Religion in Kosova Today
by Executive Director Stephen Schwartz
In 2000 – against much obstruction by my colleagues – I wrote a report for the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Prishtina titled Religion in Kosovo. Like other ICG reports, the document was unsigned. As many Albanians, in Kosova, Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, and the diaspora are aware, I am a Sufi Muslim. But I have also worked extensively, mainly pro bono, to support the Albanian Catholic Church. Indeed, my introduction to all things Albanian, and, paradoxically, the commencement of my active journey to Islam, began with my acquaintance and common work with Gjon Sinishta (1930-1995), founder of the Albanian Catholic Bulletin, whom I have called "my second father."
All conscious Albanians know the verse of Pashko Vasa Shkodrani (1825-92), the Catholic governor of Lebanon under the Ottomans:
"Wake, Albanian, from your slumber,
Let us, brothers, swear in common
And not look to church or mosque,
The Albanian's faith is Albanianism!" (Version of R. Elsie)
Since knowing Sinishta, becoming Muslim, and living and working in, while writing about, the Albanian lands, I have treasured these verses, and have taught "the lesson of the Albanians" – the refusal of religious conflict – to every non-Albanian I have met.
For these reasons, I was dismayed to read a blog column by Anna DiLellio reprinted in Illyria's issue of May 23-26, 2008, and titled "Kosovars and Catholics." While I will not prognosticate at length on the future of religion in Albania , I must take issue with some of DiLellio's statements.
1. DiLellio states that while Serbs argue that Albanian Islam is radicalizing, in her view, "Islam might be withering away." This is an extremely provocative claim, unsupported by the evidence as I have seen it. Such an argument makes me wonder if DiLellio is aware of the vigorous activity of the Sufi tariqats in Kosova today, including the Bektashi order, which contributed numerous combatants to the struggle of the Kosova Liberation Army, such as the martyred Luan Haradinaj. I have written about the vitality of Albanian Sufism, which cannot be doubted, in my new book, The Other Islam: Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony, to be published by Doubleday in September 2008.
In addition, the Center for Islamic Pluralism, of which I am Executive Director, has worked extensively with Sunni Muslims in Kosova and Albania . It seems improbable to me that the faith of Muhammad will undergo wholesale decline among Albanians. Nor should it; Albanian Islam is a precious resource of moderation in the global Islamic community. The loss of individual Muslims will not harm the welfare of the Islamic ummah; the disappearance of Albanian Islam would be a devastating blow to the Albanian nation if not the world, by removing a European bulwark against radical Islam.
DiLellio clearly knows little about Islam as a faith; at the beginning of her text she describes Albanian Muslims as "episodically observant." But dedication to ritual is not a traditional standard for judging Islamic devotion. In mainstream Muslim theology, intentions count more than actions, and "episodic observance" does not dilute one's Islam. The belief that Muslims should be dedicated to exhibitionistic observance is a radical, extremist, and relatively new precept.
2. DiLellio states that Ismet Sopi, an alleged Muslim convert to Christianity in the town of Lapushnik, and head of a family of 32 that followed him in this decision, declared that "320 or 3,200" people in the district intend to leave Islam. This is an inflammatory claim that cannot be helpful for maintaining interreligious unity among Albanians. In addition, however, the main coverage of this "event," in the Kosova periodical Express, overlooked the possibility that the Sopi family were Laramani, or "crypto-Catholics," small communities of Albanians in which family heads became Muslim to avoid payment of the jizya tax on non-Muslims, but women remained Catholic. Return of Laraman family heads to open Christianity has not been considered departure from Islam, since such families practiced both faiths for many centuries.
3. DiLellio states as fact that "mass conversion to Catholicism" was "the dream of the late President Ibrahim Rugova." Rumors that Rugova held to such a belief have circulated in Kosova for years. There is, to my knowledge, no documentary evidence that Rugova actually embraced this view. If DiLellio possesses such information, she should publish it.
She further states this "idea was an instinctive reaction against the isolation experienced by the Muslim Albanian-speaking majority vis-à-vis not only the oppressive Belgrade regime, but also neighboring European countries, that were coming to its rescue slowly, or not at all." Having first visited the zone of Albanian resistance to Yugoslav imperialism in 1991, and having participated continuously in the work of the Albanian Catholic Institute, I never heard such arguments widely expressed in reference to the situation of the Kosovars. While Shkëlzen Maliqi and a few other urban intellectuals speculated in this direction, such a concept never penetrated the Kosovar majority, and no large-scale conversions have occurred. In the considerable time I have spent in Kosova, I have never observed or heard of manifestations of an Islamic flight toward Christianity.
Until 1998, Kosovars held to a nonviolent posture and did not ask for "rescue" by the European powers, so the speed of response by the latter cannot be judged. Throughout the period, the U.S. acted to restrain Belgrade , and finally intervened to liberate Kosova. The leading "neighboring" or near country that could have helped Kosova was Bosnia-Hercegovina, which has a Muslim plurality, but which was occupied with its own struggle against Serbian aggression. The failure of the post-Communist regime in Albania to assist Kosova more consequentially had nothing to do with religion and would not have been affected by it.
One of the most obvious facts about life in the Albanian lands is that religion was much more severely damaged in Albania proper than in Kosova. In my observation, conversions to Christianity are much commoner in Albania than in Kosova. While those in Albania itself were often robbed of their traditions, cultural resistance prevented such an outcome in Kosova. Not having been desacralized, Kosovars have little incentive to investigate new religious loyalties.
4. DiLellio states "Through religion, Kosova is reclaiming both collectively and individually its European roots." This opinion apparently reflects the common claim that Europe is a Christian continent. But Islam has maintained a presence in the Balkans, Poland , Lithuania , and Russia for hundreds of years, and unlike the first three examples, Russian Islam is mainly indigenous and was not introduced by conquest. Today, millions of Muslims are successfully integrated into Germany and many have chosen the road of assimilation in the United Kingdom , France , and other countries. Like it or not, Europe may not now, and probably never could, be accurately described as exclusively "Christian." In addition, the last time Europe was pronounced to be "Christian" in essence, the outcome was the genocide of European Jewry. Acceptance of Christianity is not and cannot be a requirement for recognition of a European identity. The Kalmyks of the Caspian are European, and are Lamaist Buddhists. Various peoples in the European Arctic zone remain pagan in their faith. The latter are no less European in their ethnographic heritage than the Finns or Hungarians or Basques, to say nothing of the Indo-European peoples.
5. DiLellio states that prior to the Ottoman conquest the majority of Albanians were Orthodox Christians, i.e. under Byzantine authority. This is a profoundly controversial issue that is unresolved by scholars. From the linguistic perspective, the dominance of Latin over Greek loanwords in Albanian argues for a greater Catholic influence in the culture. Southern Albanians (Tosks), became Orthodox in large numbers, reflecting the continuity of Byzantine and Greek influence in their area; there is no evidence of Albanian-Greek conflict until the 13th century. But those in the north, including Kosova, i.e. Ghegs, constituted the majority of Albanians, and, reflecting the essentially Adriatic, rather than Eastern, nature of Albanian culture, remained mainly Catholic until the arrival of Islam.
Even if, absent a state of their own, the Albanians could not maintain complete control over Kosova, the region was a center of their cultural survival. Kosovar Albanians today are almost entirely Muslim and Catholic, with no Albanian Orthodox presence. The same is true in Montenegro and key areas of Macedonia . The works of Pjetër Budi (1566-1622) and Pjetër Bogdani (1683-1689) predated the publication of Albanian Orthodox works; the famous Orthodox press at Voskopoja in the 18th century mainly produced books in Greek, Vlach, and Bulgarian, as well as Albanian. I also commend to the reader, on this topic, Rexhep Ismajli's important volume Tekste të Vjetra (2000).
6. DiLellio describes present trends toward return to Christianity, as a primordial, pre-Islamic Albanian faith, in terms usually reserved for description of Laramani. She states "crypto-Christians, as they are called, [are] now publicly emerging."
I consider it a major error to broadly equate present-day Christian converts with the Laramani, whose families were well-known throughout the period of Ottoman rule, and who began demanding, and secured, the right to return to Catholicism in the 1840s. These facts are recorded in every major historical resource on Kosova history, including such works as Noel Malcolm's Kosovo: A Short History (1998). I am committed to research on the Laramani and am concerned to locate families surviving as "crypto-Catholics" today. The Catholic ecclesiastical history of the archbishopric of Shkup, Gasper Gjini's Ipeshkvia Shkup-Prizren Nëpër Shekuj (1992), in addition to Malcolm, shows that the Catholic hierarchy in Rome condemned the Laramani, but that local priests insisted on giving them the sacraments and baptizing them. It is also made clear in Malcolm and in Ger Duijzings' Religion and the Politics of Identity in Kosovo (2000) that, following the wise viewpoint of Pashko Vasa, a fairly substantial number of Laramani were satisfied to remain in an ambiguous posture toward both Christianity and Islam. They should not be exploited for the promotion of one faith over another, although the Catholic clergy have every right to seek the affiliation of Laraman families.
7. DiLellio points out the regrettable abandonment by the Kosova government of Flag Day (November 28) as a national holiday and its replacement by "Europe Day" (May 9). She then asks, "Will Christmas seamlessly supplant Ramadan as well?" Albanians have traditionally celebrated both holidays, with Christmas festivities by Muslims and Christian participation in the conclusion of Ramadan. It is doubtful, and, gratuitously provocative, to suggest that one would replace another.
8. Finally, DiLellio quotes a Protestant minister, Arthur Krasniqi, who declares "Albanians have no religion at all." While it may reflect a Protestant viewpoint, this is a deeply hurtful and irresponsible statement, which, to emphasize, would shock numerous Sunni Muslims, Bektashis, other Sufis, and Catholics. If Albanians have no religion, why is Kosova filled with mosques, churches, and Sufi teqes?
DiLellio also extrapolates from the opinion of the Protestant Krasniqi to argue that "The climate is still not favorable [for mass conversion to Christianity.]" Her tone suggests that this would be a desirable outcome, but she seems heedless of the probability that it would result in a major rupture of the interfaith harmony for which Albanians are famous. In conclusion, she places in the mouth of Krasniqi the belief that "it is not that Albanian Muslims are radical, not at all, they have just not learned yet how to respect, rather than simply tolerate, minorities."I find this last statement offensive. Albanian Muslims have a proven history of respect for Albanian Catholics and Albanian Orthodox, from the time of Pashko Vasa, as well as Hafiz Ali Ulqinaku (1853-1913), Naim Frashëri (1864-1900), Gjergj Fishta (1871-1940), and Theofan Stilian Noli (1882-1965), to the present. Interfaith respect is a vital component of Albanian national identity and indispensable for Albanian survival. I would be extremely interested to learn of any evidence from Arthur Krasniqi indicating that his Protestant missionization does not enjoy the basic, public respect of Muslim Albanians. I regret to say I cannot imagine that texts like that of DiLellio will further this principle.