Turkish Cultural Diplomacy in Montenegro

Turkish Cultural Diplomacy in Montenegro

Thomas Schad

We, the participants of the workshop “Discursive inclusion and exclusion of Muslims in the Balkans” (9.-11.7.2018), have undertaken an excursion to the nearby coastal town Ulcinj/Ulqin on the second day of our workshop (in the following Ulcinj). In Ulcinj we talked to representatives of the local administration, the Islamic community, the media sector and non-governmental organisations, we looked around the Montenegrin media and made our own observations during our walks through the city. Since my dissertation deals with cultural diplomacy between Bosnia and Turkey, I paid special attention to how Turkish cultural policy is represented in the townscape of Ulcinj and in the wider public.

Ulcinj is the southernmost coastal city of Montenegro and is only separated from the Albanian border by the “big beach” – the longest sandy beach of Montenegro. On the other hand, Ulcinj is also considered the “most Albanian” city in Montenegro: not only the majority of the population is Albanian, but also most tourists come from Kosovo and Macedonia and speak Albanian. The majority of Albanian Ulcinjs are Muslim again, which makes the city an attractive place for Turkish cultural diplomats who mainly maintain and renovate Muslim-Ottoman cultural assets. Reception in the Skupština OpštineHowever, at first we had the honour of being received in the building of the “Skupština Opštine”. The majority of Albanian Ulcinjs are Muslim, which makes the city an attractive place for Turkish cultural diplomats who focus on Muslim-Ottoman cultural assets.

Reception in the Skupština Opštine

But first we had the honour to be received in the building of “Skupština Opštine”. The “Skupština Opštine” means “Parliament of the Municipality” in German, but is also the central administrative seat and thus comparable with a Berlin citizens’ office; like all other public inscriptions, the “Opština” is bilingual – in Jezik* with “Opština” and in Albanian with “Komuna”. The polyglot president of Komuna/Opština, Ilir Çapuni, greeted us there in person – in English, which he was able to perfect during his study visit to the American East Coast. Next to him are the Chairman of the Albanian Forum and the local Mufti, as well as a translator. Due to a misunderstanding, the translator – translation into English was planned – was, however, a translator from Albanian into German. Since most of the Bosnian, Serbian and Montenegrin participants of our workshop could not understand German, the extremely smart and diplomatic, perfectly trilingual president also courteously stepped in as translator for our excursion.

According to Ilir Çapuni, a big problem for Ulcinj, together with the low birth rate and high unemployment, is the emigration of young people. When asked about their migration destinations, everyone agrees that the USA ranks first, followed by Western European countries such as Germany, Austria, France and Italy. However, according to Ilir Çapuni, there has been a new trend in migration for study purposes in recent years: more and more students are choosing Turkish universities for their education. Among them were above all prestigious universities such as the Middle East Technical University (METU/ODTÜ, Ankara) or Yıldız Teknik (YTÜ, Istanbul). These universities are among the country’s elite universities (ODTÜ in particular) and, together with the state Bosporus University (Boğaziçi), the French-speaking Galatasaray University and newer private universities such as Koç, Sabancı or Bilgi (among others), belong to the category of English-speaking (or French-speaking) elite universities. The number of private universities named in Turkey Vakıf Üniversiteleri (“Foundation Universities”) has grown rapidly in the last two decades, but they are not automatically among the most prestigious universities with high quality standards.

As I have seen again and again elsewhere in the Balkans (especially in Bosnia-Herzegovina), increased academic mobility is an important aspect of Turkish cultural diplomacy: with its mobility programmes such as Türkiye Bursları, Mevlana and others, Turkey has created a counterpart to the European Erasmus, Erasmus Mundus and Erasmus+ programmes, through which it attracts students and researchers primarily from the “post-Ottoman” sphere of influence, while at the same time promoting the learning of the Turkish language. One of the participants of our workshop was also a scholarship holder of such a programme at the time of our excursion. During her three-year stay in Turkey she learnt the Turkish language, so that she is now preparing to write her dissertation in Turkish.

It has to be added that very few of the Balkan students I know of have landed at one of the above mentioned English speaking lighthouse universities where they do not necessarily have to learn Turkish. The Turkish higher education landscape, which since 2016 has been subject to strong state intervention and reconstruction measures, is characterised by extreme inequality. At most state universities, the teaching language is Turkish, which from a German perspective is anything but surprising, but contrasts with the traditional English and French language skills of the elite. I was able to gain a detailed picture of these differences through my own one-year stay at the Istanbul State University in 2006/7, through numerous further visits and research stays at private elite universities such as Sabancı and Bilgi, as well as through my previous work as a lecturer at a Berlin university and my work in the field of German-Turkish academic relations.

Examples of Ottoman space enhancement in Ulcinj

Looking at the activities of Turkish cultural diplomats from the perspective of the production of space or spatial production (following Henri Lefebvres’s Production de l’espace), one could describe both structural and narrative-media activities. In this respect, Turkey’s cultural influence can be observed particularly in the media, such as in the widespread and extremely popular Turkish TV series, about which a great deal has already been written. The serial affinity of Balkan mothers-in-law, children, grandparents, even husbands, who now think they are well informed about the Ottoman past through series such as Suleyman the Magnificent (Sulejman Veličanstveni / Muhteşem Yüzyıl), has meanwhile become a widespread cliché between Zagreb and Skopje. Not mentioned here are the numerous other series that take place either in the Ottoman period or in contemporary middle-class contexts in Istanbul. The Internet portals Monteislam and Crnagoraturska, which stand here as examples for the numerous and powerful Online Social Networks (OSN) and new media, will still be talked about. A stroll through Ulcinj shows that many of Ulcinj’s cultural monuments date from the Ottoman period, such as the building of the city museum in the old town, which has a castle-like fortification (Kalaja e Ulqinit / Stari Grad Ulcinj). The minaret of the building, damaged by an earthquake, testifies that it was previously a mosque, which in turn was a church, as can easily be seen from the architecture and Christian symbolism and inscriptions. Turkish cultural diplomats also refer to these and similar Ottoman cultural monuments in Ulcinj by rehabilitating and reconstructing them. With the exception of a factory for the production of olive oil, Turkish cultural diplomacy in Ulcinj is mainly active in the cultural field.

As early as 2014, the online portal Ul.Info reports that several Islamic cultural monuments in Ulcinj have been renovated with the help of TİKA One is the mausoleum (Turbe) of the Pulti/Pultić family, which we already visited on our way to Komuna/Opština. A massive marble slab with trilingual lettering in Turkish, Albanian and Montenegrin on the tomb reminds us that TİKA and thus Turkey is behind the renovation. According to the inscription on the plate TİKA is subordinate to the Turkish Prime Minister’s Office; after the recent swearing-in of the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the President of the Republic of Turkey the Prime Minister’s Office was abolished, it is certainly questionable whether this marble plate will be in this form of existence or will be exchanged.

All these monuments refer directly to the divided Ottoman past of Turkey and Ulcinjs, so that these “aid measures” for the city of Ulcinj also represent at the same time a work on the revaluation of the “own” past. Work on the Ottoman past is often presented by Turkish cultural diplomats in two ways: on the one hand as help, but on the other hand also as work on “one’s own” – when, for example, the TİKA renovations are reported, but these are described as an expression of the “ownership of the gun” (sahip çıkmak). Thus TİKA writes on the own homepage: Türkiye Balkanlar’daki Osmanlı Yadigârı Eserlere Sahip Çıkıyor – Turkey takes over the ownership (protection) of the Ottoman memorial works in the Balkans.

In the immediate vicinity of the Pultić/Pulti mausoleum, TİKA, together with Polish Aid, has inscribed itself in the multilingual sign forest Ulcinjs through another relief action: the Centar za djecu sa smetnjama (Centre for Children with Disabilities) was “adapted” and equipped by TİKA Furthermore, the media reports about the renovation of the Namazđah mosque by TİKA, which we did not visit. In addition TİKA took care of the renovation of the hammam and other building objects in the area of the old town.

Islam, kinship and civilization work between Montenegro and Anatolia

These examples from Ulcinj illustrate that the Balkan-Turkish cultural diplomacy is based on three main factors, as I will characterize here by some further examples and background information. First, the topic of the common religion, Sunni Islam, is quite clearly the “basic substrate” of Turkish cultural policy abroad and the repudiation of Balkan Muslims. The numerous renovations and new buildings of mosques, medresses and dervish monasteries, which are often completed in large and high-profile ceremonies in the presence of high-ranking Turkish and local politicians and clergy, such as the completion of the reconstruction of the Ferhadija mosque in the Bosnian Banja Luka in 2016, which was destroyed by Serbian war criminals during the war, bear witness to this. Also in speeches, especially by Turkish cultural diplomats, religious and/or Islamist references are almost always made – for example when Sarajevo is compared with Cairo, Jerusalem or Gaza, when the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan beckons his followers with the four-fing R4bia greeting, or when he compares himself with the prophet Muhammad, who, like himself, was persecuted in the failed coup night of 15 July 2016.

Religiously colored topics are reported in detail in the Balkans, with the media often resorting to the state Turkish news agency Anadolu Ajansı with its local branches, as in Sarajevo, as a source of news. On the other hand, there are newspapers like Stav and Faktor in Bosnia, which are financed by the opaque Turkish-Bosnian media group Simurg, and which meticulously report on Turkey and the Bosniac-Balkan-Turkish solidarity in the spirit of the Turkish government. There are also a large number of Internet portals, such as crnagoraturska.com in the Montenegrin case, which reports on numerous and more frequent popular events with religious costumes.

In Ramadan, the month of fasting, for example, public and free Iftar dinners for breaking the fast every evening have expanded into a mass phenomenon in recent years. This year, crnagoraturska.com reported on such an Iftar in the Mehmed Fatih Medresse, where one of the participants of our workshop works as a Jezik* teacher. These joint dinners will be hosted by Turkish actors from the direct environment of the AKP and, as in Rožaje (Sandžak) in northern Montenegro, can assume such proportions that the whole city seems to come together on the streets. The pictures of another report on crnagoraturska.com show the only main road of Rožajes, which is closed to traffic in a narrow valley, where a large crowd sits and eats dinner together.

Under the motto “Brotherhood knows no borders”, the AKP-dominated Istanbul district Bayrampaşa has stood out since 2005 with these growing Iftar events between Thrace and Croatia and is likely to have contributed significantly to the establishment of this new tradition: Every year, a truck convoy, the so-called “Bereket Convoyu” (Bereket or Arabic Baraka means “blessing”), sets off from Istanbul with white plastic chairs, folding tables, crockery and mobile kitchen at great logistical expense and drives to Muslim-populated villages along the way, where people are invited to break their fast together. Montenegrin and Turkish media report on this in equal measure, as well as in great detail on the state Turkish TRT subsidiary TRT Avaz with a length of 18 minutes in an article about an open air Iftar in the small Montenegrin town of Gusinje.

Furthermore, it has become a new and meanwhile established fashion for Turkish actors from the government environment to hold mass and cost-effective circumcision ceremonies. For example, the news portal monteislam.com reports that TİKA, the Turkish presidium for international cooperation and coordination, together with the Islamic Community of Montenegro (Islamska Zajednica u Crnoj Gori) is organizing a collective circumcision in the Medresse Mehmed Fatih in Podgorica, which has also been set up by TİKA.Secondly, both the Balkan and the Turkish actors of cultural diplomacy refer to figurative and bodily kinship in their back and forth speech, whereby the latter is owed to the existing kinship networks that have arisen through earlier expulsions and emigrations from the Balkans to Turkey. In the case of Montenegro, emigration to Turkey lasted until the 1970s, as the Montenegrin historian and workshop participant Šerbo Rastoder stressed several times during the workshop. The figurative trope of kinship as fraternity (kardeşlik/bratstvo), which has been tried again and again, already appeared in the title of the Iftar action, and the circumcisions and the role of the circumciser for the circumcised also have a place in family cosmology – even if there is no uniform understanding of the role of the Balkan and Anatolia, especially in the area of kinship, as I have addressed in other contributions.

Thirdly – and related to this – in Balkan-Turkish cultural diplomacy the cultural-civilizational heritage of the common Ottoman past is explicitly valued and the low prestige of everything “Ottoman” or “Turkish” in the preceding decades is contrasted. In the Ottoman epoch, the territories between present-day Turkey and present-day Bosnia-Herzegovina (including Montenegro) belonged to a common state, which is why numerous similarities can be traced back to the cultural legacies. Turkish actors in politics, the cultural sector and the media have invoked this Ottoman “heritage” – again the family trumpet emerges here – since the opening of the country towards the end of the 1980s, but especially since the geopolitical turn of the early 1990s and the AKP’s accession to power in 2002. Especially Turkish cultural workers from institutions such as TİKA or the newly founded Yunus Emre Cultural Institutes are active in this field, setting up institutes in all capital cities of the Balkans such as Podgorica, but also in other cities such as the Bosnian Fojnica and Mostar Yunus Emre Institutes, where free Ottoman and above all Turkish courses are often offered. The Yunus Emre Institutes also organise successful campaigns such as “I choose Turkish” (Moj izbor je Turski / Tercihim Türkçe), which have established Turkish as a subject in the school curricula of Muslim-populated areas. In addition, there are numerous other institutions and organisations, all of which were newly founded for the purpose of cultural diplomacy, such as the Presidium for Foreign Turks and Related Communities (Yurtdışı Türkler ve Akraba Topluluklar Başkanlığı), in whose name we once again encounter the omnipresent relatives’ trumpet.

The cultural work expresses itself however not only by cultural practices such as language instruction, but also in writing over culture. The purpose of these text productions of Turkish cultural diplomats, in which also local and international scientists participate, is sometimes very explicitly named, as in the case of the voluminous and multilingual “Prestige Werke” under the titles Islam on the Balkans (Balkanlarda İslam) under the editorship of Muhammet Savaş Kafkasyalı (four volumes) and Architectural Heritage of Ulcinj (Graditeljsko nasljeđe Ulcinja) by the author Igbala Šabović-Kerović. These and numerous other prestige works can be downloaded under the category Prestij Eserler from the homepage of TİKA, often multilingual, and are intended to enhance the once devalued Ottoman civilization.

As our workshop participant Marija Mandić from Berlin/Belgrade demonstrated in her contribution, the negative image of the “Turkish” and “Ottoman” in everyday language has become established in the form of idioms, commonplaces and clichés. These cultural diplomats speak against idioms like proći pored turskog groblja – literally: passing by a Turkish grave. Passing by a Turkish grave is on the one hand a reference to the Islamic cult of the dead, which in contrast to the Orthodox and Catholic Christians of the Balkans is weakly pronounced, as the simple, white Muslim gravestones symbolize on meadows left to themselves without flowers and without the photographs of the deceased so frequent on Christian graves; in the figurative sense passing by a Turkish grave means to devalue a certain thing or a topic as “absolutely irrelevant” and “not worth mentioning”. From the point of view of Christian-dominated nationalists, but also in the socialist period, the Ottoman period was almost exclusively depicted as a time of darkness and “Turkish yoke”. Who passes today a Turkish grave, as in Ulcinj, in addition, at numerous other places, where one knows and uses this idiom, is today reminded by a prestige plate of TİKA or other Restaurateuren of the fact that it concerns with the tomb a valued cultural property.

With regard to the cult of the dead, it should be noted that it is not easy to establish – as the museum director in the Old Town told us – that the Islamic idea of the deceased’s move from Dunjaluk to Ahiret always results in Muslim graves being left to their own devices, and that, unlike Christianity, there is no cult of the dead at all. Although it is true that the cult of the dead is much more pronounced among many Orthodox Christians and of a different kind – for example, when beans and schnapps are eaten at the grave on the day of remembrance of the deceased, and there can even be regular celebrations; the numerous turbs (in Turkish Türbe), whether in the Balkans or in the Istanbul district of Eyüp, where graves are visited for intercessions, however, bear witness to the fact that among Muslims of the Balkans and Turkey there is still a cult of the dead. With regard to the Turbe, it depends on the social status and achievements of the honoured person – such as the conquest of an area, the foundation of a city, or the like. Moreover, the cult of the dead has undergone a substantial change on a broader level, especially in Bosnia-Herzegovina due to the Bosnian war and the many murdered Muslim civilians. Even the šehitluks and large war graves of Bosnia, such as the city of Sarajevo, which has been besieged for years, or the site of the Srebrenica genocide in Potočari, are hard to ignore today without remembering the reason for their existence in unusual places.

As these last examples already make clear, the cultural diplomatic revaluation work in former Yugoslavia is not possible without a deeper understanding of the wars of the 1990s and early 2000s, and in this respect the context is specific. That the earlier, exclusively negative interpretation of the Ottoman period was (and still is) not limited to the former Yugoslavia was also demonstrated by our workshop participant Rumjana Slodička from Berlin, who in her master thesis dealt with the so-called Batak scandal – a decidedly anti-Ottoman founding myth of the Bulgarian nation. Of course, there were numerous other examples and evidence to be found.

The logic of space appreciation in the discursive race  between Turkey and the Balkans

As the excursion to Ulcinj and the workshop “Discursive inclusion and exclusion of Muslims in the Balkans” in Podgorica were able to make clear once again, the question of the positionality of Muslims in the public discourse on the so-called “Western Balkans” is a complex, multi-layered and ambivalent topic. It is important to note that this field of discourse can be limited less than ever to the “actual” geographical space of the Balkans. Actors such as TİKA show that actors from Turkey and other countries must be included in such a consideration.

The TİKA renovations, which contribute to a more than only symbolic revaluation of the Ottoman past, are welcomed by large parts of the Muslim public, which also expressed itself in the reaction of a workshop participant to my own lecture on cultural diplomacy: although I did not present the activities in an evaluative way, the topic alone was already perceived as a kind of scandalization, in order to immediately draw the attention of the “Western researcher” to it.

The TİKA renovations, which contribute to a more than only symbolic revaluation of the Ottoman past, are welcomed by large parts of the Muslim public, which also expressed itself in the reaction of a workshop participant to my own lecture on cultural diplomacy: although I did not present the activities in an evaluative way, the topic alone was already felt as a kind of scandal, in order to immediately draw the attention of the “Western researcher” to how justified and historically justified the Turkish engagement in the Balkans was. One understands better this “appreciation of revaluation” when one considers how deeply the trauma of destruction, expulsion and sheer experience of violence and insecurity sits among Muslims of the Balkans: in the concluding keynote lecture by Šerbo Rastoder the extent of the destruction of cultural assets from the Ottoman period became visible once again.

However, these destructions were not limited to buildings, but were often accompanied by massacres and expulsions, as in the case of the Montenegrin community Šahovići in 1924, when large massacres and expulsions of the entire Muslim population took place. The aforementioned wars of the 1990s and 2000s, and in particular the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, represent an update on the demographic engineering of the nationalist era. “Demographic engineering” should by no means be misunderstood here as a euphemism: this means both forms of extreme violence such as genocide and so-called “ethnic cleansing”, which mostly took place in the state of emergency of the war, and more indirect and subtle forms of violence such as discriminatory and assimilatory measures. The negative stereotypes and commonplaces about “Turks” and Muslims (meaning Turks often by means of Poturice, the “Turkised”, converted slawophones and other “autochthons”) must be deciphered in this context, as my teacher Holm Sundhaussen did – also against great resistance, especially in Serbia.

On the other hand, Turkish engagement is also controversial, and not only among non-Muslims. Sometimes, though rarely, the rejection of Turkish engagement even manifests itself in symbolic violence, as in the case of Serbian nationalist damage to a Turkish prestige tablet. The picture below shows one of the TİKA commemorative plaques in Podgorica, which is intended to create prestige, as they are now found in large numbers throughout the Balkans. It reminds the public that TİKA has renovated the Bećir-beg Osmanagić square and the clock tower (Sahat Kula) in the small remaining part of the old town in Podgorica. The Clock Tower, along with a few mosques and the old buildings of the Stara Varoš and Drač districts, is one of the few remaining Ottoman buildings after the destruction of the Second World War and earthquake damage. According to a news report on Radio Slobodna Evropa, a controversy broke out last year after the iron cross, which had been on the top of the clock tower for a long time, was temporarily removed for restoration purposes during the renovation work. Some absurdly wanted to recognize in the dismantled cross an “iron element” that was not a cross at all; from the point of view of representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Islamic Community, however, it was clearly a cross, as the historian Miloš Vukanović is quoted in the accession. While the Islamic Community argued against a restoration of the cross on the Ottoman clock tower, the Orthodox side argued for it. In the context of discursive and symbolic violence presented above – although not exhaustively explained here – the attempts to damage the Turkish flag on the glorious plaque and the engraving of the four Cyrillic letters S (as emblematic abbreviation of the guiding principle of Serbian nationalism Samo Sloga Srbina Spasava) divided by a cross should be interpreted.



Note: The text was previously published on the author’s Dunyalook homepage. Thomas Schad’s dissertation deals with Bosniak-Turkish cultural diplomacy, which is being developed at the Chair of Southeast European History of the Humboldt University of Berlin and the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies (BGSMCS).