Erdogan’s Turkey likes to send political officials around the globe to open mosques. But Erdogan’s Turkey especially likes to reopen mosques in the Balkans, where the Ottoman Muslim sultans ruled for centuries, amid bloody wars in which the Christian population was slaughtered, abducted, and enslaved.
Think about it for a moment: the president or prime minister of a nation going abroad to open a religious facility in another country.
That’s what President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did in Lanham, Maryland on 2 April 2016. Turkey spent $110 million building a Middle Eastern-style Islamic center with a mosque, minarets, and domes in Lanham, and Erdogan showed up in person to preside over its grand opening. (See here for last year’s post on the mosque in progress.)
And in Banja Luka, Bosnia-Herzegovina this weekend, that’s what outgoing Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu did at the Ferhadija Mosque, recently rebuilt after it was destroyed in the Bosnian civil war in 1993. (The mosque is also referred to as the Ferhat Pasha Mosque, named after a 16th century Bosnian bey, or viceroy, who was abducted from the local populace into the sultan’s service as a boy.)
Turkey didn’t just send a top official to open the rebuilt mosque. As with the one in Maryland, Turkey paid to have the Ferhadija Mosque rebuilt. And just to clarify, it’s not “private” Turkish donors paying to build these mosques. It’s a publicly funded agency of the national government: the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, or TIKA, typically described as an “aid” agency.
That this is a political move is clarified by the fact that – according to Muslim-oriented regional media – there are few Muslims left actually living in Banja Luka.
Djindo Armin, the supervisor of the reconstruction of the Ferhadija mosque…says, while more than 10,000 Muslims are now registered in Banja Luka, few actually live there. “They have summer homes here, and they come back to be buried.”
The rebuilt mosque is thus not for the convenience of resident worshipers in the city. (Turkey is building a huge mosque in Albania – the largest anywhere in the Balkans – under conditions of comparable non-necessity. With a population of only 300,000, Albania already has numerous mosques, including several historic ones in the capital city of Tirana, where Turkey is building the new one.)
Nor can an Islamic center on the grand scale of the rebuilt Ferhadija Mosque be maintained by the donations of its members, who will be relatively few.
Perhaps the Ferhadija Mosque has been rebuilt in part to bring Muslims back into Banka Luka. If so, why is it Turkey’s business as a foreign nation to encourage such a shift?
For reference, recall that only 20 years ago it would have been something between rare and unthinkable for Turkish politicians to engage in these activities. The republic designed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was studiedly non-theocratic, and Turks had maintained a commitment to it, by broad consensus, for quite a few decades. The principle that armed states don’t send their representatives abroad to overtly promote a religion, as Erdogan and Davutoglu have in the last six weeks, is not solely a precept of the modern West. Or, at least, it wasn’t.
The point here is not whether Westerners have been deceiving themselves. That argument is for another time. The point is that Westerners need to refrain from deceiving themselves — starting now.
Interestingly, Western media gave much less prominence than Turkish and other Muslim-oriented media did to the Turkish participation in the Ferhadija mosque. Some Western outlets didn’t mention it at all (although, to its credit, Reuters did). But Muslim-oriented outlets have been crystal clear on Turkey’s interest in the mosque.
And since much of the Islamic world was ruled by the Ottoman sultan in the centuries between 1453 and 1919, Muslims in the Levant and Egypt are as attuned as Balkan Christians are to the historical, political subtext of mosque openings by Turkish leaders in Bosnia. The fool is the complacent observer who imagines that that subtext can have no real meaning today. In sober fact, nothing holds it in place as subtext anymore.