Mosque Building as Neo-Ottoman Soft Diplomacy -By NAZMUS SAKIB


Turkey’s recent diplomatic gestures instigated the use of a new term in academia and public sphere-“Neo-Ottomanism”*. These phenomena should be attributed to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s architect and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s slogans like “Osmanli torunu” (descendant of the Ottomans). Also, no matter how ambitious signal it may be giving, the Turkish foreign ministry has decided to define the “ex-Ottoman subjects” all over the world as part of the Turkish diasporas, and has plans to invite their representatives to Turkish events in Turkish Embassies across the world. But, why a country like Turkey would be willing to build a mosque in countries ranging from Kyrgyzstan to Somalia, or in a country as ‘alien’ as Cuba? Could it be the case that as opposed to being a typical vote maximizing centrist political party that gradually converges to and abides by the “median voter rule”, AKP’s mosque building diplomacy is part of its neo-ottoman aspirations?
Neo-Ottomanism refers to the tendency in Turkish domestic and foreign policy that consciously aims at reviving the Ottoman culture, heritage, worldview and dominance. After the abolishment of the Ottoman Commonwealth in 1924, which was construed as the last symbol of Caliphate by Muslims as far places as in South Asia or South East Asia; the Kemalist experiment postulated that the way to success and progress lies in disowning of everything that has ottoman flavors in it. However, the neo-ottoman narrative is built around the ‘golden age’ glory of Ottoman commonwealth that used to be a global superpower. Neo-Ottomanism is a quest to bring back that glory and capacity in terms of all indicators of a super power today e.g. economic prosperity, military might, cultural hegemony etc. Diplomatic history literature indicates that there are several stages and means of domination that a global or regional would-be ‘hegemon’ uses and soft power tactics are oftentimes least costly but not necessarily the least effective option. Probably this could be buttressed by the ubiquitous nature of the BBC in so many languages and the omnipresence of the British Council in so many different cities across the earth, as a classic soft power exercise by the now not-so-functioning British Empire.
Mosque building is an interesting religio-diplomatic experiment. The best precedence could be the Saudi projects that built mosques and madrasa complexes around the Muslim world as a means of proselytizing the Salafi Da’wah -the call to a self proclaimed puritan orthodoxy. In post 9/11 era, there has been a sharp decline in Saudi proselytizing. However, Diyanet- the Turkish nationalized body of Islamic affairs is currently involved in the construction of 18 big mosques in about a dozen countries, including the United States, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Albania, the Philippines, the United Kingdom, Cuba, Haiti, Palestine, Somalia, Bulgaria, Albania, and Greece. The Diyanet is also helping to repair mosques abroad that have been damaged by war. What makes Turkish mosque building different from that of Saudi mosque building is the former, unlike the latter, hitherto haven’t brought with a literal, binary and Bedouin understanding of Islam.
Turkey’s engagement in building a mosque in Havana is particularly intriguing. The mosque’s design is inspired by a famous 19th-century mosque in the Istanbul neighborhood Ortakoy on the shores of the Bosporus, which would be the first mosque for a country which is the residence of 3,500 Muslims. This is not only a soft power exercise; rather, it is embedded in a contested epistemological narrative building project.The possibility of Turkey building a mosque in Cuba came as an announcement only after Erdogan’s speech in which he claimed Muslims had discovered America before Christopher Columbus. From there he further built that Columbus had also talked about a mosque on a hill in Cuba.
Not only what Erdogan was claiming about the ‘discovery’ of America was a ‘radical revision’ of the established historical tradition of western scholarship, but also it was to the least, highly controversial. From a rationalist positivist framework of public policy, why a president of a middle income country would invite more problems with such a rhetoric or would want to build mosque in a country like Cuba, while, no indicator is suggesting that there is any paradigm shift in military or economic cooperation with Cuba is imminent. Moreover, there is always the possibility that by his remarks, Erdogan is annoying the masses of Turkey’s key NATO ally -the Unites States.
In the Balkans, Turkey is interested in re-establishing mosques that have been withered away over the past two centuries in the Bulgarian border city of Didymotycho, Albanian border city Ioannina, the island of Rhodes and Thessaloniki -the second largest city in Greece which is close to the Balkan neighbors. This policy is closely related to the pan-Balkan planning. It might be more auspicious for Turkish economic or geostrategic interests to build mosques in Balkan than to build it in Cuba or Haiti, but still, why Turkey is building these mosques and why not KSA, UAE, Kuwait, or Qatar?
Apparently, the rationalist-‘realpolitik’ public policy or diplomacy literature is deficient in explaining why Turkey would start building mosques in so many different places in the world which are neither capable of bringing a sudden economic fortune nor going to be an abode of alternative alignment better than that of NATO. These projects, in essence, are in one hand not ‘free lunches’ and on the other hand is a strong signal of Neo-Ottoman aspirations that shows Turkey’s craving for recapturing its dominant global role.
This is precisely what Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is promising to continue with when he refers to the “restoration process”. Building these mosques will also serve as epitomes of Turkish and Ottoman civilization, living hubs of cultural centers which can readily be translated and mobilized as proselytizing centers of distinctive Turkish version of ‘Muslimism’ or Ottoman multicultural heritage of pluralist Islam which recently reopened Synagogues inside Turkey that was closed during Mustafa Kamal’s nationalist purge. These Neo-Ottoman architectures will definitely influence the psyche of the inhabitants of the concerned cities as research on the psychology of architecture has concluded positively on the impact of architecture on human psyche.** If all these are telling anything, it is saying we might need not to wait half a century to witness the reemergence of the Ottomans once again from exactly where it was abolished. As John Ronald Reuel Tolkien wrote in The Lord of the Rings:

“From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king”

*(Murinson, 2009)
**Steg, L. (2013). Environmental psychology: An introduction. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.
Nazmus Sakib is the PhD Student/Graduate Teaching Assistant Department of Political Science of Texas Tech University