A three-nation tour to Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Romania earlier this week has exposed a different aspect within the proactive and comprehensive foreign policy conducted by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu: mosque diplomacy.
The warm atmosphere as Davutoğlu spoke with people at the Fatih Sultan Mosque in pristina and the Sinan Paşa Mosque in prizren was not overshadowed by any nationalistic discourse from people of the region or local administrators
Davutoğlu, while in Kosovo, performed terawih prayers in Pristina and Prizren as well as in Mostar, a city in Bosnia and Herzegovina famous for its Old Bridge. On top of that he performed the Eid prayer at Sarajevo’s Gazi Husrev Bey Mosque. In Constanta, Romania, he performed a noon prayer at the historic Hünkar Mosque, where he also exchanged best wishes for Eid al-Fitr with residents of the city.
Davutoğlu’s way of conducting relations with different segments of society in the countries he has been visiting marks a bold difference when compared to foreign ministers assigned to the post before the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came into power in 2002. Before 2002, foreign ministers used to only meet with Turkish associations. Through contacts with local residents at mosques, Davutoğlu is able to build a closer relationship with people who are familiar with Turkish culture via the legacy of the Ottoman Empire in the region.
Davutoğlu’s visit to the region came at a time when media in the region revisited the assumptions that the Turkish government has been pursuing a “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy in the Middle East and the Balkans, former territories of the Ottoman Empire until the 20th century. The fact that Davutoğlu’s visit to the region follows separate visits by two deputy prime ministers and two ministers further strengthened these assumptions.
Nevertheless, the warm atmosphere as Davutoğlu spoke with people at the Fatih Sultan Mosque in Pristina and the Sinan Paşa Mosque in Prizren was not overshadowed by any nationalistic discourse from people of the region or local administrators.
Mosques have become places that link the region to Turkey despite prejudices against Turks. These prejudices appear to be reminiscent of the communist era in the region, during which people were indoctrinated with anti-Ottoman propaganda. Religion naturally shows itself as one of the most important common features between the region and Turkey.
In conversations with people or speeches delivered to the residents following prayers at mosques in the region, Davutoğlu went to great lengths to use a positive language which highlights the importance of integration under the roof of the European Union. The EU membership process will turn the region into a zone of stability and peace, Davutoğlu constantly underlined in these speeches. He said the region can build a common future based on its common history and heritage.
While in Pristina, Davutoğlu said he believed that the emerging label of “neo-Ottoman” for Turkish efforts in the Balkans stems from the unease some felt in the face of Turkey’s influence in the region, and the label is being used as a tool to spread fear about Turkey’s motives in the country.
Davutoğlu indicated that Turkey’s increasing role in the region as an intermediary and as a policymaker have triggered reactions from some, encouraging them to dub Turkish efforts as neo-Ottoman moves. The foreign minister said he found it “only natural,” given Turkey’s increased visibility in the Balkans.
“I see mixed reactions, both good and ill-natured,” Davutoğlu said, as he clarified that he vehemently opposed claims of a neo-Ottoman mindset at every opportunity.
“Some use the term specifically to invoke fear and feelings of ‘getting even’ to minimize our increasing influence in the Balkans,” Davutoğlu suggested, elaborating that the real source of the uneasiness lay in Turkey’s role in establishing relations between countries in the region, including those between Serbia and Bosnia and Turkey, helping them address issues and open cases from the past “which people thought would never be opened again.”
Also addressing the frequency of his visits to the region in the last two years, Davutoğlu offered that “no such [frequency of] activity was seen before,” and that the fast-paced dialogue created an excuse for remarks of neo-Ottoman motives on behalf of Turkey, but that the people on the street were welcoming Turkey’s role in their region.
The restoration of mosques carried out by the Foundation of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet Vakfı) and the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TİKA) constitute solid ground for Davutoğlu’s public diplomacy in the Balkans.
The Fatih Sultan Mosque in Pristina, the Sinan Paşa Mosque in Prizren and the Hünkar Mosque in Constanta were all Ottoman-era mosques restored by Turkey.
People in the region highly appreciate the fact that a Turkish foreign minister is standing in the line with them at mosques and praying. The timing of the latest Balkan tour by Davutoğlu, which coincided with Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr, was also a fortunate circumstance for conducting mosque diplomacy.
In addition to Turkish schools in the region, there are five branches of the Yunus Emre Cultural Center, two of which were personally inaugurated by Davutoğlu in Pristina and Prizren this week. With more Turkish schools and Turkish cultural centers, the number of Turkish-speakers will increase in number and constitute a significant ground for the improvement of Turkey’s communication with people in the region.