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Kosovo anti-extremism efforts in Kosovo should focus on Turkey, experts warn

Although extremism in Kosovo poses no greater challenge than elsewhere in Europe, Kosovo should be wary of Turkey’s influence, claimed Columbia University scholar.

Kosovo’s isolation and lack  of opportunities leads young people to turn towards religion, claims David L. Philips, director of Columbia University’s Program on Peace-building and Rights, at a June 22 conference on violent extremism.

“Europe must do more for Kosova,” said Phillips, who is a former senior advisor to the United Nations Secretariat.

Philips was speaking at an event sponsored by the Kosovar Center for Security Studies, KCSS, about Kosovo’s relationship to religious extremism.  While the exact extent of adherence to conservative strains of Islam is hard to quantify, more than 60 people have been accused of terrorism and are currently on trial in Kosovo, but many of these cases were handled clumsily and are based on flimsy evidence.

Unlike in the 1990s,  when Kosovo suffered from Serbian “violent extremism” and nationalist occupation, today  the threat of extremism is religious in nature, said Philips.

“Islamism is the new challenge to be addressed,” he said.

A recent New York Times article claiming that Kosovo has become ‘a fertile ground’ for ISIS was met with derision in Prishtina. Phillips said that the New York Times piece was “exaggerated and over the top,” and that Kosovo was no worse than other European states when it comes to radicalisation and foreign fighters. Still, as a newly independent country, he said, Kosovo faces particular challenges in the international struggle against extremism.

“Remember that Kosova is a part of Europe, and that Kosova and the United States have a strategic partnership that must be strengthened,” Philips said, emphasizing the pronunciation of Kosovo used by Albanians.

While the series of pieces in the New York Times blamed Saudi Arabia for investing money to radicalize Kosovars, Phillips urged wariness of Turkey’s investments. “I want to warn you about false friends. Turkey’s interest is to push the [Justice and Development Party’s] Islamist agenda in Kosova,” he said.

In 2014, Kosovo authorities shut down an organization which was receiving funds from the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency, TIKA.

Arben Cejku, director of the Centre for Good Governance  in Albania, also agreed that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s influence through investment and charity organizations was becoming a problem in Albania.

“From Turkey, we feel a dangerous wind that we should avoid,” he said.

Most panellists concluded that the best way to combat extremism is through education.

Dukagjin Pupovci, the director of the Kosova Education Center, argued that Kosovo’s decentralized education system was ill prepared to fight extremism.

“We have policies against extremism in security and justice sectors, but in education we haven’t identified it as a problem, and our education system has not dealt with this issue,” Pupovci said.

Cejku also agreed that education is key and explained that Albania’s 2015 national strategy emphasized the importance of teaching critical thinking in schools.

However, he said there has been some progress made by the government.

Philips said he hopes to continue the partnership between Kosovo and Columbia University. With the help of outside efforts, he said, Kosovo can be used as a global model for state efforts against extremism.

“Kosovo’s strategy to combat extremism can be an example–an export product,” Philips concluded.

Prishtina Insight

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