Turkophilia and the Bosniak mentality

Enver Kazaz, Professor at the University of Sarajevo, talks about the reactions of the Bosniak elite to the attempted coup in Turkey, and about the evolution of nationalism in his country. An interview by Eldin Hadžović
Enver Kzaz (Jasmin Fazlagić/Novosti )

Professor Kazaz: Were you surprised by the almost unanimous support that the Bosniak political establishment expressed towards the Turkish President Recep Tayyp Erdoğan following the attempted coup which recently shook Turkey — and this despite the news of cruel reprisals taken against presumed rebels which even led to the suspension of the European Convention of Human Rights?

I was not so surprised by the support as such, because other world powers, stronger or not, also expressed their support for Ankara’s autocrat, as by its content and tone. Ironically speaking, these half-educated Bosniak political exponents shouted their support for Erdoğan so loudly that it seemed as if the coup had taken place in their home, if not their bedroom. Where does such support and servility come from? That it comes from their love for democracy can be wholly excluded, as is confirmed by the fact that they have never said a word against a pernicious regime like the one in Saudi Arabia, where poets are condemned to death just on suspicion that they do not believe in God — Saudia, as the so-called Bosniak establishment (in reality nothing other than a political half-world) affectionately calls that country. For them democracy is just a means to inflate their bank accounts.

So why did they shout out? Just because once again they obsequiously wanted to please Erdoğan, “the leader of all Muslims” (as Bakir Izetbegović defined him some time ago), the one to whom Alija Izetbegović left “Bosnia in inheritance” on his death bed. In reaction to more recent events, Alija’s son exclaimed that Erdoğan is “his brother”, “our leader” and that “the Turkish people are defending democracy”, so “they made it be known who they want in power”. But it was not only the politicians who shouted. Some exponents of the academic community did so too, as for example, Esad Duraković, or a certain Amina Šiljak-Jasenković, who presents herself as an expert in Turkish affairs, although her scientific curriculum is hardly a proof of this. Duraković speaks like Erdoğan’s spokesman, maintaining that behind the attempted coup there were Zionists, while Šiljak-Jasenković accused Gülen of being the inspirer and instigator of the failed coup, exactly how the “Sultan of the Bosphorous,” as the liberal Western media call Erdoğan, did.

Yet nobody offered a single argument in support of their declarations, just pure propaganda. No one said a word about the autocratic nature of Erdoğan’s regime, his attempt to modify the Constitution in order to give the president more power, the complete abandonment of Kemal’s secular tradition on which the modern state of Turkey was founded, the overt attempt to impose Islamism as a normative ideology on Turkish society, the cancellation of humanistic and rationalistic narrations that the late Ottoman Empire was already drawing on, as is brilliantly described by Orhan Pamuk in his novel Istanbul.

Bosniak discourse is completely silent on the failed coup, the arrests and mass purges that Erdoğan’s regime is carrying out these days against those branded as “Gulenists”, removing professors, judges, rectors, journalists, and subjecting tens of thousands of people to state terror, precisely as it has been done under the grimmest totalitarian regimes. The reprisal through the media, police and religious institutions is of such a size that Erdoğan could be seen as an Islamically oriented Stalinist. This dark side to Erdoğanism is completely invisible in the Bosniak public sphere, where, in the absence of a reasoned analysis, political emotionalism and Turkophile identification prevail, aimed at transforming today’s Bosniaks into pro-Erdoğan Turks.

I would say that “Erdoğanism” and a superficial Turkophile/Islamophile mentality, based on emotionalism and accompanied by the neo-Ottoman spectre are the salient elements in present discussions at the heart of the Bosniak political, academic, religious and media elite. Obviously every form of violence, and in particular a coup d’état, must be publicly condemned if one claims to defend democratic values. But in the same way, the violence of a repressive state machine used against people not proven guilty must also be condemned. The alleged Bosniak elite, backing Erdoğan in unison, keep their people in a kind of state of mental slavery, preventing any emancipation from their militarist narrative.

During the war in Bosnia, Serbian and Croatian chauvinists branded the Bosniaks with the insulting epithet “Turks”, while the Muslim establishment of that time, including Alija Izetbegović, insisted on the existence of a specific Bosniak identity, rejecting the comparison with the Turks with disgust. At the end of the war this attitude changed and we have witnessed various manifestations of the “Turkization of the Bosniaks”. Where does such an aggressive pro-Turk mentality on the part of the Bosniaks come from?

I am not sure that Izetbegović ever pursued a systematic policy, even less one designed to establish a modern form of a Bosniak national identity. Before he died he left Bosnia as an inheritance to Erdoğan, as I mentioned. The only persisting characteristics of his political conception of a Bosniak national identity are anti-modernism and anti-communism, apart from the notion of Islam as the foundation of the national identity. We are talking of someone who in 1994, right in Saudi Arabia, was awarded the title of “Islamic thinker of the year”, and who, as the war went on, chose to abandon the principles contained in the so-called Platform of the Presidency of the Republic of Bosnia Herzegovina — a document adopted in 1992, in which the objectives of the defence of the nation from aggression were to be defined for Bosnia, considered in ideological terms, as a civil, secular and multi-ethnic country.

It is true that Izetbegović sr., when he rather weakly said that Bosniaks were not Turks — as if the subject were up for discussion — at the same time was eagerly getting ready to form Muslim brigades. He only said that in order to combat the aggressive and chauvinistic ideology propagated by the Serbian and Croatian authorities that, feeding on phobias about Turks and Islam, constituted a sort of propagandist preparation for the war crimes against the Bosniak population. Alija Izetbegović did not pursue a systematic policy, but rather he tried to subtract authority from state organisms, creating a whole system of state-controlled institutions which gave logistic support to the BiH army. In other words, his identity policy was chaotic and inconsistent, thus a narrative and symbolic play on words that his son would then reduce to a vulgar “Erdoğanism” and ideological, neo-Ottoman phantom.

To be really precise: Bakir Izetbegović offers no ideology, just an “Erdoğanist” spectre. He is an openly authoritarian pragmatist. The aggressive pro-Turk conversion of the Bosniaks, as you noted, seems to me rather a vulgar “Erdoğanization” of the Bosniak elite, lost in their own semi-ignorance. However, this love between Erdoğan and Izetbegović is not accompanied by any economic cooperation. Today Turkey invests negligible capital in Bosnia, while it noticeably helps the economies of other countries in the area, like Serbia and Romania.

How ironic is it that it is the son of Alija Izetbegović who is the champion of the spread of Turkophile tendencies among Bosniaks, so similar to the pro-Russian propensities of the Serbian nationalists?

Yes, the elite Bosniaks today, though inclined to see themselves as victims, in building their own national identity are inspired by the narrative model of the chauvinistic Serbian elite. A true paradox: the one time victim is copying the narrative model of its own persecutor for the construction of its identity. The Turkish affiliation has enveloped the Bosniak mental sphere like a net, in the same way the Russian affiliation has done with the Serbians, and the Germanic one with the Croatians. The mental war between these “affiliations” shows that the three ethnicities constituting Bosnia in reality are colonizing themselves. They simply are not able to get beyond this, because their intellectual potential is nil.

What does this tell us about the Bosniak national identity?

From the narrative word game we are seeing, we may evince processes of turning back to the archaic, the ghetto, the victim in today’s national identity: more Islamic, clerical, Arab, Turkish, military and masculine affiliations, but less Bosnian. To describe this fully would require more space than we have available here. However it is important to underline that the Bosniak national identity began to be formed in the nineteenth century, in parallel with the de-Ottomanization and the acceptance of the values of European rationalism and humanism. The paradox is to be found in the fact that today’s Bosniak elite is more archaic and conservative than that of the nineteenth century, which tried to Europeanize the Bosnian Muslim community laying the foundation for its evolution as a nation.

Do you agree that, in parallel with the processes you listed, Bosniak nationalism has become more aggressive and manifestly more like the national-chauvinist hysteria which in the early 1990s pervaded Belgrade and Zagreb, or do you think that this nationalist ideas have always existed in the Bosniak community?

In the Balkans every nationalism is aggressive, and it takes little to turn it into chauvinism. When a nationalist ideology acquires considerable power, as the Bosniak one has in its territories of influence, it becomes aggressive towards every form of difference. The militant character of Bosniak nationalism is mainly reflected in the way the media, controlled first by Alija and then by Bakir Izetbegović, took and continue to take aim at the non-Bosniak intellectuals, distinguished for their enormous symbolic capital — intellectual, literary and pro-Bosnian: Marko Vešović, Ivan Lovrenović, Miljenko Jergović, and more recently also Nenad Veličković.

The faculty in which you teach, like the entire University of Sarajevo, has a fundamental role in the processes we have been speaking about. Can you tell us who are the principal players and what are their roles?

The Faculty of Philosophy shares the fate of the whole Bosnian society, afflicted by a serious loss of values. Without wanting to detract from the praiseworthy exceptions, it must be underlined that many of the teachers in this faculty use their own scientific production to shape the symbolic references of the collective identity of radical Bosniaks. In this sense the University of Sarajevo and other universities that we can call “Bosniak”, are indistinguishable from the “Serb” and “Croat” ones in Bosnia Herzegovina. The Bosnian universities, like the entire education system, are a workshop for nationalist narrations, but also the place where scientifically responsible critics of it emerge, even though they are few. And this is why, playing with words, I call the Bosnian universities uniZVERiteti instead of univerziteti [zver in Bosnian means beast], or in the Croatian version sveMUČILIŠTA instead of sveučilišta [from the term mučilište, which means place of torture].

In this context, what is the role of the Islamic community in Bosnia Herzegovina?

After the despotic leadership of Mustafa Cerić, the greatest Bosniak social plague straddling the millennium, the new leader Kavazović has mainly succeeded in depoliticizing this community. All the same, not even he is immune from detouring into the political field. The religious institutions of the southern Slavs are inclined to take over political power. Kavazović is distinguished for having assumed a different attitude towards this fascination with political religion, which tends to transform the metaphysical God into a political flag. Religionizing the ideology and ideologizing the religion cancelled the metaphysical God from the Orthodox, Catholic and Islamic churches. Why should a religious community forego the seductive power of a political, ideological God to return to a metaphysical one?

The data from the last census of the population of Bosnia Herzegovina were published nearly three years after it took place, showing what we have all known for sometime: that Bosnia Herzegovina is no longer a multi-ethnic society but rather a simple aggregation of three mono-ethnic territories. What is your comment on the fact that the Bosniak elite prefer to congratulate themselves on the “Bosniak victory in the census”, rather than worry about the “ethnic purity” of Sarajevo?

On the death of a multi-ethnic Bosnia, confirmed by the census data, I wrote recently. The census showed how the Bosnia Herzegovina of today is a tri-ethnic federation consisting of territories which are the most ethnically homogeneous in the world. The Bosniak elite, like the Serb and Croat ones, does not speak about this at all, but tries to use the results of the census to demonstrate the existence of their right to live in an ethnically homogeneous territory. Behind the discourse of the Bosniak elite on the “victory of the Bosniaks” in the census is concealed an ideological position with its roots sunk in the phantasy of a great state. And the tri-ethnic Bosnia is the achievement of military aspirations. For, however bitterly ironic this may sound, if there is a victor in the census, it is the war criminal Radovan Karadžić.

The Bosnia Herzegovina of today is poised between the political elites’ wish to change the Constitution in order to reach, in time of peace, the objectives not achieved during the war, and the impossibility of entering the European Union. In this quandary the last scraps of what was once a multi-ethnic country are disappearing.

This article was originally published by the portal Novosti on July 31, 2016.