Totten: The (Really) Moderate Muslims of Kosovo

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An interesting piece on The (Really) Moderate Muslims of Kosovo by Michael Totten in the new City Journal.

Kosovo’s brand of Islam may be the most liberal in the world. I saw no more women there wearing conservative Islamic clothing—one or two per day at most—than I’ve seen in Manhattan. There is no gender apartheid even in Kosovo’s villages. Alcohol flows freely in restaurants, caf�s, and bars, where you’ll see as many young women in sexy outfits as you’d find in any Western European country. Aside from the minarets on the skyline, there is no visible evidence that Kosovo is a Muslim-majority country at all.

“Here people are Muslims, but they think like Europeans,” says Xhabir Hamiti, a professor in the Islamic studies department at the University of Pristina in Kosovo’s capital. “Muslims here identify themselves as Muslim Lite,” an American police officer tells me. As Afrim Kostrati, a young bartender, puts it: “We are Muslims, but not really.” And Luan Berisha, an entrepreneur, agrees: “We were never practicing Muslims like they are in the Middle East… . First of all, we are Albanians. Religion comes second.”

Religion in Kosovo is a private matter, not a public one. “We never talk about it,” Berisha says. “I just found out, one year ago, that a very good friend of mine is Catholic, and we have been friends for the last ten years.” One Muslim woman tells me how startled she was when she attended a conference in Britain about young people who change the world. “I was shocked to find that the representative of the U.S.A. was a covered lady, originally from Iraq,” she says. “And the representative from Canada was another, originally from Afghanistan.” She herself was wearing shorts.

The reason for Kosovo’s relaxed attitude toward religion lies in its history. Albanians, including those in Kosovo, are the descendants of ancient pagan Greeks and Illyrians; more recently, they were Christian before the majority converted to Islam under Turkish Ottoman rule. Their religion may be Eastern, but Albanians have been culturally European for all of recorded history. “The Greeks hardly regard them as Christians, or the Turks as Moslems, and in fact they are a mixture of both, and sometimes neither,” Lord Byron wrote of them almost 200 years ago. “We Albanians,” writes Catholic priest Dom Lush Gjergji, “descendants of the Illyrians, are Christians from the time of the Apostles… . Without Christianity there would be no Albanian people, language, culture, or traditions … Albanians consider Christianity their patrimony, their spiritual and cultural inheritance.”

Kosovar Muslims talk the same way. In fact, the feeling is reflected in the Albanian national flag, which flies all over Kosovo, despite minimal support for a “greater Albania.” Its black double-headed eagle is the seal of Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, who led the resistance against the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century. This national hero of a Muslim-majority country was Catholic.

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