Kosovo and Metohija - a Clash of Civilizations

by Dusan T. Batakovic

Between Serb and Albanian - Between Christian and Moslem world
Gracanica Monastery and Sinan Pasha Mosque in Kosovo

Kosovo (and Metohia) is the native and ancestral land of the Serbs. It encompasses an area of some 10,800 square kilometers and is considered to be the Serbian Jerusalem. Almost all of the great historical Serbian monasteries, churches and fortresses are located in this province. Kosovo is the scene of the famous battle fought on St. Vitas Day (June 28) in 1389, when Serbian Prince Lazar and the Turkish emir Murad both lost their lives. The Ottoman’s breakthrough into the heart of Southeast Europe following Serbia’s defeat at Kosovo marked the beginning of the five centuries long clash between Christianity and the Islamic World. This struggle continues to this day, and its most visible manifestation is the struggle between the Serbs, mainly Orthodox Christians, and the ethnic Albanians, mainly Muslims. The oath of Prince Lazar - the great prince which led the Serbs at the Battle of Kosovo - is derived from the New Testament tradition of martyrdom: that it is better to obtain freedom in the celestial empire of Jeusus Christ than to live humiliated under the oppression of the earthly kingdom. Indeed, during the long centuries of Turkish rule, this oath became the key to Serbian national ideology - and so much so that the Kosovo oath, woven into the national epic, became the basis upon which the Serbs built the ideology of resisting Muslim oppression rather than accepting injustice - even when the odds seem hopeless. The Kosovo pledge was like a flag raising resistance against the tyrannical rule of the Ottomans - a resistance which had as its final aim the restoration of the Serbian national state. Countless generations of Serbian children received their first notions of themselves and the world by listening to folk poems describing the Kosovo sufferings, the apocalyptic fall of the Serbian Empire, the heroic death of Prince Lazar, the betrayal of Vuk Brankovic, the heroism of Milos Obilic who, sacrificed himself to reach the tent of the emir during the Battle of Kosovo and cut him down with his sword.

"Over the centuries, the Serbs were forced to withdraw to the west and the north, and during this time, the only political tradition the Serbs retained was the Kosovo pledge. When the first national revolution directed against the Muslims in the Balkans broke out in Serbia in 1804, its leaders dreamed of a new battle of Kosovo through which they would reestablish their lost empire. The influence of the Kosovo covenant continued throughout the entire 19 century. At last, the centuries-dreamed-of fight with the Turks occurred in the fall of 1912. The Serbian army liberated Kosovo in a few week, while the forces of Montenegro, Serbia’s sister state, marched triumphantly into Metohia. Negotiations on the final unification of the two Serbian states were interrupted by World War I.

"Kosovo and Metohia were, at the moment of liberation in 1912, a backward agricultural community with a mixed Serbian and ethnic Albanian population - a land devastated by the raging of tribal anarchy. Serbs, however, even then made up almost half of the entire population in spite of the huge waves of emigration in the previous period. The Pan-Islamic policy of Abdulhamid II (1878-1909) had made Kosovo and Metohia, beside Armenia, "the most unfortunate land in the world." The Muslims were crushing the Christian Armenians in Asia Minor, and Muslim Albanians in the European provinces (i.e., Turkey’s holdings in the south Balkans) were dealing in the same way with the unreliable Christian subjects of the Sultan - i.e., the Serbs, the Greeks and the Bulgarians. The three centuries long domination of the Islamized ethnic Albanians in the Balkans, culminated at the beginning of the 20th century. Living for centuries with gun in hand, the Albanians had discovered in the plains of Kosovo and Metohia space for further expansion. The Islamic authorities of the Sultan had granted their co-religionists, the Albanians, the right to persecute Christians. In time, a strange conviction settled itself among the Albanians that Islam was the religion of the master race and Christianity that of slaves.

"In the interwar period, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, by colonizing the rich but uncultivated spaces of Kosovo and Metohia, tried not only to return the Serbian character to these areas, but also to establish modern European institutions, as it did in other provinces of the Yugoslav state. The Muslim Albanian population of Kosovo, however, found it very difficult to adjust to the new reality where, instead of a status of absolute privilege which they had enjoyed during the Ottoman rule, they received only civil and political equality with the people they had only recently treated as serfs. During World War II, the Muslims of Albania, taking advantage of their alliance with Hitler, drove out much of the Serbian population of Kosovo and burned their homes, set fires to and robbed the Serbian churches, and desecrated the Christian cemeteries of the Serbs. The development of political circumstances in communist Yugoslavia suited the further ethnic Albanians’ national emancipation. Exhausted by the war (1,200,000 dead in World War I in Serbia alone, and at least that many in World War II), the Serbs became pawns in the hands of the new Communist regime. Tearing apart what little political power remained to the Serbs in Yugoslavia, the communists created several federal units by dividing up the Serbian lands. The communist authorities in 1945 forbade with a special decree the return of the Serbian population to Kosovo, while at the same time granting special status to the Muslims.

"Kosovo and Metohia were separated from Serbia and granted the attributes of a state within the Yugoslav federation. The confederalization of communist Yugoslavia excluded Kosovo from Serbian authority, turning it into a state with an almost independent government. In order to legalize formally the Albanization of the Province, the ethnic Albanian communist leadership threw out the name "Metohia" (which means in Greek "church-owned land") and encouraged hundreds of attacks on Orthodox believers, priests, monks, nuns, churches and monasteries, and annexed monastery property. These actions, of course, were merely manifestations of a centuries deep religious and national intolerance towards Christians. The restoration of religious life for the Muslims in Kosovo and Metohia was conducted parallel with the Albanization. New mosque sprang up (about 700 mosques were built in Yugoslavia under communist rule, more than during the several centuries long Ottoman dominion); the Muslim clergy’s primary demand from the believers was for them to have as many children as possible. The highest birthrate in Europe derived also from the religious traditions of the ethnic Albanians. The aim in all this was to push out the Serbs. The Serbs in Kosovo and Metohia became, in their own state, a persecuted and unprotected minority. From making up almost half the population of Kosovo after World War II, the number of Serbs in Kosovo and Metohia dropped to 15-20% of the population. One year after Tito’s death, in March 1981, the Muslims of Kosovo announced their rebellion against inclusion in the Yugoslav state by setting a fire to the Pec Patriarchate, a complex of medieval Christian churches, where the throne of the patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church is formally located.

"It surfaced again that religious intolerance remained the deepest layer of their obsession against the Serbs. Several days later the Muslims came out into the streets demanding that the Province get republic status and the right to self-determination - even the right of secession. Attacks on Serbian churches and the demolishing of Orthodox monuments became an everyday form of expressing Albanian (i.e., Muslim) identity. The persecution of the Serbs in Kosovo and Metohia and their innumerable appeals to the Serbian and Yugoslav public, finally managed to shake the Serbs out of their comfortable Yugoslavism (i.e., their multiculturalism). It appeared that Yugoslavism (i.e., multiculturalism) was only an ideological framework which did nothing more than neutralize the national potential of the Serbs. Evoking from the forbidden past their Kosovo pledge, they began to once again discover the essence of their national and religious identity - an awareness that vital Serbian and Christian interests were being threatened. This kind of thinking spread under the influence of certain Christian intellectuals throughout all of Greater Serbia as more and more Serbs began to realize that they were being threatened both as Christians and as Serbs. Realizing that their nation and their religion were endangered, Serbs began to return to their national traditions and their religion; realizing that once again, like in the age of the Ottoman rule, their lands would be the scene of the final phase of the centuries-long clash between Islam and Christianity."