TCS Daily

Life in the Balkans is Not a Comic Book

By Stephen Schwartz - November 23, 2005 12:00 AM

DUBROVNIK, Croatia -- I write on the road to Kosovo, where I have come to pursue the work of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, of which I am executive director.

The majority in Kosovo is Albanian, a people who always put national before religious interests. An Albanian edition of my book The Two Faces of Islam, is about to appear, and in a new preface to it I alluded to the "paradox" -- which is nothing of the sort for Albanians -- that I should be equally engaged with the defense of Balkan Islam, moderate in its theology and deeply respectful of the other faiths, and with the revival of Albanian Catholic culture, which was deeply harmed by four and a half decades of Stalinism. The composition of The Two Faces of Islam and the experiences that led to it were finally owed less to my long reading and study in Islamic spirituality (Sufism) and cultures, beginning when I was no older than 18 -- in California in 1966 -- than to my encounter with an émigré Albanian Catholic intellectual, Gjon Sinishta, in 1990, at the age of 42.

Sinishta introduced me to the remarkable legacy of interfaith unity among his people, embodied in the classic poetic declaration of Pashko Vasa, a Catholic born in northern Albania, who served as Ottoman governor of Lebanon: "the religion of Albanians is Albanianism." This epic of religious solidarity had loud echoes for me, recalling the example of medieval Spain, where Muslims, Christians, and Jews flourished, side by side, even in conditions of war.

I am a Californian by upbringing. I pursued, from the beginning of my intellectual development, even in childhood, a road leading to the Iberian peninsula. While the established myth of American origins begins with England and settlements on the East Coast of the continent, from which the indigenous population was removed, I grew up with a sense of duality in the landscape. Spanish names for English-speaking cities, the proximity of Mexico, the persistence of indigenous cultures in many nearby places -- all gave me a sense that California was Ibero-American rather than Anglo-American.

I spent much time in Spain, mastering the great languages of Hispanic literature, Castilian and Catalan, and writing on the Spanish civil war of 1936-39. But while southern Spain is filled with Islamic monuments, and the Castilian language is redolent with Arabic loanwords, the sense of Christian-Islamic intellectual and spiritual dialogue was, I was sad to find, purely historical in the Spain I knew.

My first visit to the former Yugoslavia, and my rendezvous in San Francisco with Sinishta, who would become my "second father" (personally although not religiously), introduced me to a reality similar to that of the Andalusian, Aragonese, and Castilian cities in their years of medieval glory. When post-Titoite Communism began to collapse, the northern and middle eastern-Adriatic lands had an opportunity to revive a profitable, productive, and peaceful model of coexistence among Catholics (whether Slovene, Croat, Kosovar Albanian, or Serbian); Bosnian, Albanian-speaking, and Macedonian Muslims; communities identified with Eastern Orthodoxy; and the small Jewish remnant remaining in the region. Such an outcome was fervently desired by people of God and of goodwill.

But such was not to come about, because of the malign vision of Slavo-Communist extremists in Serbia and Macedonia. With Sinishta as my guide, in 1990 I launched the first "Friends of Kosovo" group in the U.S., aimed at educating American media about the terrorist threat of Slobodan Milosevic. I personally witnessed the onset of conflict in Croatia and the increasing tension in Bosnia-Hercegovina, and traveled to Montenegro, where I saw my first new, contemporary mosques. Thus began my serious engagement with Islam. I would spend more time in the Albanian lands, where I met many great Sufis, whom I consider the greatest hope of Islam and of mankind.

Meanwhile, present-day news from the Balkan region remains mixed. The International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia has released the Bosnian Muslim general Sefer Halilovic, who was found to have had no responsibility for war crimes committed by troops he did not command. Unlike the Serbs, the Bosnian Muslims did not adopt a strategy of deliberate atrocities. Lately, a handful of young Muslims have been arrested in Sarajevo, accused of terror plotting. Among foreign observers, it has become common to hear that, after a decade, the era of the Dayton Peace Agreement is over. Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo remain under the thumb of the "international humanitarian mafia" (IHM) -- from which I exempt the gallant NATO troops of many countries. It is time for both Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo to be reunified under single, local authorities, without excessive concessions to the Serb minorities in either country, which continue to sow disruption.

Life in the Balkans is not a comic book. I say this after reading a rather despicable production that appeared in Salon, the online magazine. Titled "A Blues for Drago Dragilovic", this "illustrated fiction" purports to tell the story of a child of mixed parentage, with a Serb general as his father and a mother from "one of Kosovo's more powerful ethnic Albanian clans." Drawn by Manuel Rodriguez and Joe Sacco, and based on a travesty of research by a certain Bob Callahan, the strip is full of fake "details" that will infuriate those who suffered through the recent Balkan wars, as well as those genuinely knowledgeable about Albanian history.

To begin with, there is no such name as "Drugilovic" in any Balkan Slav language. Second, the strip is suffused with imaginary nostalgia for Titoite Communism -- witness the fantasy of a Serb general with a Kosovar Albanian wife, when the mutual hatred of these nations is legendary. Like the strip's invented names, such feelings could exist only in the mind of someone who knows nothing whatever of the region. It is sad to see the artist Joe Sacco associate himself with such a pastiche -- Sacco has produced several "illustrated novels" (really no more than ambitious comic books) about the Bosnian war, short on real information but long on sentimentality, and they may be said to have stirred some hearts in opposition to Serbofascism. On the other hand, Sacco has also lent himself to grossly one-sided propaganda in favor of the Palestinian Arabs. Finally, in an astounding act of vulgarity, the producers of the Salon comic annexed to themselves the reputation of Robert Elsie, the greatest non-Albanian expert on Albanian culture alive today, whose name is placed under the signature of an invented pedophile Catholic priest! For this worst of insults, see here.

Returning to the "issue" of Kosovo, which remains the most vivid topic for Albanians today, I note that the elected local parliament, titled the Kosovo Assembly, has voted unanimously for the independence of the republic. This is, simply, an inevitability, and there is no reason or morality that can justify further foot-dragging on it by the global powers. Kosovo needs to acquire state debt so that it may begin the process of serious economic reconstruction, which has been ignored in so many instances by the IHM. Kosovo needs to rebuild its educational system, whose best supporters have been the members of SBASHK, the United Trade Union of Education, Science, and Culture, which I assisted to the best of my ability when I was last there in 2000. SBASHK has had to call repeated strikes thanks to the lack of interest in the schooling of Kosovar children by the IHM. It appears that Kosovo will not be granted an international telephone code by the IHM, following obstructive tactics in opposition to such a measure, by Serbia, Russia, and China. Why should the Chinese care? Only because they remain Communists on paper, and oppose privatization of former Serbian state properties in Kosovo. The Kosovo Electric power company, KEK, the worst blot on the record of the IHM, continues to operate minimally, leaving the territory without heat and light. In a grim comment on that situation, a fraud case against Joe Trutschler, a foreign former senior employee of KEK, accused of embezzling €3 million while Kosovars froze in darkness, has been reopened by the European Anti-Fraud Office.

As a man of religion, I believe the fate of the world rests in God's hands. But in the short term, the destiny of Kosovo and of all Albanians rests with the Albanians themselves; this is the necessary corollary to the credo of Pashko Vasa. I believe Kosovars will soon stand up and demand, once and for all, full dignity, freedom, and independence. Life in the Balkans is not a comic book, and Albanians are not, as a nation, children.


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