How International Actors Unintentionally Contribute to Kosovo’s Extremism: A Life Story Perspective

How International Actors Unintentionally Contribute to Kosovo’s Extremism: A Life Story Perspective

What are the causes of religious violent extremism in Kosovo and what is their relation to the peacebuilding missions that have became sources of violent extremism? Insight in these phenomena might help international policymakers in proposing strategies.

As Kosovo is nearing the end of the second decade after the 1999 war, the old ethnic animosities between Serbians and Albanians are still present in public and private life. At the same time, new antagonisms are also based on religious affiliations. What has been the role of the external actors governing the territory of Kosovo? How have organizations such as the United Nations, the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and foreign embassies influenced these processes? It is argued that the international engagement, while building the state of Kosovo and peace, unintentionally contributed to the recent rise of violent religious extremism among the Albanian society in Kosovo. If state and peace building will exist also in the future, it will be important to understand how to prevent international missions from becoming a source of violent religious extremism.

The link between violent religious extremism and state and peace building approaches is hereby analysed through a personalized and reflective approach, namely oral history and life stories. Since only few detailed case studies have been conducted, and since local knowledge on the topic is very thin, this methodology has been helpful to fill the knowledge gap on the impact of state and peace building missions more generally. Life stories of Albanians in Kosovo indicate that exclusive state and peace building missions have potentially contributed to religious violent extremism and the religious polarization of the Albanian population. The life story of "Beni", an anonymous interviewee, represents one of the unheard voices that illustrates the link between state and peace building interventions and violent religious extremism. His life story exemplifies the local dynamics, with similar challenges and priorities emerging also in other life stories.

"Beni" is an Albanian who was born into a middle class, non-religious family in Kosovo. He was educated in various Republics in the former Yugoslavian system, where he later also worked. He fought in several of the Balkan wars in the 1990s. After the Kosovo War, he decided to return home to assist in post-war reconstruction. Soon after, he began focusing on defending cultural values, and more specifically Islam, because of what he perceived to be a lack of respect towards Islam as a religion, and due to the threat posed to it by international and local actors. "Beni" established a movement to protect the religious rights of the local community in the face of perceived economic and cultural injustices at the hands of those in power. His Islamic movement “Mother” (name changed for this article) aims to protect social and economic rights. It has a distinct social dimension focused on religious aspects presumably reflecting national identity, and an economic dimension, which refers to delivering services to people in need. The propagated version of Islam envisions economic equality and an equitable distribution of resources among various groups of society which, in his view, would help Kosovo to shift away from the materialism and corruption that has become prevalent in the post-war period.

The establishment and continued growth of the movement can be interpreted as a reaction to the explicit and implicit biases by international and local actors. The resistance of the local and international authorities to the movement is expressed mostly through an implicit bias towards religion. "Beni" argues that the movement confronts persistent pressure from both Kosovo’s police forces and from the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX), which interrogated members about their activities and interests before Brussels and Paris attacks. During the interrogations and office searches members were asked also whether Kosovo is “a secular state” or if it belongs to “Europe”, alleging members of radicalism and of being fundamentalists and Taliban. "Beni" views these activities as discriminatory towards him and the movement. A perceived bias is according to him also reflected in the denial of the universities to grant students the right to wear a headscarf. He himself also feels marginalized, having been potentially denied access to employment in the state structures. As a result, "Beni" questioned the attitude towards religion of some of the international military personnel in Kosovo. In conversations with German and Swedish members of NATO's Kosovo Force (KFOR), one of the officers told him plainly that “Islam is fundamentalist”. "Beni" felt forced to reply: “Don’t ever say that word. Not only in Kosovo but even when you go outside of Kosovo, you can’t say that”. In reaction, they only stared at him, seemingly rejecting his statement and stance. He was also personally attacked on social media. Lastly, "Beni"’s resistance towards the international actors is also a response towards the Western persistence that democracy must prevail over other forms of governance. Following his line of reasoning, the right to freedom of religion seems insufficient to prevent religious discrimination. Resistance of the movement towards the state and international involvement may hence increase. "Beni" states that he feels under assault by both parties. He is currently being persecuted on terrorism grounds. If proven guilty, his embodied discriminatory experience may have contributed to turning him into a terrorist. Therefore his local voice needs to be heard when devising counter terrorism strategies.

"Beni"’s life story is one that exemplifies the limits of liberal state and peace building agenda. It conveys the frustration and alienation felt by some of the local groups regarding the international community’s involvement, which may have caused unintended harm helping to make the local society a source of violent religious extremism. His life story illustrates thus not only the local but also the global dimension of international interventions. State weakness is not merely the result of the lack of opportunities and poor economic conditions, but also of the failure of the rebuilt state (and those creating it) to provide equal access to state structures to all citizens, religious or non-religious. Denied such access in a process of “exclusionary state and peace building”, certain groups feel marginalized and may potentially come to endorse violent extremism with all its negative consequences. Neglecting religious non-state actors including as social movements, communities and individuals, is hence not a viable policy option to promote state and peace building and counter violent extremism. Shifting towards a more inclusive statebuilding may in contrast assist in deterring violent religious extremism and may increase the attractiveness of international state and peace missions.