TURKISH PRIME MINISTER Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was recently in Sarajevo to receive an award for his “international contribution to the development of culture and cultural heritage of Sarajevo”. This was the Isa-Beg Ishaković Award, named in honour of the Ottoman founder of Sarajevo, who in 1461 transformed a scattering of villages into a city. Isa-Beg Ishaković, a contemporary of Mehmet II, the conqueror of Constantinople, left a substantial legacy in the Balkans, building bazaars, bathhouses, a mosque and the palace (saray in the Turkish) that gave Sarajevo its name, also endowing buildings which remain in the modern Macedonian capital, Skopje.
As well as patron of Sarajevo, Isa-Beg Ishaković was an Ottoman general. And here’s where hackles are raised. The fact that the Turkish premier should be in Sarajevo claiming an award named after a soldier who conquered in the name of the House of Osman, which had an unashamedly imperial, expansionary mission, conjures spectres in certain quarters. One of these is neo-Ottomanism, something that Erdoğan’s government has been accused of.
Like most isms, neo-Ottomanism is open to various interpretations. Some see it as a resumption of Turkish adventurism, wanting to roll back the clock to an era of conquest and Turkish overlordship of the Balkans. In this region of jousting nationalisms, a Turkish presence is intimidatory and pervasive for some: apparently during the Balkans wars of the 1990s the Muslims (Bosniaks) of Sarajevo were disdained as “Turks” by Serbian nationalists and paramilitaries. A less predatory interpretation paints neo-Ottomanism as the resuscitation of cultural and economic ties across south-eastern Europe, a Turkish re-engagement with its immediate geographical neighbourhood – a region flatly ignored for most of the 20th century during Republican Turkey’s decisively westward tilt.
It’s certainly true that Turkey-Bosnia relations have become closer of late. Turkey is supporting Bosnia’s bid to join NATO. But it is not just a case of Turkey drawing closer to a fellow Muslim community or seeking to sideline or dominate non-Muslim governments. The Trilateral Istanbul Declaration of April 2010 saw Turkey signing an agreement with both Bosnia and Serbia to create a “consultation mechanism between our countries” concerning political developments in the Balkans with a particular emphasis on rehabilitating relations between Serbia and Bosnia.
This is all well and good, but isn’t this a region of “ancient hatreds” and intractable ethnic antagonisms? Well, perhaps not. Received wisdom has been largely flavoured by the horrors of the wars of the 1990s but that period aside the states of the former Yugoslavia have historically seen no more or fewer episodes of bloodshed and warfare than the rest of Europe, or elsewhere. Different peoples lived alongside each other for centuries and just got on with life. That’s not to say that it was some sort of Utopia, but members of different ethnic communities weren’t constantly at each other’s throats.
In fact, even during the bloody years of the mid-90s, ethnic lines could be crossed, everyday interactions unfurled between Serbs, Bosnians and Croatians. And in instances documented in a book entitled Good People in an Evil Time by Svetlana Broz, the granddaughter of Yugoslav strongman Tito, people sheltered, protected, gave succour to individuals, neighbours, sometimes strangers from other communities, whom, according to the swirls of nationalist fervour that ruled the day, were their enemies.
This is perhaps just a continuation and extension of the practice of komšiluk, or taking care of neighbour’s shrines (from the Turkish komşuluk: neighbourliness), recorded throughout the 20th century in Bosnia and documented by the Slovenian anthropologist Bojan Baskar in Sharing Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean. Beyond just the maintenance of shrines, it appears that this extended to inter-communal financial contribution or helping in the actual building of places of worship, so that Catholics would contribute to the building of a mosque and Muslims participate in building a church. So rather than traditions of division and hatred with which the Balkans are stereotyped, it appears that the very opposite was true: the tradition was to muck in together.
Erdoğan picked up on this when in Sarajevo, saying it was a city of “ coexistence where people live in peace and friendship.” It is certainly a buzzing city, where life is lived at close quarters. It’s a city of music, culture and art, walkable and compact, filled with human warmth. But for all of the amicable interaction that happens on a human scale, the political arena is still beset by nationalistic rivalries and antagonisms. Debates between Serb and Croat-Muslim political groups about who should fund Bosnia’s cultural institutions have been frozen for some time, leading to the recent closure of the National Museum and placing the future of other museums hanging in the balance.
Clearly in Bosnia there are still scores to settle, or ground to be regained. Recent habits of chauvinism die hard, and some wounds, perhaps, have not healed. Political bickering and nationalist interests are putting in jeopardy cultural artefacts created during an era before nationalism(s) when coexistence was a given.