Turkey’s political Islamist oligarchy, after having consolidated power and effectively controlling every mechanism of the state, is now using cultural, historical and religious links to the Balkans as a means to advance religious fanaticism in southeastern Europe, trampling the rational and traditional interests of Turkey, which are grounded in boosting trade and strengthening stability and security in the Balkans.
The main concern of the chief political Islamist, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his academic-turned-politician Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and their Islamist brethren in the government is to promote religious affiliation in the Balkans, one that will serve their parochial interests in national politics back home. This is a recipe for disaster for Turkey, as its interests are now held hostage by the whims and emotions of a few powerful Islamists who care only about creating proxies in the Balkans as they have done in Middle East.
This ideology-driven vision has led Turkey to contribute to the terrible turbulence in the Middle East, from Syria to Palestine and from Libya to Egypt. Arming radical groups in Syria through the notorious National Intelligence Organization (MİT), which shipped some 2,000 trucks full of heavy arms, according to the official court documents, as well as financing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas, Libya and Tunisia under the guise of development and cooperation have all backfired for Turkey. Given signs of increased uneasiness on the part of governments in the Balkans regarding Turkish policies, the same backlash will likely occur in the Balkans as well.
I remember one diplomat summarizing the whole of the Balkans’ policy toward Erdoğan and his ilk by saying that their visits were merely “a shuttle between mosques,” aimed to generate religious enthusiasm in the service of domestic politics. The growing perception among many governments in the Balkans is that Turkish Islamists are no longer interested in bridging gaps among cultural and religious groups in the Balkans in the interest of peace and harmony, but are instead attempting to build proxy communities. This is not only a betrayal to the long-term interests of Turkey but also a huge disservice to the Muslim and Turkic-background communities living in Balkan countries.
Davutoğlu’s public announcement in December of last year that his government would deliver a Turkish flag, a Quran and a Turkish dictionary to every home in Macedonia and his repetition of the message at public rallies across Turkey reflect the mentality of the Islamists, who see the Balkans through a prism of religious fever. We know that government agencies originally established with the good intention of projecting Turkey’s soft power, such as the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TİKA), the Directorate of Overseas Turks (YTB) and the Yunus Emre Foundation are now stacked predominantly with Islamist activists who work closely with Turkey’s intel agency to build Erdoğan’s Islamist dream.
The main challenge to Erdoğan’s political Islamist project in Turkey comes from the Gülen movement, inspired by Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who is strongly opposed to the abuse of religion for political purposes. Having dedicated his life to interfaith and intercultural dialogue, 74-year-old Gülen has been an ardent supporter of modern education with a special emphasis on science. He opposed Erdoğan’s political Islamist projects, while Erdoğan attempted to vilify this internationally renowned scholar. The fact that Erdoğan has shamelessly asked the Balkan governments to shut down schools affiliated with the movement is one aspect of a campaign to eliminate any opposition to his Islamist agenda in the region.
All Balkan governments have objected to this unacceptable request from Erdoğan and his envoys, and some have even strongly protested it as an interference in their domestic affairs. Most have chosen to keep this rift private in order to prevent tension from escalating and to avoid jeopardizing long-term interests. The Romanian government has downplayed the issue, but Albania had to criticize publicly when Erdoğan reported a distorted version of his private conversation with his Albanian counterpart. In addition to the Albanian president, the parliament speaker, the interior minister and lawmakers from the ruling party have all brushed off Erdoğan’s concerns regarding the Gülen-affiliated schools.
Nevertheless, Erdoğan, with manifestly ill-conceived neo-Ottoman style ambitions, will continue pursuing the polarizing outreach activities that target populations in the Balkans over the heads of their governments. This is almost a replica of what the Saudis and Iranians have been attempting to accomplish in the Balkans for years with their extreme versions of Wahhabi and political Shiite ideologies. They have been trying to gain footholds among mainstream religious communities in the Balkans from Montenegro to Serbia, from Albania to Kosovo. In the process, they threatened the delicate inter-ethnic and religious relations that prompted the host government to take countermeasures.
Given that the current brand of Turkish political Islamists was nurtured during their youth with either Saudi or Iranian-style activism, they also follow the same pattern that does not reflect the mainstream and centuries-old moderate Islam in Turkey or in its predecessor Ottoman state. Erdoğan and his brethren have unfortunately exploited the outpourings of warmth toward Turkey in Balkan nations for ideological reasons. However, when the governments in the Balkans realized that policies adopted by Turkish Islamists could very well radicalize some young Muslims in the longer term, they started taking preventive measures. Kosovo’s crackdown on some foundations that were financed by TİKA was a prime example of that.
Now there is another threat looming on the horizon for Turkish and Muslim communities living in Europe in general and the Balkans in particular. Erdoğan and his associates are not only funneling money from discretionary and undisclosed funds to groups and organizations close to political Islamists but also conduct systematic and illegal profiling of unsuspecting Turkish and Muslim people living abroad through intelligence operatives who work undercover as part of the embassy or a government agency such as TİKA. When Erdoğan feels he is under pressure at home, he directs these groups to stage rallies in foreign capitals and other cities for support or organize meetings during election campaigns to boost his popularity at home. We saw rallies supporting Erdoğan amid mass anti-government protests during the Gezi Park events in 2013 and during the presidential campaign when expats voted for the first time.
Germany, Austria and other European nations where sizable Turkish communities exist have disapproved of Erdoğan’s campaigning, which deepened the polarization in host communities and stigmatized anti-Erdoğan groups with vitriolic hate speech. They were forced to maintain a balancing act when Erdoğan insisted on holding rallies. Germany, Turkey’s largest trading partner, had to send a stern message to Erdoğan when it charged two Turkish nationals and one German with spying on Kurdish minorities and other German-Turks critical of the Turkish government. The German press identified one of the suspects as Muhammed Taha Gergerlioğlu, an adviser for then-Prime Minister Erdoğan. Strangely enough, the Turkish government did not make any fuss about these arrests, suggesting that the German federal authorities may have had solid evidence of their illegal involvement in German affairs.
As for the Balkans, it is not surprising that MİT is involved in clandestine and even illegal activities in a number of Balkan countries. The legitimate activities of Turkish government agencies were used as a cover for these operations to make host nations uncomfortable. Ebru Canlı, a whistleblower who tweets under @canliebru2 about corruption and favoritism in the civil service, claimed that TİKA Deputy President Ali Maskan has been working closely with the intelligence agency while running the agency’s operations. Maskan was the country director for TİKA in Skopje before being promoted to a director position responsible for the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Defying common sense, the line between intelligence work and development/cooperation work has been blurred to the point of being indistinguishable.
Turkey’s current policy on the Balkans reflects the personal ambitions of Erdoğan, Davutoğlu and other Islamists with ideological motivations rather than country’s real and long-term interests. That invites total disaster.