09 February 2016

OPINION: 'Turkey a Check on Radical Ideologies in Balkans'

OPINION: 'Turkey a Check on Radical Ideologies in Balkans'

The real reasons underlying criticism directed at Turkish investment in the Balkans


 "While Islamophobia has been widely discussed and rightfully denounced by sensible academics across the globe, festering in its ugly shadows are increasing levels of ‘Turkophobia’ that are becoming more mainstream these days throughout Europe and the United States.

Turkey’s tremendous economic growth, along with its emergence as an autonomous global actor over the past 15 years, has most certainly ruffled the feathers of Western sensibilities that felt safe with the existent geopolitical status quo.

Recently, some Western scholars have erroneously argued that Turkey’s involvement in places like Bosnia, Macedonia, Serbia and Kosovo represent a not-so-subtle effort by the Justice and Development Party-led government to spread Islamism as an ideology in the Balkans.

The first point I would like to make, as someone completing a manuscript on the topic of Islamic governance, is that analyses pushing forth the claim that Turkish politics are dominated by ‘Islamism,’ and that Turkey is exporting Islamism as an ideology via its charitable cultural exchange efforts and investments, amounts to little more than dishonest fear-mongering. Turkey has a long, rich legacy in the Balkans.

I was in Prizren this summer. It is a quaint and fascinating city that most certainly remains deeply connected to its Ottoman past. The people I met expressed a deep appreciation for the efforts of the current Turkish government and showed an even deeper appreciation for Turkish culture.

Turkish is widely spoken by those people living in Prizren and the city’s architectural style and cafe culture are unmistakably Ottoman. It makes perfect sense that President Erdogan would give a speech in Oct. 2013 promoting solidarity with Turkey’s natural regional ally in this particular historical Ottoman stronghold.

Turkey’s recent investments in the Balkans are indeed immense and represent a noble effort to re-engage with traditional allies that could use assistance. In 2011, Prof. Mesut Idriz highlighted some of Turkey’s investments in the region:

"Through the Turkcell telecommunications company, Turkey has managed to buy and become a major shareholder of Telekom Srbija; well-known Turkish construction companies have managed to win a tender to build a 445-kilometer-long highway in Serbia linking Belgrade with Bar in Montenegro; a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was signed between two countries; and there was even some discussion about Turks buying Serbia’s national carrier, JAT Airways. Turkey has long been in the banking industry of Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, Albania and Macedonia. For instance, Ziraat Bankasi and IK Bank (a sister company of Halkbank) are well-established banking systems in Macedonia, while TEB (Turk Ekonomi Bankasi) is already among the key players of Kosovo’s banking industry."

These investments have brought great benefits to both Turkey and its Balkan partners. 2015 was an especially fruitful year for Bosnian-Turkish cultural exchange. Turkey donated five much-needed street-trams to the Sarajevo public transportation operator GRAS.

Turkish aid also assisted in refurbishing crumbling streets in Sarajevo’s historic Bascarsija district; it restored the oldest Turkish bath in Sarajevo, Isa-beg Hamam, and provided the support necessary to rebuild the historic Emperor’s Mosque that was originally built in the 15th century by Gazi Isakovic Isabey that suffered extensive damage during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War.

In what way can these laudable urban renewal and cultural restoration projects be seen as promoting Islamism? Should Turkey have offered to refurbish the local McDonald’s instead – would that have been more acceptable to Turkey’s detractors?

It is absurd to assume that any of these investments somehow represent a ‘creeping Sharia’ or a Turkish effort to Islamize the Balkans. It has been recently argued that Turkey is seeking to maximize its own self-interests via its investments in Kosovo. What is so problematic about this? What state today does not desire to promote its national interests via its trade and foreign policy? Does anyone honestly believe that U.S. involvement in Bosnia and Kosovo over the past two decades has been based purely on altruism?

Do these same people not know that in 1999, the United States built Camp Bondsteel for itself; a military barracks that can hold 7,000 people, has 300 residential buildings, a heliport, sports halls, playgrounds, and even a shopping mall? Does anyone really believe that this was done for some body_abstract notion of freedom and self-determination?

I asked one particularly bright student in the course I was teaching this summer in Pristina what Kosovar youth really thought of America. The response confirmed what I already suspected. The student mentioned that in general, Kosovars love Bill Clinton and American culture. However, they also like U.S. aid – a lot. The student mentioned that once the money is gone, so too will be the superficial love most Kosovar youth have for the United States.

I can also speak from the experience of my own travels throughout the Muslim world that Kosovo is for certain one of the most secular Muslim majority countries I have ever seen—Kosovars are not joining ISIS [Daesh] in disproportionate numbers because of Hanifite, Sufi, or Turkish influenced religious institutions or endowments, which by the way, are most certainly are not entrenched in the same ideology as the deeply conservative Hanbali/Athari understanding of Islam (often subsumed under the moniker of ‘Wahhabism’) that is the real ideological underpinning of groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. If anything, Turkey’s religious influences serve as a valuable check on this much more conservative interpretation of Islam that until recently was almost completely alien to Bosnia and Kosovo.

People in Kosovo (and Bosnia for that matter) are joining ISIS because of poverty and ossified political institutions that are amongst the least functional in all of the Balkans. There is a litany of research that shows the driving force behind radicalization is poverty, not ideology. While teaching in Pristina this summer, my students made it clear to me that the manner in which U.S. aid is distributed has led to a vicious cycle of dependence and subordination. Even the most benign domestic decisions often have to first get vetted by the enormous U.S. Embassy in Pristina that in many ways acts as the overlord to Kosovo’s national government.

In conclusion, I do not believe that Turkish involvement in the Balkans is fostering violent Islamism or radicalism – I would actually place more responsibility for the causes of radicalization on the way the United States has stifled local-organic institutional development in Kosovo over the past decade and a half. The U.S. efforts in Kosovo thus far have seen failing political institutions, a tanking economy, and rampant corruption. These institutional and economic failings are primary source of the radicalization of certain segments of Kosovar society; Turkey’s efforts to build meaningful infrastructure projects while promoting cultural and religious exchange most certainly is not. If anything, Turkish religious endowments and educational institutions serve as an important check on alien ‘Wahhabist’ ideologies."

Joseph J. Kaminski is an assistant professor in the Department of International and Public Relations at the International University of Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina

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