The Balkan’s most famous and influential Islamic figure, Dr. Shefqet Krasniqi, was escorted to a local police station on Thursday 4 September to answer charges relating to the country’s discrimination laws.
The saga began after he led the morning prayer in the main mosque in Kosovo’s capital, Prishtina. A stroll through the local park with his young son was brought to an abrupt end when officers approached him and asked that he accompany them to the station for questioning. It has since transpired that he was actually accused of encouraging people to travel to Syria.[i] This is not only absurd, but an highly tendentious claim when considering that he is among the first imams in Kosovo to denounce going to conflict zones in the Middle East.[ii]
The action taken by authorities was routinely denounced as politically motivated, something which we will touch upon below. For now, it is worth establishing who Dr. Krasniqi is.
He was born in the village of Sibofvc (Kosovo) in 1966, and after attending a local madrasah he went on to enrol and later graduate from the famous University of Medina, Saudi Arabia, where he also attained his doctorate. He is an expert in Islamic law, a master orator, a veteran of the Kosovo War and the author of many books. Since 2009, he also sits on the board of the Union of Muslim Scholars based out of Qatar and headed by influential Islamic scholar, Yusuf Qaradawi.
As news broke of his albeit brief internment, a media storm erupted as many took to social media to protest the move by Kosovo’s authorities. All online news sites ran the story, in some cases dominating with as many as four front-page articles. The news was first broken by Koha.net, part of the larger KOHA media group owned by Flaka Suroi – sister of Veton Suroi, an influential political figure (some prefer ‘oligarch’) in Kosovo, described as ‘pro-Western’ by western diplomats in reports found on whistleblower site, Wikileaks.
Incidentally, many in the local press gloated upon hearing the news, with one infamous Islamophobic news portal struggling to contain its excitement as it declared the imam was arrested for ‘spreading extremist Islam’. Such reactions are predictable as a notorious cohort in the media continuously accuses religious authorities in the country of allowing radicals to infiltrate their ranks, a charge the Islamic Community of Kosovo vehemently denies. Indeed, the wider Islamic community and other commentators often accuse elements of the media in Kosovo of fueling anti-Muslim bigotry in the country. There is obvious truth to the claim, with the emergence of a post-9/11 discourse which views Islam through the prism of security a well-documented phenomenon that need not be repeated here.
What concerns us here are recent events in Kosovo. Here, as in other parts of the world, the demonization of Muslims is done via stereotyped tropes about Muslims practicing aspects of the faith such as the hijab or beard. This despite the fact that Kosovo has a long and rich tradition of Islam dating back 600-years (indeed, the mosque where Krasniqi preaches dates back to 1460). But this doesn’t stop elements of the local press from employing their sophistry to demonize Islam in the country. The same media is often accused by many commentators, which I write about below, of being used by the government to distract public attention when it is embroiled in a scandal or it wishes to make unpopular deals with Serbia, Kosovo’s former master who it split from in 2008.
Kosovo’s anti-terror drive
Allegations of extremism among Kosovars has become a fact of life in official discourse among segments of the political elite for a number of years now. This in spite of the fact that Kosovo remains the most pro-Western country in the Balkans, where over 50,000 NATO troops and countless other internationals were welcomed following the 1998-9 war with Serbia. Needless to say, none of these were ever attacked by ‘the extremists’ which some politicians would have us believe are widespread. Despite the West’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the rise in hostility towards its foreign policies in the Muslim world, Kosovars remain pro-Western (but maybe not in the way the Wall Street Journal reported in 2008 in an article titled ‘Kosovo’s Moderate Muslims: The world’s newest country is a model of tolerance’).[iii]
Krasniqi’s brief internment comes in the wake of the high-profile arrest of forty Kosovars in August for terrorism charges relating to Syria and Iraq. This events needs to be mentioned in some detail to appreciate the issue fully.
In mid-August forty men, including one imam, were among those arrested (the former put under house arrest for allegedly taking part in a recruitment drive). Reaction to the arrests were swift and damning. Besnik Berisha, lawyer for one of the accused, rubbished the court’s claims of extremism.[iv] He claimed that only a handful of the accused had actually been to Syria, though returning soon after, having found the situation too complex. Moreover, Berisha told media that strong pressure had been put on the judiciary by politicians to charge the men, casting doubt on the sincerity of the arrests and on the independence of the judiciary itself. Judges nevertheless ordered that the men be remanded in custody for thirty days – the maximum period of confinement without charge. Since, eleven have been released from jail following appeals.[v]
Reactions to the spectacular arrests also came from different quarters. Director for Rockefeller Brothers in the Balkans, Haki Abazi, a veteran of development programs around the world, also cast doubt on the necessity of such a high-profile police operation when he commented rather sarcastically that he hoped such arrests were not being used for political points-scoring, or banal attempts to show the outgoing government as a loyal ally of the international community.[vi] He then goes on to point-black accuse the government and president of trying to portray all Kosovars as extremists so as to show that they were ‘tackling extremism’ in light of recent events in Iraq. He queries, for example, why similar arrests hadn’t occurred in other parts of the Balkans.
Yet criticisms of Kosovo’s recent ‘anti-terror drive’ do not stop there. Researcher Arber Fetiu called the arrests a ‘spectacle’ before going on to dismantle the types of tropes used by political elites and commentators to disparage Islam in Kosovo, whereby if one were to speak in favor of the hijab, they would automatically be labeled an ‘extremist’. Fetiu accuses authorities of practicing a new type of McCarthyism, whereby religious extremism becomes the pretext for the removal of fundamental rights.[vii]This would seem to the case already when we consider that even supposedly liberal papers in the country, such as the popular Zeri, published the names of the accused under the title ‘Here are the names of the jihadists!’.
LISBA, a local Islamist party, denounced Prime Minister Hashim Thaci for having orchestrated the arrests as a means of showing his ‘worth’ to the West.[viii] The party accuses Thaci of being under the influence of foreign forces which demand he deal harshly with any signs of Islam in the country. In a more provocative communiqué for the media, the Muslim Youth Forum (MYF), a local NGO, called the arrests an abuse of power and ‘anti-democratic’ and demanded that foreign minister Enver Hoxhaj be arrested for previously siding with the Syrian rebels and thereby encouraging Albanians to fight abroad.[ix] Members of the Forum routinely complain of abuse and harassment at the hands of the authorities, though NGOs and intellectuals on the ground remain silent. Many cite the organization’s often ‘inflammatory’ statements as reasons why they do not defend them.
Such reactions to the arrests – and the questioning of Dr. Krasniqi – also need to be appreciated in light of a tense domestic political scene. Tension arising from high unemployment and corruption is compounded by a hung parliament following July elections where no party gained a majority. One commentator recently described this as the country’s ‘biggest political crises since independence.’[x] The crux of the matter is that the incumbent PDK of Thaci is facing a potent challenge launched by a coalition of three other big parties. Oddly, Thaci has within his own coalition the PD, a conservative party with roots in political Islam. It is unclear if recent events will shake this coalition.
However, what is clearer is that the PD’s deputies are squarely behind Dr. Krasniqi. One of these, the popular Gezim Kelmendi, came out strongly in support of Dr. Krasniqi following his release. Kelmendi said he ‘never doubted the imam’ and that he was ‘proud of him and proud to defend him’. Albin Kurti, leader of the left-wing nationalist Vetevendosje! (VV) party also seemingly came out against the questioning of Krasniqi as he argued that ‘religious extremism is invented by the government … instead of speaking about our ancient enemy, they seek to find one somewhere else’. These comments were reported by popular Islamic news source, ‘Info Islame’, citing earlier comments made to the country’s main news carrier, RTK.[xi] VV had earlier released a communiqué following the high-profile arrests detailed above. They accused the government of inventing an ‘Islamic threat’ so as to distract from their own blatant corruption.[xii]Prominent political activist from across the border in Macedonia, Kim Mehmeti, weighed in on the debate via his popular Facebook page, by also accusing Balkan elites of using religion and concocted ideas of religious extremism to mask their own corruption.[xiii]
Bucking the trend, the US Ambassador to Kosovo expressed her delight to Voice of America (as reported in Kosova Press) at the way authorities had handled ‘religious extremism’ in the country.[xiv] Such an opinion, devoid of sensitivity for how many people on the ground are viewing events, comes on the back of the State Department’s report on religious freedoms released in July. The report was met with hysteria in the country by segments of the political and journalistic elite, as it had accused authorities in Kosovo of not doing enough to curb extremism. It is noteworthy that a few days after the report the high-profile arrests took place and the ‘anti-terror’ drive began in earnest.
Commenting on this, Dr. Jazexhi, a historian and commentator, argued that the report was littered with inaccuracies and designed to pressure Kosovo authorities to become even more militantly secular.[xv] In an article titled ‘Suppression of Islam in Kosovo’ he accused embassies in Kosovo of trying to undermine Islam in the country by excluding observant Muslims from public life. He blames these forces for the increasingly militant secularism coming from political elites, culminating in a ban on headscarves in public schools. This is besides the fact that many law scholars argue that there is no basis either in the law or in Kosovo’s social context meriting such a ban.[xvi] The ‘American installed rulers’ have funded a raft of NGOs – even appointing its president – who go on to attack Islam and Muslims in the country, argues Dr. Jazexhi. Such endeavors, he comments, has left Kosovars in a worse position than their pre-war existence in Yugoslavia.
As we have seen, the government’s anti-terror drive has been routinely criticized by scholars, commentators and politicians alike. Whether such an approach will lead to greater upheaval is unlikely. Imams in Kosovo are popular and have large followings and the official Islamic Community has hitherto supported the security services right to challenge extremism.[xvii] Their response to the incidents involving Krasniqi reveal the institutions limits however, as a spokesman for the first time expressed the Community’s ‘concern’ over the questioning of Krasniqi.[xviii]
What is undeniable is that Kosovo’s political elite face several huge problems and the religion card is often used to distract away from their own failures. Serbia continues to agitate, and in August several Albanians lost their lives in firefights with Serb forces – incidents largely ignored by the international media. The economy is also in tatters thanks to crude neoliberal policies and privatization programs demanded by the EU and the US. Corruption is also rife.
The saga involving Shefqet Krasniqi in particular is also set to continue, owing to his popularity. But such tactics by the government will serve no purposeful end in dealing with the country’s problems – problems which were poignantly mentioned by German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, in a Western Balkans summit held in Berlin in early September where she argued that ‘people in the Balkans are tired of corruption’.[xix] Foreign embassies, principally western ones, would do well to use their influence to urge the Kosovo government to reduce its brazen hostility towards the Islamic community and focus instead on the real enemy holding back development: organized crime, corruption and a pitiful economic situation. Perhaps, though, as their detractors argue, they prefer the chaos.
[ix] The Muslim Youth Forum often complains of harassment by the country’s security services, For source to declaration, see http://zeri.info/artikulli/45080/forumi-i-te-rinjve-muslimane-i-denon-arrestimet
[xv] O. Jazexhi, Suppression of Islam in Kosovo, 2014, http://www.worldbulletin.net/headlines/142108/suppression-of-islam-in-kosovo
[xvi] T. Perkins, Unveiling Muslim Women: The Constitutionality of Hijab Restrictions in Turkey, Tunisia and Kosovo, 2012, https://www.bu.edu/law/central/jd/organizations/journals/international/volume30n2/documents/note_perkins.pdf ; see also A. Akbar The Media and the Headscarf: Kosovo Public Schools Edition (not the final episode), 2013, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mmw/2013/02/the-media-and-the-headscarf-kosovo-public-schools-edition-not-the-final-episode/
[xvii] Following the arrests in August it released a statement in support of the security services actions, or rather, any actions which guarantee the safety of the country, see http://www.bislame.net/njoftime/615-dklaks
[xix] http://www.telegrafi.com/lajme/merkel-qytetaret-e-vendeve-te-ballkanit-perendimor-te-merzitur-me-korrupsionin-2-49917.htmlLast Mod: 17 Eylül 2014, 11:18