Kosova Bans Islamic Headscarf and Religious Instruction in Public Schools
by Stephen Schwartz
In Muslim-majority Kosova last week, as the fasting month of Ramadan came to an end and families prepared for the reopening of public schools, the parliamentary Assembly of the Republic rendered its judgment on a controversy that has agitated the country for more than a year: It voted not to permit the Islamic headscarf (hijab) or any religious instruction in public schools.
The August 29 vote rejected two amendments to the Kosova Constitution on pre-university education. Amendment 7 would have prohibited "discrimination against Muslims in school," and was viewed as a measure favoring girls wearing the headscarf. It failed 43 to 39. Amendment 8 would have introduced religious education in the public schools, a proposition discussed in Kosova since the end of the 1998-99 war. It was voted down 64 to18.
The balloting was preceded by a lively debate. Education minister Ramë Buja warned the parliament that Kosova has constitutionally defined itself as a secular state, and the amendments could therefore be considered in violation of the legal charter. A small Islamist group, the Justice party, led the charge for the amendments. The party has three representatives out of 100 legislators elected by direct ballot, and one member in the cabinet, its chairman Ferid Agani, serving as health minister. The Justice party, which had long presented itself as politically conservative but not openly as a religious party, is included in a curious mélange called the Alliance for New Kosova (AKR in its Albanian-language initials). AKR is headed by Behgjet Pacolli, a businessman with a dubious reputation thanks to his extensive construction contracts in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. As the junior partner in a governing coalition formed in March 2011, Pacolli's AKR is wedded to the dominant political successor of the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA), the Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK) led by Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi.
Opposition to the amendments was pressed by the Alliance for Kosova's Future (AAK), representing more militant nationalists among the KLA's former soldiers, and standing outside the government. AAK representatives declared that Albanians are a nation of three religions—Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox Christian—and that religious doctrines should be kept out of the public schools.
Justice party deputy Gëzim Kelmendi provoked the sharpest exchanges in the debate when he said religion had been included in Kosova's educational curriculum prior to the establishment of Communist rule in the former Yugoslavia after World War II, and that all European Union countries include religious instruction in public schools.
But AAK's Adrian Gjini reminded Kelmendi that there were no Albanian-language schools in Kosova before World War II, adding that in Western schools students are taught Darwinian evolution, and that Kosova should not vary from that model. Kelmendi, the Islamist politician, responded with criticism of Darwinism that elicited loud derision from the AAK deputies.
Justice party head and health minister Agani, as a member of the assembly, also intervened actively in support of the two amendments. A psychiatrist by profession, Agani said that Kosova society as a whole, and especially the young, suffered from the absence of religious instruction in schools. As evidence, he cited a higher suicide rate in the Balkan republic when compared with the 1960s.
Teuta Sahatçia, a female member of the main opposition party, the Democratic League of Kosova, which was not affiliated with the KLA, replied to Agani's claims by noting that there were no religion classes in schools in the 1960s, so that no correlation with suicide rates could be made. Flora Brovina, a well-known doctor, human rights activist, author and member of the ruling PDK, insisted that the amendments would openly breach the constitution, which defines Kosova as a secular state.
Prime Minister Thaçi seemed lukewarm on the issue, commenting that he considered the amendments as reflective of European values and believed they would not conflict with the constitution. His party's deputies, nevertheless, refused to follow his hints, and voted against the new measures.
Agani said that he may resign from his post as health minister in protest against the repudiation of the amendments. He also threatened to promote a national referendum on these issues. Meanwhile, the Islamist movement Join!, which has conducted Muslim prayer services in public spaces, demanding construction of a large mosque in the capital, Prishtina, and which had initiated agitation over the headscarf, held a demonstration of about 1,000 people on September 2, to oppose the parliamentary decision.
Astrit Gashi, editor in chief of the highly-respected Kosova daily Zëri (Voice) wrote that he believed Agani knew the law on headscarves and religion in schools would never pass an Assembly vote, and that the Islamist minister was manipulating Muslim believers whose main grievances were economic.
Zëri has also reported that the Justice party, although small, was troubled internally even before it failed to get legislative approval for the headscarf and religion classes in the public schools. Members were upset that, under Agani's direction, the ministry of health had been inactive, and alleged that Agani exploited his political position to enrich himself.
Far from troubled Kosova itself, on August 31, Arid Uka, 21, a Kosovar Muslim raised in Germany, pled guilty to the murder on March 2, 2011, of American airmen Nicholas J. Alden and Zachary R. Cuddeback, 21, the shooting of two of their companions, Kristoffer Schneider and Edgar Veguilla, and an attempt on another, in a jihadist assault at Frankfurt airport last year. Uka admitted and apologized in court for his actions, which he said were provoked by viewing a video the night before, in which American troops were portrayed as raping a Muslim woman. A verdict in the case is expected in 2012.
But the crime depicted in the clip Uka had watched was a scene from the 2007 Brian DePalma film Redacted. DePalma's feature, based on a 2006 case in Iraq for which five U.S. soldiers were tried and convicted—a point left unmentioned in the movie—was criticized on its release by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif), who wrote to Motion Picture Association of America chairman Dan Glickman: "Unfortunately, Brian de Palma's new movie 'Redacted' . . . portrays American service personnel in Iraq as uncontrollable misfits and criminals. While incidents of criminal behavior by members of our military should never be ignored, the isolated incident on which this film is based negatively portrays American service personnel and misrepresents their collective efforts."