Islamic Politics in the Balkans: A Short History

By Metta Spencer | 2002-01-01 12:00:00

As this entire issue of Peace Magazine makes clear, there is no single, monolithic Islamic political perspective based on a shared faith. Instead, each society where Muslims live has its own set of political controversies, and in each locale the most common point of view may be quite distinctive from the prevailing opinions in other countries. Here we shall review the current perspectives of Muslims in the Balkan states, which differ from one ethnic community to another, yet which share a widespread view of the United States as a friend and benefactor.

A substantial number of people in the Balkans (especially in the southern regions) are Muslim, but that does not mean they are culturally similar. We should distinguish especially between the Muslims of Bosnia (Serbo-Croatian speaking Slavs whose ancestors adopted Islam while their country was part of the Ottoman Empire) and Muslim Albanians, a community with an unrelated language, living especially in Albania proper, as well as in Kosovo, Montenegro and South Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, and Italy. The Albanians have inhabited Balkan areas since ancient times, when they were known as Illyrians.


Throughout the past decade, the former Yugoslavia has been breaking apart. The conflict flared up over the Serbian nationalists' dominance in Kosovo, but the actual fragmentation of the Yugoslav federation started instead with the withdrawal of other provinces: in 1991 Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia, and in 1992 Bosnia-Herzegovina - all of these (except Macedonia) by wars against Serbia. Nor did Macedonia itself evade serious conflict, since Greece objected to the republic's choice of a Hellenic name and maintained a blockade against it until 1995. (The matter was resolved only when it was named "The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.") Thereafter, the new (rump) Yugoslavia comprised only Serbia (with its two subordinate provinces, Vojvodina in the north, and Kosovo in the south) plus Montenegro, which despite considerable ambivalence did not then claim independence.

The war within Bosnia involved struggles between all three of the republic's major ethnic communities: Croatians, Serbs, and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims).

The predominantly Croatian parts of Bosnia wanted to join the new breakaway Croatia, while the Serbian parts would have joined Serbia, leaving only a fragment of the former republic intact, with its center in Sarajevo. However, this outcome was rejected by the Bosniaks and also by the international community. Still, the Bosnian Serb rebels, initially supported by Serbia, maintained a blockade around Sarajevo from 1992 until 1995, when NATO troops began intervening seriously to defend the city's inhabitants. Sarajevo's Muslim population had been virtually deprived of weapons to defend themselves, apart from some secret shipments from other Muslim countries - and foreign mujahideen fighters, especially from Saudi Arabia, who came to join their cause. Muslims had previously been modern Europeans of a predominantly secular orientation. Traditional Middle Eastern Arab garb could be seen on the streets of Sarajevo for the first time, but even with more Bosnians observing Islamic practices, there was still a strong contrast with Middle Eastern culture and expression.

However, the Bosniaks greatly appreciated the eventual action by NATO - especially President Clinton's decision to bomb Serbians and force a conclusion to the Bosnian war, a resolution reached in the Dayton Accords. This agreement established a multi-ethnic democracy under the authority of an international high representative, monitored by a peacekeeping force.

Since then, the prevailing Bosniak attitude has been strongly pro-American, and over time the mujahideen presence has become less conspicuous in Bosnia-Herzegovina. No sympathy for Osama bin Laden is perceptible in Sarajevo, and indeed, its government sent some of the visitor mujahideens to The Hague to be tried for war crimes.

On the other hand, the whole of the former Yugoslavia remained a region of strife after Dayton, especially while Slobodan Milosevic ruled Serbia. The status of Kosovo remained a festering wound. The majority of the population there were ethnic Albanians ("Kosovars") whose social, economic, and political rights were constantly being violated. By a decade ago, the Kosovars had reached a consensus that they would accept no solution short of independence, though for pragmatic reasons they limited their campaign for sovereignty to nonviolent methods. This approach was almost ignored by the international community. A self-styled Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) therefore formed, taking militant actions of the type that the nonviolent leadership had avoided.

The Kosovo crisis reached a tragic climax in 1999 when Serbs began to expel large numbers of Kosovars from their province, eventually prompting NATO to intervene by bombing the Serbs into submission. In effect, this international action was carried out on behalf of the KLA. With the success of this intervention, most of the Kosovar refugees returned home and, at least officially, the KLA began to disarm. The United Nations established an authoritative presence in Kosovo - UNMIK, the United Nations Mission in Kosovo. A peacekeeping force (KFOR) arrived to restore order, albeit without conspicuous success. Those Serbs who had remained in Kosovo were now threatened by Kosovar gangs, many of them ex-KLA. Numerous Serbs fled and few have returned. UNMIK, and the international community in general, have favored substantial autonomy for Kosovo, not full independence from Yugoslavia.

In 2000 Slobodan Milosevic attempted to rig the elections in Serbia, but an opposition movement formed, employing the nonviolent sanctions taught by the American peace researcher Gene Sharp. Milosevic was ousted and soon sent to The Hague, where he will be tried for genocide and other crimes against humanity. Nevertheless, such compliance with international law is not necessarily favored by the majority of Yugoslavia's citizens, including Milosevic's successor, President Vojislav Kostunica. Although the KLA was supposed to disarm, in early 2001 its former members began to sponsor new Kosovar "liberation armies', in nearby areas where substantial populations of ethnic Albanians lived - notably in the southern region of Serbia, in the three-mile-wide buffer zone between Serbia and Kosovo, and in neighboring Macedonia. In a continuation of the Kosovo war, Western peace-keepers found themselves confronting their former allies.

Up to 30 percent of the Macedonian population consists of ethnic Albanians, but the intention of the guerrillas there was not to demand a separate state for them, but rather to improve their political status within the existing regime. By June 2001 an agreement was reached that will provide a framework for greater equality and the protection of human rights. The parliament has asked a team of international experts to draft legislation that will decentralize the government, putting many issues under municipal control. The current prospect of peace in Macedonia appears more favorable than a year ago.

Ibrahim Rugova, the new president of Kosovo, had previously alleged that some members of al-Qaeda (notably Mohamed Hasan Mahmud) had fought for the Muslim side in the Bosnian war, had supported the KLA during the Kosovo conflict, and later had been staying in Kosovo. Whether or not this assertion can be substantiated, the al-Qaeda guerrillas cannot count on the support of any indigenous Muslim groups in Bosnia, Macedonia, or Kosovo. In no sense do the local political aims reflect the agenda of Osama bin Laden. On the contrary, European and American countries are regarded as benefactors who rescued the Balkan Muslims.


Finally, we should devote further attention to the most serious and long-running regional conflict in the Balkans, that involving Serbia and Kosovo. Though Serbians had become a minority population within Kosovo, their nationalism had long mythologized a "golden age" when the region had been the heartland of their ancient kingdom. (A parallel was often drawn between the Jews' identification with Jerusalem and the Serbs' identification with Kosovo.) When Milosevic sought to mobilize nationalistic conflict for his own political motives, he was easily able to evoke memories of a prolonged struggle. Since NATO's bombing campaign, the Serbian population has remained estranged from the West, but Kosovars continue to feel deeply appreciative. The latter sentiment even characterizes Ibrahim Rugova, the moderate Kosovar political leader who has been widely regarded as a pacifist over the past decade.

In September, while campaigning for the presidency of the province, Mr. Rugova visited Canada. He met with Mr. Manley and other senior officials in Ottawa, then spoke to a small academic gathering at the Munk Center for International Studies at the University of Toronto, where I had an opportunity to interview him briefly. Moreover, Science for Peace secretary Joan Montgomerie and I were invited to a banquet in his honor, held by the Kosovar community of Toronto, where I spoke at length with Mr. Rugova and his assistant, Skender Hyseni.

Far from being a charismatic political figure, President Rugova is a modest, soft-spoken intellectual. He had come to prominence by serving as the head of the writers' union in Prishtina. A scholar, he wrote a doctoral dissertation under the supervision of the literary critic Roland Barthes at the Sorbonne. After our first conversation, he drew a small, jagged white stone from his pocket and gave it to me, explaining that it is an opal. Professor Robert Austin, who spent several days with Rugova during his Canadian visit, later told me that Rugova is a rock collector who likes to give people stones he had gathered while walking in Kosovo's countryside).

Rugova's pacifism evidently is more pragmatic than principled - which is understandable in terms of his place within Kosovar society, as well as his personal biography. (When he was five weeks old, his father and his grandfather were both executed by Tito's Communists, who were re-imposing Belgrade's rule over Kosovo at the end of World War II.) He explained to me that he and other members of his party always understood that violence would become inevitable within the struggle for independence. Moreover, the distinction between the guerrilla movement (the KLA) and his own moderate party, the LDK, is blurred in the minds of ordinary Kosovars; many of them support both organizations as if they were compatible. They are in fact rival political bodies, especially during the recent elections.

Nevertheless, whatever his mental reservations may have been (and despite his gratitude for NATO's bombing missions) Rugova maintained a rigorous policy of nonviolence within the "parallel government" that he headed. Even ten years ago, he was the undisputed leader of the Kosovars, who gave him about 90 percent of their support. One of his tactics was to urge his people to refrain from voting in Yugoslav elections, as a way of demanding full sovereignty.

The Western governments marginalized him and his movement, probably for two different reasons. First, for numerous excellent reasons, most countries strongly discourage separatist movements, and to this day the international community will not support his demand for sovereignty. Second, his nonviolent methods were so low-key that Western governments saw him as weak and ineffectual. Insofar as they found it necessary to support the protests of Kosovars, it would only be violent organizations that they took seriously. Hence when the KLA formed, the United States called them "terrorists" while nevertheless providing material aid to them and thereby undermining the authority of Kosovo's democratically elected leader.


For that matter, Rugova's extreme cautiousness disappointed even nonviolent activists, notably university students, who wanted to carry out street demonstrations and other radical but nonviolent actions. Rugova would have none of it. Having recently read Howard Clark's book, Civil Resistance in Kosovo, which criticized Rugova as overly timid, I asked him why he lost the support of those nonviolent activists who would be expected to support him. Denying that this was the case, he explained that his measured approach simply reflected his understanding of Milosevic's eagerness to assault or kill demonstrators. He did not want the students to be injured, which would certainly have happened if they had taken the strong actions that they considered necessary.

In this statement, as in his other comments to the academic audience, Rugova displayed an optimism that not everyone could easily accept. He seemed confident about being able to solve Kosovo's economic and social problems. And he seemed hopeful about the issue of independence, claiming that it will be realized eventually and that it will "calm" the separatist movements in other Balkan areas. (Most observers believe, on the contrary, that it would set an example that would be followed immediately by numerous others.)


On November 17, Kosovo's voters cast their ballots in the province's first democratic parliamentary election. There had been some concern that Serbs would boycott the election. This did not happen because President Kostunica urged them to vote, having received the assurance that the international community would not support sovereignty for Kosovo, no matter what the population wanted. Rugova's party did not receive quite 50 percent of the votes in the first ballot but will nevertheless govern. This leaves him facing the same old conundrum: He must press for independence so as to please the voters, but must not press hard, lest he alienate Kosovo's Western supporters.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2002

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2002, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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