The politics of religion in Kosovo

The Politics of Religion in Kosovo

By Besnik Sinani –Respectable international news outlets keep telling us time and time again that Kosovo is the heartland of Serb spiritual heritage, the location of Serb medieval monasteries. Despite this being a relatively late Serbian claim, appearing in the 1800s with the advent of Serb nationalism, it is striking how churches of a universalistic religion like Christianity have become signposts of nationalism. The Serb Orthodox Church in Kosovo has maintained the same role that the former communist leader and butcher of the Balkans, Slobodan Milosevic, had assigned to the Church when he was arousing the flames of the future Balkan wars of the 1990s. This is the worst case scenario of mingling religion and politics.

The Serbs, however, are not the only ones who are politicizing religion in Kosovo. A controversial Catholic cathedral is currently being built in Prishtina. This project had from its beginning the extraordinary support of the late Kosovar president, Ibrahim Rugova, whose office was decorated with the picture of him with the Pope. Catholicism, the religion of less than 10% of the Albanian population of Kosovo, is being marketed politically in attempts to show a perceived cultural shift of Muslim Kosovars towards the West, mediated by Catholicism. This process of political marketing of Catholicism was referred to recently by the Bishop of the Catholic Church in Kosovo, dom Dode Gjergji, as “cultural baptism.”

This political marketing of Catholicism necessarily requires downplaying the presence of Islam in Kosovo. Following debates among devout Kosovars in internet forums, it is common to notice the dissatisfaction with the leaders of the Kosovar Muslim Community, for not reacting more aggressively in response to this “cultural baptism.” There has been at least one attempt from a political party, the Party of Justice, to capitalize on Muslim dissatisfaction. However, one is left to believe that in the last elections the Party of Justice was unsuccessful in attracting large sections of devout voters.

One of the main reactions to the current climate of politics of religion in Kosovo among many Muslims has been the embrace of forms of piety which promote detachment from the cultural, political, and social life of the society, Salafism. Contrary to a common held view, most forms of Salafism are apolitical. However, these are forms of visible piety and they clash with the attempts of the political and cultural establishment of Kosovo to shove visible signs of Muslim piety under the rug, fearing loss of much needed Western support.

Kosovar society aims at building a pluralistic, democratic, and secular new state. The promotion of religious identities as political identities creates the conditions for what French supporters of laicite would call the Balkanization of the society. If current conditions persist, institutions of Orthodox Christianity that play the tunes of Serb nationalism will be seen as a Serb Trojan horse in Kosovo.

Embracing Catholicism to serve as a European political ID card undermines the values of governance and secularism that are the hallmark of those same European models that Kosovo leaders wish to emulate. It also undermines the social cohesion of a newly created country. Ironically, the current American administration, as well as that of President Clinton, has emphasized the Muslimness of the Kosovars in attempts to show that America’s wars in the Middle East are not directed towards Islam.

The current forms of the Kosovo Muslim piety will affect negatively both the society and the interests of the Muslim community in Kosovo. It is therefore in everyone’s interest to see that the government of Kosovo creates a climate of freedom of religious expression while refraining from political manipulation of religions. It is the best bet in seeing a celebration of diversity of spiritual traditions, rather than political fragmentations of the kind that have enflamed Balkan history.