Arab Spring Gives Way to Summer of Protest in Balkans
The 14th c. CE Stone (Kosova) Mosque, Prishtina.
On Friday, July 1, Prishtina, the capital of the Kosova Republic, saw some 1,000 Albanian Muslims praying in the main, downtown open-air square, while demanding space for a new and large mosque. The demonstration was the second such event in two weeks.
For those who know Kosova, the phenomenon was surprising and bizarre. Prishtina has notable mosques built in the classical Ottoman style. They include two in the very center of town, only yards from the place where the demonstration was held. The Stone Mosque, so-called because of the stone cap on its minaret (the cap would more typically be metallic), is also known as the "Kosova mosque" because it is believed to have been erected to commemorate the 1389 Turkish victory in the battle of the same name.
Across the way, the Imperial Mosque dates from the 15th century and provides a larger prayer space; it has come under the domination of a radical preacher, Shefqet Krasniqi. Nearby is a more recent Saudi-built mosque. Others constructed with financing from the Gulf states are found elsewhere in the city. Indeed, being 90 percent Muslim, Kosova has more than 500 mosques. While at least 40 percent were vandalized by Serbian forces during the 1998-99 Kosova war, most have been reconstructed and refurbished.
The July 1 pro-mosque demonstration took place after Friday collective prayer at the Stone Mosque, which would seem to negate the claim made by its promoters, a group that calls itself the "Join!" movement (Bashkohu! in Albanian), that they lack adequate facilities for religious observances. The night before, the Kosova police warned participants not to block any public thoroughfares, since the organizers of the "protest" had refused to apply for a permit to assemble, and one man had been arrested in the similar demonstration by some 300 Muslims the week before. Notwithstanding its Muslim-majority culture, Kosova is a rigorously secular state. When the July 1 mass meeting was held, however, police were replaced by a "security force" from the so-called "Join!" movement, who were dressed in blue and white shirts, and who prevented journalists from approaching the gathering.
In Kosovar media, the need for a new, big mosque as a pretext for the demonstrations was rejected, and attention was focused on the individual who organized them and the "Join!" group – Fuad Ramiqi, a Kosovar Islamist involved in the Gaza "flotilla" last year, as reported here. With the new "flotilla" crossing the Mediterranean from Greece to Gaza at least delayed, Ramiqi had an incentive to keep busy by starting trouble in Kosova. But the Kosova public, and international media, also noticed that the outdoor assembly was distinctly anti-Catholic in tone. Catholics account for 10-25 percent of all Albanians, and represent an important social and cultural force in Kosova.
Catholic Albanians in the republic and around the world have contributed to the establishment in Prishtina of a cathedral named for Mother Teresa, who was born in Macedonia of Kosovar Albanian parents. The proposal for the cathedral was approved by the local authorities in 2002. Before his death in 2006, Ibrahim Rugova, the first president of Kosova after 1999, and a Muslim by birth, participated in the blessing of its cornerstone. Construction, which is still underway, began in 2007, at a busy site in the newer, easterly part of the city, near the University of Prishtina.
The anti-Catholic attitude prevalent among Ramiqi's group was obvious enough to foreign reporters; the Associated Press noted that "a banner appeared on a mosque wall showing a green light by a photograph of a Christian cathedral and a red light beneath one of a mosque." A member of the protesting group, who identified himself as Ramzi Berisha, commented plaintively, "We just want a place for us… to pray out of the open." The Wahhabi preacher Shefqet Krasniqi, mentioned above, supported the demonstrations demanding a grander mosque and also claimed that Muslims in Kosova are forced to pray outside, "in the street under the summer heat and in the winter when it is cold." But outdoor Muslim prayer is rare in Kosova except at funerals… and Islamist agitational events.
Ramiqi and his pro-Hamas network seem to have more reasons to disrupt interfaith relations in Kosova. The Prishtina newspaper Express, which has led coverage of radical Islamist infiltration and attacks on local, traditional Kosovar Muslims during the past two years, declared over the weekend that Ramiqi serves as a front-man in extremist ideological activities for Naim Tërnava, the official head of the Kosova Islamic Community. Tërnava has come under severe criticism from Muslim clerics in smaller towns and villages for his orientation toward Wahhabism.
Express quoted Mullah Osman Musliu of the municipality of Drenas, one of the most outspoken anti-radical Kosovar Muslim figures and a veteran of the Kosova Liberation Army, who accused Tërnava of responsibility for Ramiqi's activities. According to Musliu, a victim of physical attacks by Wahhabis in the republic, "Naim Tërnava can manipulate these people. When he does not want things done under his own roof, he can call on Islamic non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to carry out protests." Musliu accused Tërnava and "his clan" of receiving generous support from foreign Islamist NGOs, for which the top Kosova cleric has never offered an accounting.
Express reported that a movement against Tërnava has gained the support of imams in the towns of Hani të Elezit, Vitia, Klina, and Podujeva, among others. The imam of the main Podujeva mosque, Idriz Bilalli, like Musliu, called out Tërnava for his links with radical Muslim NGOs, declaring that Tërnava had appointed their leaders to responsible positions in the Kosova Islamic apparatus because of their financial assets
As in the past, the Express online comment column included blunt remarks supporting the moderates and repudiating radical Islam. A Prishtina commentator named Bardhi wrote, "We must cultivate a liberal Islam, not that of Bin Laden or the Wahhabis, to preserve our Kosova." A similar resident of the capital, under the name "Albanik Shqipari," emphasized, "The question of the mosque is not the cause of these events. Rather, it is a desire to dominate the naïve Muslims." Yet another individual from Prishtina, signing as "Gur," wrote, "All these Wahhabi beards are paid for… we have enough mosques. We need more work." And perhaps the most appropriate remark was offered by a resident of Tirana, the capital of Albania proper: "Faith is not measured by the size of a mosque or a church."
Through the events of the so-called "Arab Spring" – better called the "Muslim Spring" because of the importance of the Iranian reform movement in assessing its outcome – rumor has spread in the Balkans that a "summer of protest" would soon arrive there.
So far, it appears that a "Balkan summer," like the preceding upsurge in Muslim lands, will reflect discontent with radicalism and demands for open-minded advancement.