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Bosnia’s Gulenist Network

  • Gordana Knezevic

A Gulen school in Sarajevo.

A Gulen school in Sarajevo.

As if Bosnia did not have enough of its own problems, it is at risk of becoming embroiled in the increasingly fraught domestic struggles of Turkey. The country’s friendship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is certain to come under strain because of the extensive network of Fethullah Gulen’s schools scattered across the country.

In January 2015, Erdogan had asked for the closure of the entire network of Gulen’s schools in Bosnia, according to the Bosnian daily Avaz. Apart from the capital Sarajevo, they are present in all the major centers in the Muslim-Croat Federation -- Bihac, Zenica, Tuzla, and Mostar. The request was not sent through regular diplomatic channels, but directly to the ruling Muslim Party of Democratic Action (SDA) run by Bakir Izetbegovic.

Gulen schools have been active in Bosnia since 1997. Several hundred flats, kindergartens, high schools, and universities are part of the network. The most prominent are the International Burch University in Sarajevo and the Una-Sana college in northern Bosnia.

The Gulen movement is dedicated to investing in education for the lower and middle classes. The movement states its purpose is to impart the moral values of Islam, as well as subjects such as mathematics, physics, and chemistry, with a view to forming a new Turkish elite and eradicating the secular ideas of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state.

Postwar Bosnia has been an important playground for Turkish politicians. With Erdogan keen to revive memories of his country’s imperial heritage, the former Ottoman province could be an ideal stage for Turkey to flex its muscles as a regional power.

There is a new geopolitical context, as well. Since the war (1992-1995), Bosnian Serbs have been looking to Serbia as their “motherland,” and Bosnia as a kind of “temporary home.” It is similar with the Bosnian Croats. Croatia is the “homeland” and their presence in Bosnia seen as merely accidental. Squeezed between the two, many Bosnian Muslims have turned to Turkey. Turkish flags are often waved by young fans in the streets of Bosnian cities following sporting victories.

However, Turkey’s patronage of Bosnia’s Muslim community is more apparent than real. It is a myth that Turkey is the biggest investor in Bosnia. In fact, Austria tops the list and Turkey is not even among the top 10 investors in the country. But Turkey did help with the restoration of the famous Old Bridge in Mostar. It was also involved in the latter stages of another landmark project, the reconstruction of Banja Luka’s Ferhadija mosque, opened on May 7, 2016.

In other words, Turkish investments in Bosnia are token by comparison with other countries, but they are focused on the rebuilding of highly symbolic structures from the Ottoman period, which were destroyed in the war. Such perceived expressions of “brotherly love” between Turkey and the Bosnian Muslims are viewed askance by Belgrade -- even though Turkish investments are far higher in Serbia and Croatia.

In terms of foreign education, however, Turkey dominates -- for now, at least. A few months ago, the official line from Sarajevo’s International Burch University was that as an institution of higher education it was founded and run in accordance with local regulations, and was subject to oversight by the Bosnian authorities. There has been no comment since the ongoing crisis in Turkey began to unfold, with the government’s crackdown on alleged Gulenist supporters including thousands of teachers and university deans.

The Turkish Embassy in Sarajevo has previously disowned the Gulenist educational network in Bosnia, stating that “the Turkish state has no link with Bosna Sema [a Gulen school],” and asking Bosnian citizens to be wary.

The same appeal for caution was issued by Salmir Kaplan, the former culture and sports minister in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the country’s two constituent entities. Kaplan had first-hand experience of the Gulen schools and has said he was struck by their cult-like aspects. Others, like Slavo Kukic, a professor in Mostar, have pointed to the absence of any educational standards. It is too easy for anyone to open a university in Bosnia, Kukic told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service:

“The first universities and schools [after the war] were started in gas stations. They did not have space. Now they are producing PhDs. The way it seems to work is -- enroll on Thursday and graduate by Saturday, metaphorically speaking. We will pay for this [laxity] in the next decade.”

For Bosnia, the proliferation of foreign educational institutions, in the form of Gulenist schools, has thus far seemed more benign than the parallel invasion of Saudi-style mosques preaching a severe form of political Islam. But with events in Turkey escalating dramatically, Bosnia may find itself no longer a showcase for Turkish power and largesse, however token or symbolic, but a new battlefront in a suddenly furious domestic dispute.

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.