Resurrecting the Caliphate

The "trial" of the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic began last week before the Hague Inquisition. Karadzic himself boycotted the proceedings, arguing that he had no time to prepare a defense (the indictment was finalized October 19, though the ICTY had 14 years to do it). The Inquisition’s response — imposing counsel on him and adjourning till March 2010 — was not a surprise. Karadzic has already been convicted by the Western media, but a show trial has certain rules it must follow, even if the Inquisition gets to write its own. With the Inquisition already beginning to misrepresent what dubious evidence it has offered, the railroading of Radovan Karadzic looks set to proceed apace come spring.

At that time, if he is allowed, he may resort to quoting a most unlikely defender: Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

A Neo-Ottoman Minister

A scholar who has influenced Turkish foreign policy since 2002, and became the country’s chief diplomat in May this year, Davutoglu has pursued what his critics have labeled a "neo-Ottoman" foreign policy. He speaks of "historical depth" of Ankara’s relationship with the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East, and argues that conflicts in these areas originate in their separation from the Ottoman Empire.

In mid-October, immediately after a trip to Iraq, Davutoglu flew to Bosnia, where he opened a conference titled "The Ottoman Legacy and the Balkans Muslim Communities Today." His opening remarks, quoted extensively in the Sarajevo weekly BH Dani on October 23, went virtually unnoticed in the West. However, as Davutoglu also met with Serbia’s foreign minister, Vuk Jeremic, a Serbian magazine for political analysis dug up the article from Dani and published it on their website. Davutoglu’s speech ought to be alarming not just to the Serbian public and the West, but to all Turks committed to preservation of Kemal Ataturk’s vision of a secular state — if any remain.

The "Golden Age"

On October 11, Davutoglu had met with the U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and his Armenian counterpart in Zurich, Switzerland, and signed a protocol to restore bilateral ties. By his own admission in Sarajevo, though, he spent more time with Clinton talking about the "Bosnian issue" than about Armenia. 

To the surprise of some Western diplomats at his "drop-in," he retorted, "We didn’t drop in, we came to Bosnia on horseback."

At the conference in Sarajevo, Davutoglu explained his view of the Balkans. The region is a geopolitical "buffer zone," and a crossroads of economic and cultural interaction between Europe and Asia, Baltics and the Mediterranean. Such a region, he argued, "has two possible destinies in history. One is to be the center of world history, and the other to be a victim of global conflict…"

And what an amazing coincidence, it was precisely during the Ottoman Empire’s peak that the Balkans was "at the center of world politics." The 16th century, he argued, was the "golden age of the Balkans. This is a historical fact."

Why, without the Ottoman Empire, Mehmed-Pasha Sokolovic would have been a peasant instead of a Grand Vizier, and Kavalali Mehmet Ali-Pasha would have stayed in his native Albania instead of establishing modern-day Egypt!

He didn’t bother with trifling details, such as that Sokolovic was seized by force from his family as a child and turned into a Janissary, or that Ali-Pasha established Egypt by rebelling against the Ottomans. But with this "golden age" as his point of departure, Davutoglu’s conclusion sounds perfectly logical:

"Now is the time for reunification. Then we will rediscover the spirit of the Balkans. We need to create a new feeling of unity in the region. We need to strengthen regional ownership, a common regional conscience… It all depends on which part of history you look to. From the 15th to the 20th century, the history of the Balkans was a history of success. We can have this success again."

And again, later in the speech:

"The Ottoman era in the Balkans is a success story. Now it needs to come back."

Davutoglu doesn’t specify as to how. But when he talks about "reintegrating" the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East, and how Turkey is a "safe haven and homeland" for Bosnian, Chechens and Albanians, it isn’t hard to fill in the blanks. What Ahmet Davutoglu wants is to resurrect the empire of Mehmet el-Fatih and Suleiman the Magnificent.

The Dark Age

What Davutoglu and his Muslim audience saw as the "golden age" was the Dark Age for everyone else. Vlad the Impaler isn’t a national hero in Romania because he cruelly dispatched his enemies, but because those enemies were mostly Turks. The Ottomans destroyed the Byzantine Empire, which had carried on in the East for a thousand years after the fall of Rome itself. They obliterated the medieval kingdom of Bosnia, depopulated vast swathes of present-day Croatia and Hungary, nearly exterminated the Serbs from Kosovo… Ask the Croats, Hungarians, Serbs, Romanians, Bulgarians, Armenians or Greeks what they think of the Ottoman "golden age" and their answer will probably be too vulgar to print.

Yes, Mehmed-Pasha Sokolovic rose to prominence in the Ottoman hierarchy, and he wasn’t the first or the last Janissary to do so. But he also remembered his roots — something the Janissaries were emphatically not supposed to do. The legacy of this is the legendary Bridge on the Drina, and the restored Patriarchate of the Serbian Orthodox Church (to which he appointed his brother, Makarije). A far more typical Janissary, and another Grand Vizier, was serasker Hurshid Ahmed-Pasha, the general who built a tower of Serbian skulls after a battle in 1809.

Rejecting Ataturk?

Davutoglu’s Ottoman nostalgia isn’t simply another dream of greatness most politicians are prone to at times, but stands in direct opposition to the Kemalist ideology that is the foundation of modern Turkey.

Kept artificially alive by the European powers throughout the 1800s, the Ottoman Empire finally collapsed following its defeat in the Great War. It was Mustafa Kemal, a German-trained Army officer, who organized resistance to the British and French plans to partition the Empire’s heartland. Under his command, the Turks emerged victorious out of a conflict with Britain, France and Greece (resulting in the destruction of Greek communities in Asia Minor that had existed since antiquity), and established the Turkish Republic in 1923.

The Republic has rested on six pillars of Kemalist ideology ever since: republicanism, secularism, populism, revolutionism, nationalism and statism. Nationalism, for example, explains Ankara’s view that everyone who speaks Turkish is a Turk, and there is no such thing as a Kurd. Hardly a foundation for "multiculturalism," is it?

Kemalism has been enforced by the Turkish Army, which has often threatened a coup and made good on the threat several times. However, Turkey is now ruled by the AKP, a party that in 2008 almost got banned for its "anti-secularist" (meaning, Islamic) leanings. Party chairman Recep Erdogan is currently the Prime Minister, and Davutoglu’s former boss Abdullah Gul is the President of Turkey.

Echoes of Izetbegovic

Davutoglu’s claim that under the Ottomans the Balkans used to be the "center of the world" while now it is but a victim of power politics sounds eerily like the argument of Bosnian Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic, who in his 1971 manifesto, "The Islamic Declaration," wrote this:

  "Turkey as an Islamic country used to rule the world. Turkey as an imitation of Europe represents a third-rate country."

One very important distinction here is that the Ottoman Empire was not "Turkey," but an Islamic Caliphate. One cannot talk about some sort of Ottoman resurrection without dealing with the Islamic aspect of the Empire. Davutoglu doesn’t address this directly, but merely talks about a shared "cultural heritage" and "multicultural coexistence."

Then again, so did Izetbegovic. For years, he had the West believe that he was a multi-cultural democrat, rather than an advocate of establishing a Caliphate "from Morocco to Malaysia."  After his death in 2003, several men have competed for the political leadership of the Bosnian Muslims, but the religious leadership has remained in the hands of Mustafa Ceric, Izetbegovic’s Grand Mufti. Ceric openly talks about how "Turkey is our mother" and "Mehmet el-Fatih is our father."

So, when Ahmet Davutoglu speaks in Sarajevo about how he feels at home, how Sarajevo is "ours" (Turkish) and "Turkey is yours," and how Turkey’s vital interest is ensuring "your [i.e. Muslim] ownership of Sarajevo and Bosnia," it isn’t hard to reach the same conclusion as Radovan Karadzic did in 1992: something is seriously wrong with a picture of the country that has no room for over half of its (Christian) population.

Karadzic acted on this realization by mobilizing the Bosnian Serbs for war, and opposing the creation of the Muslim-dominated Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina by the force of arms. Now countries that have engaged in naked aggression themselves have dubbed this "aggression" and "genocide" and put Karadzic on trial at a "court" they illegally established and control.

Davutoglu, meanwhile, goes about the business of resurrecting the Caliphate.

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Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com debuted in November 2000.