A place where Muslims love America

Posted: Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The people of Kosovo have something blunt and something subtle to tell the world. Explore the cities and the countryside, and you will see American flags waving from storefronts, gas stations and ordinary homes. Inch your way onto Bill Clinton Boulevard, one of the capital's busiest roads, and a 25-foot picture of the former president hanging from a massive building smiles at you across a permanent traffic jam.

Below it, a statue of Clinton, the man who sent American forces to defend Kosovar Albanians more than 10 years ago greets Pristina. "I love America," gushes Valentina Sejdiu, a 28-year-old veterinary student, pondering her young country's obsession with the United States. "All my friends love America!" That message rises unmistakably throughout this scarred patch of the Balkans.

Surveys show few nations love America more than Kosovo. It seems perfectly natural that the majority of Kosovars feel overflowing affection for the country that turned the tide of history in their favor; except for one thing: More than 90 percent of Kosovars are Muslims.

What the world needs now is an invigorating shattering of hardened stereotypes, and Kosovo's hidden message smashes away.

Kosovo can prove disorienting to Westerners who bought into the belief that all Muslims hate the West and to Muslims who accept the fallacy that the United States is at war with Muslims.

The radical ideologues trying to homogenize thinking in Muslim countries have found little acceptance among Kosovo's people. And it's not for lack of trying. A few bearded radicals mix in with the resolutely moderate population. Just a few days ago in the southern city of Prizren, 120 police officers launched a massive operation, arresting a group they described as extremists, followers of the Saudi Wahabbi brand of Islam.

Police confiscated machine guns, ammunition, uniforms and laptops that reportedly contained information on targets for attacks. But religious fanaticism is viscerally rejected by most.

The fledgling country wants to become part of the democratic, pluralistic West. Kosovo, the poorest country in Europe, is doing all it can to eventually join the European Union. One government employee, waxing eloquent about his passion for America, told me Kosovo would, if it could, join the United States rather than the EU. "Kosovo could become the 51st state," he said with a mischievous grin.

He was half-joking, of course, but the fact is that the values of the West are the ones that entice this country toward the future.

"America is the country of democracy," said Mentor Mustafa, a 25-year-old dental technician. "the country of freedom."

Kosovars have so thoroughly rejected the propaganda that permeates other regions, that Muslims here don't even realize they're supposed to hate Israel. A couple of years ago, Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, a former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army, told a reporter, "I love Israel. It's a wonderful country!"

Views on Israel range from completely neutral to strongly positive. Ennis Mehmetti, a storekeeper, told me, "I don't really know Israel." But Petrit Cervdiku, a student, took off his fashionable sunglasses to make sure his point came across. "I hate the Muslims that hate Israel!" Then he volunteered a screed about the "waste of lives" that are suicide bombings aiming to kill Jews and Americans.

Most Kosovars wear their religion lightly. Their sense of identity flows from nationality, from ethnicity. Religion does not determine their political views. The vast majority are ethnic Albanians, who endured repression in the old Yugoslavia surrounded in a sea of ethnic Slavs.

Some say this resembles Israel's position as a small non-Arab island in a hostile region.

Kosovo's long-held yearnings for independence only became reality after a U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign in 1999. The idea that America is at war with Muslims simply makes no sense to them. Kosovars don't think religion played a role in the fighting. Ethnicity has always mattered, but religion, they say, is not about politics.

The way Valentina, the future veterinarian, explained it, "I am a Muslim, just for myself. I cannot say what others should believe."

That's part of what people here like about America: Freedom of thought, freedom of religion and, that elusive but desperately vital concept, rule of law.

"Imagine," the government employee marveled, "in the United States, the president, the most powerful man, was put on trial!" He was talking about Bill Clinton's impeachment. Kosovars even love that Americans almost ditched their president, the one of the ruddy cheeks grinning over Pristina's Bill Clinton Boulevard.

• Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald.

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