- The Washington Times - Monday, March 10, 2003

PRISTINA, Serbia - Montenegro, March 8 (UPI) — Those of you who believe that a milder, kinder Islam is not possible, allow me to paraphrase John F. Kennedy by saying, "let them come to Pristina."

Kennedy, of course, delivered his famous speech at the height of the Cold War from the shadows of the Berlin Wall when he said, "Those of you who believe that communism is the way of the future, let them come to Berlin."

Today, as the war on fanatical Muslim fundamentalists has replaced the Cold War, the same could well be said of Islam and Pristina.

Pristina is the capital of the United Nations-administered province of Kosovo, an area struggling and hoping to obtain complete independence from what today remains of Yugoslavia – basically, what is now called Serbia and Montenegro.

But before that can happen, Kosovars have to learn about nation building.

With a population of about two million, it is roughly 93 percent Muslim, with the rest composed of Catholics and a tiny minority of Protestants. Kosovars are Albanians but are separate from Albania, the former Stalinist nation next door, and with whom they share a common language and religion.

Since the NATO bombing of Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian positions in June 1999, and the war that led to the displacement of some 800,000 Kosovars, according to the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, the province has had to depend on international assistance and support for its very existence.

The U.N. and the OSCE basically run the country, although Kosovo has an elected president, Ibrahim Rugova, and a Supreme Court. The real power, though, rests in the hands of Michael Steiner, a German national who heads UNMIK – the United Nations Mission in Kosovo — the organization that is, hopefully, to steer the province to nationhood within a few years.

The "Internationals," as the U.N. and the OSCE are referred to here are in control of all major institutions. KFOR, the NATO military force, ensures that the cease-fire is maintained and that Kosovars and Serbs refrain from going at each other again.

The U.N. and the OSCE direct the local police force, the airport, as well as a Temporary Media Commissioner that acts as a regulatory body controlling the local press until an Independent Media Commission can be established. This was deemed necessary in order to prevent inflammatory press reports from igniting extreme sensitivities that still persists between Albanian and Serbian communities in Kosovo.

The U.N and the OSCE are involved in all aspects of nation building in Kosovo. Those include developing the judiciary system, training the local police force, setting up a civilian administration and conducting institution building and economic reconstruction.

The local police force is comprised of a hodgepodge of Kosovars, some of which are reformed Kosovo Liberation Army — KLA — fighter, mixed in with Britons, Americans, Scandinavians, Indians, French and a sprinkle of several other nations.

Pristina's tiny airport, for example, was under the direction of the Italians when I arrived here a week ago, though police officers from Egypt, Turkey and India were clearly visible. According to the OSCE, control will shift to the Icelandics within a few days.

There is no doubt that Kosovars are struggling, both as individuals and as a people hoping to mature into an independent nation. Unemployment hovers around a whopping 60 percent. Corruption and crime is rampant. The average salary here is between 150 and 300 euros – slightly less when converted into American dollars.

Yet, Kosovars have retained their sense of humor. A popular joke circulating in Pristina tells about a foreigner working in Kosovo who earns $2,000 a month. The man spends $1,700 and has no idea where the other $300 goes. However, a Kosovar who earns $300 spends $1,500, and has no idea where the other $1,200 comes from.

Being a Muslim nation, Saudi Arabia and a number of Islamic governmental and non-governmental organizations quickly jumped in after the war to help out. Those included some groups believed to have links to fundamentalist Islamist organizations, as was the case in neighboring Bosnia. Kosovars, however, many people in Pristina say, have resisted being enticed into following a stricter Islam, despite financial incentives to do so.

Unlike Bosnia, another Muslim and former Yugoslav republic, Kosovars have refused offers from Saudis to build mosques and madrassas — Islamic Koranic schools, demanding instead that the money be allocated toward building hospitals, secular education facilities and "more useful institutions."

Kosovars have also strongly resisted offers from Islamic groups to "behave in more Islamic ways," such as the demand that women adopt the traditional Islamic veil, or that men grow beards, as some Wahhabi groups have tried to impose on Kosovars, according to OSCE officials.

"We are European Muslims," said Fatmire Terdevci, a Kosovar journalist working for Koha Ditore, a daily Albanian language newspaper.

"I am a Muslim, but in my own way," says Terdevci. "We belong in Europe, we are not Arabs. But still, I consider myself a Muslim," she adds. Terdevci, and other Muslims here stress they want Islam, but on their own terms.

And that is heard repeatedly around the city.

"Religion is part of the identity and culture of Kosovars," says Sven Lindholm, senior press officer with the OSCE mission in Kosovo, "but it is not always practiced."

"Unlike Bosnia, Saudis have had very minor success here," adds Lindholm. "In Buzim, a village in Bosnia," says the OSCE executive, "the Saudis have built no less than five mosques. They have printed postcards showing the five mosques." The Kosovars would have none of that.

Outward signs of conservative Islam are non-existent here. During an entire week in Pristina, this reporter did not see a single bearded man, and observed only three women wearing Islamic headscarves. The rest of Pristina's women were dressed mostly in tight-fitting jeans and chic outfits and could have blended in just as easily in London, Milan or New York. In fact, you are more likely to see veiled women and bearded men in the streets of London and Paris, than you are in Pristina.

Since the sudden focus on Islam, particularly in the post Sept. 11, 2001 period, when much of that religion has been portrayed in a negative light, it is indeed refreshing to see the way Kosovar Muslims handle their religion with ease and total lack of inhibition. The Muslims of Kosovo are worlds away from that of Saudi Arabia and they are light millenniums from bin Laden's fanatics.

For that matter, nowhere is the United States more popular than in Kosovo, where Americans are seen as heroes, having saved them from the grips of Milosevic's repressive policies. It was NATO's intervention — the bombing of Serbian positions at the behest of the United States — that allowed Kosovars to gain the autonomy and the security they enjoy today.

A huge painting depicting Kosovo's newest hero — former U.S. President Bill Clinton — covers the entire faade of a tall apartment building in the center of town. The building is situated on the boulevard bearing the name of the former American president, a testimony to the support, gratitude and admiration Kosovars have for the United States.

"When the World Trade Center towers collapsed, we felt that we were being attacked," said a Kosovar journalist. "We lit candles and we cried with America."


(Claude Salhani is a senior editor with United Press International.)

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