilable differences between them.

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.

The difference between Arab and European may ultimately dominate the affinity between one variety of Muslim and another. The fact that different ethnicities in the Balkans tend to adopt a common religion often gives outsiders the impression that ethnic warfare is really religious strife. That would be confusing the proxy indicator for the real thing. “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.” Michael Totten’s observation in the Balkans raises the interesting possibility that the widely feared “Islamization” of Europe is really the dual of the intentional deprecation of national cultures by its elites. That the rapid decline of Christianity in Western Europe has less to do with attractions of Islam than as indicator of the rate at which the multicultral project is dismantling formerly vibrant traditions.

What is striking in Michael Totten’s record of conversations with Kosovar Muslims is the extent to which they are grateful to America for the chance to save their culture even from the Bin Ladenists; a reminder if any were needed of the central role of ethnic identity in the Balkans. In the eyes of Kosovar Muslims the Wahabis were just another species of foreigner. But if the Wahabis were foreigners they were also rich foreigners. Michael describes how they went so far as to pay the locals to dress in the “Islamic”, but more accurately, the Arab Way.

“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.

While the Wahabis may appear to be exporting “religion” in the eyes Western intellectuals, from the point of view of those whose sense of ethnic identity is still strong they are really seen to be imposing an alien culture. It is remarkable how, with all the thousands of pages devoted to campaign in Iraq, how few pundits have noticed how deftly MNF-I used Iraqi tribal identities to isolate the Arab-led al Qaeda; how adroitly Petraeus and his staff divined the subtle difference between terrorism as a pan-Muslim phenomenon and its specific expression as a Middle Eastern cultural meme. They understood the difference when the public intellectuals did not. People on the ground — like Michael Totten — can similarly see the situation from a standpoint an intellectual writing from New York might miss. This hilarious passage captures the essential alien-ness of the Wahabi culture in the Balkans and incidentally illustrates a peculiar Western blindness: how the politically correct intelligensia’s idea of an “authentic” Muslim woman as a “covered” woman might be as ridiculous as the idea that Fortune Cookies and General Tso’s Chicken are authentic classic Chinese cuisine. Totten had this conversation with an academic who was astounded to see stage Muslims paraded around by the acme of Western multilateral sophistication.

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 [part of the United Nations Mission to 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.

This very authentic T’ang Dynasty fortune cookieThe interpreter probably had to dress the part more for the benefit of the Welsh than for European Muslims themselves. The greatest advantage that Wahabism may enjoy in its creeping Jihad is its ability to take advantage of the credulousness and ignorant vanity of the Western multicultural elite. It recalls an incident in 1910 when Virginia Woolf boarded the HMS Dreadnought posing as interpreter for the entourage of “Sultan of Zanzibar” who affected to inspect the ship. The fake diplomatic delegation, all of whom were really British, would periodically “stop in admiration of naval wonders and fling their arms in the air shouting, ‘Bunga-Bunga.'” The British officers probably took “Bunga-bunga” to be as authentic an expression of upper class Zanzibarian delight as the OCSE thinks head to foot covering is an expression of European Muslim piety. Which only proves that while battleships may rust, ignorance is evergreen.

Tip Jar.