American Atheist Home

Magazine Home

Print Edition

On Target!



Web Supplement

American Atheists

Flash Line


What's New


On Target

The Least of Many Evils: Tragedy In Kosovo

Before America escalates its involvement in the Balkans crisis, we should look closely at Osama bin Laden and the lessons of Afghanistan...

If you want to see the possible future to more U.S. and NATO escalation in the Balkans, look to what has happened in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Nowhere has the lesson of political “blowback” been more poignant and urgent; western policy there has had the unanticipated effect of fueling Islamic fundamentalism, propping up shaky regimes and destabilizing the entire region. Case in point is Osama bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi-expatriate who is believed to be the mad genius behind two U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, and head of an international terrorist network.

Bin Laden is perhaps the best example of how adventurous foreign policies can have unanticipated, even disastrous consequences. He was born in 1957, the 17th of 52 children of Muhammad Bin Laden, Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest construction magnate. His life seemed to be on track as heir to his father’s financial empire, especially after he graduated from King Abdul Aziz University with a civil engineering degree.

Then came the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The younger bin Laden answered the call to Muslims throughout the world to embark on “jihad” and drive the Russians out of the country. Western powers, including the United States were all too willing to help out, and ended up arming a coalition of Islamic groups known as the Mujahedeen. For the next decade, until the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, a steady flow of military equipment, including ground-to-air stinger missiles kept the Mujahedeen “freedom fighters” in the game; Afghanistan had become the latest flash point in what many Islamists saw as a worldwide confrontation between their religion and the corruptive influences of the West.

Bin Laden had other plans for the Mujahedeen, though, besides sniping at the fleeing Soviet units. In 1988 he had established “Al Qaeda” as his personal guerrilla movement; he soon returned home to Saudi Arabia, and became immersed in opposition movements against the monarchy. When Iraqi military units crossed the border into Kuwait, it’s “Nineteenth Province,” two years later, and Saudi Arabia led a Gulf State alliance with the United States, bin Laden quickly denounced the move and headed back to Afghanistan. From there, he made his way to the Sudan, a country which had declared its intention to create a “pure” Islamic state.

At the end of the Gulf War, U.S. forces remained on Saudi soil, thus providing bin Laden and his Al Qaeda comrades a new focus for their jihad against the west. For Osama bin Laden and many Muslims throughout the world, the presence of American military troops in Saudi Arabia -- the center of two of the most holy sites of the Muslim religion -- became a blasphemous affront and outrage. As a result, bin Laden is today perhaps the most blunt expression of deep anti-western sentiments which exist throughout the Islamic part of the world, from the Gulf to East Africa, and even within emigre communities in Britain, Europe and the United States.

Bin Laden is unreserved in his call for a jihad or “holy war.”
“We -- with God’s help -- call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it. We also call on Muslim ulema (clergy), leaders, youths, and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan’s U.S. troops and the devil’s supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so that they may learn a lesson...”
-- From a bin Laden edict announcing the creation of the International Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders, February 22, 2020

Obviously, not every Muslim is willing to answer bin Laden’s tocsin to a holy war; that’s not the point. What matters is that in many parts of the world, Osama bin Laden is not perceived as the simple “terrorist” or thug which the U.S. State Department or Central Intelligence Agency make him out to be. While he does not “speak for all Muslims,” bin Laden articulates a position which many Islamists agree with. That point was underscored in a recent PBS “Frontline” program examining bin Laden and his movement. The post-documentary segment featured a roundtable discussion with a number of American Muslims (many of them articulate professionals). Despite the business suites and a lack of veils on the women, nearly all disagreed with U.S. foreign policy in the Gulf, and expressed agreement with the idea that the west was “insulting” or “mocking” Islam.

Bin Laden is also a hero to many in the Islamic world who see themselves being victimized not just by outsiders, but a number of corrupt or autocratic Arab regimes. There is also the ambivalence and resentment of western influence -- note bin Laden’s reference to “Jews” and “Crusaders.” It is little wonder that so much of the focus of fundamentalist Islamic wrath is on the trapping of modernity, such as changing roles for women, the content of television programs (even the Saudis ban satellite dishes, and censor “provocative” western magazines), and the whole issue of building secular institutions. Caught between a discordant tribal past and an uncertain future, many Muslims see themselves victimized by, and in conflict with a Western agenda which threatens both religion and culture.

“We -- with God’s help -- call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it. We also call on Muslim ulema (clergy), leaders, youths, and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan’s U.S. troops and the devil’s supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so that they may learn a lesson...” -- Bin Laden
So what has all of this to do with Kosovo?

Like the face-off in Afghanistan going back two decades or more, the United States once again finds itself engaged at the cultural fault lines which divide the world’s major civilizations. Afghanistan’s location rendered it a stage for the “Great Game” of nineteenth and early-twentieth century powers, including Britain, Germany and Russia. Toward the end of the cold war, Afghanistan was the prize in a struggle not just between east and west -- one involving Soviet and American interests -- but between “outsiders” in the form of Soviet imperialism or Orthodox hegemony (take your pick) and Islam. No wonder that today, Afghanistan under the Taliban regime is the site of the latest social experiment to create a “pure” Islamist state, a project already undertaken in Iran, the Sudan and elsewhere.

Kosovo is remarkably like Afghanistan in that it is a both a literal and metaphorical war zone. Here, at Kosovo Polje, the “Field of the Black Birds,” Slobodan Milosevic recast himself from Communist Party hack to nationalist hero and defender of the Serbs, on the very battlefield where centuries ago the Serbs fell to the Ottomans. The Serbs are the ethnic/religious minority in Kosovo province, which under the late Josip Broz Tito (who ruled a relatively united Yugoslavia in the post-World War II era) enjoyed significant autonomy. Slobodan Milosevic ended that autonomous status, though, and began driving ethnic Albanian who are mostly Muslim out of Kosovo and elsewhere. The goal was chillingly reminiscent and familiar ... the creation of an ethnically pure Serbian state.

Kosovo is not only the locus of the “Field of the Black Birds,” but home to a network of Orthodox monasteries and other religious centers as well. This fact cannot be ignored in evaluating the elements which comprise the Serbian nationalist consciousness. For Milosevic and many Serbs, giving away Kosovo is not only a loss of national prestige and identity, but something akin to asking Americans to give up, say, the American West. The analogy may not be that inaccurate; after all, Europeans colonized the “new world,” appropriating huge chunks of the landscape and driving out the original inhabitants. Along the way to “winning the west,” we managed to exterminate whole populations, and confine the remainder to a series of, yes, “Balkanized” reservations.

There are differences, though, in Kosovo. Ethnic Albanians and Muslims there had lived for decades under the arrangement established by Tito; and whole generations of Serbs, Albanians and other ethnic groups managed to co-exist, for the most part peacefully. When the “ethnic cleansing” began in Bosnia-Herzegovina, what struck us the most was not just the brutality of it all, but the fact that suddenly families, neighborhood and whole communities were fractured, divided and set into conflict, all in the matter of a few months, over issues such as religion and ethnicity. One recalls Sarajevo, an Olympic center of cosmopolitanism, dotted with check points, ruled by neighborhood militas, and under seige by Serb artillery.

Ethnic, religious and national differences may seem superficial, but their roots run deep. We pave them over with an asphalt-like layer of modernity, education and paeans for “unity,” but they are forces that, increasingly, seem to be reasserting themselves in the world today.

Serb nationalism and Orthodox fervor are not going to readily permit the secession of Kosovo, the cultural cradle of Serbia. But what about the Kosovars? Could an autonomous Kosovo be a future powder keg in the confrontation of civilizations, this point of collision between western Christianity, Orthodoxy and Islam?

Little is being reported in the western media about how the “ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo may be fueling Islamic militancy. It is known that Iran, especially in recent years, has targeted the Balkans for its proselytizing efforts. Albanian and much of the Kosovo province, is predominantly Islamic; the Serb campaign of “ethnic cleansing” can only exacerbate fundamentalist rhetoric, and drive moderate -- and possibly even secular Kosovars -- into the camp of Islamic militancy. How do we know that amidst the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Kosovo for the problematic safety of neighboring Albania or Macedonia, that there is not already a future Osama bin Laden? And surely, Milosevic’s campaign of purging Kosovo of ethnic Albanians and other Muslims can only confirm the worst fears of the Islamic world; that they are targeted by foreign persecutors intend on destroying their civilization and religion.

All of this may well occur regardless of how the U.S. and NATO react. Ironically, those waves of NATO aircraft in the skies over Yugoslavia are mostly American, and the U.S. finds itself in the position of defending the integrity of an autonomous Kosovo. But we were in a similar situation in Afghanistan, allying ourselves with Islamists against a very similar foe. The former Soviet Union, in invading Afghanistan, was merely acting as the Russian Imperial state of old would have -- defending a soft, southern border and expanding its territory. Today, the new Russian state is the born-again cradle of Orthodoxy, so it is no wonder that Orthodox priests are blessing the calls of rabid nationalists who are urging Boris Yeltsin to take military action in defending their Slavic brethren. NATO is attacking an Orthodox state, and the Russians realize that fact. They too can identify with Milosevic and the Serbs; after all, demographic pressures exist through the former Soviet Union, where Muslims are the fastest growing group.

More problematic remain the claims of State Department and NATO strategists who discuss the stabilization of Kosovo as if they were engaged in a weekend shop project. Certainly we can level the Yugoslav military infrastructure, disrupt the lines of supply and communication, and possibly even kill Slobodan Milosevic in the process. Will that solve the root cause of the fighting in Kosovo, or Bosnia, or anywhere else in the Balkans? Probably not. Milosevic appears to enjoy the support of many if not most Serbs, and the only real challenge to his autocratic rule in Belgrade was a student free speech protest several years ago that was promptly dispatched by the Yugoslav military. Inside Yugoslavia, popular rallies in support of the Kosovo invasion appear to be well attended; young people eagerly wave the Serb banner, while listening to rock music, ethnic tunes, and cameo appearances by the likes of “Arkan,” the Serb paramilitary commander suspected of crimes against humanity in Bosnia. Even in the United States, Serbs have spoken out against the U.S. bombing campaign, and while cautiously still voicing opposition to Milosevic, many American Serbs become vehement in reference to the Kosovars. Kosovo, with its monasteries, religious schools and the battlefield of Kosovo Polje, remains very much the center of their civilization and ethnic allegiances.

We may well be up against the inertial of history here. There may be confrontations where the belligerents are so divided, so hostile, so convinced of their own righteousness, that when the killing takes a brief interregnum -- whether due to sheer exhaustion on the part of the combatants, or an imposed truce -- the various sides think not so much of peace, but the next offensive. There are also the plentiful victims on both, or all sides, especially the young who know nothing of “ethnic cleansing,” or ancient battlefields, or religious orthodoxies and creeds. All they know is that they once called some land “home,” and now face an uncertain future in a refugee camp inside the borders of a foreign country. Some will probably grow up to hate, probably as the generations before them did.

Even on the threshold of a new millennium, the ancestral cries of religious belief, nationality and ethnicity echo as loud as they did centuries ago. It is doubtful that all of the bombs and cruise missiles can silence those voices.

Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.