The Speech of the President of Kosovo at Georgetown University

It’s a great pleasure to be back at Georgetown University to discuss what is shaping up to be one of the main generational challenges of this century – namely how we define the role of the religion and how we accommodate religion – or religions – in our pluralistic democracies.

“THE CONTEXT OF INTERRELIGIOUS RELATIONS IN KOSOVO: OVERCOMING DIVISIONS AND FORGING TOLERANCE IN THE NEW STATE”

Dear Imam Hendi,
Distinguished students,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
 
It’s a great pleasure to be back at Georgetown University to discuss what is shaping up to be one of the main generational challenges of this century – namely how we define the role of the religion and how we accommodate religion – or religions – in our pluralistic democracies.
 
Before I begin, I want to take a moment to thank you all for attending and Imam Hendi for extending me the invitation to speak at this forum and to be back in Georgetown. Many women, decision-makers who have shaped the debates of our time and for whom I have profound respect, have walked through these halls and it’s always great to follow the footsteps of these trailblazers.
 
I had the pleasure to meet Imam Hendi in his visit to Kosovo last year when we were able to exchange our thoughts and views about what we are trying to do in Kosovo and the numerous challenges that we face. And I am grateful I was able to describe to him how Europe’s youngest country, Kosovo is making leaps in recovering, in overcoming, in moving forward.
 
Of course, the journey to recovery, to normalcy, to what Kosovo represents today, has been complex. As I have often described, we are a society that at the end of the last century lived through, resisted through civil disobedience and eventually fought a despicable repression by Serbia’s regime of the time, a repression and war that left deep scars in our society.
 
With the help of many democratic countries that came to the rescue of the people of Kosovo, we have spent the these two past decades in rebuilding the ties between different ethnicities, different religious institutions, and we have worked hard to try build trust, the key component to reconciliation and an assurance that the events of the 1990s will never revisit the Balkans again.
 
In charting our path forward we have only had to look back into our long tradition of peaceful and harmonious coexistence between different religions. Kosovo is home to ninety percent Albanian population, that is predominantly Muslim, the majority of whom are secular and the rest mostly adherents of the Hanefi tradition dating back to conversions during the conquest of the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century. We also have a Sufi presence with their mystic traditions possibly dating back to the thirteenth century, surviving to this day in Kosovo, a treasure that we consider as a valuable cultural heritage.
 
Kosovo has some of the most important Serb Orthodox churches, where the Serbian community, about 5 percent of the country’s population, worships. We also have a very small but vibrant Roman Catholic community. And we are very, very proud to have given the Catholic Church its most recent saint, Mother Teresa, the nun of Albanian descent, who took her vows many years ago in a small, secluded church, known best for its black Madonna, in eastern Kosovo.
 
We do not have to search long and hard to find the important traces of this coexistence throughout towns and villages in Kosovo. They are deeply ingrained in the architecture of the cities that fall along traditional trading routes. Like a few other places in the world, in Kosovo we have churches – Roman Catholic and Serb Orthodox and mosques share the same courtyard. The mixture of bell tolls and muezzin’s call to prayer, of minarets and crosses piercing the skies, makes Kosovo not only rich in tradition, but creates a model of tolerance that in today’s world of much intolerance sticks out.
 
There were times when this religious coexistence that I just described has been severely tested, especially during the breakup of Yugoslavia, of which Kosovo was a part of.
 
In the Yugoslav times immediately after World War II, when we were ruled by communism, the clergy were persecuted, mosques – often the most historic ones - were razed to the ground and religion was largely pushed out of public domain. Eventually, the socialist brand of communism allowed at the end of the 20th century in Yugoslavia loosened up its grip on places of worship.

Unlike in neighboring Albania, where a communist dictatorship turned mosques and churches into trash collection points, in Kosovo during the 70s and 80s, mosques and churches were allowed to exist upon the condition that religion had no place in the communist society that was being forged. They were however accorded very little care and many were left to decay.
 
In the 1990s, when Yugoslavia began to fall, many authors began to describe the wars along the lines of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, where wars occur at the fault lines of civilizations, which are conflated with cultures and where cultures equal religions.
 
Yet, what we witnessed on the ground instead was how the tide of nationalism that corresponded to ethnic maps found its match in religion. We witnessed dormant nationalism accentuate religious identity. And in places where those identities were blended and coexistence was more prevalent, the consequences were the harshest.
 
This meant that objects of worship - which had survived for centuries because of the mutual respect and preservation accorded to them by the mixed communities that surrounded them - were attacked – not because of the God that was worshipped in them, but because nationalistic agenda had made them markers of the opposing identities now enmeshed in deep animosities over territorial claims.
 
For example, during Milosevic’s repression, tens of churches were built in Albanian-majority Kosovo as part of his colonization and assimilation effort. Very little protection and preservation was offered to Kosovo’s Islamic heritage. During the war, about 40 percent of Kosovo’s 560 mosques, Islamic libraries and other places of cultural and religious significance were damaged or destroyed by the Serbian forces in target campaign of ethnic cleansing.

After the war, Albanian mobs destroyed dozens of Serbian Orthodox churches in an apparent attempt to weaken the bonds of the Serbian community to Kosovo.
 
It was a painful episode of Kosovo’s long history in which - for the most part – people of different ethnicities and religions preserved what they believed was their common heritage, rising above the temptation to follow the political agendas that tore these communities apart and exploited the differences between them.
 
Since we have managed to turn a new page in Kosovo. By and large, attacks on religious monuments and desecration of holy sites and objects of worship have ceased. And on the occasions when they do occur, they are widely condemned and perpetrators are found and brought to justice.
 
As leaders of Kosovo, we have approached this task of rebuilding our bonds with the view that our coexistence is much longer than our period of disagreement.
 
That peace and stability cannot be built under threat and duress, that economic prosperity and the values and ideals of democracy may not come to life without cessation of animosities.
 
That we will not roll back on the rights and freedoms that at one time were denied to us.
 
One of our main commitments has been to restore Kosovo as a secular state, to separate clearly and firmly the state from matters of religion.
 
Our starting point has been our Constitution. We have drafted and approved a Constitution that promotes the unfettered practice of religion and gives equal treatment to all religions in Kosovo and their followers. We, of course, in our secular life, also allow for the category of nonbelievers because we regard religion as an important part of people’s identity but also as an individual choice.
 
In large part, through this commitment to separate religion from matters of state, we want to protect religions and their objects of cult from politics so that they never again are used to stoke up ethnic divisions.
 
Despite our bitter recent past, as the ethnic majority in Kosovo, we have an obligation to preserve the Serb Orthodox churches and the way of life of our fellow Serbs. To them, these monuments are a focal point of their identity and they are important venues of their perseverance.
 
We draw our legitimacy as a state of equal citizens in how we treat our minorities. And we are determined to interrupt the senseless cycle of violence that has kept a whole generation – my generation included - socially excluded and in isolation.

That is why, if you take a look at Kosovo’s constitution today, it is unique in that we provide much autonomy to the Serbian Orthodox Church and the preservation of holy sites. Following the 2004 riots that targeted these monuments of cult, Kosovo’s government paid for all the reconstruction of the damaged objects and jailed the culprits.
 
Needless to say, there is a lot of pent up anger in our society about the past, about the many perpetrators that have committed atrocious crimes in the name of ethnicity and religion, who have never faced justice, repented or apologized.
 
But, we must resist the urge to get even. We must look forward and set the foundations of a meaningful interfaith dialogue so that these events of our past do not revisit us again in the future. And I am glad to say that Kosovo’s clergy have understood their role well by taking the lead to initiate this important discussion.
 
As we move forward, Kosovo is challenged with how it chooses to interpret its past for the future generations. Kosovo must never become a place where religious monuments are razed to the ground. But, being objects of cults should not provide an escape from the narrative of how they came to be, specifically those sites that have been erected during the Serbian repression. If we choose to view them solely as places of sanctity, I am afraid that we will be telling just a part of the story.
 
The way that I hope my fellow citizens will choose is to preserve and inform the future generations of the context that surrounds these monuments akin to the recent debate in this society about the role of major historical figures and slavery. It is only that way that we will learn from the mistakes of the past.
 
Another big challenge for our small country is to preserve our unique brand of Islam that is a product of many centuries of coexistence with other religious traditions.
 
Unfortunately, Kosovo has not been spared of the global resurrection of religious currents that seek to exploit ethnic strife to further religious ambition, namely to use religion to point out existing ethnic divisions as Godlessness. We see signs of external, more fundamentalist and intolerant interpretations of Islam, which are foreign to Kosovo, but which have found a way into our country.
 
And there is only one answer to protect our societies from this: that is education and only education.
 
Dear friends,
 
This is the humble story of Kosovo. As you can derive from my speech here today, we haven’t figured it all out. But we have made leaps forward.

For one, we have expanded our table and have added more chairs to it to include all those that have kept alive the traditions and the beautiful character of our society.
 
Thank you for being here today and for allowing me to share this thoughts with you.
 
Thank you!