1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Kosovo: Is conservative Islam gaining ground?

Vjosa Cerkini
August 25, 2023

There have been a number of attacks on journalists in Kosovo in recent years. Now, conservative Muslims in the city of Prizren are agitating against a news portal and a journalist.

People hold placards and Albanian and Kosovar flags during a protest as two police officers look on, Prizren, Kosovo, August 11, 2023
Around 200 people protested recently about a performance by feminist Canadian musician Peaches and called for a stop to 'degeneration' Image: Philipp Böll/DW

The city of Prizren in southern Kosovo is known for its diversity. Mosques and Orthodox and Catholic churches stand within a few hundred meters of each other, and a synagogue is due to open here soon.

Albanians in the city live peacefully alongside other ethnic groups, including Turks, Roma and Bosniaks.

Now, however, Prizren is the scene of a campaign that is taking aim at this very diversity.

Large LED screens call for a boycott of the news portal Nacionale with images of journalist Vullnet Krasniqi and the slogan 'Press freedom ends with offense.' Prizren, Kosovo, August 2023
Large LED screens in Prizren call for a boycott of the news portal Nacionale. The words 'Press freedom ends with offense' can be seen at the bottom of the screenImage: privat

For several days now, a call to boycott the Kosovar news website Nacionale has been displayed on large LED screens in the city. The message on the screens is accompanied by images of Vullnet Krasniqi, a well-known journalist at Nacionale, and the words "Press freedom ends with offense."

Provocative outfit caused protests

It all began in early August when a small but very vocal minority was offended by a performance by feminist Canadian musician Peaches and her band at the DokuFest film festival in Prizren on August 4.

Peaches — an idol of the LGBTQ+ community — wore a provocative outfit for the performance. The call to join the protest said that the singer's performance had been incompatible with tradition and culture, was a threat to children and would lead to "degeneration."

Abusive protesters

A week later, on August 11, about 200 people demonstrated outside the best-known mosque in Prizren immediately after Friday prayers. Vullnet Krasniqi was there to report on the protest.

When he asked some of the protesters what aspect of Peaches' performance posed a threat to children and what they meant by "degeneration," things turned ugly.

Journalist Vullnet Krasniqi (dressed in a blue T-shirt) speaks as a police officer and civilian try to restrain an angry protester, Prizren, Kosovo, August 11, 2023
Journalist Vullnet Krasniqi was attacked by angry protesters at the demonstration in Prizren Image: Ferdi Limani

"Violent demonstrators came towards me, hurled abuse at me and pushed me. They demanded that I stop asking questions and not report on the protest," Krasniqi told DW.

His cameraman, Arber Arifi, was also jostled and pushed. Video footage shows that the police kept a low profile at the protest, restraining angry protesters, but otherwise not intervening.

Not the first incident of its kind

This was the second time this summer that small groups of conservative Muslims made headlines for violent acts against journalists.

On another occasion, a journalist was brutally beaten for using a sarcastic tone in a Facebook post about an ultraconservative imam from Prizren who had been given a Mercedes as a retirement present by the members of his community.

In the past few years, numerous journalists have been threatened or assaulted. The reasons for the attacks were not just their reports on political corruption, but often also that conservative Muslims felt they had violated religious values or traditions.

According to its constitution, Kosovo is a secular state. Indeed, most Kosovars would describe themselves as "Muslim light."

The sun shines on the old quarter of Prizren, the Sinan Pasha Mosque and the river, Prizren, Kosovo
The old quarter of Prizren and the Sinan Pasha MosqueImage: Philipp Böll/DW

Women here do not traditionally wear the hijab or the niqab, and if they do cover their heads at all, it is generally with a headscarf tied at the nape of the neck. The consumption of alcohol is not frowned upon, and many don't — or only rarely — go to the mosque.

Liberal, pro-Western Islam

Arbana Xharra is a political scientist and multiple award-winning Kosovar journalist based in the US. She is conducting research into Islamic radicalization in the Balkans. "Islam in Kosovo is liberal and pro-Western in orientation, so to speak," she told DW. "But even in this form, it is not practiced by most people in the country."

Although radical Islam is not an immediate political threat in Kosovo, Xharra sees a dangerous phenomenon behind the campaign against Krasniqi.

"Since the end of the war in 1999, we have seen radical Islamic tendencies pushing into Kosovo," she said. "They want to change the geopolitical and cultural orientation of the country and to counteract the multicultural, liberal, pro-Western heritage. It becomes a threat when the state tolerates these tendencies."

Target of hate campaigns

Xharra knows what she is talking about. She herself was the target of hate campaigns and threats because of her reports on radical Islamists in Kosovo. She was called, among other things, a "whore of the Jews."

In May 2017, she was brutally attacked and beaten near her home in Pristina. A few months later, she left Kosovo after learning of plans to make an attempt on her life.

Arbana Xharra
Kosovar political scientist and journalist Arbana Xharra sees a dangerous phenomenon behind the campaign against KrasniqiImage: privat

To this day, it is not known who attacked her in 2017. "Even six years on, neither the police nor the public prosecutor have done anything," she said.

Crackdown on former IS members

Indeed, the actions of the Kosovar authorities tend to be contradictory in this respect.

They have in recent years been cracking down on a certain part of the radical Islamic spectrum. It is estimated that about 400 Kosovars joined the extremist "Islamic State" (IS) group in the Middle East. Some who returned were given long prison sentences or were put under state supervision.

In the case of attacks on "troublesome" journalists, however, the authorities investigate either half-heartedly or not at all.

Silence on issues relating to LGBTQ+ rights

On issues that polarize — such as LGBTQ+ issues, which conservative Muslims are increasingly using for propaganda purposes — politicians in Kosovo tend to remain silent.

Although the rights of LGBTQ+ citizens are protected by the Kosovar constitution, this protection is, in reality, minimal.

It is not just that many Kosovars are prejudiced against homosexuals, but also that Muslim communities and most politicians in Kosovo — regardless of their affiliation — dismiss homosexuality as "immoral."

Same-sex marriage initiative failed

Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti publicly came out in support of the recognition of same-sex marriage in his country. Had the initiative been a success, Kosovo would have become the first Muslim country in the world to allow same-sex marriage. But Kurti's initiative failed spectacularly in spring 2022.

A couple kisses under soap bubbles as they take part in a Pride Parade in Pristina, Kosovo, June 10, 2023
Members of the LGBTQ+ community took part in a Pride Parade in Pristina in June to demand 'freedom' and 'equal rights' in KosovoImage: ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images

Members and lawmakers in his own party, Vetevendosje, were opposed to the move, even though the party is nominally left wing, stands for social-democratic values, and grew out of a civil rights movement.

Hate-filled comments on Facebook

There was no sign of "Islam light" at the demonstration Vullnet Krasniqi attended in Prizren. It is possible that the attacks against him were also motivated by the fact that he himself is openly gay and publicly fights for LGBTQ+ rights.

Krasniqi is still shaken by the incident: "The images of the attack generated thousands of reactions and comments on Facebook, most of which welcomed the attack on us," he said. "I did get a lot of support, but I was not expecting that degree of hatred in the Facebook comments."

In Krasniqi's case, too, the Kosovar government has remained silent. By the time of publication, DW had received no answer to a request for a comment from a government spokesperson on the campaign against the journalist and Nacionale.

But Krasniqi refuses to be intimidated: "Stopping is not an option," he said. "And continuing is the only way to show my attackers that I am not afraid of them."

This article was originally published in German.

Kosovo's attempt to reintegrate IS returnees

Autorin Vjosa Cerkini
Vjosa Cerkini Correspondent, Reporter based in Prishtina, Kosovo