[Public Diplomacy] „We will reappropriate our forefathers‘ lands“: the ruling party and the Balkans (Part 6/8)

On this series: This blog post belongs to a series under the title and leading question „Can networks of local governments challenge the rise of cross-border neo-populism?“. The complete series are my contribution to an edited volume by Dr. Agata Rogoś, postdoctoral research fellow at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Agata’s Edited volume’s working title is „Permeability of dispossession / Dispossession of borders“. In accordance with her, I publish my contribution on my personal homepage, prior to the finalization of the book. The final version may still change, whether due to further copy editing and proofreading, or regarding the unclear and unforeseeable course of events and political circumstances in Europe, in the Western Balkans, and in Turkey. Yet, I believe that the phenomenon of cross-border neo-populism, as in the given case of Bosnia and Turkey, will not disappear any time soon. The complete list of references will be included in the first and in the last contribution of this series, which consists of eight single sections.

6. „We will reappropriate our forefathers‘ lands“: the Turkish ruling party and the Balkans

The Turkish ruling regime’s problematic use of a vocabulary which, at the first glance, appears to be identical with that of many Balkan post-migrants, manifests in one of the goals of the AKP’s „Vision 2023“ on its official homepage.[1] There, a collective „we“ announces that „we will (re-)appropriate the reminiscences of our forefathers“ („Ata yadigârlarımıza sahip çıkacağız”), with the historical and emblematic Old Bridge (Stari Most) of Mostar in the background. The same totemic diction is used on the homepage of TİKA, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency: „Turkey appropriates the monuments of the Ottoman reminiscences in the Balkans“ (Türkiye Balkanlar’daki Osmanlı Yadigârı Eserlere Sahip Çıkıyor). In a similar vein, the reminiscence (yadigâr) is more frequently paraphrased by the notion of the „Ottoman heritage“ (Osmanlı Mirası): thus, figurative kinship relations to the Balkans (heritage) are constructed. This figurative kinship is also expressed in countless other public speech acts, where Bosniaks and Turks are regularly called siblings (kardeş) and relatives (akraba), regardless of their biographies. Similarly, Bosnia, Kosovo, or other places were often called „home“ or declared identical with Turkey by Turkish officials (section 7). These samples show that the understanding of the nation-state itself and its borders was widened by the AKP regime throughout the past years, characterized by the use of kinship-metaphores and references to the „old motherland“ (eski vatan), that is: the Ottoman Empire. Concomitantly, the existing and conflictuous questions of belonging, ownership, sovereignty and territoriality in the Western Balkans are amplified with the additional, revisionist rhetorics by the Turkish regime. 

A constant in official Turkish identity-concepts — just as is the case in most of the national identity-concepts across the Western Balkans — is the central role of religious affiliation. Not unsimilar to the early years of the Turkish Republic, when citizenship was constructed and granted first and foremost to Muslim immigrants (and only secondarily according to linguistic affinity), who would become Turks only upon immigration (Danış & Parla 2009; Schad 2016), representatives of the AKP’s public diplomacy initiatives do construct siblinghood (kardeşlik) primarily alongside religious categories. Although representatives of the present-day ruling party distance themselves often harshly from the early Republican (Kemalist) elites — which reflects the aforementioned (section 5) East-West-binary — both regimes relied on shared religion as the commonground for the construction of sameness, identity, and finally citizenship. Their respective understandings of the concrete role of religion, religious institutions, and all subordinate questions and conflicts may differ fundamentally; yet, both the ancien régime of the Kemalists, and „New Turkey“ under the AKP revolve around the identity-core of a (Sunni) Muslim Turkish nation.

In the present-day context, Turkish mainstream Islamists can (in their own understanding) deduce siblinghood from Islamic narratives, similar to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements. In the case of the AKP, the trope of siblinghood between stronger and weaker siblings is deduced from the Islamic myth of origin of the Constitution of Medina (Medine vesikası) following the Hijra (the migration of Muhammad and the first Muslims from Mecca to Yathrib/Medina). This mythic text was (re-)popularized amongst Turkey’s Islamist thinkers in the early 1990s, whereas Ali Bulaç was a central intellectual figure in that process (Bulaç 1992; Demirci 2012; Bora 2015). As for the AKP’s foreign policy and cultural (public) diplomacy, the most important intellectual figure was Ahmet Davutoğlu. The former academic — who turned to high-ranked advisor, foreign minister, and finally Prime Minister of Turkey — can be seen as the AKP’s playwright of foreign policy and cultural diplomacy. In his thought and writings, the centrality of the Hijra and Medina-narrative cannot be missed, which is especially obvious and explicit in his 2016 book Cities and Civilizations (Medeniyetler ve Şehirler; Davutoğlu 2016; 2014 a; 2014b). 

The quite recent centrality of this text in Turkish Islamism is why Turkish scholars have re-formulated the notion of Mediniyetçilik, which translates as civilizationalism, while conserving the religious connotation that more „secular“ concepts lack (Bora 2015).[2] Turkish Islamist civilizationalists praise their own country as some sort of contemporary Medina (Davutoğlu 2016): from here, the superior helpers (ensar) reach out to their inferior co-religionists (dindaş) abroad, who correspond to the mythic figures of the Muslim immigrants (muhacir) from Mecca; in the mythic text, they were helped by their Medina [Yathrib] based, ensar-relatives. In the mythic original text, both the helpers and the helped form a new polity, which becomes the Islamic civilization: thus, their relationship corresponds to the modern concept of fellow citizens (vatandaş). The vision of Turkey as present-day Medina, as politicians, clerks, and embedded journalists of the AKP regime spread it, contains the outlook that Turkey’s stability — whatever that means — conditions the livelihood of Balkan Muslims, as in an article of the AKP-affiliated tabloid Yeni Akit: „If Turkey falls, Bosnia will fall, too“ (Türkiye düşerse Bosna da düşer, Kutlu, M. 2016).

The background of the mythic text of the Hijra — from where the word Muhacir (Muhajir/Muhadžir) derives — and the model Constitution of Medina (Medine vesikası) — which forms the mythical backend of the AKP’s civilizationalist discourse — also help to explain why not only Muslim immigrants to Turkey, but also non-agnatic, Muslim communities abroad are considered „cognates“ (soydaş) (Danış & Parla 2009), „siblings“ (kardeş) and „relatives“ (akraba), as in the name of the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities (Yurtdışı Türkler ve Akraba Topluluklar Başkanlığı, henceforth: YTB), which was founded in 2010. Under the category „sibling communities“ (kardeş topluluklar), YTB runs a number of activities for groups abroad, which are considered „fellows of language, religion, lineage and heart“ (dildaş, dindaş, soydaş ve gönüldaş) („Kardeş Topluluklar/Genel Bilgi”). Besides sibling cities arrangements, it facilitates and cooperates in countless other activities of Turkish public diplomacy, as well.

Yet, even though the described religio-mythical blueprint can mostoften explain the construction of figurative kinship, it is not a completely stringent or coherent concept. Often, the siblinghood-tropology of the ruling regime rather resembles a bricolage of stereotypes from varying sources for storytelling. For instance, in 2003, following a Turkologists‘ summit in Azerbaijan in 2000, the Union of Turkish World Municipalities (Türk Dünyası Belediyeler Birliği, henceforth: TDBB) was founded. The umbrella word „Turkish World“, applied to as different countries as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hungary, Kenya or Mongolia, may appear adventurous and incoherent, at the first glance — and very clearly, it is not part of a genuinely Islamic discourse. Here, pan-Turkist and Islamic elements are enmeshed: While countries with significant Muslim populations are targeted corresponding to the trope of co-religionism, others – like Mongolia or Hungary – figure in relation to pan-Turkist legacies in the cosmology of the „Turkish World“ imagery. With regard to the Western Balkans, TDBB comprises 30 Bosnian-Herzegovinian municipalities (Homepage TDBB), nearly all of which are located in majoritarily Muslim communities of BiH: here, the role of kinship and religious affiliation are in the foreground.

Sibling city arrangements initiated by the ruling regime are organized either in various federations (federasyon) and unions (birlik), or as bilateral arrangements between single districts. Other organizations, like the mighty Directorate of Religion (Diyanet), run their own initiatives for sibling districts, and promote the practice of city siblings across „our heart-geography“ (gönül çoğrafyamız) by a series of publications (Yaman Coşar 2020). According to Ali Erbaş, head of Diyanet, „our heart-geography mustn’t be limited to Anatolia“ – reasoning on the mythic example of the cross-border siblinghood established between Muslim refugees (muhacir) from Mecca and their helpers (ensar) from Medina [Yathrib] in the Qur’anic text (“Bizim gönül coğrafyamız sadece Anadolu ile sınırlı olmamalı”, 2019). Besides, the Coordinatorship of Public Diplomacy (Kamu Diplomasisi Kordinatörlüğü) and many actors more are involved. The projects of these sibling districts in the Balkans are typically endowed by TİKA, which finances and establishes contacts to Turkish holdings from the construction sector, which stand behind the renovations of bridges and other monuments. These holdings often have close and even kinsmanlike ties to the ruling party.

One of the countless monuments renovated by Turkish officials in the Western Balkans. The picture shows the türbe/turbe (mausoleum) of the Pulti/Pultić family in the Montenegrin coastal town of Ulcinj/Ulqin. Picture taken by Thomas Schad in July 2018.

This simple analysis of the figurative kinship metaphores with their religio-mythical backend behind the acronyms TDBB, YTB, and other actors‘ activities reveals that the new Turkish institutions – borrowing from Mary Douglas‘, George Lakoff’s and Mark Johnson’s approaches to conceptual metaphores – think and live by in family metaphores (Douglas 1986; Lakoff & Johnson 1980; Dündar 2018; Sirman 2005; 2008): their way of thinking and living-by shows that the general understanding of the populus, envisioned as an enlarged family, appears to have (re-)gained expansive, cross-border aspirations.[3] Moreover, the entanglements of the building sector and the Turkish neo-populists‘ cultural parlance show that the fields of culture, religion, and economy are deeply intertwined in the AKP regime’s investments in the Balkans‘ market of public opinions (Hansen 2017; Edwards & Colborne 2019). This context will be described in more detail in the next section.

Read in the next blog post (Part 7/8) of this series more about The role of ‚Renommiergeld in a culturally annotated economy.

Recommended form of citation

Schad, Thomas. (2021) ‚„We will reappropriate our forefathers’ lands“: the ruling party and the Balkans‘ ( = Part 6 of the series Can networks of local governments challenge the rise of cross-border neo-populism?)Inkubator Metamorph, 24 June. Available at: https://thomasschad.wordpress.com/2021/06/24/public-diplomacy-we-will-reappropriate-our-forefathers-lands-the-ruling-party-and-the-balkans-part-6-8/ (Accessed: Date of access).

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[1] This emblematic year (2023) was chosen, because it marks the Turkish Republic’s 100th birthday.

[2] An alternative word for civilization, which is considered a „real Turkish“ (Öztürkçe) word, would be uygarlık. The latter notion was prefered especially by earlier, purist Kemalists, whose aim it was to „purify“ modern Turkish from as many Arabic and Persian loan words as possible.

[3] The striving for pan-Turkist or pan-Islamist outreach is nothing new, at all, cf. Zürcher 2004, pp. 127 ff.


Find all the referencese in the first blog post of this series (click here)


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