Competing over Islam: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran in the Balkans
The Balkans are known for their ethnic and religious diversity, as a result of imperial legacies and the region’s geographic location, and religion plays a central role in society and politics. According to a study conducted in 2018, around 60% of those polled in the Balkans defined themselves as religious, with this reaching 80% in Kosovo and North Macedonia. That compares to 30-40% in continental Europe, excluding Italy.
Long deprived of political and economic power, Muslim communities in the Balkans have been targeted by outside Muslim-majority countries that are vying for leadership over their co-religionists, who comprise 25% of the region’s population. The struggle reflects a competition over who — and in what manner — should act as the patron of Muslims across the globe, including the Balkans.
Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran have been the main competitors in this regional race. These three countries are very different in terms of their historical footprint, economic and political presence, and local networks. What they share, however, is the use of Islam to exert soft power, through both formal and informal channels. Islam has been utilized for centuries as a source of power in foreign policy, but there remains significant uncertainty over how Islamic countries view religion as means for exerting soft power. This strategy has emerged only recently, in the last two decades or so, and the Balkans appear to be a new arena for competition between Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. This paper will discuss how they are seeking to wield influence, how regional actors respond to their overtures, and whether these three countries are meeting their objectives in the region.
Turkey: A controversial but important actor
“We invited Turkey into our country in the 1990s for them to provide services to the Muslims in our country. We thought we could prevent the Wahhabi and Salafi movements in this way. But starting in the early 2000s, we have been struggling with the political Islam coming from Turkey.” This statement by Mihail Ivanov, an advisor for minority affairs for former Bulgarian President Zhelyu Zhelev, reflects significant ambivalence toward Turkey.
In the 1990s, after being invited by Balkan governments, Turkey entered the region buoyed by the shared Ottoman legacy and profiting from the end of the Cold War. The Diyanet, Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, opened offices in Bulgaria, Albania, and North Macedonia. It also began constructing mosques and sent clergy and training imams to key countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Kosovo. Thus, Turkey regained some influence in a region it had withdrawn from with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century. Ankara also engaged through informal channels: e.g. civil groups such as the contentious Gülen Movement and the politically influential Naqshibandi Order. In spite of these initiatives, the political instability and economic crises of the 1990s prevented Turkey from fully capitalizing on its presence. Turkish elites and institutions remained preoccupied with domestic affairs and outside security challenges such as the rivalry with Greece, with the Balkans slipping down the list of priorities.
The rise to power of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 brought about changes, as it introduced a program based on the European Union and free market principles, conveying the message that Islam and democracy were fully compatible. Despite this promising start, the subsequent authoritarian turn of the AKP’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, particularly after 2016, put Islam at the center of Turkish policy. This was due to three factors and has had a major impact on the Balkans.
First, Erdoğan wanted to use his influence in the Balkans and among its Muslims in domestic politics. The AKP clashed with religious groups such as the Gülen Movement, a battle that spilled over beyond Turkey’s borders. For both historical and sociological reasons, the Balkans became a prominent arena for this struggle, and the AKP emphasized Islam as its principal selling point.
Second, Erdoğan used economic means to gain influence that he was unable to establish directly. Turkey intensified its engagement via the Diyanet by constructing mosques and other religious establishments as well as supporting Islamic communities. While there is no inherent problem with this, there is a perception that Turkish support is driven by Erdoğan’s domestic political priorities and that it favors Sunnis over other Muslims in the region.
In the words of a senior official from Albania, “[t]he AKP era for Turkey began as a significant and hopeful process for the Balkans. But I can’t say that subsequent events and policies developed for the region were very beneficial. We see religion and its related policymaking in almost every issue.” That point was highlighted in many other interviews, but it should be noted that Turkey’s activism is a double-edged sword, as many Balkan Muslims are beneficiaries of Ankara’s policies, while other groups are left out.
The third reason for Turkish activism in the religious sphere is that Turkey has faced competition from Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser degree, Iran. These two states have also sought to project influence in the region through religious and cultural connections.
Saudi Arabia: Growing religious influence through economic power
Although Saudi Arabia’s interest in the Balkans has increased only recently, it began to engage in the region in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. The Gulf monarchy became significant to Balkan Muslims because of the Hajj, especially when students and clergy started to travel to Saudi Arabia in the mid-1990s and established a strong link. That is what compelled Turkey to take a more competitive stance, as it considered Southeast Europe its own turf.
Saudi Arabia also expanded its presence and gained respect among Muslims because of the assistance it provided during the Bosnian War. While Turkey accepted Western leadership for a multilateral approach to the conflict, including the U.N.-imposed arms embargo, Riyadh provided material support to the Bosnian government.
Starting in the 1990s, the Saudis began promoting their version of Islam. Although Sufi Islam is more prominent in the Balkans, the Gulf monarchy and its purist reading of religion made some inroads, especially among the youth. According to Serbian officials, Wahhabism spread in the late 1990s and became influential among economically disadvantaged communities, e.g. in the Muslim-majority region of Sandzak, as well as among Muslim Pomaks and Roma in Bulgaria. Although it has been blacklisted by the U.S., the al-Haramain Foundation, which is indirectly supported by the Saudi government, is influential in the region, especially among the younger population. This organization typically targets youth across the region (as do Turkish organizations). In 2009, Albanian authorities arrested activists affiliated with the foundation, winning plaudits in Washington.
Wahhabism’s spread has put authorities on alert in several countries. For example, Serbia has been trying to limit its influence in the Sandzak. In other countries, Wahhabi educational institutes and mosques generally maintain discreet operations. Bosnia and Herzegovina, by contrast, has been much more permissive, and it opened the King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud Mosque in 2000, five years after the Dayton Accords. It was the largest mosque in the region until Turkey began construction of the Great Mosque of Tirana in Albania in 2015, which is still ongoing. In 2015-16, around the time of the terrorist attacks in Paris, there was a vigorous debate in Bosnia regarding the “reintegration” of the Wahabbis, often living in segregation, into the mainstream Muslim community. As with Turkey’s activities in the region, local Muslim communities and elites have varied and ambivalent feelings about Saudi Arabia’s religious activities.
Iran: Exporting Islam via transnational networks
Like Saudi Arabia, Iran is a relative latecomer to the Balkans and has neither the historical connections nor the economic presence that Turkey enjoys. The fact that the great majority of Balkan Muslims are Sunni (of the Hanafi strand prevalent in Turkey) also limits the appeal of Tehran’s brand of Shi’a Islam. Still, there are heterodox communities, such as the Bektashis and Alevis (Kizilbash), that have been more receptive to Iranian influence. In addition, the Islamic Republic became actively involved by taking advantage of political dynamics and events in the region.
Much like the Sunni monarchies, Iran took on a prominent role during the Bosnian War. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) reportedly sent several tons of arms to Bosnian government forces. Its advisors and trainers also helped to build a military intelligence directorate for the Sarajevo-led army fighting the troops of Republika Srpska, a breakaway Serbian-dominated entity. The Dayton Accords terminating the war and establishing an international U.N. protectorate made Iran less relevant to Bosniak political elites. In contrast, Turkey acquired a place in the Peace Implementation Council and contributed a peacekeeping contingent to NATO’s missions on the ground. Saudi Arabia also remained involved thanks to its financial muscle, the work of charitable organizations, and the growth of Wahabi communities in Bosnia.
From the mid-1990s onwards, Iran shifted its focus to civil society and religion. In 1996, after Western powers demanded that the Bosnian authority expel Iranian advisors and security operatives, Tehran established the Ibn Sina Institute. Its main activity is the publication of academic and popular non-fiction books in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, including the works of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, other eminent Shi’a authors, and some Western intellectuals. The Ibn Sina Institute cultivated ties with the Faculty of Islamic Studies at the University of Sarajevo and soon branched outside of Sarajevo. Iranian organizations managed to gain ground in neighboring Sandzak, relying on theologians and activists, some of whom converted to Shiism. Still, these inroads have not translated into political clout, and Iran lags behind Turkey and Saudi Arabia in terms of influence.
In addition to Bosnia, Albania has also been a focus of Iran’s soft power operations. That is not coincidental, as the heterodox Bektashi order was welcomed to Albania in the 1920s after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk abolished Sufi tarikats in Turkey. The revival of religiosity in the 1990s, and specifically of Bektashism, after the downfall of the atheist communist regime provided an opening to Muslim powers, including Iran. In 1995, Tehran organized the “Saadi Shirazi” foundation for the promotion of Iranian-Albanian cultural relations. Working in tandem with the Iranian embassy, the foundation developed links to prominent intellectuals and opinion makers. Iranian influence spread in the 2000s through a network of civil society organizations such as the Quran Foundation, supported by the Organization of Madrassas Abroad (Sazman-e Madares-e Kharej az Keshvar), Al Mustafa University, the Flladi Foundation presided over by an Albanian Shi’a cleric, and the Rumi Foundation. In the mid-2000s, these organizations had access to public broadcasters and could spread their message to broader audiences.
To be sure, Iran’s charm offensive has faced limits. Strong pro-Western groups in Albania as well as Kosovo have always favored engagement with the U.S. and the EU. Iran also adamantly refuses to recognize the independence of Kosovo. In addition, as a gesture to the U.S. government, in 2013 Tirana accepted to host the People’s Mujahedin (Mujahedin e-Khalq, MEK), a controversial Iranian resistance group opposed to the government in Tehran. MEK’s move to Albania in 2016 made the country the target of covert action by Tehran’s security services. In 2018-19, for instance, Albanian police reported that they had foiled plots by the IRGC Quds Force to attack MEK members. This was seen as a reprisal for the U.S. policy of “maximum pressure” against Iran announced by the Trump administration around that time. Tehran viewed the MEK as U.S. proxies and part of a plan for regime change in Iran floated by members of the Trump team, such as National Security Advisor John Bolton. Thus, Albania became an arena in the standoff between the West and Iran, in addition to the three-way race between Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Islamic Republic for influence over the region’s Muslims.
The strategies and tactics of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran in the Balkans show that the “soft” in religious soft power should be taken with a grain of salt, as these countries export and exploit faith in the name of power. Secondly, the external deployment of religion is an extension of the state’s very identity and domestic structures. Factors such as the character of the leader, the governmental organization, and state capacity affect the ability of the state to project influence over the religious domain. This situation suggests that states cannot use religion as a one-dimensional tool of soft power. Furthermore, countries such as Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia behave differently in their projection of religious soft power due to their own history, roles, and normative positions in the global system more generally and in the Balkans specifically, but they seem to elicit similar perceptions from individuals in the region: suspicion and ambivalence.
Dr. Dimitar Bechev – a lecturer at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies and a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. He was previously a fellow with MEI’s Frontier Europe Initiative.
Dr. Ahmet Erdi Öztürk – an associate professor of politics and international relations at London Metropolitan University, a Marie Sklodowska-Curie fellow at Coventry University in the UK and GIGA in Germany, an associate researcher at Institut Français d’Études Anatoliennes, and a Non-Resident Scholar at ELIAMEP’s Turkey Programme. The views expressed in this piece are their own.