The ‘Ghost Empire’ of the Balkans

For 500 years, until the 20th century, Muslim empires had a presence in the Balkans. In Turkey, generations have grappled with how to bring that lost world back to life

The ‘Ghost Empire’ of the Balkans
A billboard reading “Love Erdogan” is seen in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina on March 04, 2021 in response to “Stop Erdogan” billboard in New York / Stringer / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“Are you a Muslim?” a pastry seller in Skopje’s Old Bazaar asks Ahmet Erdi Ozturk. “Do you like Erdoğan?” Before the author of “Religion, Identity and Power: Turkey and the Balkans in the Twenty-First Century” can answer, she points out that as a Turk he must be a Muslim and devotee of Turkey’s president. In solidarity, the woman — Baklavaci Teyze (“aunt who sells baklava”) as she’s known locally — gives him a free square of syrupy pastry. She then praises Erdoğan, whose image is plastered across the shop’s walls, and insists he will be the salvation of Muslims. “Even though she did not clearly explain from whom Erdoğan would save her,” writes Ozturk, a lecturer in politics at London Metropolitan University, “an educated guess would indicate that she meant salvation from gavur — the infidel.”

As a Muslim in the majority Orthodox Christian country of North Macedonia, which sits at the heart of a region that has been torn apart by religious and ethnic strife, the woman’s fear of the “infidel” is perhaps understandable. The memory of the wars that accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia and the Srebrenica genocide of Bosniak Muslims still haunts the Balkans and beyond. However, the pastry seller’s admiration for Turkey’s president is not just about fear of the other. It arguably has as much to do with Ankara’s foreign policy and the mobilization of Ottoman nostalgia — a mobilization that long predates the rise of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

In her memorable “Ottoman Odyssey: Travels Through a Lost Empire,” Alev Scott writes, “Muslims in the Balkans are aware of their Ottoman heritage and already identify with Turkey — there is a ghost empire here ripe for the taking and it just needs to be brought to life.” As any historian will attest, just how the Ottoman spirit has been summoned lies in its past; in this case, the empire’s corporeal life and eventual death offers clues about the rise of neo-Ottomanism today.

By the end of the 14th century, the lands in the southeast of Europe had been subjugated by the Ottoman Empire. Two centuries later, during the reign of Sultan Suleiman I, Ottoman troops marched triumphantly into central Europe — only to be turned back in 1529 in the wake of a failed siege of Vienna. This was the high point of Ottoman expansion. The following centuries saw Istanbul remain a major player on the international stage. However, with the rise of other European powers and the growth of nationalism, the Sublime Porte found itself under threat. This was felt particularly after defeats at the hands of Russia (1768) and France (1798). By the 19th century, exercised by what they called the “Eastern Question,” statesmen in Paris, London, Berlin and Moscow were discussing the demise of the ailing Islamic polity and eyeing areas of strategic interest.

While the Ottoman Empire’s rivals debated the polity’s fate, nationalists in the Balkans, inspired by the ideas of the French Revolution, demanded the right of self-determination for populations they claimed to speak for. Encouraged by foreign powers, national movements, starting with the Greek war of independence (1821-1830), engaged in bloody struggles against Istanbul’s rule over the 19th and into the 20th century. Ottoman subjects in North Africa and the Middle East would eventually follow suit.

Desperate to stave off collapse, the Sublime Porte introduced a series of reforms (Tanzimat), beginning in 1839, that saw the adoption of European institutions and laws, and the increasing centralization of power in Istanbul. In response to this imitative approach to modernization, a loose-knit group of reform-minded thinkers known as the Young Ottomans argued for a blend of modern, Western-inspired ideas and Islamic teachings. In “Nostalgia for the Empire: The Politics of Neo-Ottomanism,” M. Hakan Yavuz writes, “The Young Ottomans were conservative reformers who sought to articulate a modernity-inspired vernacular of Islamic ideas and symbols.” The Tanzimat process, they thought, needed to be dressed in Islamic garb.

A central demand of the Young Ottomans, who included intellectuals such as the playwright and journalist Namik Kemal (1840-88), was the promotion of an Ottoman civic patriotism that taught loyalty to the empire rather than to a religious or ethnic group. This idea of Ottomanism was an attempt to divert the empire’s subjects away from the ethno-religious nationalism most evident in the Balkans and toward a patriotic love of the multi-confessional Islamic polity. In Yavuz’s words, the Young Ottomans aimed at “cementing solidarity toward the state while maintaining the cosmopolitan nature of the empire.” The centrifugal force of nationalism and pressure from external powers would, however, prove too powerful, and the civic patriotism of these Islamic modernists never gained much traction among the empire’s subjects.

In 1877, Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire. Professing pan-Slavist solidarity with Slavic Christians under Ottoman rule and determined to expand its geopolitical influence, Moscow demanded autonomy for Bulgarians. The Ottomans promulgated a constitution granting equal rights to all their subjects, but this was not enough. Russia invaded and its troops were only stopped on the outskirts of Istanbul. A peace treaty was signed in 1878 that — in the words of the historian Eric Zurcher — was an “unmitigated disaster for the Ottomans.” It led to the creation of an autonomous Bulgarian state, and independence for Serbia, Montenegro and Romania. It also led to the ethnic cleansing of many Balkan Muslims. As Yavuz notes, “The Ottoman mosaic in the Balkans was irreparably shattered.”

After these blows, Sultan Abdul-Hamid II, an authoritarian modernizer who ruled from 1876 to 1909, suspended the constitution and adopted an Islamist-inflected Ottomanism. The sultan made a pan-Islamic, majoritarian appeal for solidarity to the empire’s Muslim subjects, many of whom feared the encroachments of the European powers. Unsurprisingly, this did little to win over Balkan Christians. In 1908, Abdul-Hamid II was pushed aside in a coup by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), who reinstituted the constitution in the belief that liberalizing the empire would save it. The CUP — the so-called Young Turks — advocated an Ottomanism that had a strong, proto-Turkish nationalist strain. If the Islamism of Abdul-Hamid II alienated non-Muslims, the Turkism of the CUP did the same with non-Turks.

Despite Istanbul’s attempts to hold the imperial realm together, separatism and great power competition would lead to its downfall. The bloody upheavals brought about by two Balkan wars and one world war finally resulted in the Ottoman Empire’s collapse.

In 1923, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the Republic of Turkey. Determined to bury the Ottoman past and modernize (read: Westernize) the new nation-state, Atatürk abolished the caliphate and promoted a combination of Turkish nationalism and laiklik (secularism — derived from the French model of laïcité) as the republic’s legitimating ideology. He also closed Dervish lodges, prohibited people from visiting the tombs of Ottoman sultans and saints, and changed the call to prayer from Arabic to Turkish. Viewed as backward and subversive, popular expressions of Islam were suppressed, and the single-party state established the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) to oversee a safe, state-sanctioned Islam.

Kemalism — as the ruling elite’s ideology became known — was fixed on transforming imperial subjects whose existential horizons were that of Islam and empire into citizens of a secular, Western nation state. As part of this new ideological orientation, the republic also sought good relations with the West. This would remain the case, broadly speaking, through the Cold War and after.

The Ottoman Empire was gone but not forgotten. Many of the new republic’s citizens longed for the past, and this would eventually influence relations between Ankara and the Balkans. Yavuz’s “Nostalgia for the Empire” does an excellent job delineating the factors behind the rise of this post-imperial nostalgia or what is often called neo-Ottomanism, even if at times its author evinces signs of the nostalgia he is describing (“The Ottoman spirit lurks in every corner of Anatolia,” he writes at one point, “and it is in the hearts of ordinary Turks.”).

The Kemalist revolution is one of the factors Yavuz identifies as a driver of neo-Ottomanism. Atatürk’s discombobulating overhaul of everyday life in Anatolia — “Jacobin Westernisation” to use Yavuz’s terminology — was an alienating experience for many. During the single-party period (1923-45), there was little room for criticism of the state’s authoritarianism or its changing of the alphabet or the calendar or dress codes. But beneath the surface an existential angst fermented. Many felt cut off from their own history, unmoored in a strange new world. “The biggest problem and the source of our crisis,” wrote Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, a one-time deputy in Atatürk’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) and one of a number of writers struggling with Turkey’s identity crisis, “is radical cultural and civilisational change.” “[O]ur ultimate goal,” he concluded, “is to rediscover our essence and recompose it.”

Some of the other factors Yavuz cites as important for creating fertile terrain for imperial nostalgia include democratization, starting with the introduction of multi-party elections in 1950, which opened the way for conservative politicians like Adnan Menderes and Suleyman Demirel to chastise the “Kemalist elite”; the internal displacement caused by industrial development and urbanization; the liberalization of the economy in the 1980s; and the traumatic memories of Muslim refugees and their descendants who were forced out of — for example — Greece (400,000 in 1923), Yugoslavia (182,500 mostly from North Macedonia between 1946-1970) and Bulgaria (344,000 in 1989). When your physical and mental world has been turned upside down, Yavuz argues, nostalgia for a glorious, idealized past can be an attractive prospect, particularly when it is encouraged by political actors.

Indeed, this nostalgia was harnessed to the point that neo-Ottomanism coalesced into an ideology, was expressed in the halls of power and played a role in foreign policy. The effort — as Tanpinar put it — to “rediscover our essence and recompose it” was taken up during the Cold War by a variety of thinkers, including Marxists intent on deploying the Ottoman past in their arguments against Western imperialism. It was conservative nationalists and Islamists, however, who mobilized post-imperial nostalgia most effectively.

During the Cold War, as Turkey’s political system opened up and conservative politicians found their voice, the state loosened its grip on religion. Access to religious education, for example, gradually became easier, despite intermittent coups by a military determined to defend Atatürk’s revolution. This created a space for Islamists and right-wing nationalists — activists who were often anti-Western and chauvinistic — to organize in opposition to those they deemed part of the “Kemalist elite.” Influential in the 1970s, they also wished to counter the growing influence of socialism. The godfather of Turkish Islamism, Necmettin Erbakan, rose to prominence during this period. The writings of the conservative nationalist Necip Fazil Kisakurek, who railed against the deracinating effect of Atatürk’s reforms, were also popular. “You are strangers in your own country,” Kisakurek told his compatriots, “a pariah in your homeland!”

Out of this ferment of ideas emerged a new Islamic nationalism. What became known as the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis drew on an idealized version of the Ottoman Empire that emphasized its Islamic and Turkish nature and downplayed its multinational, cosmopolitan elements. Figures such as Erbakan and Kisakurek put the past to work in the service of an Islamo-nationalist project.

In 1980, after a decade of near civil war between left and right, the military carried out a violent coup and propagated the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis as a means of uniting the country. Three years later, the former World Bank economist and conservative, Turgut Ozal, became prime minister. This was the moment that neo-Ottomanism went from the mosque and the tea house to the government. Ozal’s Motherland Party (ANAP) represented — as Ozturk explains — the “merger of all the different colours of Turkey’s right-wing political tradition: conservatives, nationalists, and Islamists.” Ozal himself held a romantic view of the Ottoman Empire. As the former ANAP minister of education Hasan Celal Guzel tells Yavuz, “Ozal never felt at home within the secularist republic which denied the Ottoman legacy and the role of Islam.”

Ozal’s neo-Ottomanism was of a different order from that advocated by Erbakan or Kisakurek. While it was conservative, it was not nativist or anti-Western. Under Ozal, Turkey applied for full membership in the European Union (EU) and continued the Kemalist policy of strengthening relations with the West. ANAP, in line with the global neoliberal revolution of the 1980s, liberalized the Turkish economy and deepened Ankara’s economic links with the Balkan states. Ozal also emphasized Turkey’s affinities with its Muslim neighbors. This was particularly evident with the end of the Cold War. In 1989, Ozal agreed to a deal to take in Bulgarian Muslims who were being persecuted by the communist regime. Ankara was also quick to recognize the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992.

During Ozal’s decade in government, Ankara focused on boosting Turkey’s soft power in southeastern Europe by supplying money and resources to Balkan Muslim communities via institutions like the Diyanet. Ozal also opened the way for Turkish Islamic groups to set up schools and media outlets throughout the Balkans. These were often welcomed as moderate alternatives to Salafist and Wahhabist influences. The most prominent of these groups was the Gulen Movement. A religio-political network run by the Turkish preacher Fetullah Gulen, the movement proselytizes about the glories of Islam and the Ottoman past. Drawing on his research, Ozturk sums up the relationship between Ankara and the spread of Gulenism. “Almost all the representatives of the Gulen Movement in the Balkans noted that even though they came to the Balkans under the inspiration of Fetullah Gulen, Ozal’s normative, political and bureaucratic support was imperative.”

The expansion of Turkey’s soft power in the Balkans during the 1980s was effective at boosting Ankara’s image and awakening the dormant spirit of the Ottoman Empire. As Ozturk, whose “Religion, Identity and Power” is based on field research in Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Albania, found, “Ozal holds a special place for most of the Muslim elites in these three countries.” It also set a pattern that the AKP would later follow — a point the Albanian politician Ferdinand Xhaferraj made to Ozturk in 2017: “Turkey’s influence, Diyanet, religion, neo-Ottomanism, soft-power, Gulen Movement and so on and so forth — they did not start with the AKP. Ozal was the founder of all and everything.”

The AKP, which like ANAP is a merger of “conservatives, nationalists and Islamists,” adapted Ozal’s Ottoman nostalgia for the 21st century. During the first decade of their rule, Ankara’s neo-Ottomanism manifested itself through the continuation of Ozal’s soft-power politics. The volume of trade between Turkey and southeastern Europe increased from $3.5 billion in 2002 to over $16 billion in 2016. The Gulen Movement worked closely with Ankara to promote its Turko-Ottoman nationalist ideology in the Balkans through schools, mosques and media outlets. Other organizations, such as the Diyanet and the Yunus Emre Institute, did the same. Turkish films and TV series, meanwhile, were consumed with gusto from Kosovo to Bulgaria.

However, the second decade of AKP rule saw a rhetorical shift to a more imperious neo-Ottomanism. In 2009, Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, delivered a speech in Sarajevo laying out his vision of relations between Ankara and the Balkans. “Our foreign policy aims to establish order in … the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East,” he told the audience. “[W]e will make these areas with Turkey as the center of world politics in the future.” Davutoglu rejects the label “neo-Ottoman.” However, his speech was freighted with nostalgia: “The Balkan region became the center of world politics in the 16th century. This was the golden age of the Balkans.”

Ozturk identifies this more assertive neo-Ottomanism — an attitude that sees Balkan history solely in terms of its connection to the former imperial metropole — as the result of changes within Turkey. During the second decade of the 21st century, against the backdrop of the (near) collapse of the global liberal order, the Turkish government took an authoritarian turn. Ankara gave up on the EU accession process and the liberal reforms that came with it after being repeatedly rebuffed. The peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) also collapsed and Turkey’s involvement in the war in Syria deepened. The AKP and the Gulen Movement, furthermore, went to war with one another, a low-level conflict that culminated in the latter allegedly attempting to overthrow Erdoğan in 2016.

In the midst of all this, Erdoğan has become increasingly authoritarian and returned to his ideological roots. A follower of Erbakan and Kisakurek, he pushed his Islamo-Turkish nationalism to the fore, and the government became more vocal about the country’s Ottoman and Islamic heritage. The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque in 2020 was evidence of this Kisakurekian shift (“It shall be opened in such a way that all lost meaning, like the bloodied and chained innocent, shall emerge from it weeping, in tatters,” the poet once wrote of what he hoped would be Hagia Sophia’s eventual mosque conversion.) The intensification of religious nationalism was also reflected in Ankara’s neo-Ottomanist pronouncements. “We all belong to a common history, common culture, common civilization; we are the people who are brethren of that structure,” Erdoğan claimed during a visit to Prizren in 2013. “Do not forget: Turkey is Kosovo, Kosovo is Turkey.”

Along with this ideological shift, Erdoğan has also been prosecuting his war against Gulen on Balkan territory. Following a request from Turkey, for example, Bulgaria repatriated to Turkey more than 70 people who were accused of being Gulenists. Erdoğan has also requested that Albania close all Gulenist institutions. The facts about this conflict are murky, but Ozturk reports that some members of the Albanian elite “interpret the expressions of Erdoğan as going beyond the limits of brotherhood and as manifesting a hegemonic and hierarchical attitude.” This would be consistent with the Turkish president’s authoritarian rule within Turkey.

Reading Yavuz and Ozturk, it is clear that two types of neo-Ottomanism have helped shape Ankara’s foreign policy. Ozal’s neo-Ottomanism is akin to the civic patriotism of the Young Ottomans, updated for a world of nation-states. It was conservative and nostalgic for the lost empire; but it was outward looking, and it used the memory of the Ottomans to build alliances with neighbors rather than dominate them. Traces of this neo-Ottomanism can be detected during the first decade of AKP rule. However, if Ozal’s neo-Ottomanism was analogous to that of the Young Ottomans, Erdoğan’s has moved closer to that of Abdul-Hamid II: Islamist and authoritarian. As a devoted follower of the sultan, Turkey’s president would no doubt welcome the comparison.

How is neo-Ottomanism received in the Balkans? Yavuz looks at a range of local responses to Turkey’s post-imperial nostalgia, some of them racist others not. He cites Serbian nationalists who warn that Turkey is building a “Green Corridor” and threatening Orthodox solidarity. He also highlights the case of the Albanian Christian nationalist, Piro Misha, who argues his country’s Islamic heritage should be resisted because it is incompatible with European civilization. One Greek academic, offering a more diplomatic criticism, warns Yavuz that Ankara’s rhetoric undermines efforts to improve relations between Greece and Turkey. “No one has harmed this opening process as much as Davutoglu’s rhetoric of neo-Ottomanism and especially his grandiose lecture in Sarajevo.”

As one might expect, the reaction within Muslim communities in the Balkans is more positive. Turkey’s soft power has helped awaken the “ghost empire” identified by Scott and encouraged some Balkan Muslims, like the Baklavaci Teyze in Skopje’s Old Bazaar, to identify with Turkey. As a representative of the Salafi nongovernmental organization the League of Imams of Albania told Ozturk in 2017, “It is so normal for us to establish collaboration with Turkey, at the end of the day, both Erdoğan and ourselves are serving the same religion, same God.”

However, Ozturk cautions against assuming that Muslims in the Balkans uncritically back Ankara. To do so would be to repeat the Islamophobic trope of a “Green Corridor” or to buy into its neo-Ottomanist twin that says, “Turkey is Kosovo, Kosovo is Turkey.” Ozturk’s research found that a number of different factors — the country’s international position, demographic structure, economic position — shaped the responses of Balkan countries to Turkey’s policies. They also shape how Muslims themselves see Turkey. “While some places and groups — mostly conservative Muslims — welcome its influence,” Ozturk concludes, “others regard it with caution and concern.”

The “concern” comes through in “Religion, Identity and Power.” A few of Ozturk’s interviewees expressed their worries about the AKP’s ideological transformation over the last decade. They are, it seems, particularly wary of Turkey’s politics spilling over into their region in the guise of religion. As a professor of religion studies in North Macedonia explained, “it would be a lie, if someone tells you that the Yunus Emre Institute does not work for and with Islam, but the question should be for which Islam: Muhammad’s, North Macedonia’s, or Erdoğan’s?”

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