The Presence of Iran and Shi’ism in Kosovo

The Presence of Iran and Shi’ism in Kosovo
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Since its inception, Kosovars’ interaction with Iran has been more ideological and religious rather than economic or political. Kosovo as a Secular Muslim majority country has a large number of sect (tariqat) members. By virtue of the fact that Kosovo’s sectarians are declared as followers of the path of Prophet Muhammad’s family (Ahl al-Bayt), the Islamic Republic of Iran in Belgrade1 adjusted its focus in Kosovo. This focus tightened after the installation of the Islamic Revolution system that took place in 1979.The Center for Culture at the Iranian Embassy in Belgrade began translating religious literature and political-Islamic treatises into Serbian, which is dispersed to the cities of Kosovo. Furthermore, as part of this cultural activity, this Center began publishing in Serbian the cultural magazine "Nur", which they sent to every tekke, each sheikh, and likewise to the Muslim intellectuals of Kosovo and Macedonia. It should be noted that four issues of the magazine "Nur" were also published in Albanian. This magazine contained Shia leaning religious writings by authors such as Morteza Motahhari, Mohammad Hossein Beheshti, Mohammad Javad Bahonar, etc. Different from the simple and popular discourses of the religious leaders of Kosovo's mosques and tekkes, the discourse of these Iranian theologians seemed more sophisticated and more philosophically articulated to educate Kosovars. Several of these Muslim scholars had begun to take an interest in the Shia narrative of the Islamic religion. The most interested ones were individuals who had Islamist leaning, also thoughts about reorganizing the lives of Muslims according to shariah. The ideological tendencies and leanings of these individuals were articulated and applied by Ayatollah Khomeini, the inventor and founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Thus, some of these Kosovars became so close to Khomeini's ideology that they settled, changing their religious beliefs and convert to Shia. It is worth mentioning the fact that today in honor of Ayatollah Khomeini, a family in the city of Prizren2 bears the surname "Khomeini". Although not in large numbers, these individuals converted to Shi'ism managed to establish contacts with the IRI embassy in Belgrade and found financial support for the organization and the spreading of Shi'ism and Khomeini's Islamist ideology in Kosovo. In the 90s, they have caused various problems and obstacles for the Sunni Muslims community and the sects living in Prizren. According to the newspapers of that time, we learn that the Shias of Kosovo tried to violently occupy a mosque in the city of Prizren, but then they faced with the reaction of that mosque’s members, thus, did not manage to take it. This attempt caused their appearance in the Kosovo media of that time, so they managed to express their tendencies to be accepted as a special religious community in Kosovo. The Shias of Kosovo, who at that time operated as a small religious community in the city of Prizren until the end of the Kosovo War in 1999, had quiet activities, which were focused only on the organizing of Shia prayers and rituals. The Iranians had also expressed a tendency to assist the Kosovo Liberation Army in its fight against the Serbian military forces, but according to the evidence, the leaders of this army have refused financial and military assistance from Iran3. The Iranians in Kosovo would appear immediately after the war, this time through the humanitarian organization "Red Moon" (Helal Ahmar). This Iranian organization, in addition to humanitarian aid, after 2000th in the city of Pristina4 had opened a Dental Office. But even this organization had not encountered any support from the Kosovar people, so for a short time, it was forced to withdraw from Kosovo. Afterward, the Iranians would continue with another organization, the "Cultural Association of the Qur'an", which was a representative of the "Organization of Madrassas Abroad" (Sazman-e Madares-e Kharej az Keshvar) until 2007. After 2007 this organization continued with representing of University Al Mustafa. This cultural association’s focus was on organizing courses for the teaching of the Qur'an, translating and publishing books on Islamic-Shia topics, also organizing the Shia community in the city of Prizren. Quranic courses were held by the imams of these mosques, and for this activity, they got paid by the association. The main target of the association was the tekkes and dervishes of Kosovo, in addition to supplying them with Shia literature, they also maintained constant contact with some of the sheikhs. But during conversations with some of these sheikhs, especially in the cities of Prizren, Gjakova and Rahovec, no influence of Shi'ism and Islamist narrative of Iran can be noticed. After the outbreak of war in Syria in 2012, a war which in the international arena was perceived as a war between Sunnis and Shias, many religious clerics, especially those with Salafist leanings, placed Shias at the center of the attacks. The radicalization of the Salafist discourse against Shias and members of tekkes and sects had resulted in the escalation of the security situation in Kosovo. Therefore, the state of Kosovo had decided to close many religious and cultural organizations of Muslims. Among those organizations was the Cultural Association of the Qur'an and the Ahl al-Bayt religious Association. Kosovo’s state authorities had also requested the departure from Kosovo of the director of CAQ, who was Iranian. According to our previous research, it can be proven that CAQ ceased all its activities in Kosovo, while the Ahl al-Bayt Religious Association has continued to function as a mosque of the Shias of Kosovo since 2019. There are no statistics on the number of Shias in Kosovo, but it can be assumed that their number may not be over fifty. All these Shias are not organized under any particular association or organization, but according to our observations, it is noticed that they operate in two or three separate groups. Some of them have turned to the traditions of the tariqah, while some no longer accept to be identified as Shia. The most representative and present voice of Kosovo Shia in the Kosovar media is Ikballe Huduti, director of the International Research Institute "Naim Frashëri", operating in Pristina. Mrs. Huduti continues to be on trial over a statement she made on social media in which she expressed indignation over the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and demanded revenge against the USA.

Although in the beginning, Khomeini's Shi'ism and Islamist ideology had come to Kosovo through a more sophisticated discourse and managed to attract the attention of some Kosovar citizens, currently, there is no visible Shia influence in Kosovo. The presence of Wahhabi ideology, the intolerance of the Islamic Community of Kosovo towards Shias, and the concerns of the Kosovo authorities for the security of the country can be considered as the main factors in reducing the Iranian and Shia influence in Kosovo. It can also be argued that the strengthening of Turkish Sufi discourse and its presence in Kosovar society has succeeded in taking the place of the philosophical-mystical narrative of Shi'ism. An important role in the failure of the Iranian Islamist narrative in Kosovo was played by the advent and expansion of the Islamist discourse of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. This Islamist narrative of the Muslim Brotherhood came through Kosovars educated in Arab countries, especially in Egypt, most of whom today are engaged as imams or as teachers in madrassas and the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Kosovo.

1 The capital of Serbia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

2 One of the oldest settlements in Kosovo and the western Balkans.

3 In 2000, Jakup Krasniqi (spokesman of KLA) in an Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB claimed that Kosovo Liberation Army’s western orientation was the main reason for refusing the Iranian aid.

4 Capital city of Kosovo.