Fears radical Islam may take hold in Kosovo

Three years after declaring independence from Serbia, Kosovo continues to face social and economic turmoil. With high unemployment and rising poverty, the self-proclaimed Balkan republic is offering fertile ground for hardline Islamists.

The recent elections in Kosovo were widely criticized. Russia's envoy to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, pointed to a number of violations and voiced concern that radical parties were able to gain votes.

There are now growing fears the region could be turning into a major terrorist hub, right in the middle of Europe. And as RT has been finding out, extremist rhetoric is being imported alongside foreign aid.

Ninety per cent of Kosovo’s population are Muslim and known for their liberal interpretation of the faith. But there are now growing concerns that the fundamentalist movement of Islam, Wahhabism, is taking root there.

“The most fundamentalist strain in Islam – most reverently fundamentalist strain – is from Wahhabism. So, I think, when you have this kind of ideology saying you have to literally follow verse or chapter from the Koran, you can quite easily have a situation where, for example, terrorist acts could be justified,” says Robin Simcox, an Islam expert with the UK-based Centre for Social Cohesion.

Wahhabism originates from Saudi Arabia, and many mosques destroyed in the Balkan conflict are being rebuilt with Saudi money.

The Saudi government has spent tens of billions of dollars on building mosques, schools and charities worldwide – charities that in Kosovo help to support poor members of the community.

“We don’t have jobs, so the charities bring us clothes and food which we need for our children,” one of local unemployed, Rexhep Kastrati, told RT.

The impact of Saudi financing in Kosovo now is clearly evident, and the fear is that it is not just the money that is being brought in, but the Wahhabi ideology as well.

“A lot of the Saudi money is often tied up in ideology and yet I don’t think Saudi Arabia are massively keen on the West especially getting a foothold there and building a democratic structure which… they wouldn’t see as being right for Muslims,” Robin Simcox explained.

The mosques are supposed to be carefully monitored by the Islamic community in Kosovo to ensure that they are adhering to moderate teachings.

“The mosques cannot be under their control, because we have to appoint the Imam, and we, the Islamic community, we do appoint the Imams, we control them,” a specialist in Islamic studies at the University of Pristina, Jabir Hamiti, explains.

However, in the town of Marina, a mosque was recently closed down after a petition to remove a Wahhabi Imam, who was allegedly using money to win over the poor. He was able to operate for ten years, and the locals are asking why it was left for them to take action.

“You could tell there was something not right going on. There were young children in full cover, and he was taking them on religious trips abroad. So, we thought we had to do something about it,” says Janisahe Halimi, a local activist and petition initiator.

The moderate Muslim community in Kosovo has made it clear that hardline teachings will not be tolerated. But there are warning signs that fundamentalist Islam could be sneaking in through the back door, right into the heart of Europe.