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A. Erdi Öztürk: “Religion Plays a Significant Role in Turkey-Balkan Relations”

The identity of the Turkish state has been transformed under the rule of Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the central role that religion has come to play in its foreign policy is best exemplified in its relations with the Balkans.
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Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ahmet Erdi Öztürk is a lecturer of politics and international relations at London Metropolitan University. Between 2021 and 2023 he will work as a Marie Sklodowska-Curie fellow at Coventry University and the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA). He is also a non-resident scholar at the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy’s Turkey Programme, co-editor of Edinburgh University Press’s Series on Modern Turkey, and editor of the International Journal of Religion. Öztürk is the author of Religion, Identity and Power: Turkey and the Balkans in the Twenty-First Century, recently published by Edinburgh University Press in 2021.

In this interview, Prof. Öztürk speaks with FeniksPolitik about his new book and Turkey’s ever growing and changing role in the Balkans under the leadership of Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
You can listen to this interview on FeniksPod:

Hamdi Fırat Büyük (HFB): Could you please tell us why you decided to focus on the Balkans in your book?

Ahmet Erdi Öztürk (AEÖ): This book took five years to complete and is a product of personal experience. I would easily say that it is a twist of fate. I moved to Ljubljana, Slovenia in late 2014 to take advantage of an opportunity to work with a leading scholar in the city. Slovenia is not a typical Balkan country, but Ljubljana has a rich and diverse Balkan flavour thanks to the city’s migrant populations originating from all over the region: Bulgaria, Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, and North Macedonia, to name a few. I realised that nearly all of these communities followed Turkish news, politics, and culture very closely, and that they have different and varying feelings toward Turkey and its contemporary political life. Many commonly underlined one particular point, namely, that Turkey is very influential, bold, and active but at the same time very multidimensional in its role in the Balkans. “Turkey is back!”, they would often say. However, the ways that they regarded Turkey’s return to the region as an “international” country – I don’t use the word “external” for Turkey in the Balkans – were very diverse, and this held true for people from all across the region. So, as an international actor Turkey is very active in the region via using religion, ethnicity and many other material and normative powers. So, therefore, my brand-new book scrutinises Turkey’s increasing involvement and activism, seeking to uncover the role of its religion- and power-oriented identity reflections in the Balkans in the 2000s. The book illuminates this aspect of Turkey’s relations with its Balkan neighbours, in the context of the broader shift in domestic and foreign policy under the changeable political faces of the AKP regime, from a realist–secular orientation to an adventurist and ambivalent one featuring ethno-nationalist coercive Sunnification of the state identity. It explains the complex relations between religion, state identity and Sunnification in Turkey as they reflect on state power resources in various and complicated ways.

HFB: Could you please tell us about your book?

AEÖ: The book is actually about Turkey’s journey of “coming back” to the Balkans and how to make sense of this return. Let me underline one point very clearly: I am not 100 per cent a Balkan expert; this book is not an area study book and it does not aim to explore every single dynamics presented in the Balkans. Instead, it uses the three cases of Bulgaria, North Macedonia, and Albania, in addition to Turkey as the main case, as a testing ground to understand how religion, state identity, and state power play different roles in the region. The book is not solely a political science or international relations book, but I has a more interdisciplinary in nature, standing at the intersectionality of history, sociology, and anthropology. The book is based off of my real-life experience in the region. In this regard, as I said the book scrutinises Turkey’s increasing involvement and activism in the region while also seeking to uncover the role of religion and power-oriented identity reflections in the Balkans of the new millennium. More specifically, the book illuminates varying aspects of Turkey’s relations with its Balkan neighbours/historical brothers in the context of brotherhood while considering domestic and foreign policies under the changeable political faces of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) regime. The book also focuses on how Balkan elites in certain countries perceive the transformation of Turkey, the AKP, and its undisputable leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. All in all, on the one side, this book is about the Balkans, but on the other, it stretches far beyond these regional limitations.

HFB: Why did you choose Bulgaria, North Macedonia, and Albania as your three main cases?

AEÖ: One of my endorsements for the book is written by Prof. Jonathan Fox. He underlines that this study is relevant beyond the borders of Turkey and the Balkans. What I observed in this book is that as a distinct part of identity, religion has a certain capacity to shape politics and power relations as well as state identities. Religion and religion-oriented power struggles as a form of state identity can shape domestic and international politics, even if the political actors and decision makers are secular or non-religious. In the book, I claim that the establishment and transformation of the state identity begins at the domestic level via leaders and resultant of political conjectures following domestic political struggles. I argue that countries have multi-layered identities, some of which share direct or indirect relations with religion. Turkey is a perfect case for this analysis. I chose Bulgaria, North Macedonia, and Albania for two main reasons. First of all, all research has its limits and the limits of this research are simply Bulgaria, North Macedonia, and Albania.

Let me quote an interview from the book: “We invited Turkey’s Religious Affairs Authority, Diyanet because of Turkey’s secular mentality. We knew that only a secular and Muslim majority country can take care of our Muslims. If we did not invite Turkey in the first-place fundamentalist and extremist groups could have affected our Muslim citizens”. These are the words of Mikhail Ivanov, chief advisor to the Bulgarian President for minority affairs. His comments point to the main reason why I chose these three countries. Bulgaria, North Macedonia, and Albania are in fact the only countries that welcomed Turkey with its transnational religious state apparatus Diyanet in the 1990s after the fall of communism, primarily because of its secular state structures, constitution, and state identity. Only these three cases saw Turkey as a totally secular state and accepted its presence domestically via its primary transnational religious state apparatus, the Diyanet. Furthermore, the differences in domestic structures across all three of these countries provided the opportunity to conduct research that brought about a more comprehensive analysis. Albania’s population is nearly 70 per cent Muslim, and as a country it is committed to treating all religions equally. Within this context there are many different struggles among Muslim groups and very visible political competition in the corridors of power. Bulgaria on the other hand, boasts an estimated Muslim population of around 15 per cent, 70 per cent of which speak Turkish. Bulgaria is also constitutionally secular, but Christian Orthodoxy is its traditional state religion, a reality that has dramatically affected the lives of Muslims. Plus, Bulgaria is one of the few EU member countries in the region. 30-35 per cent of North Macedonia’s population is Muslim, and once again, more than 10 per cent of them are Turkish speakers. North Macedonia also maintains a hierarchical relationship with Turkey.

More than 10 countries in the Balkans have their own unique structures and political identities. Considering that it would have been nearly impossible to compare every single Balkan country, I decided to choose these three as they provide us a well-rounded summary of the region, Turkey’s policies towards the region, and the ways in which religion plays a dominant role in the region. However, thanks to my experience living and travelling in the Balkans, readers will find many different countries discussed in the book, from Bosnia to Kosovo, Serbia, and even Greece.

HFB: Could you please tell us how religion, power, and identity play an important role in Turkey’s foreign policy towards the Balkans, and why the Balkans are so important to Turkey?

AEÖ: There are many reasons for this. First of all, it is important to understand Turkey’s transformation since the beginning of the millennium but particularly after 2010. Turkey, like many other countries, gradually but quite surely began withdrawing from international cooperation and worked to restore a new distinction between itself and Western civilization. It did so primarily by operationalizing senses of nationalism and its nostalgia and memory of the history of its immediate region and Sunni Islam. This transformation has been witnessed under the rule of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his unofficial coalition of Islamists, nationalists, and Eurasianists. With overtones of de-Europeanisation, this worldview has also been termed Neo-Ottomanism, but I believe that it spans beyond this. Turkey also started to introduce itself as a global game changer in many regions including the Balkans. I claim that religion plays a significant role in Turkey-Balkan relations and within this transformation overall. The Balkans are a very important place in this context because we know that if Turkey is to exert a different kind of influence beyond its borders, the Balkans are the first place it will do so due to the two’s shared past, common religion, cultural similarities, and so forth. Also, the Balkans is a competitive battle ground for other global actors such as the EU, Russia, Germany, the UK, and nowadays even China. Turkey is using the Balkans as leverage in its relations with Western organisations such as NATO and the EU as well as with other Western countries such as the US and Germany.