In Kosovo, atheists have to hide their convictions

Kosovo may be a democracy, but freedom’s in short supply for those who reject the idea of God.

Humanist funerals. That’s what drew me to rethink the phenomenon of atheism. The lack of them, or more precisely, the lack of awareness about them, led me to explore the position of atheists in Kosovo. What should one do if you want a humanist funeral? Is it merely a matter of politeness that they go the traditional way? Or is it due to the lack of options? 

Typically, a humanist funeral focuses on the person’s life rather than their religious beliefs. If the deceased was not religious, a humanist funeral is the best option. 

But funerals in Kosovo are not like that. Having a religious ceremony for someone who has no faith may be hypocritical but it also reflects where non-believers in our society stand.

While humanist funerals are uncommon in Kosovo, there have been instances of non-religious funerals. Vullnet Gacaferri, co-founder of the now-defunct secular organization, Shoqëria Sekulare për Mendim Kritik, recalls attending a non-religious funeral. 

But he acknowledges that such cases are extremely scarce and difficult to pursue. Vullnet describes himself as a life-long atheist who encouraged his family to have a simple burial for his father without any religious rites when he passed away.

“When my father died, I pushed my family to have a simple burial without religious rites. The reason was simple: my father was an atheist and for most of his life was against religious leaders and rites,” he said. 

“But we had to change, as we agreed that all decisions on the burial of my father would be made by my mother. In that case, my mother was under a lot of pressure from society to at least have an imam. This is where I lost my battle,” he added. 

Vullnet grew up in an atheist home. He had difficulties addressing questions from other, religious, family members.

In Kosovo, there is virtually no sign of open atheism. Gathering accurate demographic information on atheists is also challenging. First, an atheist has no widely recognized or understood definition or identity, and the term is sometimes confused with agnosticism, or being non-religious or secularist. Second, linked to semantics, the social stigma associated with the word atheist leads to many people failing to declare themselves atheists in surveys.

An invisible community in a Muslim society

Atheism is a taboo issue that is generally ignored or viewed negatively in Muslim-dominated societies. Atheists suffer from a stigma among Muslims as a group. An atheist born into a Muslim family, i.e., an atheist who is also an ex-Muslim, is stigmatized the most. Agon – not his real name – who comes from a Muslim household, says it is hard to open up to his family about his atheism. “They have spent their whole lives believing, and it is tough for them to understand this, and I see that I cannot tell them my truth at this age; it would hurt them a lot.” 

There are two types of atheists in modern Muslim narratives: those born to non-Muslim parents and those born to Muslim ones. While Islamic views do not stress over the first category, they obsess over the second. Those who abandon their faith are viewed as a danger and as a direct attack on what is known as the Muslim identity.

In Agon’s eyes, atheists in Kosovo are marginalized by society: “They do not want to talk to you. They stay away from you because they are afraid of you, they see you as a bad person, and are biased against you.”

Furthermore, identifying as an atheist in some Kosovar families can be seen as a transition. “Departure from the not-so-religious identity has been viewed with suspicion that I have converted to another religion. The perception is that if you are not a Muslim, you should become a Catholic. Atheism is not considered an option,” concludes Ermal – not his real name – who comes from what he calls a “typical Kosovar family”, where they follow the so-called moderate Islam, in which national identity is the key element.

Stigma from within the family

When it comes to expressing one’s identity to others, the family may be a very challenging institution for atheists. According to some respondents, “coming out” as an atheist was almost like admitting murder.

Many atheists avoid talking to their parents about it to avoid conflict. Some pray or wear headscarves. Religion becomes a performance, and no longer has any meaning for the individual other than to satisfy their religious family and friends. They are concerned not only about societal consequences but also about disappointing or hurting their parents. 

A number of male respondents voiced worry about the lack of physical autonomy inside their families. They are particularly concerned about the Khitan, the Islamic name for circumcision, which is a prescribed practice in Islamic culture. 

Muslim parents do not debate whether their child should have it done. Male atheists, on the other hand, believe in the value of bodily autonomy and think the decision should be made by the individual concerned, not by anyone else.

Endrit, not his real name, a self-proclaimed atheist, found the experience distressing. “It was frightening for me as a seven-year-old child. I ran away and hid, but in the end, they found me and the rest is history. It was a shock for me with a lifetime of negative results. These things usually happen when you are a helpless child,” he said.

In principle, parents should not pressure their children into undergoing the procedure but wait till the child is older, so he can provide his own, fully informed, consent. 

Whether parents like it or not, the possibility of the child abandoning religion exists. This means the child will sooner or later face the issue of bodily autonomy concerning a religious practice like circumcision that they experienced, without their consent. 

“I despise getting circumcised but there wasn’t much I could do about it. I’m trapped with a body that isn’t fully functional due to circumstances beyond my control,” says Fatmir – not his real name – who had the operation done at a very young age, like most Kosovar males.

Female atheists are even more stigmatized

Agnesa’s – not her real name – status as a female atheist meant that she was frequently criticized. “I have often been called immoral, and that I try to hide immorality behind atheism, creating a defence mechanism,” she said. Other female atheists have had similar experiences. Leonita – not her real name – told me that at a protest against the construction of a large mosque in Prishtina, she was told: “Nobody would accept you for a wife, so shut up.” People had suspicions about her morality.

Women in Kosovo, and in many other countries, are expected to take up childcare responsibilities, including children’s “moral” education. As a result of the public perception of atheists as lacking a moral compass, how might atheist mothers, who are perceived to be morally deficient, convey this morality to their children? Atheism is a stigmatized identity, but, for this reason, it can be even more stigmatizing for women than for men.

Women’s morality and sexuality are also interlinked in Kosovar society. Women who do not follow traditional gender norms, by being sexually passive and pure, are seen as less moral than their male counterparts. These women are made to feel shameful.

Women who identify as atheists can expose themselves to various uncomfortable situations, including false preconceptions about their sexuality and sexual availability. It can lead some to assume that they are “easy” since they have no boundaries or “morality”.

Deception as a tool for survival 

Atheists in Kosovo are accustomed to living in a country where theistic religious activities are routine. After all, most Kosovars profess faith in God. Because theists are the majority, they wield enormous cultural power. The theist worldview alienates these atheists, making them feel uneasy in their country. And so, like other stigmatized groups, atheists must constantly manage how others see them, which requires hypervigilance and even deception.

As an atheist in a Muslim-dominated society, you represent a small minority, and must respect religion in public, in schools, when you are born, when you die, or bury a relative. It isn’t reciprocated. 

In today’s Kosovo, you must not only give up your autonomy and allow others to determine your burial, but you must also bury your true identity and convictions. Which is the most blasphemous thing of all.

Blerta Sejdija is a Political Science and Albanology student at Charles University in Prague.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.


29 October 2021 - 10:55

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