[Public Diplomacy] Tribute to the sultan: the disinvitation of Orhan Pamuk by Sarajevo (Part 8.1/8)

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.

8. Tribute to the sultan: the disinvitation of Orhan Pamuk by Sarajevo

Sometimes, the Turkish-Bosniak trading partners on the market of public opinions encounter „market failure“, which is due to the informational asymmetry that eventually occurs when unequal stakeholders from different socio-linguistic backgrounds, motivated by their different respective interests – the figurative „elder brothers“ and „younger siblings“ – interact. Three of these examples reveal the illiberal character of the main proponents of the Turkish-Bosniak siblinghood trope, which makes these trade arrangements crucial for the discussion of the possibilities and limits of mayoral coalitions in the age of illiberal neo-populism. The first example is a large scale corruption scandal with the presidential palace at its center in 2013; the second example revolves around the over-exploitation of the trope of the „conquest of the hearts“ by Turkish officials and their partners, and the third example is the speakable, Bosniak genocide of Srebrenica in 1995, and the unspeakable, Armenian genocide in 1915/16. The latter communicative conflict between speakability and anathema in Bosnia and in Turkey is also responsible for the disinvitation of the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk by the city council of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo in 2018.

Corruption in the palace

A disappointment of the elder Turkish brother by their non-obeying Bosnian siblings occurred in the winter 2013/2014, just following two difficult challenges for the illiberal ruling party in Turkey: in June, the Gezi protests by Turkey’s then thriving civil society had threatened the firm position of the regime; and in fall, the Fethullahçıs, the regime’s formerly closely allied Islamic movement around the exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen known as the Gülen movement or Gülenists in English, leaked a large scale corruption scandal. That leak was not only a face threat, but also incriminating against president Erdoğan and his family personally. But above all, it meant the most serious crisis to the prestige of the president and his family in the public opinions: the AKP had originally won the elections precisely because they presented themselves as uninvolved in the previous corruption scandals in Turkey in the late 1990s. Two phrases in the public opinions shall help to illustrate the meaningfulness of that scandal.

It was the flashpoint for the widely known phrases in Turkish „as if you explained something to Bilal“ (Bilal’e anlatır gibi [anlatmak] )  and „Emine Erdoğan’s handbag“ (Emine Erdoğan’ın çantası) : the Gülenist leak released a phone call, reportedly between president Erdoğan and his son Bilal. In the leaked conversation, both are panicking for allegedly hoarded Dollars in their family home, just following the confisation of 4,5 million Dollars in shoeboxes. This criminal investigation eventually hinted and lead to the president’s personal involvement. In the leaked phone conversation, Bilal speaks helplessly and maladroit to his father — which is why the phrase „as if you explained something to Bilal“ soon became omnipresent in the then still comparatively uncensored Social Media. Yet, this phrase was not only a mockery of Bilal Erdoğan personally: it was an implicit, constant and popular reminder that there was a corruption scandal. The phrase „Emine Erdoğan’s handbag„, for instance, was commenting on a picture of president Erdoğan’s wife’s handbag. Her luxury handbag was affordable for the horrendous price of 49,995.00 US-Dollars, as Social Media users figured out. Both phrases were officially „forbidden“ by an Istanbul Court on 19. June 2020 („Bilal’e anlatır gibi anlatmak“).

Screenshot from ekşisözlük, one of the world’s oldest Online Social Networks and the most voluminous collection of contemporary Turkish phraseology. The entries on Bilal’e anlatır gibi anlatmak and Emine Erdoğan’ın çantası are not accessible any more from Turkey. Screenshot taken by Thomas Schad on 9 July 2021.

This scandal and serious backlash in the public opinions also reached a wider, international public, and lead the AKP-regime to mount a cross-border campaign (Özkan 2016), whose goal it was to conserve the leader’s face: Erdoğan’s charisma is, to a great deal, due to his reputation as the global Muslim leader, especially after the „Davos incident“ in 2009 (Tait 2009). To that end, the ruling party and its affiliated organizations abroad tried to break the spiritual mobilizing force of the Gülen movement — at once a political force — which had turned into a serious adversary. BiH, amongst many other countries, had been a stronghold of the Gülenists, starting from the late 1990s. Hence, BiH’s Islamic Community (IZ) was ordered to pray for the political well-being of Erdoğan in the Friday sermons (hutbe) by representatives of the regime. Erdoğan’s whereabouts were repeatedly equaled with the existential question of Turkey’s fate – and with it, that of the future survival of the Bosniaks and Bosnia, as the embedded Turkish gutter paper Yeni Akit titled two years later: „If Turkey falls, Bosnia will fall, too“ (Kutlu 2016).

Back in 2014, the order to pray for president Erdoğan was conveyed by the Turkish journalist and Balkans watchdog Ayhan Demir (Yeni Akit; Demir 2014a; 2014b). When the IZ shied away from the order and tried to stay neutral — arguing that they didn’t want to interfere in a foreign country’s domestic affairs over a corruption scandal — Ayhan Demir reacted with a repeated order, and an angry threat: he countered that there was no corruption scandal at all, and reminded the younger siblings that „every Bosniak must accept Turkey as their home“. Likewise, as Demir explained, he didn’t see Sarajevo or Skopje as places abroad, neither – but as his home:

A prove of what the Balkans mean to us is expressed in the most beautiful way in what Ağabey İbrahim Tenekeci said years ago. While he would say „Ağabey, I am travelling abroad, blessings be upon“, when on his way to London, Paris or Berlin – on our trips to Skopje or Sarajevo, he (sic!) would say, as if coming home: „I am going to Skopje / to Sarajevo“.

(Demir, 2014a)

The threat came with a quote of Bosnia’s war time Muslim president Alija Izetbegović, which happens to be, at the same time, a well-known quote of Martin Luther King:

If god permits, these difficult days will be left behind very soon. And the day when all this is behind us, the only thing which we will remember will not be the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends!

(Demir, 2014a)

Obviously, Demir was pondering here with Turkey’s possible withdrawal from its security promise to Bosnia’s Muslims. As the Bosnian newspaper BH Dani reports, students from the AKP-affiliated International University Sarajevo (IUS) – which is the rivaling institution of the Gülenists‘ International Burch University, in direct proximity in Sarajevo-Ilidža – held their prayers for Erdoğan in Sarajevo’s Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque. Although this caused mixed, mostly negative public reactions in Bosnia, the IZ’s resistance was broken (Kahrović-Posavljak 2014).

President Erdoğan on an election poster of his party AKP in February 2016 in Istanbul Üsküdar, one of the party’s strongholds. Erdoğan celebrates the conquest of Istanbul and often makes positive allusions of Ottoman sultans. Picture by Thomas Schad.

The „conquest of the hearts“

The second example of „market failure“ is the negative publicity that the mayor of the north Bosnian municipality of Sanski Most (affiliated with the AKP’s partner party SDA) earned due to the overexploitation of the narrative of Ottoman conquest by Turkish public diplomats in 2015 („Sanski Most: Kako je SDA obilježila pobjedu Turske nad Bosnom“, 2014). The embedded Turkish media often uses the terms conquest/to conquer (fatih/fethetmek) when describing the return of Turkey to the Balkans – a notion that was also used by the district of Bayrampaşa in their report on the above described „convoy of divine abundance“. According to the report’s title, the convoy „has conquered the hearts in the Balkans“ (‚Bereket Konvoyu‘ Balkanlar’da gönülleri fethetti) – which alludes not only to the trope of territorial conquest by the Ottomans: in AKP-parlance, the Ottoman conquest is regularly depicted as a conquest of the hearts by the gift of Islam; thus, the conquest is presented as the positive starting point of the Bosniak-Turkish siblinghood. It is the recognizable, identical trope as in Ahmet Davutoğlu’s „geography of the hearts“ (gönül çoğrafyası, cf. chapter 6). In multireligious and multiethnic BiH, however, the Ottoman conquest is an ambivalent and highly sensitive topic, and not everybody dreams of being „reconquered“. The trope of Ottoman conquest and the complex topic of conversion to Islam are rivaled by the counter-narratives of the conquest by the sword and the loss of Bosnian independence, as Christian Balkan nationalists, secular Bosnian Bosniaks, and even a considerable share of Turkish Kemalists and leftists would have it. While the Turkish styled, glorious story-telling of the Ottoman conquest of Bosnia usually goes unnoticed by the Bosnian media, it caused indignation in 2015, when Turkey raised a commemorative monument at the historical castle of Sanski Most, in honour of the Ottoman conquest and the Battle of Gallipoli:

„It is inappropriate to organize a commemorative celebration for the members of an occupatory army, especially at the location of Dnoji Kamengrad, where in 1463, Ottoman and Bosnian soldiers died for the imperial interests of the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish government has raised a monument for the Ottoman soldiers, while our representatives didn’t do the same for the Bosnian kingdom. The subservient behaviour of the Party of Democratic Action towards Turkey has transgressed every limit“, said Enes Kurtović, member of the committee of Naša Stranka (a political party, TS) Sanski Most.

(„Sanski Most: Kako je SDA obilježila pobjedu Turske nad Bosnom„, 2014)

As already mentioned, the probably most prominent reason why Turkey enjoys a positive image amongst some Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) is the fact that it is the economically and militarily strongest Muslim country in the region. Millions of European Muslims had found refuge in the course of Ottoman decline and its aftermaths, and especially the Bosniak population of the Serbian and Montenegrin Sandžak region maintain family bonds to their emigrated relatives in Turkey (Schad 2015). Thus, it is often perceived as the „second motherland“ and safe haven for Muslims. Turkey’s implicite and oftentimes explicite security promise is held in high esteem amongst Bosnia’s Muslims, as the memory and unsettled legacy of the past genocide of Srebrenica is still very fresh. Yet, even this topic can cause tensions and conflict between Bosnia and Turkey, when overexploited for political abuse.

Speakable and unspeakable genocides

Prior to the current (2020) all time low of the Turkey-EU relations, the authoritarian and anti-European character of Turkey’s ruling regime significantly started to tighten in 2017. In the same year, the notorious referendum, initiated by the ruling party, was won by the „Yes-Sayers“ (Evetçi): the parliamentary system would transform into a presidential system, thus strengthening the one-man-regime (tek adam rejimi) of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In its run-up, the referendum was accompanied by a heavy campaign amongst the European electorate, especially in Germany and the Netherlands, where significant Turkish populations live, including anti-European diatribes of unprecedented measure. In order to get their polls, Turkey changed and eased the electoral franchise. The regime’s strategy for getting the polls was grounded on aggressive, polarizing, anti-European rhetorics.

When European politicians, consequently, decided not to offer a stage to AKP politicians, the populist Erdoğan openly compared „the Dutch“ to the slaughterers of Srebrenica, and he accused both „the Dutch“ and „the Germans“ of Nazi-methods (Henley 2017; Schad 2019, p. 167 ff.). In BiH, where Germany and other European countries enjoy a positive image and count for the most desireable destinations for emigration, this instrumentalization and confrontation was not applauded. More importantly, even one of the most prominent survivors of the Srebrenica genocide, Hasan Nuhanović, repudiated the exploitation and instrumentalization of the genocide by Turkey explicitly (Nuhanović 2017; Schad 2019).

The fact that Turkish politicians regularly conjure up the genocide against Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica doesn’t mean that they are convinced and credible defenders of genocide victims in general: they have a selective understanding of what a genocide is. The Armenian genocide, for instance, is anathema to the AKP regime. Voicing it usually results in furious reactions by the regime leader, including even more serious, diplomatic crises abroad. An internationally less prominent example for the regime’s outrage against voicing the Armenian genocide is meaningful in the context of the Turkish-Bosnian sibling arrangements: it is the causa Orhan Pamuk from 2018. Pamuk, one of Turkey’s best known contemporary writers, Nobel laureate and a decidedly liberal voice, was suggested to be declared Sarajevo’s official honorary citizen by the Sarajevan bookshop and publisher Buybook. But even though the jubilee was already informed about the award, the city mayor made it „unhappen“, as the British Guardian reported, and idsinvited Pamuk:

“The council commission explanation was that Orhan Pamuk did nothing or almost nothing for the city of Sarajevo. Some members from the ruling party estimated that awarding Mr Pamuk might cause the anger of Turkey’s current government. They used this opportunity to send a message to Pamuk … that he is not welcome in Sarajevo,” said Uzunović.

(Flood 2018)

Pamuk was (and is) a problem to the AKP-regime. He had repeatedly and publicly acknowledged the Armenian genocide, which he was accused and trialed for, previously. Pamuk disrespected the imperative “thou shalt not speak of the Armenians“, because in Erdoğan’s firm opinion, “Muslims do not, cannot commit genocide“; his „forefathers didn’t commit genocide“ („Erdoğan: Ecdadım Soykırım Yapmadı„, 2009). As the risk of voicing the Armenian genocide by a famous Turkish writer in Sarajevo would complicate the regime’s self-promotion abroad, the AKP-ruled, Turkish „siblings“ intervened, caused the Pamuk’s disinvitation, and silenced the inconvenient topic.

Recommended form of citation

Schad, Thomas. (2021) ‚Tribute to the sultan: the disinvitation of Orhan Pamuk by Sarajevo‘ ( = Part 8 of the series Can networks of local governments challenge the rise of cross-border neo-populism?)Inkubator Metamorph, 9 July. Available at: https://thomasschad.wordpress.com/2021/07/09/public-diplomacy-tribute-to-the-sultan-the-disinvitation-of-orhan-pamuk-by-sarajevo-part-8-1-8/ (Accessed: Date of access).

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


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