Turkey looks to build its image in the Balkans through Islam

Turkey is working to develop its influence in the Balkans and to do that they are resorting to religion to make new inroads. 

Dr. Ahmet Erdi Ozturk,  an associate professor at London Metropolitan University and Coventry University, said that Turkey undertook a years-long study that took him across the Balkans as worked to build an understanding of Turkey’s soft power reach in the region. Through interviews with hundreds of local officials and citizens alike, Ozturk compiled his findings in a new book titled  Religion, Identity and Power: Turkey and the Balkans in the 21st Century. 

“This book’s main question is the role of religion, identity and power in foreign policies,” Ozturk told Ahval News in a recent podcast. 

He explained to Ahval that his inspiration to research this book came from the amount of attention developments in Turkey in particular attracted from many locals in the Balkans. While Ozturk travelled throughout the region for his book, his book is specifically centered on three countries: Albania, North Macedonia and Bulgaria. 

All of these countries share some commonalities as members of NATO and each are former territories of the Ottoman Empire. However, Ozturk said that he chose the three countries because each of them invited Turkey’s Religious Authority, known as the Diyanet, into their countries through the 1990s. 

“Even though Turkey has official representations in the Balkan countries, only these three countries accept its presence domestically through the Diyanet,” he said. 

The reason for their openness to the Diyanet’s presence came from their trust in Turkey’s laique or secular state identity that also followed a moderate form of Islam. The reign of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has seen the Diyanet’s reach expand at the same time as his country began seeing a shift in how it defined the state’s identity.

Ozturk said that the secular identity had a particular appeal, but the religious soft-power in today’s Turkey has become fused with other elements of Turkey’s state identity today including right-wing populism and its aggressive foreign policy. 

“The AKP has realised that Turkey’s Western oriented secular foreign policy has not been serving the new interests or desires of the country,”  Ozturk explained.

This he contends prompts the question of whether this qualifies as soft-power or something altogether different. Other countries in Europe, like France, has taken a harder line on Turkey’s propagation of Islam and framed the foreign influence on domestic Muslim populations as potentially de-stabilising. 

Ozturk contends that the Turkish government’s use of Islam is “quite problematic”, but says that calling it dangerous would be “quite ambitious”. He does add that some concern is aroused by Turkey’s activities in the region, but it does not conjure the securitised rhetoric as it does in other countries.

There are limitations to Turkey’s strategy of building influence in the Balkans through religion. Its Ottoman past acts as a hindrance in some ways as does the fact Turkish Diyanet employees operating in the region do not always have the required language skills that would help them in their local work.

Another dimension to this is the crowded space for using Islam as a soft power instrument. In this work, Ozturk says Turkey faces stiff competition from Saudi Arabia and others who invest in Balkan Muslim communities as well. He described it as a “huge competition” with their own “separate audiences” receiving each country’s brand of Islam. 

On this level, Ozturk notes that a separate limitation also arises and that is the local perceptions of both countries that tends to be negative. Both countries are regarded as authoritarian states led by figures held in disrepute internationally which can put a damper on their regional work. 

“There will be no winner within this game because all of these countries bring problematic baggage,” said Ozturk. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.