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Lebanon’s Blood Holiday

Lee Smith (who sometimes pens guest columns for this Web site) just published a strong piece in the new British foreign policy magazine Standpoint about Lebanon’s celebration of the return of child-killer Samir Kuntar from the prisons of Israel. The whole sordid episode besmirches Lebanon, but, as he demonstrates, plenty of Lebanese are rightly disgusted. More importantly he shows that while Lebanon is in real trouble right now, “Hezbollah is doomed in the long run”:http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/node/280.

Azerbaijan, Here I Come — UPDATED

So I just got invited to a week-long conference in the mysterious country of Azerbaijan in August.

I can’t help but wonder how many people even know where it is. (It’s between Iran and Russia, and around a fourth of Iranians are ethnic Azeris. One Iranian province is actually called Western Azerbaijan. The former name of the country was the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.)

It should be damned interesting. I’ll publish at least one article from there before I return to Iraq, and more than one article if it’s interesting enough.

Tell me: what would you like to know about this place?

UPDATE: A reader asked what this conference is all about. It is being hosted by the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy, and it is called “Views from America 2008.” There will be panel discussions on at least four topics: Elections in the U.S., pop culture’s impact on the American image, the role of the Internet in politics, and the future of secularism and moderation in Islam.

The conference will last one day, but I’ll be in country for a week. Meetings are being arranged with senior government officials including the Minister of Foreign Affairs, religious leaders, business executives, and think tank professionals.

So if you could talk to these people, what would you ask them? I can think of my own questions, of course, but you’re my readers and some of you dontate money to my account, so I want to know what you want to read about.

Blog Talk Radio

I was a guest on The Rick Moran Show earlier today, and we spent an hour talking about the Balkans, Iraq, and Lebanon. Rick introduced me as “the most interesting man in the world,” which is a hilarious overstatement. Thanks, Rick, but come on, man. Only one person can be that interesting, and it ain’t me. Anyway, we had a good time for an hour, and you can “listen to the whole thing here”:http://www.blogtalkradio.com/rickmoran/2008/07/23/the-rick-moran-show-special-guest-michael-totten.

Triangulation, Lebanon Style

In yesterday’s piece I said Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora’s and Druze chief Walid Jumblatt’s pretended support for the released terrorist Samir Kuntar was an act of triangulation. For those interested in how, exactly, that works, and why someone like Jumblatt thinks it’s necessary, “Michael Young explains it in detail”:http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/mesh/2008/07/behind_druze_kisses_for_quntar.

The Truth about March 14

The “March 14” movement is a political vehicle for Lebanon’s liberals, democrats, free-market capitalists, human rights activists, and those who want an exit from the seemingly endless war with the “Zionist entity.” Unfortunately, that is not all it is. It’s also a political vehicle for hard-line Sunni Arab Nationalists and other political retrogrades who only oppose Hezbollah and the Syrian Baath regime because they hate Shias and Alawites as much as they hate Jews.

My colleague “Noah Pollak is rightly horrified”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/pollak/16371 by the death worship on display in Beirut this week after Israel released the child-murdering terrorist ghoul Samir Kuntar to Hezbollah in exchange for the dead bodies of two kidnapped soldiers. “Lebanon’s March 14th movement cast itself into an abyss of moral depravity that the bloc’s supporters — myself included — never thought possible,” he wrote. I’m sorry to say this–I’m a March 14 supporter, too–but I’m a bit less surprised, if not less repulsed, by this recent turn of events.

Such March 14 stalwarts as Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt participated in the gruesome festivities and gave Kuntar–who smashed in the head of a four year-old girl on a rock after murdering her father in front of her–a warm hero’s welcome.

I don’t know if Seniora and Jumblatt sincerely believe Kuntar is a hero for those deeds. Frankly, I doubt it. He won’t be joining the March 14 movement. There is no question that he belongs to the “March 8” bloc led by Hezbollah, and that he will be perfectly willing to murder the children of the “wrong” kind of Lebanese when civil and sectarian violence explodes in his country again.

But Seniora and Jumblatt feel they have to triangulate, so to speak, and publicly throw their support behind a man who is their enemy because he is also Israel’s enemy. Anti-Zionism trumps everything, even in Lebanon where the violent Jew-hatred endemic to the modern Middle East is weaker than it is most other places.

“Read the rest in COMMENTARY Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewarticle.cfm/the-truth-about-march-14-11685.

Is the War Over?

(Note: I wrote “a brief post”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2008/07/the-iraq-war-is.php on this topic a few days ago. This is an excerpt from a longer piece for COMMENTARY.)

Independent reporter Michael Yon has spent more time in Iraq embedded with combat soldiers than any other journalist in the world, and a few days ago “he boldly declared the war over”:http://michaelyon-online.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1690%3Asuccess-in-iraq&catid=34%3Adispatches&Itemid=55%23yvComment:

Barring any major and unexpected developments (like an Israeli air strike on Iran and the retaliations that would follow), a fair-minded person could say with reasonable certainty that the war has ended. A new and better nation is growing legs. What’s left is messy politics that likely will be punctuated by low-level violence and the occasional spectacular attack. Yet, the will of the Iraqi people has changed, and the Iraqi military has dramatically improved, so those spectacular attacks are diminishing along with the regular violence. Now it’s time to rebuild the country, and create a pluralistic, stable and peaceful Iraq. That will be long, hard work. But by my estimation, the Iraq War is over. We won. Which means the Iraqi people won.

I’m reluctant to say “the war has ended,” as he did, but everything else he wrote is undoubtedly true. The war in Iraq is all but over right now, and it will be officially over if the current trends in violence continue their downward slide. That is a mathematical fact.

If you doubt it, “look at the data”:http://michaelyon-online.com/index.php?option=com_docman&task=doc_download&gid=7&Itemid=.

Security incidents, or attacks, are at their lowest level in four years. Civilian deaths are down by almost 90 percent since General Petraeus’ counterinsurgency “surge” strategy went into effect. High profile attacks, or explosions, are down by 80 percent in the same time period. American and Iraqi soldiers suffer far fewer casualties than they have for years. Ethno-sectarian deaths from Iraq’s civil war plunged all the way down to zero in May and June 2008.

Yon is braver than the rest of us for declaring the war over, but it’s important to understand that there are no final battles in counterinsurgencies and it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact dates when wars like this end. The anti-Iraqi insurgency — a war-within-a-war — really is effectively over. As long as another such war-within-a-war doesn’t break out, Yon will appear more perceptive than the rest of us in hindsight when the currently low levels of violence finally do taper off into relative insignificance.

“Read the rest in COMMENTARY Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewarticle.cfm/is-the-war-over–11599.

The Iraq War is Over?

Michael Yon infuriated a whole swath of his audience some years ago when he said Iraq was in a state of civil war. Only the most committed anti-war leftists wanted to hear it. Vice President Dick Cheney famously and foolishly said the U.S. was “turning the corner” around the same time. Cheney is a politican. Yon is a straight-shooter. So it means something when Yon writes “the following”:http://michaelyon-online.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1690:success-in-iraq&catid=34:dispatches&Itemid=55#yvComment:

The war continues to abate in Iraq. Violence is still present, but, of course, Iraq was a relatively violent place long before Coalition forces moved in. I would go so far as to say that barring any major and unexpected developments (like an Israeli air strike on Iran and the retaliations that would follow), a fair-minded person could say with reasonable certainty that the war has ended. A new and better nation is growing legs. What’s left is messy politics that likely will be punctuated by low-level violence and the occasional spectacular attack. Yet, the will of the Iraqi people has changed, and the Iraqi military has dramatically improved, so those spectacular attacks are diminishing along with the regular violence. Now it’s time to rebuild the country, and create a pluralistic, stable and peaceful Iraq. That will be long, hard work. But by my estimation, the Iraq War is over.

I’m not willing to go that far yet and say the war in Iraq is over. I’ve been burned too many times by events in the Middle East. Optimism and reality don’t coexist easily in that part of the world. But I’ll be back in Iraq myself soon enough, and I’ll weigh in on that question then.

I should add that Yon thinks we’re losing the war in Afghanistan. I’m afraid he’s right, and I’m sorry as hell to say it. The American public seems to think we’re winning in Afghanistan and losing in Iraq, but that is not so.

Stand By

I wasn’t terribly productive with my writing during the past week. There were too many domestic duties and distractions — including a family reunion and my 20-year high school reunion, which was great fun. My next dispatch is just about ready, however. Look for it here Monday night. In the meantime, use the comments box for an open thread. If you read anything interesting over the weekend, feel free to share.

And be nice in the comments. Don’t make me pull over the car.

You Can’t Please Everybody

And it’s disastrous to even try. Make of “this”:http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=9ae5fcc1-9f89-4a44-8ed9-f6deecb24884 what you will:

Most Arabs only know Barack Obama’s name and skin color, so, unsurprisingly, they are fairly enthusiastic about his candidacy. But what are Thomas Friedman’s Arab equivalents, the opinion leaders of the Middle East, saying about Obama? A famously diverse group–ranging from idealistic reformers to moralizing Islamists–the Arab world’s pundits are almost unanimous in their skepticism of him, offering a sharp corrective to the narrative of a world united in its ardor for Obama. They have been arguing that he is not so unconventional an American politician when it comes to the Middle East, and that the people of the region have reason to be worried about an Obama presidency.

Back to Iraq this Summer

I swore I wouldn’t go back to Iraq during the summer. But I’m never able to keep promises like this to myself, so I’m sucking it up and I’m going.

I am not going yet. The trip will be closer to the end of the summer than to the beginning. I have to finish my Kosovo material first. (Thanks, by the way, for indulging me while I take a break from the sandbox. Iraq is hot, depressing, and dangerous, and I faced a choice: either do something else for a bit or burn out. I chose to do something else and write about a less unpleasant topic— though my next dispatch from Kosovo will be rather dark. Go figure. It’s not the Bahamas.)

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Sadr City, Iraq

This time I’ll embed with the military again, and if all goes well I will go to Sadr City. There might be a problem with embedding there, though. I’m not sure about that, and I need to look into it. While the trip is still open-ended, I’d like to ask: where would you send me if you could order me to a specific location? Is Sadr City a good choice, or would you prefer reports from somewhere else? Ever-changing events on the ground might change tentative plans anyway, but I’d still like to know your thoughts — especially if you are one of my generous readers who donates money for travel expenses.

Please let me know what you think in the comments.

Happy Birthday, America

During the last week or so, my wife and I saw the first half of the HBO mini-series John Adams on DVD, which so far is excellent and highly recommended. Watching our original thirteen colonies declare and then fight for independence is electrifying. We Americans are accustomed to revolution and war taking place inside other countries, not inside our own. But of course it wasn’t always this way. We were born in revolution and war. Revolutions, as most of us have learned since, often devour their children. Reigns of terror and regimes even more grotesque than the last often follow. Other times revolutions are aborted or smashed under jackboots and tank treads. Ours could have turned out very differently than it did.

It occurred to me that I hadn’t actually read the Declaration of Independence since high school. So I read it again today, shortly after midnight on Independence Day. If, like me, you hadn’t read it for a while (if ever), today, exactly 232 years later, might be a good day to do it again.

IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.

“Read the whole thing”:http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/index.htm.

Aftermath of a Bombing

Earlier this year “I visited the Iraqi city of Karmah”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2008/03/the-liberation.php (also spelled Garma), a small city wedged between Fallujah and Baghdad. It was winter, and a time of jubilation and rebirth after the local defeat of the ferocious murder and intimidation campaign waged by Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Zoriah Miller, an excellent professional photographer I met last summer in Baghdad, is there now. And he witnessed the immediate aftermath of a horrific suicide bombing just a few days ago. Safety and security in Iraq are, as ever, relative and tentative concepts.

I’m glad Zoriah is okay. Others, however, are not. I know from speaking to him that he was badly shaken up by what he saw and managed to photograph in the few fleeting minutes he was allowed on the scene.

I don’t know why, exactly, I’m bringing this to your attention. Partly it is because Zoriah is a better photographer than I. His pictures in general are worth seeing. (He makes his living strictly by selling photographs, while I’ve made a mere pittance at that task myself.) It is also, I suppose, because the city of Karmah is somewhat important to me personally. I witnessed the re-opening of the market there right after the suicide- and car-bombers were mostly, but not completely, beaten back.

There’s another reason, too, one I can’t even articulate to myself. I think it’s important, at least once in a while, to look at the gruesome handiwork of a suicide bomber. There is no political message in this. Zoriah, I know, has different opinions than I do about Iraq and what should be done about it even though we have seen and experienced some of the same places and people. I do not mean to propagandize or persuade by showing this to you. Make of it what you will. But look, if you can stand it, at what these killers do. “This is now part of our world”:http://www.zoriah.net/blog/suicide-bombing-in-anbar-.html.

The Road to Kosovo, Part II

My friend and traveling companion “Sean LaFreniere”:http://seanlafreniere.blogspot.com/ and I awoke at first light on the shores of Montenegro. We originally planned to catch a bus or a taxi up the mountains into Kosovo, but we still had a few hours before it was time to drop off the rental car. So we took a brief detour into nearby Albania, the country that, at least until recently, had the reputation for being the most politically, economically, and criminally dysfunctional in all of Europe.

Robert Young Pelton’s Web site “Come Back Alive”:http://www.comebackalive.com/df/dplaces/albania/index.htm still warns would-be travelers about the region where Sean and I were headed: “In just a few short years Albania has had the distinction of changing from a country with the most paranoid and overcontrolled communist state ever to a country without a state. It was tricky, but Albanians have risen to the challenge to become Europe’s most lawless people at the turn of the century…Being a foreigner, unless you happen to know a couple of the local banditos, you stand an excellent chance of being fleeced. The minute you walk in the door and open your mouth, the $ sign will start ringing for just about everybody there – except you.”

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Mountains, Northern Albania

Whether that was still true of Northern Albania or not, I didn’t know. Neither did Sean. And we were going in there with Belgrade plates on the car, which might not have been the brightest idea we came up with on our trip. The majority of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo were displaced by Serb forces during Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic-cleansing campaign in 1999, so showing up in Albania with a Serbian car only made our detour more potentially dicey than it already was.

If you drive from Montenegro to Albania you will first pass through the beautiful and prosperous ethnically-Albanian region that straddles the border.

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The Albanian town of Ulcinj, Montenegro

The Albanians of Montenegro were lucky, I thought as we approached the customs agents, to live under Josip Broz Tito’s relatively lenient communist system in Yugoslavia instead of suffering Enver Hoxha’s full-bore Stalinist regime just a few miles away in Albania proper. Hoxha, who ranks among the most thoroughly oppressive tyrants in history, made Tito’s dictatorship look libertarian.

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Rozafa Castle, Northern Albania

The most enduring physical legacies of Albanian communism are the remains of more than 700,000 military bunkers Hoxha’s regime installed all over the country as part of his mass mobilization campaign for the entire society. Everyday civilians were expected to hunker down in these things with machine guns and fight off an invasion from “bourgeois imperialists” or internal counter-revolutionaries. Rounded one-man concrete pill boxes still proliferate across the country in fields, in backyards, on the side of the roads, and even on beaches.

Post-communist Albania was an economic catastrophe, and what little progress had been made after the dismantlement of the regime came apart in the late 1990s when both the economy and the authority of the state unraveled. Albania — especially Northern Albania where Sean and I were headed — became by far the most lawless and chaotic place in Europe.

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Sheep, Northern Albania

The country now, though, is in a transitional period. The terrible extremes of both oppression and anarchic lawlessness are past.

“Bunkers!” Sean said.

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One of 700,000 bunkers built by Albania’s communist tyrant Enver Hoxha

Sure enough, just up ahead, perhaps only a mile or so past the border, were a handful of Enver Hoxha’s 700,000 bunkers.

I pulled over the car. We got out to take pictures. A large group of children and their schoolteacher excitedly ran up to and surrounded us.

“Hello! Hello!” the kids said. “Mister! Mister! What’s your name?”

I felt like I was in Iraq — and I don’t mean that in a bad way. I can’t go anywhere in Iraq, especially not with my camera slung around my neck, without being mobbed by children. This never happened once in Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, or Montenegro, but it happened instantly upon arrival in Albania.

“There is a very nice view on top of this hill,” the schoolteacher said to Sean. “Follow us up, I will show you.”

Bunker and Kids Northern Albania.jpg

Bunker and kids, Northern Albania

So we followed the lady with the kids in tow up the hill above Hoxha’s bunkers. Kids grabbed my arm and excitedly asked my name as we climbed.

“My name is Michael,” I said to a young boy. “What’s yours?”

“Mario,” he said.

“Mister, where are you from?” said a little girl.

“America,” I said.

“Yay!” The kids cheered.

Albania is fanatically pro-American, which is perhaps a bit counterintuitive to many Americans since it is at least nominally a Muslim-majority country. The conventional assumption that Muslims hate Americans everywhere isn’t true.

“You should have seen President Bush’s face when he came to Albania,” an ethnic Albanian man later said to me in Kosovo. “All over Western Europe he was met by protests, but the entire country of Albania turned out to welcome him. He was so happy. You could see it on his face.”

Albanian pro-Americanism resembles that of both Poland and Iraqi Kurdistan. The unspeakably oppressive communist regime pushed Albanians strongly into the U.S.-led Western camp, and the humanitarian rescue of Albanians in Kosovo from Slobodan Milosevic’s tyrannical despotism bolstered that sentiment even more.

More kids tugged at me and wanted their pictures taken. It was overwhelming, and more than a little bit startling.

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Kids, Northern Albania

Slavs in Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Montenegro are friendly people for the most part, but they are not exuberantly so, at least not to strangers. They are a bit friendlier than Western Europeans, perhaps, but their temperament is still European. These Albanians, by contrast, at least these children, were as ecstatically friendly as Arabs and Kurds.

The view from the top of the hill was as expansive as Sean and I were going to see.

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Countryside, Northern Albania

We needed to get back in the car and head into the city of Shkodra for a brief coffee and breakfast before we ran out of time. Our rented car was due later that day in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, and we still had no idea how we would travel to Kosovo without our car.

Shkodra, by European standards, is not doing well. It’s ramshackle. Many communist-era housing blocks are still run down and drab.

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Housing blocks, Shkodra, Albania

Others, though, have been improved slightly with coats of paint.

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Painted housing blocks, Shkodra, Albania

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Pharmacy and apartment tower, Shkodra, Albania

Many of the traditional buildings that weren’t bulldozed for the sake of “progress” are still a bit rough around the edges.

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Shkodra, Albania

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Shkodra, Albania

“It looks like Mexico,” Sean said.

I would not have thought of that, but I can see why he said it. The traditional architecture is of the Mediterranean style, as are traditional (Spanish) buildings in Mexico. The styles aren’t the same, but they are recognizably similar.

Traffic was crazy, in both good ways and bad. Balkan people are notoriously bad drivers, but after living in Lebanon I thought traffic everywhere in the former Yugoslavia was perfectly civilized. Albanians drive like Lebanese — which is to say, more aggressively than drivers I have seen anywhere else in the world. Just to underscore the point, I saw a No Honking road sign. The only other place I’ve ever seen these things — and it was an exact duplicate — was in Lebanon.

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No Honking sign, Albania

I’ll admit to enjoying that kind of traffic, however. The truth is that people in these countries are not bad drivers. They just look like bad drivers to people from outside. What they are is aggressive, and their reflexes and awareness are much more sharply honed that those of people who routinely drive in tame and predictable traffic. It’s fun to join in if you know how and are used to it.

Sean and I had no time to find food in Shkodra, so we decided to just stop for coffee.

“Hello, hello!” two men said as I sat in a metal chair at the table next to them in front of a small brightly painted coffee shop on a main road. They saw my camera and gestured for me to take their picture. So I took their picture. As it turned out, it wasn’t just the children of Albania who were outgoing and gregarious with visitors.

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Two men, Shkodra, Albania

My chair was right next to a generator. I have no idea what shape Albania’s electrical grid is in, but the one in Kosovo is hardly more advanced than Iraq’s. Power cuts are common, almost daily, occurrences. Seeing a plugged-in generator outside a café was not a good sign.

When it was time to pay our waiter for the coffee, I realized we had no Albanian leks, the national currency.

“Do you seen an ATM around anywhere?” I said to Sean.

“You’re going to go to an ATM just to pay for coffee?” he said.

“Well,” I said, “I have some American money. Maybe they’ll take that.” I seriously doubted the waiter had any interest in currency from Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, or Montenegro.

I pulled an American twenty dollar bill out of my backpack and waved it at the waiter. “Will you take American money?” I said.

“I don’t know how much that is,” he said. “What’s the exchange rate?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “We just got here.”

“The coffee is from house,” he said.

“Are you sure?” I said. “Here, just take the twenty.”

“No, no,” he said. “I can’t take your money. The coffee is from house. Welcome to Albania.”

It’s too bad we couldn’t have stayed longer. From the car it appeared Shkodra has a number of high-end restaurants and cool places to hang out, in addition having the usual European consumer goods for sale alongside more basic shops that cater to people who still have little money. Shkodra is a city in transition, which is often the most rewarding kind of place to visit.

There are many statues of national heroes in town, and the one of Isa Boletini, who led battles for independence in Kosovo against both the Turkish Ottomans and the Serbs in the late 1800s, stood out for its brazen militancy.

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Isa Boletini

Sean and I drove north out of town to catch the road into Podgorica, Montenegro’s capital.

“There’s a lot more money in the countryside,” Sean said, “than there is in the city. It looks like everyone with the money to build a new house would rather build it out here.”

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Mosque and house, Northern Albania

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Church and house, Northern Albania

That seemed right. Shkodra wasn’t a slum-ridden city, but it still looked a bit rough. The countryside just to the north of city looked solidly middle class and above.

More of Enver Hoxha’s crazy bunkers were in place near the Montenegrin border — a lot more.

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Bunkers facing Montenegro, Northern Albania

Montenegro is a tiny country. Only half a million people live there today. The capital has fewer than 150,000. Of course Montenegro was part of the much larger and more muscular Yugoslavia when the bunkers were built, but it still struck me as patently absurd that all these pill boxes were set up along the border of such a moderate and non-expansionist country.

When I stopped the car and stepped out to take pictures of bunkers, two young Albanian boys said hello and posed for a photograph.

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Two boys, Northern Albania

Sean and I waited in line behind two cars at the border post. A handful of men stood around smoking cigarettes while waiting to get their passports stamped out. One glanced down at our license plate and went bug-eyed. He reminded me that we rented our car in Belgrade when he pointed at the license plate. “You took a Serb car to Albania?” I’m pretty sure that’s what he said. He might have said “You’re Serbs and you went to Albania?” I can’t translate precisely, but it was one or the other.

“We’re Americans!” I said in a cheery voice. “We rented the car in Belgrade, but we’re Americans.”

“Aha!” he said and laughed, as if that explained everything.

*

“The price is one Euro per kilometer,” the taxi driver said at the Podgorica airport where Sean and I had just dropped off the car.

“You’re kidding,” I said.

“One Euro per kilometer,” he said again. “It is the standard rate.”

The drive from Podgorica to Prishtina, Kosovo’s capital, is around 300 kilometers.

“That’s way too much money,” I said. Sean and I would be paying the guy almost one hundred dollars an hour. It was not going to happen. It would be better to take a bus or buy a plane ticket than hire a taxi into Kosovo if that’s how much it costs. “We’re going to have to discuss this,” I said.

The Europcar employee who met us at the taxi stand to pick up the car overheard our conversation.

“I can call a friend of mine,” he said quietly and conspiratorially. “This guy is charging you too much money.

“Terrific,” I said. “Yes, please call your friend.”

“Just don’t tell this guy I’m calling someone for you,” he said. “Tell him you’ll take a bus or something.”

So we got ourselves a licensed taxi driver who agreed to take us to Prishtina for less than half the amount we were first quoted. He spoke almost no English at all. His vocabulary was hardly better than my extremely limited knowledge of his. Sean and I more of less gave up trying to engage him in conversation and just let him drive.

The road to Kosovo from Montenegro is breathtaking.

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Canyon, Montenegro

Few places in the world can boast of such dramatic mountainous scenery. Several Serbs I met in Belgrade said Montenegro is the most beautiful country in all the former Yugoslavia, and from what I’ve seen, they’re right.

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Canyon wall, Montenegro

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Canyon, Montenegro

Much of inland Montenegro looks like the Mediterranean region must have looked before the massive deforestation that disfigures most of it now. So few people live in this country that even alongside the major highway into Kosovo is mostly still pristine wilderness. I have never seen such expansive Mediterranean forest anywhere else.

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Mediterranean forest, Montenegro

Sean tried to ask our driver Ratko a few questions using simple words and improvised sign language. He made fists with both hands and placed them together. “Montenegro and Serbia,” he said, then pulled his fists apart quickly to refer to Montenegro’s declaration of independence from Serbia two years ago. “Good or bad?”

“Good!” Ratko said.

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Ratko in the restaurant at the Hotel Afa, Prishtina, Kosovo

Sean did the two-fisted maneuver again, only this time he said “Serbia and Kosovo.” He was trying to figure out what Ratko thought of Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia.

“Good!” Ratko said again.

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Mountains, Montenegro

So far, everyone Sean and I spoke to in the former Yugoslavia thought Kosovo’s newfound independence was a good thing — including the Serbs we had coffee with in Belgrade on two separate occasions. The Serbs we met, though — Filip David and Predrag Delibasic — are cosmopolitan writers and intellectuals who don’t adhere to the Serbian Nationalist line.

“Montenegro and the European Union?” Sean said.

“No!” Ratko said. “European Union…big Yugoslavia.”

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Mountains, Montenegro

I have a hard time imaging how a tyrant and mass-murderer like Slobodan Milosevic would ever be in charge of the European Union, but Ratko’s skepticism still made some sense after his experience with an over-sized multinational federation and its violent disintegration.

Ratko took us to a Montenegrin restaurant in a cold valley far above sea level shortly before the sun went down.

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Mountain restaurant, Montenegro

After dinner I decided to take a nap in the car. I was tired and could no longer see the scenery anyway. Sean woke me an hour later just as we approached the Kosovo border.

“Mike,” he said and shook me awake. “I think if we keep taking this road we’re going to end up in Mitrovica. Isn’t Mitrovica that dangerous city in Kosovo that we’re supposed to avoid?”

“It’s fine,” I said. “The road goes up to South Mitrovica, but doesn’t cross into North Mitrovica. North Mitrovica is the place we need to stay out of.”

“Okaaaay,” Sean said. He sounded skeptical, but I knew South Mitrovica was fine. North Mitrovica was the place to avoid.

North Mitrovica is a bad place for Americans because it’s the most politically radicalized of the Serb cities in Kosovo, and it’s the most unstable and violent. Mitrovica used to be a relatively normal mixed Serb-Albanian city, but Albanians have since moved to the south side of the city, and Serbs live almost exclusively in the north across the bridge over the Ibar River that cuts the city in half.

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Ethnic map, Kosovo

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Mitrovica, Kosovo

Self-described Bridge Watchers — bands of political radicals, former paramilitary fighters, and garden variety troublemakers — have been standing watch on the Serb side of the bridge and harassing those who cross to the southern Albanian side. Sometimes those who attempt to cross are ganged up on by mobs and “beaten up in the street”:http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/the-bridge-watchers-terrorise-mitrovica-786166.html.

Rioting exploded across the Serb side of the city in March when UN soldiers and police tried to clear out a courthouse occupied by Serbian Nationalists opposed to Kosovo’s declaration of independence. Tanks were sent into the streets. More than 100 people were wounded in violent clashes. A Serb demonstrator was shot in the head. A police officer from Ukraine was killed by a hand grenade. Kosovo north of the Ibar isn’t Iraq, but it’s also not a place Sean and I had any business going without an escort, especially at night. Every single person I checked in with about traveling to North Mitrovica — including American soldiers and police officers stationed in Kosovo — warned me to stay out of there unless I was accompanied by soldiers from NATO.

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Tanks in North Mitrovica, copyright Getty Images

“I think we’re almost to the border,” Sean said.

When we reached the last Montenegrin town before the border with Kosovo, Ratko found a civilian man on the sidewalk and pulled the car alongside him, presumably to get directions. The man on the street told Ratko which way to go and gestured left and right turns with his hands. Ratko then asked the man a question, and the man laughed and shrugged and appeared slightly nervous on our behalf. Sean and I assumed Ratko asked if it was safe for us to drive into Kosovo, and the man on the street figured it probably was, but he couldn’t be sure.

After we left the last town in Montenegro, the road plunged rapidly from the Montenegrin mountains down toward the high rolling valley of Kosovo. We drove in absolute darkness. There were no street lights, no city lights, no front porch lights, and no oncoming headlights.

Towering Montenegro must make a spectacular backdrop to the west from Kosovo, I thought, and I anticipated looking back in our current direction in daylight from the country below.

We quickly cleared Montenegro’s customs and got exit stamps in our passports. Then houses reappeared suddenly in the darkness before we reached the entry point on the other side.

“I guess we’re in Kosovo now,” I said.

“Yes, Kosovo,” Ratko said.

I felt a small flush of excitement. Here was the country where Europe’s most recent conflict was waged. American soldiers are still stationed there to prevent another round of war and ethnic-cleansing. In that way, it’s the closest thing Europe has to Iraq. To paraphrase former Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel, “Kosovo is not Norway, and it is not Denmark”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2006/07/lebanons-premature-liberalism.php.

But where was Kosovo’s entry point?

Ratko’s headlights illuminated a sign welcoming us to the Republic of Serbia.

“That’s strange,” I said to Sean. “Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, but they still haven’t taken that sign down?”

“I’ll bet that sign isn’t long for this world,” Sean said.

We saw the entry point up ahead. A gigantic Serbian flag hung on a pole next to the customs house.

“Oh shit,” I said. “We went the wrong way. We aren’t in Kosovo. We’re in Serbia. This is the road from Montenegro to Belgrade, not to Kosovo.” Ratko thought he could take us to Prishtina by crossing the bridge from North Mitrovica — the one place in the country even American combat veterans from the Iraq war told us to stay out of. In all likelihood, it’s the most dangerous place on the continent for Americans.

A Serb policeman stepped out of the customs house. Ratko had been speeding down the mountain, and the officer held up his open hand for Ratko to stop and stared at him furiously for approaching the border post at such a high speed.

“This is what I tried to tell you when I woke you up an hour ago,” Sean said.

“Ah crap,” I said. “I was tired and didn’t know what you meant. The road we were supposed to take goes to South Mitrovica, and that’s what I thought you were talking about. That would have been fine.”

“We have to turn around and go back,” Sean said.

“It’s too late now,” I said. “We’re here. First we have to get away from the border post.”

Ratko stepped out of the car, spoke to the Serb police man, and handed over our passports. I heard him say “Prishtina.”

Great, I thought. Now the Serb police know we’re trying to get to Prishtina. I hoped against hope that the border guard would tell Ratko about the Bridge Watchers and tell him we couldn’t pass. Ratko and I had no language in common, and I couldn’t explain it. Serbia also bans entry to anyone with a Kosovo stamp in their passport. It was entirely possible that the border police would throw us out of the country before we could even get in.

The officer took Ratko inside the customs house.

“They’re yelling at each other,” Sean said.

He was right. I could hear them. I sunk in my car seat and rubbed my eyes. This was not going well.

But Ratko came back a few minutes later with entry stamps in our passports. “Okay,” he said. Then he drove us toward Kosovo. I looked at my map and figured out where we were. Kosovo was only twenty or so miles away.

“We have to say something,” Sean said. “The police officer didn’t warn him. He has no idea what he’s doing.”

“I know it,” I said. I turned on the dome light, pointed at the map, and gestured for Ratko to pull over.

Ratko pulled over.

I didn’t know how to tell him about the hazards of going through North Mitrovica. He hardly understood any English at all. So I traced the road on the map with my finger, and when my finger tip reached Mitrovica I made a slashing motion across my throat with my finger.

Ratko freaked out.

Of course I was exaggerating. No one would slit our throats in North Mitrovica. It isn’t that bad. But I didn’t know how else to say “danger” in improvised sign language. Ratko and I shared at most two dozen words of vocabulary.

“No, no, no, no, no,” Ratko said.

“Yes, yes, yes,” I said.

I couldn’t convince him, in part because he thought I was trying to convince him the situation was much more dire than it actually was.

Ratko pointed outside. “Kosovo,” he said.

“No,” I said. “We are not in Kosovo. We’re in Serbia.” I pointed outside. “Serbia.”

He had no idea where we were.

I pointed behind us. “Serb police,” I said.

“International police,” he said.

“No!” I said.

“He wore a Serbian uniform,” Sean said. “The sign said Welcome to Serbia. They’re flying the Serbian flag. International soldiers wouldn’t do any of that.”

“If he were an international police officer,” I said to Sean, “he would have spoken English to us, not Serbian to Ratko.”

“Of course,” Sean said. “Doesn’t he get that?”

Ratko had an idea. He punched a number into his cell phone, spoke briefly to the person on the other end of the line, and handed the phone over to me. “Serbian friend,” he said. “English.”

Perfect.

I took the phone from Ratko.

“Hi,” I said to the Serb stranger on the other end of the line.

“Hello, Mister Michael,” the man said.

“Do you know what’s going on?” I said. “Ratko is trying to drive us to Prishtina from North Mitrovica. Do you know about the Bridge Watchers?”

“Yes,” he said. “I know.”

“Can you explain the situation to him for me please?” I said.

“Listen, Mister Michael,” he said. “I follow the news, I know what you are talking about. There was a problem with some extremists, yes, but the situation has been resolved.”

“Are you sure?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “I am sure. I follow the situation very closely from Belgrade.”

It was certainly possible. Reporters often let the world know when violence and mayhem break out and rarely bother to fill the rest of us in when trouble quiets down. If it bleeds, it leads. If there are no more riots, beatings, or body counts in North Mitrovica, word doesn’t get out. Serb reporters, though, are more likely to cover the situation than Western reporters because Serbs are directly involved. So I crossed my fingers and hoped Ratko’s friend in Belgrade was right.

I handed the phone back to Ratko. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s go.”

“What did he say?” Sean said.

“He said it’s resolved,” I said. “He’s sure of it. I don’t know, but somebody is about to be proven right or wrong by reality.”

We reached the entry point into Kosovo. It was manned by German army soldiers. Ratko rolled down the window.

“Hi!” I said to the soldier who spoke perfect English. “We’re trying to get to Prishtina. Can we get through this way?”

“Yes, of course,” the soldier said. “You can pass.”

“There’s no more trouble on the bridge?” I said.

“Not today,” he said and handed back our passports. “The way is clear now. Enjoy your stay in Kosovo.”

Ratko slowly drove past a long line of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and other NATO military vehicles.

“Montenegro good!” Ratko said loudly after we cleared what briefly looked like a war zone.

Sean and I laughed. There are no tanks in Montenegro.

I felt relieved after talking to the German soldier. If the road was safe up ahead, he should know. But we still hadn’t cleared the Mitrovica bridge into the Albanian region of Kosovo, and I couldn’t fully relax until we did.

Serbian national flags were flown from houses even though were no longer in Serbia. Serbs on both sides of the border insist Kosovo is Serbia even though it is not. Kosovo’s Serbs even voted in Serbia’s most recent election. They now have their own representatives in a foreign country’s parliament, as well as their own parallel institutions inside the country they live in.

We drove past a mosque with the top of its minaret blown off. It looked like a gigantic pencil that had been snapped in two. For all the talk of Israel’s supposed war crimes against Palestinians and Lebanese, I never saw anything like this in the Middle East. On the contrary, I saw “a mosque in Hezbollah-controlled South Lebanon surrounded by rubble”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/001359.html. But the mosque itself was not even scratched. Even Hezbollah mosques are considered inviolable by the Israel Defense Forces.

KFOR (NATO’s Kosovo Force) billboards showing two NATO soldiers and a helicopter had been erected in this Serb enclave of Kosovo. I thought it highly unlikely that Serbs in North Mitrovica appreciated seeing those every day.

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KFOR billboard, Prishtina, Kosovo

“You know we’re banned from going to Serbia now, right?” I said to Sean.

“What?” he said.

“We just got entry stamps into Serbia,” I said, “but no corresponding exit stamps. If we leave through the Kosovo airport and don’t go back out through Serbia, they will know we visited Kosovo. And they won’t let us back in.”

“Are you sure?” he said.

“Yep,” I said. “We’ll have to do a stamp run to conceal our visit to Kosovo or we’ll be no more welcome in Serbia than we would be in Syria with Israeli stamps in our passports.”

Sean was disappointed.

“I wanted to show my wife Belgrade,” he said.

“Then you have to get a new passport.”

He needs a new one anyway. His current passport was stamped when he visited the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, so he’s banned from visiting Greece. To my knowledge, Serbia and Greece are the only Balkan countries that act like Arab countries and ban even tourists with enemy stamps in their passports.

Ratko had no idea how to find the bridge in North Mitrovica to South Mitrovica, so he asked a random stranger, a young Serb man, in the middle of the night for directions. The young man told Ratko to follow him in his car, and we were taken to another bridge, a smaller one — not the infamous crossing guarded by the thuggish Bridge Watchers — and we crossed into the Albanian region of Kosovo.

“We made it,” I said when I saw a sign that said Kosova — the Albanian spelling.

A little more than an hour later, the brightly lit skyline of Prishtina loomed ahead just over a hill.

“At last,” I said. It was 2:00 in the morning.

Ratko didn’t know how to find our hotel. I showed him my printed map, but it didn’t help. None of us knew where we were. So he pulled into a gas station and asked the attendant for help. The attendant shrugged. A young Albanian man who looked like a soul-patched Seattle-area hipster stepped out of his car and came over.

“Hi,” I said. “We’re trying to find the Hotel Afa. Do you know where it is?”

“Let me see,” he said and looked at the map. “Yes, I know where that is.”

Ratko spoke to the young man in Serbian.

“Um,” the Albanian man said. He understood Serbian, as do all Albanians in Kosovo who were schooled before the 1999 war. But they do not like to speak the language of their former oppressors. He looked at me with a pained expression on his face. “Does he speak…” he said. Then he sighed. “Never mind.” And then he spoke to Ratko in fluent Serbian.

“He’s Montenegrin,” I tried to add helpfully, referring to Ratko.

“It’s okay,” the man said, “it’s okay.”

The young man got back in his car and escorted us all the way to our hotel.

“Thank you,” Sean and I said when we arrived. “Thank you so much.”

“Of course,” the man said and shook hands with all three of us. “Welcome to Kosova.”

*

Two days later, Sean and I met two American police officers in the charming Ottoman-era city of Prizren. He and I still hadn’t figured out the real story in North Mitrovica, and figured these men might know. One was from Texas and spoke in a very slow drawl. The other was from Southern California.

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Prizren, Kosovo

“Was it dangerous for us in North Mitrovica?” Sean said.

“Yes,” the American police officer from California said. “There are some real extremists up there, and it only takes one to ruin your night.”

“The road is open now, though,” Sean said. “So the situation has been resolved?”

“No,” the officer said. “This is by no means resolved. Nothing in Kosovo has been resolved. We’re at the very beginning of a new stage here.”

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All photos copyright Michael J. Totten and Sean LaFreniere

The Iraqification of Lebanon

Hezbollah is alarming its Lebanese opponents by expanding its territory through the purchase of property outside Shia areas in Lebanon. Former civil war-era President Amin Gemayel went on television Thursday and said what many Lebanese have feared for months now while this has unfolded.

“There is some sort of military preparation starting from Niha in Jezzine all the way across the entire Western mountain range with military surveillance posts set up from Jezzine to Sannine all the way up to Laqlouq,” “he said”:http://www.naharnet.com/domino/tn/NewsDesk.nsf/getstory?openform&84C5EC2CE1C1A494C2257475001CE552.

If he weren’t talking about an army that really does build massive and sophisticated military infrastructure — including deep tunnels and a high-tech surveillance system in Beirut’s international airport, of all places — I might suspect he was paranoid or exaggerating.

Amin’s Phalange Party is a vehicle for mostly parochial and sectarian Christians, and it has a dark past, as do most parties in Lebanon. His concerns, however, are echoed at the more broad-based and mainstream “online magazine NOW Lebanon”:http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=49010. “These are preparations for war,” says an editorial earlier this week, “or rather preparations to ensure that if there is a war, Hezbollah’s adversaries won’t be able to fight one. The party knows better than to enter Christian, Druze or Sunni areas. So it has opted for control of the high ground — high ground overlooking the territories of its foes but also controlling lines of communication between mainly Shia areas in the northern Bekaa Valley, the southern Bekaa, South Lebanon, and Beirut’s southern suburbs . . . [W]hat is taking place today has so transgressed the red lines of all communities that what we will almost certainly see in the near future is a dangerous logic of communal self-defense taking over.”

Even if these moves by Hezbollah are being misinterpreted by the overly anxious, NOW Lebanon is correct to point out the danger for the simple reason that they are perceived as threatening. Everyone in Lebanon knows all too well why the “logic of communal self-defense” is an ominous development.

Communal self-defense means sectarian self-defense, and sectarian self-defense means exactly the same thing in Lebanon that it means in Iraq: militias. If the police and the army cannot or will not disarm Hezbollah — and they cannot and will not — then the only self-defense options remaining are personal and communal. Robert Heinlein famously wrote that an armed society is a polite society, but he didn’t know the Middle East very well.

“Read the rest in COMMENTARY Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/13661.

How Kosovo Created its Own Liberal Islam

On February 17, 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. Some are concerned about what NATO, the United Nations, and the European Union have nurtured there since the military and humanitarian intervention in 1999. James Jatras, a U.S.-based advocate for the Serbian Orthodox Community, put it bluntly last year when he said Kosovo was a “a beachhead into the rest of Europe” for “radical Muslims” and “terrorist elements.” It’s an assertion without evidence. “We’ve been here for so long,” said United States Army Sergeant Zachary Gore in Eastern Kosovo, “and not seen any evidence of it, that we’ve reached the assumption that it is not a viable threat.”

Nine in 10 of Kosovo’s citizens are ethnic Albanians, and more than 90 per cent of them are at least nominal Muslims. Most are so thoroughly modern and secularised that moderate doesn’t quite say it. The only word that can fairly describe Islam as practiced by the majority of Albanian Muslims is liberal. No nation can be entirely free of extremists, but Kosovo is one of the least religiously extreme Muslim-majority countries on Earth. Radical Islamists aren’t there in significant numbers now, and they aren’t likely to be in the future. Some places may be fertile ground for radicalism in the future, but Kosovo isn’t one of them for many of the same reasons that Christian theocracy isn’t coming to Western Europe.

I arrived here shortly after the declaration of independence, and the first thing I looked for — as always when I visit a Muslim-majority country — was the treatment and status of women.

Women who dress with their hair, ankles, and sometimes even faces showing in places like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan are often beaten or worse.

In Kosovo, by contrast, almost all women, even in small villages, dress like women in the rest of Europe. Streets, cafés, restaurants, and bars are not all-male affairs as they are in much of the Islamic world, where women spend almost all their lives behind walls. If it weren’t for the occasional mosque minaret on the skyline, there is little visible evidence that Kosovo is a Muslim-majority country at all. Kosovo looks, feels, and is European.

A small number of well-heeled Islamic extremists from the Gulf states have moved into Kosovo to rebuild damaged mosques and transform liberal Balkan Islam into the more severe version found in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. They’ve had a small amount of success with a similar project in nearby Bosnia, but they’re meeting stiffer resistance from Kosovo’s religious community as well as from secular citizens.

“We are working very hard to stop these kinds of movements,” said Professor Xhabir Hamiti, of the Islamic studies department at the University of Pristina. “These kinds of movements are dangerous for all nations, for all faiths, for all religions. We are Muslims, but we think the European way. I am a Muslim, I am a scholar, I know how to deal with Islam in my country. There is no need for Arabs to come here. I have no need for their suggestions, no need for their explanations. We created our Islam ourselves here, and we can continue our Islam with our own minds.”

“Read the rest in Standpoint Magazine”:http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/node/157/full.

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