A tale of two ‘wilayets’

One can only conjecture Iranian plans and achievements in the Balkans, but the size of Iran’s embassy in Sarajevo testifies to the importance Iran places on Bosnia.

Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For the Balkans and the Middle East, the best times are long gone and the worst times are very recent or ongoing.
The tales of the two regions bear many similarities, stemming from a shared Ottoman history and sanguinary fissures in their heterogeneous societies. Still, their experiences are rarely compared and modern connections remain unknown to their inhabitants.
To shed more light on each other’s experiences, neglected in both regions, a conference of Balkan and Israeli scholars was held in the ancient monastery of the Patriarchate of Pech, under the auspices of His Grace Jovan Culibrk, the Bishop of Ulpiana (MA the Hebrew University of Jerusalem).
The occasion was the centenary of Ottoman Turkey’s defeat in the Balkan war of 1912. Since then, Turkey’s territory in Europe was reduced to Thrace and the Balkans forswore the heritage they share with the Middle East.
Fast forward to the present, Serbia lost many of the territories she had won, the Republic of Turkey never held more sway in the Balkans and other Middle Eastern powers and interpretations of Islam made their entrance in the region; and it was these parallels, of the present and the future, that the scholars discussed of at the conference in Patriarchate of Pech in mid-October.
Speakers from Israel were professor Martin van Creveld, recently of the University of Tel Aviv, who spoke on the future of war, and Col. Shaul Shay of the Begin- Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, who gave several lectures on the inevitable rise of Islamism after two ongoing years of Arab Spring. Neither of the speakers indulged in optimism.
Prof. van Creveld reiterated his well-published opinion that the wars of the future would not be waged between major powers, or even small countries, but within failed states. And the form these would assume would be skirmishes of small, specialized units. He foresaw that the nation-state will not be the only agent of war, as more non-state actors such as Hezbollah or Hamas continue to chip away at the concept of sovereignty worldwide.
In light of this, van Creveld proposed Serbia needed no new warplanes but should rather invest in highly mobile armies capable of small-scale, ground-based conflicts in the diverse terrain of the Balkans.
A force he supposes is making a comeback is religion, which in his opinion will influence the societies of the 21st century far more than it did in the 20th.
This thesis was seemingly supported by Col. Shay’s series of lectures on what he sees as the destructive tsunami of the Islamic revolution called by the westerners the “Arab Spring.” Whichever of the scenarios for the overthrow of old regimes we apply, including democratic elections, the result is the rise of Islamism in the Arab world. It can be said that Islamists are very much in favor of one-time elections, but once they assume power, they intend to close that road for others and undertake Islamization of society and politics, all the time double-talking the West. Compared to such prospects, Shay prefers “the devil we knew” – secular Arab dictators – for the sake of Israel’s security.
HOW DOES this reflect on the Balkans? Since 1990s, most of the Muslims in former Yugoslavia have turned to Turkey as their patron, a few to Saudioriginated Wahabism and even fewer to Iran. Professors Darko Tanaskovic and Serge Trifkovic (Universities of Belgrade and Banja Luka, respectively) spoke of Turkey’s rise globally, in the Middle East and the Balkans.
The two tenets of her Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s policy – reclaiming the Ottoman sphere of influence and having zero problems with neighbors, clashed in Israel, the Balkans and now Syria, by standing behind the Mavi Marmara flotilla, supporting rebels and talking of the Ottoman empire’s rule as the halcyon days of tolerance and multiculturalism. Such moves caused friction with neighbors and it is clear Turkey’s ambitions will take precedence over her wish to be universally beloved.
Although Turkey’s influence in the Balkans was described as pernicious and destabilizing, Vladimir Ajzenhamer and Gordon Bardos (of the Institute for Foreign Policy and Economy in Belgrade, and former assistant director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University respectively) presented a stronger case against Saudi Arabia.
Many jihadists came into the Balkans in the 1990s thanks to the Saudi sponsorship of the Muslim side during the Bosnian conflict, making Bosnia a springboard to the West. As Bardos pointed out, every major action of Islamic terrorism had perpetrators who had built their jihadist reputation in Bosnia.
The Wahabis had already established a firm foothold in the village of Gornja Maocha, from which they conducted several operations, including a failed lone-shooter attack on the US Embassy in Sarajevo. But their main targets are other Muslims, whom they charge with religious falsehood. The Islam the Ottomans brought is of the Hanafi school, the most liberal one, and in Bosnia it was always lax and tolerant of transgressions; which is why it is now under attack by a new, “purer” version of Islam. In that sense, Wahabism threatens traditional Bosnian Muslims first, and non-believers second.
Along with the Wahabis, another completely new player entered Bosnia in 1990s, transferring an ancient rivalry from the Middle East to Bosnia: Shi’ite Iran. Iran’s influences are thought to be small-scale, but they are in many ways hidden. Whether for reasons of propaganda or accurate information from the ground, Wahabis estimate the number of Shi’ites at two to three thousand.
Also, as Bardos wrote in The Jerusalem Post earlier this year, there could be a Hezbollah-Bosnia connection involved in the Burgas attack this summer.
One can only conjecture Iranian plans and achievements in the Balkans, but the size of Iran’s embassy in Sarajevo testifies to the importance Iran places on Bosnia.
Bosnia was obviously the focus of this year’s conference, despite being held in a Serbian monastery in Kosovo, surrounded by Albanian majority. More attention will be dedicated to this problem, of conflicting claims over a spiritually important piece of holy land, which parallels that of the city of Jerusalem.
Ivana Bartulovic is a PhD student at Humboldt University in Berlin and coordinator of the Center for Religious Studies at the Belgrade Open School. Mirko Dautovic holds. MPhil in International Relations from Cambridge University.