Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kosovars Refute Islamic Terror Claims

Kosovars are fearful that they may be identified with Islamic militants in the wake of the US terror attacks.

On the evening of September 11, people gathered in Peja, north-west Kosovo to light candles for the victims in New York and Washington.


Suddenly, two men wearing the beards and trousers typical of Islamic activists appeared and began stamping on the candles. Horrified and incensed, a group of youths set upon the two men and beat them up.


Since the NATO bombardment of 1999, Kosovars have regarded America as the ally which spearheaded the liberation of the province from Serb rule. Following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Kosovars - who are 80 per cent Muslim - have been plagued by an anxiety that they might be identified with Islamic terrorists.


Indeed, both the Serb and Macedonian media have been quick to suggest a connection, publishing dubious reports claiming that both the Kosovo Liberation Army and an Albanian, Macedonia-based, National Liberation Army have connections with Osama Bin Laden. Both groups strongly refute these reports, along with a claim that groups of mujahedin are fighting for Muslim domination of the whole region.


Former KLA spokesman, Jakup Krasniqi, considers media reports of a connection between former Albanian guerrillas and Islamic fundamentalists as a Serbian and Macedonian attempt to recast the group's struggle as one driven by religious dogma, not liberation.


"Everyone knows that we were fighting Serb repression. These Serb and Macedonian allegations are absurd," he told IWPR.


Krasniqi acknowledges that when the KLA faced total annihilation by Serb forces in September 1998, mujahedin groups did offer to travel to Kosovo to join the fight, but he says the KLA's military command decided to decline the offers.


"There has never been, nor will be, any organised mujahedin group in the ranks of the KLA, such a presence would damage our position. We were supported by the Americans and Europeans, whom we considered our allies. People should understand that we belong more to Western Europe that the Orient," he said, pointing out that the KLA included in its ranks volunteers from Sweden, Belgium, the UK, Germany and the US. In Macedonia, political representative of the NLA Ali Ahmeti also refutes allegations of mujahedin involvement in the Albanian guerrilla movement.


"First the Macedonians criticised the USA and Germany for their alleged support of the NLA and their agents' presence in NLA structures. Now, in the wake of the US terrorist acts, they are using our religion to try and connect us with Osama Bin Laden. This is unfair," he said, adding that the episode in Peja on September 11 was an isolated incident.


Since the 1999 conflict, ten Islamic relief organisations have opened offices in Kosovo. They deal mainly with the reconstruction of the ruined houses and mosques and the delivery of food. In some cases, copies of Koran are distributed alongside the aid. Recently, a suspicion has spread that the relief organisations have another mission to try and bring a largely irreligious youth back to Islam.


Stories of pressure and intimidation are rife in the southern city of Prizren, home to a Turkish minority. "UNMIK has information that the Arabs based in Kosovo have offered large sums of money to Prizren families in order to veil their girls," the regional administrator of Prizren Rudolf Hofmann told the daily Koha Ditore recently. Without giving specific names, he continued, "We're worried that some Arab organisations are not working freely and transparently."


For their own part, the Islamic organisations operating in Kosovo deny pushing people towards religion. "We know of these charges, but they are not true. We simply help these people to reconstruct their houses and mosques and bring aid for the hospitals," said Wael Kordi, the spokesman for the Saudi Joint Relief Committee For Kosovo. "I don't think other Islamic organisations blackmail people either," he adds. Young men who attend the mosques and have let their beards grow also deny such allegations.


"I don't receive payment in order to pray to God," said one man who preferred to remain anonymous. In any case, a survey conducted by the Pristina weekly Zëri of Prishtina recently revealed that over 40 per cent of those interviewed do not go regularly attend mosque or church.


Qemal Morina - the dean of the Faculty of Islamic Sciences in Pristina, points out that the US attacks are contrary to Islam. "These are purely terrorist, inhumane and uncivilised acts," he told IWPR. "The Koran says he who kills a man kills the whole of mankind. We would immediately expel those responsible for incidents like the one in Peja from the Kosovo Islamic Community, because they bring shame on our nation and religion."


However, rumours persist that Kosovo is a breeding ground for Islamic extremism. A news agency in Russia reported recently that 50 Algerian and Afghan mujahedin are based in the village of Ropotove in the US-controlled Kamenica district, where they are alleged to be under the command of a close associate of Osama Bin Laden, Zaiman Zavahri. The allegations, which were picked up in the Kosovo media have been dismissed by KFOR. "As far as we know this is groundless. I don't know who made these allegations," said Major Randy Martin of the US section of KFOR.


Jakup Krasniqi agrees. "I don't think you will find a single person in Kosovo willing to collaborate with Islamic fundamentalists against the Americans," he said in astonishment. "Also, this would be impossible with over 40,000 KFOR peacekeepers in Kosovo."


Many Kosovars now look upon the Islamic organisations and their more religious compatriots with disdain, maybe as result of the smear campaign generated by the Serb and Macedonian media. "I know these allegations are not their fault, but I dislike them," said Kosovar youth Besnik Gashi.


An old man worshipping in a Pristina mosque summed up the separation of religion and politics which most Kosovars feel. "I pray every day," he said. "This does not mean I support the fundamentalists. If America called for soldiers, I would send my own two sons to fight. After all, the US is our savior."


Adriatik Kelmendi is a journalist with Pristina daily Koha Ditore.