Imams strive to stay out of Kosovo's war

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HIGH ABOVE the gently swaying linden tree, the Mig-29s daggered through the sky. The courtyard of the little whitewashed mosque beside the Faculty of Islamic Studies echoed and crashed with the roar of the jets - you could see them, arrow-headed, flicking behind the leaves, suddenly black against the white summer clouds - but the clutch of Albanian Muslim students stood unmoved by their school notice board.

Islamic medrassahs have flourished in Kosovo - save for Tito's suppression in 1945 - since the 16th century; the Yugoslav Air Force's response to Nato's Albanian air manoeuvres was not going to interrupt their studies yesterday.

Yet this must be one of the few Muslim societies in the world that emphasises its lack of political ambition. As Jaber Hamiti, the faculty's general secretary, puts it: "The struggle for Kosovo is a national one and has its roots in history - it is not a religious war."

No call for jihad will ever come from the 15th-century Djamila Mathe mosque round the corner, no imam will ever call the Albanians of Pristina to turn against their Christian, Orthodox neighbours. Or so we are told.

Hasamiti - dark-haired, with big friendly spectacles, perhaps no more than 25 - admits the Serbs themselves have already tried to turn this into a religious war. "They will soon talk about mujahedin," his taciturn colleague says. Wrong. The Serbs are already claiming to have captured 50 "holy warriors" of Islam in the fighting around Decani - an allegation they hastily abandoned when we asked for details.

Not that the religious authorities ignore the lessons of the war in Kosovo. Two years ago, their religious magazine Dituria Islame (Islamic Knowledge) carried front-page photographs of a starving Bosnian Muslim in a Serb concentration camp and an Albanian boy who had had the Serb cross carved on his bare chest with a knife. Recent issues have headlined the destruction of the homes of ethnic Albanians in western Kosovo. But Imam Sabri Bajgora, who is also a high-school teacher, insists Islam must not become part of Albanian politics.

"We are aware the Serbian regime is very close to the Orthodox church, though in a covert way," he says. "We saw this especially in Bosnia - when the Serb archbishop went to Bosnia and congratulated the Serb soldiers for what they had done there."

Imam Bajgora raises his voice as another Mig-29 arcs through the sky high above the school courtyard. "Here in Kosovo, the church works together with the regime in saying that this is the Serb holy land. Yet in the past we Albanians have helped protect their churches, especially in the Decani area."

There is a firm belief on the part of Albanian Muslims that some Serb churches were built on the foundations of Albanian Orthodox ecclesiastical buildings, that Albanian Catholic families in Pec, Decani and Sali Pruste still fulfill their protective duty. Yet Mr Hamiti can name the location of mosques which he says have been vandalised by the Serbs in the past month: Decani, Carabreg, Vranoc, Ratkoc, Ljubenic ... "This war has national and political features - but no religious features at all," he says. "When our imam preaches at Friday prayers, he tells his followers that they should understand this is a war in which they must defend their families and homes and belongings - Albanian Catholic priests say the same thing. The only difference is that the imam bases his words on the Koran, the priest on the Bible."

In one way, a conversation with Islamic officials in Kosovo parallels any meeting with a Serb. We go back into Slavic and Illyrian history, to the battle of Kosovo Field in 1389 - a glorious Serb defeat in the struggle against oppressive Islam, according to the Serbs; a Serb-Albanian Muslim coalition against the Ottoman Turks, according to the Albanians - and to the Second World War. Did the Italian occupiers not flood Kosovo with Albanians, the Serbs ask? Did Albanians not fight for freedom against fascism, the Albanians ask? Here the Albanians are on weaker ground; Kosovo was not exactly a centre of Partisan recruitment against the Nazis.

Even the statistics are disputed. Do Albanians constitute 90 per cent of the population of Kosovo, or 92 per cent? Of these, are Muslims 98 per cent of all Albanians - with a mere 2 per cent Albanian Catholics - or less?

Of the 18 professors of Islam at the Pristina college, 10 were trained in the Arab world, mostly at the Al-Azhar university in Cairo, but others in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Libya. Yet Mr Hamiti says they have never sought - or received - financial or other help from the Arab Muslim world. "We are independent," he says.

In Kosovo's provincial capital, no mosque has been built since the Second World War. Elez Osmani, editor of the Dituria Islame magazine, says Albanian Muslims have been disappointed by the failure of the Orthodox church to raise its voice against massacres in Bosnia and Kosovo. "The head of their church has been one of the triggers of the war," he says coldly. "He lavished praise on the Serb 'warriors' who are now labelled war criminals by the international community."

"As for us, it remains a national issue. Of course, when there is a crisis like this one, people more and more pray to God; when you lose hope, you become more religious."

Another jet cuts through the sky. Our conversation slips back into history again, to the Congress of Berlin.

"The Serbs made big propaganda there and called us Arnauts [paid Turkish recruits]" - and to the League of Prizren, when "Albanianism" was born amid calls for autonomy within the Ottoman empire. "If you could look through the archives of the Serb secret police here, you would find thousands of Albanians sentenced for political crimes," Mr Osmani says. "They were not imprisoned because they were Muslims, but because they wanted liberty. And it will be achieved."

Outside, the courtyard is filled with the smell of linden blossom and the sound of fighter bombers. The frailty of nature against the power of technology. And yes, it would be pleasant to believe that Imam Bajgora, Jaber Hamiti and Elez Osmani could maintain their secular politics in the face of this increasingly brutal war. Iran, Palestine, Afghanistan, Egypt and Algeria all suggest otherwise. Just round the corner, I stop outside a beautiful mosque with a decorated wooden porch. "This is our opportunity," the imam is telling the men kneeling before him in Albanian. Then he reads from the Koran.