Kosovo tackles tough questions of religion and conflict

Garentina Kraja Garentina Kraja reported Kosovo's war and is now teaching students about resolving conflict

Garentina Kraja's adult life has been a mirror of Kosovo's recent history and the attempts of Europe's youngest country to build a new identity.

From a teenage war correspondent and refugee she is now a presidential adviser and teaches a university course about tolerance and resolving conflict, in a country sitting across political, religious and ethnic fault-lines.

Kosovo is still a country shaped by the brutal ethnic conflict that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia - and where old spectres of ethnic violence returned to haunt modern Europe.

The course, taught at the University of Prishtina and the American University of Kosovo, is an original project in its own right, trying a different approach to tackling the toxic appeal of sectarianism and religious extremism.

It is the result of another figure who has woven in and out of her story - Tony Blair. She first saw him in a refugee camp in Macedonia in 1999, where she was sheltering with her family and thousands of other displaced ethnic Albanians.

Belief gap

The next unlikely meeting place was more than a decade later, when she was a student at Yale University. Having had her education "stolen away" by war, she had been invited to study in the United States.

And an international relations course at Yale was offered with the former UK prime minister as a lecturer. It had an unusual angle.

Mr Blair wanted to look at the role of religion in conflict, with the view that it had become a diplomatic blind spot. While it was common to analyse disputes in terms of ideology, economics and ethnic tensions, the role of religious belief was left to one side, a ghost in the mechanics of peacemaking.

Protests by Albanian Kosovans against negotiations with Serbia Albanian Kosovans protesting last week against improving relations with Serbia

Ms Kraja says she was "sceptical". Her family was Muslim, but she had grown up in a secular home, where religion was a marginal part of her identity.

But she says it made her think about the patterns of the conflict in Kosovo she had covered as a war correspondent and how religion had been "hijacked by different forces to further their own agendas".

"Religion didn't cause the war, it was about territory. But destroying a mosque or a church became a way of destroying a community's identity."

Religion had become part of the process of prosecution and reprisals, it was a way of one community "demonising the other".

She talks of the traumatic experiences of covering the war, visiting villages where dozens of people from the same family had been massacred. There had been a systematic use of rape as a weapon of terror, she says.

She watched soldiers eating ice cream in the sunshine after they had levelled a village.

There was a process of dehumanising victims, she says, robbing them of their individual identity, labelling them as a communal enemy.

And part of this includes the misuse of religion, she says. Since the Kosovo war, the 9/11 terror attacks had added another layer of rhetoric about clashes between east and west and the dangers of religious fundamentalism.

Extremism

She not only attended the course, she has ended up teaching it. The project, the Faith and Globalisation Initiative, is now operating across 20 international universities, with the aim of tackling the "vacuum of knowledge" about the role of religion.

Kosovo Serbs gather to mark the anniversary of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo at Gazimestan Serbs last week marked the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389

Tempers can become frayed in classes, says Ms Kraja. The idea of tolerance and free speech gets tested by extreme views. "It can become inflamed... How do you engage with people who deal in absolute truths?"

But she says it is important to keep such arguments in the public sphere, rather than letting youngsters disappear into the radicalised margins.

"If we're serious about a tolerant, inclusive society, we need to be able to understand each other. If you want to condemn intolerance you need to understand it.

"It's the missing part of the debate. Even if we're ambivalent about religion, you need to understand it. These debates need to be out in the open."

It raises big questions for a young democracy. Where are the boundaries of free speech? How do you accommodate the rights of a distrustful minority? How do you balance the rights of victims with the need for reconciliation? How much should religious identity be allowed to intrude upon a secular public domain?

In Kosovo it means practical questions such as whether Muslim school pupils should be allowed to wear headscarves. At present, they're not. There is also a debate about whether religious education should be introduced, against fears that it could be turned into a form of religious instruction.

Multiple identities

Kosovo is an extraordinary cauldron of contradictions. It's a living example of the multiple layers of identity.

If "Balkanisation" has come to mean the fragmentation of states into incompatible pieces, then Kosovo is Balkanised even by the standards of the Balkans.

The majority population is ethnic Albanian, mostly Muslim, although the naming of the main street Mother Teresa Boulevard reflects there are also Christians.

Tony Blair, Kosovan refugees, May 1999 Tony Blair visited refugees from Kosovo in May 1999

There is a minority Serb population in a region with a deep historical significance for Serbians - and Serbia does not recognise the legitimacy of Kosovo as a separate state.

A Nato military force still remains in place to keep the peace.

Kosovo's national museum is virtually a shrine to Nato, in honour of the military intervention that ousted Serb forces in 1999. But reverberating through the galleries is the call to prayer from the ancient mosque next door.

Photos of God Bless America posters are cheek by jowl with minarets.

Traffic in Pristina hurtles along roads bearing names of 1990s leaders such as Bill Klinton and Tonibler (the Albanian rendering of Tony Blair). This remains an outpost of pre-Iraq optimism.

While members of the eurozone have doubts about their currency, the Kosovans, perhaps the last great enthusiasts for internationalism, have already adopted the euro as their currency.

'Boring democracy'

This is also disputed territory for the international community. When Kosovo declared independence five years ago it was recognised by the US, UK and France, but Russia and China have still not accepted its statehood.

The normalisation of relations with Serbia remains part of a wider international chess game, including Serbia's aim to join the European Union.

Commemorating the missing in Kosovo's war Commemorating the victims of Kosovo's war

And the spectacularly youthful demographics of the country bear little relation to the ageing populations elsewhere in Europe. An estimated 60% are aged under 30, so the need to tackle youth unemployment is vital for any future political stability.

According to US figures, Kosovo already has the lowest per capita income in Europe.

Kosovo is also a reminder of how old nightmares can rise from the deep freezer of history. Yugoslavia buried the idea of national and religious identity, but it sprang back to life with dark and brutal savagery.

She says that when the convoys shuffled into refugee camps they were like figures from the 1930s and 1940s, but at the same time they all had mobile phones. This was the MTV generation caught up in medieval ethnic slaughter.

Charlotte Keenan, chief executive of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation which runs the university project, says she wants to support efforts to prevent religious conflict in Kosovo.

"We believe that in order to truly understand the modern world, you must understand religion's impact upon it."

For Garentina Kraja, the ambitions for Kosovo might seem modest but are ambitious in the context of its recent history. "We need to become a boring democracy."

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