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Lost in Conversion?

October 23, 2008

By Chris Deliso

When Kosovo’s Albanians celebrated the major Muslim holiday of Bajram, at the end of September, more than a few worshipers were conspicuous for their absence.

A trickle of media articles over the past few months have dealt with the issue of religion in Kosovo from a relatively unreported angle: the curious phenomenon of conversion. Apparently, Albanians in this Muslim-majority statelet have been increasingly ‘returning’ to the Catholic religion, which their ancestors had forsaken centuries ago.

This story is interesting and relevant in its own right, but has become particularly revealing in light of the way it has been developed in the media, something that raises another set of issues. Whereas early reports of a new trend towards conversion mentioned the fact that Albanians had been Christians before the Ottomans arrived in the 14th century, and converted thereafter, only recently have reports begun adding an element of victimology to the narrative.

For example, a Sept. 28 Reuters report that took the pulse of recently reborn Catholics in Kosovo claimed that ‘the majority of ethnic Albanians were forcibly converted to Islam, mostly through the imposition of high taxes on Catholics, when the Ottoman Empire ruled the Balkans.’

This almost seems to imply that other Christians were threatened with taxation by the Turks, but did not convert. It also ignores that in several places at different times, Christians seeking to convert were actually prevented from doing so because the Ottomans prudently sought they would lose a local tax base for relatively little in return.

Reuters’ description of ‘forcible conversion’ as something to be equated with desire for social advancement is a strange one. The real things that were forcible for the Ottomans were the forced kidnappings of young Christian men and women for the janissary corps and harems of Constantinople. Although there were far worse things to be suffered than paying high taxes by remaining Christian under the Turks, these were left out. In backwards hinterlands of the empire, as in Kosovo and Bosnia, the local Muslim lords were known for being especially pernicious towards those who did not desert their religion.

Although this disparity led to simmering resentments which had long-term influence, as pointed out by former NSA officer John Schindler in the Bosnian context, the article does not consider how inter-ethnic problems in Kosovo today might perhaps have roots in this phenomenon. Schindler notes that it was particularly in border hinterlands of the empire such as Bosnia and Kosovo that the rule of the Turks and converted local lords loyal to them was especially vicious. The Orthodox Christian Serbs clung to their religion- and suffered under the rule of those who found it expedient to change their own. Understanding the context of local opinions today requires an appreciation of this former relationship.

Within the Albanian community itself, how is the conversion issue playing out? The Kosovars interviewed by Reuters tended to take the ‘crypto-Christian’ route, by which they claimed that their forefathers only pretended to be Muslims: “for centuries, many remembered their Christian roots and lived as what they call ‘Catholics in hiding.’ Some, nearly a century after the Ottomans left the Balkans, now see the chance to reveal their true beliefs.”

The timing is indeed quite impeccable. Yet the experiences of this reporter indicate perhaps another motivation at work. In April, our team visited precisely the same church in Klina where the Reuters piece starts off at with the Sopi family (perhaps related to the famous, deceased Albanian bishop of that name?) However, speaking informally with young Albanians outside the church, a very different concept emerged. As one 20-year-old student put it: “we know that the West does not like Muslims and is against Islam. It is better for us to be Christians again.”

In Pristina, inside a small Catholic church, the caretaker informed us that some 21 people had come in the previous three months to re-embrace the faith; more were expected to emerge. As the Reuters article points out, a large Catholic cathedral is being built here, much to the displeasure of Muslim leaders. The article quotes the head of the Kosovo Islamic community, Mufti Naim Ternava, who is opposed to the building of the new cathedral at the heart of Pristina, as criticizing rural church-building as well: “no human brain can understand how a church should be build in the middle of 13 Muslim villages,” he said.

Supporters of Kosovar Catholicism inevitably point to Mother Teresa, born in nearby Skopje, who has became the symbol of Albanian Christianity far and wide, a cultural process that has brought criticism from Muslim groups in Albania itself. Recent examples of some of these animosities are discussed in my book The Coming Balkan Caliphate: The Threat of Radical Islam to Europe and the West (Praeger Security International, 2007), in which the present author maintains that, in Kosovo the end of the nationalist question (i.e., with the achievement of statehood) is the beginning of the religious one.

After Kosovo’s Albanian leaders declared independence on February 17, some explained the Arab world’s failure to recognize this decree as a sort of revenge. Kosovo had taken so much money and aid from them, but in the end had turned its back on Islam. And, when overt conversion to Catholicism came after simply irreligious Westernization, it was like adding insult to injury. This hypothesis has not been proven, but remains an interesting one. And months later, the Arab world has done little to champion the Kosovar cause.

In a surreal twist, Iran’s relations with Serbia have actually been bolstered more since then than they have with Kosovo. Belgrade’s recent victory at the United Nations, in getting the right to make a case over the legality of Kosovo’s secession, would have been much more difficult had the Arab countries banded together to defend it. Perhaps they are holding out for future concessions?

Nevertheless, some in the Islamist internationale see a definite opportunity in the new Kosovo. The day after Kosovo declared independence on February 17, the Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, stated that “there is no doubt that the independence of Kosovo will be an asset to the Muslim world and further enhance the joint Islamic action.”

The nature of this ‘action’ was left unclear. But from what we have seen over the past decade in Kosovo, it is unlikely to be without dangers.

Although some say it has been definitely defeated, fundamentalist Islam in Kosovo has had a long history and incubation period. Certain Western intelligence agencies believe it still poses a potential long-term problem, if politicians are unable to increase the standard of living and assure real independence.

The arrival of fundamentalist Islam was the result of strong cross-border logistical networks, ‘safe houses’ and propaganda channels blossomed after August 1999, when the United Nations began administering Kosovo following NATO’s bombing campaign. At that point, Wahhabi proselytizers from the Arab world descended on Kosovo in force. They arrived chiefly through humanitarian and cultural organizations, many under the umbrella of the Saudi Joint Committee for the Relief of Kosovo and Chechnya and the Saudi Red Crescent Society. According to numerous former UN officials in Kosovo, however, these ostensibly humanitarian groups spent most of their time building mosques, proselytizing, and paying Albanians monthly stipends to dress and act according to conservative Wahhabi mores.

Although American pressure led to some charities being uprooted following 9/11, many remained durable. A prime example is the RIHS. In 2003, leaked UN police reports and photos indicated the ongoing activities in Kosovo of a Kuwaiti worldwide charity, the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (RIHS), which had been blacklisted by the Bush administration in Pakistan and Afghanistan for having ties to al Qaeda early the year before, and which had, in Albania during the early 1990s, been used to shield terrorists belonging to Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

At the same time in war-torn Bosnia, the RIHS was creating radical youth groups to disseminate jihad propaganda, catering to war orphans and other impressionable young people. The fact that the RIHS had, despite also being implicated in 500 simultaneous bombings in Bangladesh in August 2005, been allowed to continue its activities in Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia came to light in June 2006, with a Bosnian prosecutor’s investigation into some 14 million euros in RIHS funds that mysteriously could not be accounted for. Yet despite reportedly changing its addresses and information frequently in Bosnia, the organization still apparently works freely in the world’s newest independent state, Kosovo.

Along with building hundreds of new mosques, disseminating Islamist propaganda and inculcating it into the young, the proponents of Wahhabism sought to spread their tentacles by establishing an Islamic banking system in rural areas historically prone to isolationism and radicalism. One such charity, Islamic Relief, had already by September 2004 provided 500 loans to impoverished Kosovar farmers and small businessmen, according to “Islamic principles.” In poor areas where the West has shown little interest in supplying aid, the foreign Islamists have been happy to do so.

A further concern here is the convergence of terrorism with organized crime in Kosovo, particularly the global trafficking in human beings, narcotics and weapons. Kosovo has served as a terrorist transfer zone, in which Wahhabi-run villages and mosques became safe harbor for foreigners wanted in Western Europe or in their own countries for terrorism links.

The direct connection between terrorism and narcotics trafficking has been revealed on numerous occasions, as with Norway’s September 2006 arrest of al Qaeda operative Arfan Qadeer Bhatti. He and his accomplices were planning attacks on the US and Israeli embassies in Oslo; according to Norwegian news reports, they even planned to behead the Israeli ambassador. This Pakistani terrorist had connections with a Kosovo Albanian drug lord and even visited Pristina and Pec, a small town in western Kosovo, where he could administer to one of Kosovo’s largest Wahhabi flocks.

Nevertheless, radical Islam has failed to catch on with the masses, and the Vatican – led by a Europe-focused German Pope – is eager to build on its success in spreading Catholicism more widely.

An Italian journalist specializing in security issues who has conducted investigations in Kosovo, Paola Casoli, stated for Balkanalysis.com that the Catholic church’s “[ecumenical] concept and the huge network of relations due to the Vatican’s foreign politics [means] the presence of the Vatican through its representatives on the ground is obvious enough.”

According to Casoli, the church’s different approach to dealing with local Albanians also accounts for its success. “Add also the presence of ecclesiastic or ecclesiatic-related organizations, such as Caritas,” she says, citing a young Catholic Albanian, who maintained that the church “remained close to people’s needs, instead of [the Muslim groups that were] building mosques in every village.”

Casoli also sees the success of Catholicism in Kosovo these days as partially linguistic in nature. “Islamism imposes Arabic when addressing God and praying to Him,” she says, “whereas Albanians speak Albanian and not Arabic as their mother tongue,” and thus prefer this form of worship.

The reaction of Kosovo’s Muslim leaders has been fairly muffled, in part, Casoli maintains, because of a desire not to attract attention to their own movement.

At present, any danger of disputes or clashes between Catholic and Muslim Albanians is much more likely in Albania itself, where Islamic groups are more vocal.

The most active is the multilingual (Albanian, English and Turkish) non-governmental organization, the Muslim Forum of Albania, which has consistently spoken out against ‘Christianizing’ efforts, the veneration of Mother Teresa, and against criticism of Islam in general. The organization employs the modern guise of Islamic activism – that is, aiming its directives to the ‘international community’ and speaking the language of political correctness – in achieving its goals.

The most recent example, a press release from June directed to the OSCE, exemplifies this tactic. It is also ironic in light of the media’s recent focus on forced conversion to Islam in Ottoman days. Au contraire, opines the MFA: “what concerns our Forum the most are the many comments that have been made in Albania during these recent years where Islam has been depicted as a religion that goes contrary to Europe and the myth which claims that it was imposed upon the Albanians by Turkey. Comments that belittle the Muslims, Turkey and depict the Albanians as Christians converted by force in Islam have unfortunately found their way even [into] the Albanian school textbooks [in] recent years.”

Clearly, matters of religious belief are still being shaped by divergent historical interpretation in the Balkans today. If it were only a question of spirited debate, however, things would be relatively tame. However, a series of low-profile incidents, most unreported, continue. They include defacement of monuments in the north and churches in the Greek-minority south. One of the most interesting questions for the future is the extent to which a Catholic-Muslim divide in Kosovo will be felt in neighboring Albania, a country with strong social and historical connections.

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