By Naser Miftari
Will Kosovo consolidate further as a democracy or become a quasi-theocracy where religious fanatics reign? Media will play a key a role in answering that question about this tiny Balkans country the West liberated in 1999.
Despite its dimuntive size - it has a population of just 1.8 million and a territory of 11,000 square kilometers (about the size of the US state of Connecticut) - this is a complex nation to cover. Incoherent, spotty news coverage of threats on the ground that pay little attention to strengths and opportunities in this young state do it a disservice.
Following its liberation in 1999, the people of Kosovo no longer had to suppress their identities, including religious identities. Suddenly, citizens were free to express themselves more assertively in Kosovo's public sphere.
The secular Islam that Kosovo Albanians once favored now faced challenges from a new generation of religious clerics sent to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf theocracies (paid for by the gulf monarchies) for religious instruction. They returned to Kosovo with stricter views of Islam. They utilized the post-conflict institutional vacuum in Kosovo to impose a more rigid interpretation of their religion, introducing a tension into Kosovo's Islamic community.
The struggle between moderate and radical imams is palpable. So also are efforts by radicals to take over the Islamic community of Kosovo. This contest has been reflected to a degree in the local press, which covers the sensational conflicts within Islam. But the problem of radicalization trying to gain ground has remained off the front pages.
While the local press often misses the main point, international and Western press ignored this story completely following independence, perhaps considering Kosovo to no longer be newsworthy.
Radical imams solidified their base in Kosovo over these years through dubious Saudi-funded soup kitchens and brainwashing campaigns targeting youth, the desperate, and the needy. Radical factions built mosques and religious sites in the aftermath of the conflict. They began to encourage the same vulnerable groups to join the ranks of terrorists, such as ISIS, circa 2013, to fight the West in Syria.
At this point Kosovo caught the attention of the international press. Media outlets such as The New York Times reported on the rising tide of radicalism in Kosovo. Those reports helped government monitor the advance of radicalism. But these outlets have done precious little to follow up on the comprehensive efforts of Kosovo’s government to tackle the problem of radicalism in the last year.
Kosovo’s government has worked hard to repair the damage. In the wake of reports that more than 300 Kosovars have joined ISIS, the police charged 67 people, including 14 imams, while closing down 19 Muslim organizations for acting against the constitution, inciting hatred, and recruiting for terrorism.
No Kosovars have joined the ranks of ISIS since 2015, according to various reports. Of the roughly 300 people who joined ISIS, up to 120 have returned and undergone the process of re-integration and de-radicalization. Recently, Kosovo started an initiative to cooperate more closely with the United States on the rapid exchange of intelligence on terrorists and extremist activity. In doing so, it became the first country in the region with such advanced communication on religious fundamentalism and potential ties to terrorism.
Kosovo has just celebrated its eighth anniversary as a state, and was supposed to have joined the full community of nations by now. Yet it remains an unfinished state, still lacking a two-thirds vote of recognition from United Nations member states. While this does not threaten Kosovo's statehood, it does weaken its presence and reputation in multilateral forums and organizations.
Kosovo needs the West's attention now perhaps more than ever in order to prevent its failure as a state. The vast majority of Kosovars feel connected to the West and embrace of the concept of liberal democracy. Yet a troubled status-quo has prevailed in Kosovo in the 17 years since Serb rule ended, and gives rise to the prospect of perpetual tension. That tension will keep foreign investment away, leaving the region stagnant, furthering the sense of hopelessness among the people.
This all leaves Kosovo in limbo – an unfinished state. This sense of incompletion only adds to Kosovars' anxiety about their future. It nurtures political leaders driven by short-term gain instead of long-term goals. Meanwhile, the ordinary people - who want to see Kosovo prosper yet who stand to gain least from politics - grow alienated, making them vulnerable to extremism and fanaticism.
How religion is portrayed in the media also must change. Coverage has to be more comprehensive and offer better insight. Current coverage of religion tends to be episodic and focused on sensationalism, while the story of radical Islam gaining ground over traditional secular Islam goes uncovered.
By focusing on trivial and sensational elements of religion and offering just glimpses into what is truly at stake means media keep the public in the dark about religious agendas and country's most important internal conflicts.
Kosovo sits at a critical geographic intersection, and will continue to be a target of influence of both Eastern and Western cultures. This allows Kosovo to pick and choose what it wants, but it also needs proper guidance in that selection process.
To mature as a state, Kosovo must hold fast to religious pluralism, freedom of belief, and freedom of the press. That is the best hope to minimize conflict, maximize prosperity and harmony, and to become a stable and effective member of the society of nations.
Dr. Naser Miftari was a research fellow of The Media Project at The McCandlish Phillips Journalism Institute at The King’s College in New York City in the Fall of 2016. He normally resides in Ontario, Canada, and spends a good part of the year teaching journalism and politics at universities in Kosovo and the Balkans.