Islamophobia and ‘Whiteness’ as two sides of the same coin

February 20, 2020

     By Maria Faciolince     

‘Whiteness’ is often claimed through distancing oneself from what is not considered ‘white’. NGOs in Kosovo, a Muslim majority country, for instance aspire to ‘Whiteness’ by denying Muslimness. Adem Ferizaj is a Balkan essayist writing about the region’s political and cultural issues.

The Balkan region is often left out when it comes to debates about ‘development’ or ‘aid’, even though center/periphery or North/South divides are crucial in the Balkans. From the 1830s on, debates about Albanian identity were centered around the question of whether Albanians are ‘European’. And nowadays, Albanians forming the majority in Albania and Kosovo are well acquainted with the consequences of European Islamophobia forcing Muslims to show their loyalty to ‘Western’ values and lifestyles – even decades before the rise in popularity of right-wing politics in Europe.

The Eurocentric character of discussing Albanian identity perhaps is best captured by what is known in Albanian history as the 2006 Kadare-Qosja debate in which many intellectuals participated. Following his conviction that Albanians are ‘proper Europeans’ (read: ‘white’), the writer Kadare suggested that Albanians should disregard their Ottoman past and Islam, whereas Qosja argued that these elements are crucial and indeed inseparable from contemporary Albanian identity. This is still an ongoing debate in which some, following Oosja, have refused to forcefully situate Albanian people within the global North.

Euro-Atlantic ‘progress’ vs. Albanian Muslim ‘backwardness’

Since NGOs are core agents of bringing Euro-Atlantic ‘progress’ to Kosovo, they play a crucial role in erasing Kosovar-Albanian Muslimness often equated with ‘backwardness’.

After the war with Serbia ended in 1999, Kosovo became a protectorate administered by the United Nations (UN). When declaring independence in 2008, the UN mission was replaced by an EU mission also known as EULEX – still active today – whose role basically is to assist in Kosovo’s project of ‘democratization’. In this context of Euro-Atlantic tutelage, NGOs became a vital part of political life in Kosovo, like in many other post-war countries. 

Since NGOs are core agents of bringing Euro-Atlantic ‘progress’ to Kosovo, they play a crucial role in erasing Kosovar-Albanian Muslimness often equated with ‘backwardness’ (you can read more on this in the Islamophobia in Kosovo – National Report 2018 that I wrote). In this sense, the political ideology of NGOs in Kosovo could be interpreted as quite close to a Euro-romanticizing take on Albanian identity. 

As I found in the report, Islamophobia in Kosovo, a Muslim-majority country, is “modeled on Western characteristics of stereotyping Islam,” in which “Islamophobia is a ‘tool’ the country’s political elite uses in order to fully be accepted in Euro-Atlantic circles”. We can therefore take Kosovar Islamophobia as “one of the harshest in Europe in the sense that it systematically erases ‘Muslimness’ from Albanian, or Kosovar, identity in the national discourses”. 

Erasing Kosovo’s Muslimness and internalized Eurocentrism

Two incidents can help illustrate the concrete role NGOs play in these dynamics.

Firstly, Kosovar NGOs working on economic matters did not take into consideration Islamophobia, although the Islamic Community of Kosovo (Bashkësia Islame e Kosovës, BIK) pointed to the discrimination observant Muslims are facing in the job market in 2017, especially in the public sector. For instance, a research paper on labour market discriminationsaddressing the gendered aspect of inequality in professional life was published in 2017. In the same year, a similar publication focusing on women’s unemployment was released. In the two papers, no light was shed on discrimination based on religious factors. Instead of adopting an intersectional approach, these NGO reports looked at labour discrimination in a one-dimensional way by only taking gender as vantage point.

The mere fact that Islam can so easily be overlooked indicates how convenient it is for NGO discourse to ignore Muslimness, since it is deemed ‘not constructive’ in their pursuit of joining the Euro-Atlantic club. I think this intentional silence around religion is one important way in which Muslimness gets erased from Albanian identity in order to claim Kosovo’s ‘Whiteness’.

So, how are NGOs actively endorsing a Eurocentric view of development for Kosovo?A 2018 NGO report clearly objected a pending Kosovo membership in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – the main reason being “Kosovo’s Euro-Atlantic agenda.” That way, the country’s political elite could prove once more its loyalty to the West by showing explicitly that ‘Albanians are good European Muslims’.  This is another way in which NGOs in Kosovo aspire to ‘Whiteness’: by distancing themselves from what is not ‘white’, i.e. Albanian Muslim identity. 

It should be understood that Islamophobia is as unacceptable as racism, anti-Semitism, or misogyny in political discourses. In this sense, Islamophobia awareness campaigns should not only focus on journalism and narratives constructed by mass media, but also at the governmental and NGO level – actors that actively uphold the erasure.

These insights seem crucial if one wants to put the Kosovar case into a global perspective: if NGOs try to achieve Albanian ‘Whiteness’ by subordinating themselves to Islamophobic structural dynamics, it is maybe due to internalized Eurocentrism which makes it “impossible to contemplate a future in which [they] do not resemble Europe”, paraphrasing Yousef Khalil in his 2017 analysis of Algeria’s legacies of colonialism. In other terms, aspiring to ‘Whiteness’ through denying what is not ‘white’ is a result of the lack of space to imagine a future outside of Eurocentric values.

What could Albanian political discourse look like without a Eurocentric tunnel view? Perhaps it would involve looking for global solidarities with other oppressed people with a colonial past. The current Palestinian-Kosovar relations, for example, are characterized by a “paradoxical animosity between two nations which share a similar history of victimisation”. Taking into consideration that Kosovo-Albanians could free themselves from the decades-long Yugoslav-Serbian colonialism, overcoming Eurocentrism in elite discourses – like the NGO sector – becomes even more compelling in order to create a future built upon the legacy of a successful Kosovar anti-colonial struggle.

The full 2018 European Islamophobia Report on Kosovo can be read here.

February 20, 2020
Maria Faciolince