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Ed Webb

Is This Saudi Arabia's Laboratory for Religious Influence in Europe? | Fast Forward | OZY - 0 views

  • Saudi Arabia’s increasing influence in the southeastern European nation that’s sparking a debate over whether Riyadh is attempting to reshape the country’s traditionally liberal Islam with its own ultraconservative Wahhabi version. It’s a charge Saudi Arabia has faced in the past in Asia and Africa. Is Bosnia and Herzegovina, beset by weak state institutions, a struggling economy and a history of foreign influence, now emerging as Saudi Arabia’s laboratory for religious influence in Europe?
  • In just 2017, Riyadh invested $22 million in Bosnia — a significant figure in a country with a GDP of $20 billion. From Sarajevo’s two biggest shopping malls — the Sarajevo City Center and BBI — to Poljine Hills, a luxury apartment complex on the outskirts of the capital where house prices go up to $555,000, Saudi Arabia is behind some of the biggest infrastructure projects today dotting the Bosnian landscape. Both malls come with strict rules about not serving alcohol or pork products.
  • Bosnia, which has the world’s highest youth unemployment rate — 55.5 percent, according to the World Bank
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  • 27 percent of Bosnian respondents said they had a “mostly negative” opinion of the Saudi role in their nation. Only 10 percent had a “mostly positive” view of Riyadh’s influence. The numbers for Saudi Arabia are worse than Bosnian perceptions of influence from the U.S., Russia and Turkey — the other foreign countries respondents were asked about.
  • the growing flow of tourists to Bosnia suggests an increasingly organic interest from Saudi Arabian citizens — and not a state-sponsored plan. In Europe, only Albania and Kosovo have a higher percentage of Muslims in their population — 50 percent of Bosnians are Muslim. “The Saudis find Bosnia cheap, culturally close and not too far to the sea,” says Sarajevo-based researcher and writer Harun Karčić. “The idea that they spread radical Islam between sightseeing, shopping and partying is ridiculous.”
  • During the war in the 1990s, thousands of foreign mujahedeen came to Bosnia to fight (and some stayed) against Croatia- and Serbia-backed rebels. Several Bosnian Muslims went to study in Saudi Arabia. Even then, though, Bosnia took steps to shield itself from extremist influences — including from supposed friends in the war, such as Saudi Arabia. It banned a Saudi charity organization accused of spreading terrorist propaganda.
  • Around 300 Bosnians had joined the ranks of foreign fighters for ISIS in Iraq and Syria, among the highest per capita rates from any nation. Now, many of them have indicated they want to return, and Bosnia is grappling with the question of what to do with those former fighters.
  • “There has clearly been a conservative turn among Bosnian Muslims,” says Jasmin Mujanović, a Bosnian political scientist. “But it is rather connected to the country’s poor economic situation and postwar trauma from the genocide than to the Middle East.”
  • A 2018 report by the Sarajevo-based research organization Atlantic Initiative found that only 2.5 percent of Bosnian Muslims supported their compatriots traveling to the Middle East to fight there — five times less than the number of Bosnian Serbs who support Bosnians fighting in Ukraine.
  • the nation hasn’t seen a single major terrorist attack
  • some experts caution that fears of a perceived Islamic threat could be used by Serb and Croat nationalists in Bosnia and politicians in Serbia and Croatia to interfere in Bosnian affairs again. “The 1990s are not a remote past,” says Bećirević. “I remember well how a similar narrative of ’defense against the Islamic threat’ served to justify genocide.”
Ed Webb

Turkey: An Ambivalent Religious Soft Power - 0 views

  • Albania is not the first country to realize that the mosques built with Turkey’s money and other services were also used for political purposes to promote Erdoğan's sociopolitical and religious desires. For instance, in June 2018, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz ordered the closing of seven mosques run by the Diyanet and deported more than 40 Turkish imams and their families in consequence of their political activities under the cover of religion
  • Germany launched an investigation into the Diyanet to explore the possibility that some Turkish imams have spied on members of the Gülen Movement among the diaspora
  • surveillance activities conducted by imams within the territory of foreign states cannot be defined within the concept of religious soft power, which fundamentally means the promotion of religion for a country’s foreign policy purposes. However, these investigations underline that the Diyanet imams are not alone; on the contrary, they have been working with Turkey’s other transnational apparatuses, which have been seen as soft power tools of Turkey in host countries
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  • Since coining the term in the late 1980s, Joseph S. Nye Jr. has modified the concept of soft power multiple times, but he has not explicitly theorized religion as a form of soft power
  • Jeffrey Haynes, as one of the first scholars to talk about the relation between religion and soft power, noted that religious soft power involves encouraging actors to change their political behaviors
  • Starting from the late 1940s, within the multi-party system, political parties have realized that religious rhetoric could be transformed into votes; therefore, both right-wing and centrist political parties tried to enlarge the real authority of the Diyanet to reach religiously sensitive masses of people. After the re-establishment of the democratic order annihilated by the 1960 coup d’état, the Diyanet gained prominence because the state employed it in its struggle against communism. 
  • After the 1980 coup d’état, the Diyanet’s mission included the promotion of Turkish Islam abroad, and it began to play a sociopolitical role in the international arena with the aim of promoting Turkey. Thus, Turkey’s Diyanet and Turkish moderate Islam have been actively instrumentalized in Turkish foreign policy as a soft power tool, providing an advantage over other potential actors since they have been seen as a preventive force against some of the radical Islamist movements and ideologies.
  • With its ascendant economy, domestic reforms aimed at the EU accession process, and a global climate proposing the compatibility of Islam and democracy, Turkey rose as a soft power with religious tools at its disposal. In this, Turkey has become publicly almost more visible than the other Islamic soft power actors in continental Europe, in the Balkans, and in some particular countries like Somalia.
  • opened branches in more than 40 countries, publishing and distributing Qur'ans and religious books in more than 25 languages. It also provides financial support to official Muslim representative institutions in the Balkans, continental Europe, and Africa. Furthermore, the state-run construction companies TOKİ and TİKA have been constructing mosques around the world
  • process of democratic backsliding has manifested through both domestic politics and significant changes in foreign policy, and the increasingly acrimonious rivalry between the Gülen Movement and the AKP has negatively affected Turkey’s capacity to wield effective soft power. In this transformation the AKP has started to instrumentalize Islam quite differently compared to the previous periods of Turkish attempts to exert influence in the Middle East and North Africa, the Balkans, and beyond. Notably, the Diyanet’s policies have been synchronized with the policies of the AKP, and its budget, administrative capacity, and activities have been gradually expanding throughout these years despite the shrinking economic environment within which the AKP operates. Over time, the Diyanet of the now increasingly repressive and less moderate AKP has started to be perceived differently by various countries and groups around the world
  • these religious soft power apparatuses have started to involve themselves in the host countries’ domestic politics, as in the case of Bulgaria, due to Erdoğan’s new foreign policy mentality
  • Turkey’s religious soft power is best characterized in terms of ambivalence—particularly given the increasingly competitive market of Islamic soft power
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