by Erik Resly, Senior Balkans Associate, Institute on Religion and Public Policy
While fires blaze in Baghdad and Washington-housed politicians devise security strategies for the Middle East, the impending status of Kosovos independence looms among the rafters of the international communitys multi-pronged War on Terror. Geographically and ethnically kin to a nation recently heralded by US President Bush as a model of religious tolerance, 1 the UN-monitored province of Kosovo, demographically composed of a sobering 92% ethnic Albanian majority 2 (as opposed to a less than 10% minority prior to the Great Serb Migrations 3), remains far from utopian. Rather, the territory presents a fertile ground for the long-since documented rise of extremism. With an explosion of Saudi-funded petro-dollar-mosques and Madrasas now dotting the agrarian landscape, while the newly formed hard-line Serbian nationalist Guard of Tsar Lazar anxiously waits on the northeastern sideline with bullets, 4 the fate of Kosovos future could very well determine long-term stability (or lack thereof) in Europes forgotten and neglected backyard.
The Islamization of Kosovo, dating back to the conquest of Islamic Ottoman Turks in 1459 and the subsequent centuries-long conversion and dhimmitude techniques, has experienced a surge in potency over the last ten years. The rhetorical humanitarian 78-day NATO-led intervention in 1999 introduced a myriad of destabilizing forces into the region. Most significantly, Kosovos population, aggravated by the failures of the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) to address local needs and provide comprehensive governance, has largely welcomed the entrance of faith-based organizations, distributing food, clothing, and shelter, into community affairs. While such efforts deserve praise for, according to Kosovo health official Dr. Dardani Arifaj, easing the suffering of the people at a time of calamities, 5 one should not forget that there is no such thing as a free lunch.
One of the most active players, the Saudi Joint Committee for the Relief of Kosova and Chechnya, has additionally poured significant funds into education. Its robust aid program has supported the construction of more than 98 specialized Koranic primary and secondary schools in the regions most rural areas. Reminiscent in its mechanics of the Taliban program in Pakistan, this monopolization of Kosovos spiritual and educational life by Saudi agencies should not be dismissed as irrelevant, for the newly trained generation of Kosovan Muslims could very well translate its increasing sense of persecution and neglect into a volatile attitude toward other religious and ethnic groups.
Further, the formal alliance of Kosovos former Minister of Health, Numan Balic, and numerous Saudi organizations has allowed for the integration of Wahhabi proselytizing institutions into Kosovos political and cultural institutions. In the most extreme case, as Dr. Isa Blumi maintains, the international communitys ill-conceived policies for Kosovos rural Muslim population may prove to be directly responsible for the production of Europes own Taliban. 6 In November 2006, for example, the BBC revealed that strong Wahhabi cells of Saudi Arabian origin had taken hold in the Kosovo villages of Planjane and Racane. 7 In May of this year, four plotters, who identified as Islamic militants and trace their roots back to Kosovo and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), were caught preparing a terrorist attack on Fort Dix, New Jersey. 8
The eruption of violence in March 2004, involving over 50,000 individuals in at least 30 separate incidents, which claimed the lives of 19 civilians and injured over 900 persons, precisely demonstrates the current threat of ethnic and religious conflict in the region. The March attacks on centers of cultural and religious life for Kosovo's minority communities resulted in the desecration of approximately 36 historical churches and monasteries, in addition to over 104 churches and other religious places that had been ruined, damaged and/or desecrated in the past decade. While remarkably few of the Serbian Orthodox sites in Kosovo have as of yet been restored, the number of mosques that have been constructed is estimated at over 200, heavily funded by Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern states like Iran and the UAE. 9 This process of religious mapping undoubtedly has lasting symbolic and political repercussions.
While UNMIKs record in keeping extremism at bay proves anything but praiseworthy, there is little reason to believe that an independent Kosovo would fare any better. In fact, the devastating blow to Serbia (let alone international legal precedent) that internationally-sanctioned independence would deal could work to alienate the most viable and invested contender in the protection of Kosovos moderate religious voice. Resisting the recognition of Kosovos potential unilateral declaration of independence as spearheaded by Congressmen Tom Lantos, knee-deep in over $10,000 of Albanian-American contributions in 2006 alone, 10 must remain a top priority for American diplomats. For once, reneging on belligerently absolutist enough is enough rhetoric while actively reengaging Prishtina and Belgrade in diplomatic negotiations that do not, as Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht articulates, say in advance what the result will be, 11 may prove to be Americas most effective strategy in preventing extremism from further escalating within the black hole of Europe.
After all, as Berat Buzhala, editor of the Kosovo daily newspaper Express, reminds us, it is... not melodramatic to stress how destructive the consequences of a wrong decision for Kosovo could be.