Kosovo is tiny, smaller than Connecticut, home to 1.8 million people, over 90 percent of whom are ethnically Albanian, and over 95 percent are Muslim. European in location and feel, the Islam is hard to spot, apart from the five calls to prayer punctuating the day. There are a few hijabs around, but far fewer than in London or New York, and when I pointed one out to my host she gently told me that the old woman was not Muslim but Roma, of which there are many. Knowledge of Islam is perfunctory; secularity a matter of pride. But this tiny, secular country has sent over 300 young men to Syria to fight, and many of those ended up fighting for ISIS. Why?
A recent article in The New York Times put a spotlight on the problem, describing in great depth the process of what writer Carlotta Gall calls the country’s “stunning turnabout,” from being one of the “most pro-American Muslim societies in the world” to showing how “Saudi money and influence have transformed this once-tolerant Muslim society at the hem of Europe into a font of Islamic extremism and a pipeline for jihadists.” Never mind the fact that a hem would suggest an edge, although Kosovo is firmly in the middle of Europe, or that the most recent Gallup US-Global Leadership Report of 2016 showed that Kosovo remains the number-one supporter of America in the world (at 85 percent approval; there was actually an increase between 2014 and 2015, the opposite of Gall’s “turnaround”), or that the police deny absolutely the cultural destruction and attacks on journalists, academics, and politicians that she reports. (The single incident they dug out was a piece of graffiti on a wall of Decan Monastery, reading “Kosovo is ISIS.” The perpetrator has not been found.) More serious than the weakness of fact-checking at the Times is that the article’s main point—Saudi interference has transformed a secular society into a dangerously extremist one in 17 years—is unbalanced to the point of misrepresentation. Or was the secularity I perceived merely a veneer, hiding the smoking caldron of jihadism that Gall portrays?
The fierce reaction from Kosovars and Balkan academics would suggest not, although there is open acknowledgment from government officials of Saudi influence on the country. Indeed, at first glance the article seems to reflect the government’s own narrative, but distorted beyond all recognition, blaming the aid work of charities from the Persian Gulf. After the war in 1999, charities and NGOs flooded the tiny territory, which was soon to claim independence from Serbia, bringing necessary reconstruction funds and humanitarian aid. Schools were built, food was distributed, services established.
But some of this money came with strings attached and an undercurrent that was not immediately recognized: The aid from certain Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, was supplied with a hefty dose of religion. Mosques were built anew, rather than on the bombed foundations of the traditional buildings, and materials for religious education and practice were supplied for free, from the imams to the Qur’ans. Free dormitories were provided for the university in the capital, Pristina, but students housed there were encouraged to attend prayers and study groups in their spare time. “You are Muslim, yes? You should know your religion better,” was the type of encouragement reported to me: The ideology was not forced, but pervasive, putting down roots that, according to Gall and government officials, would for some flower in jihad, with the conflict in Syria and the competing Islamist groups there providing abundant opportunities to wage it.