Yunus Emre Cultural Centers: The AKP’s Neo-Ottomanism and Islamism

Ayhan Kaya
Recently, Turkey has begun instrumentalizing its language, arts and culture to promote Turkey abroad through the worldwide Yunus Emre Cultural Centers (YECC) in a way that employs a neo-Ottoman and Islamist discourse. In terms of mission and objectives, the YECCs are similar to the Goethe Institutes, British Cultural Centers, or Cervantes Institutes: They work to promote a country’s culture, arts and language. YECCs are newly established institutions and there is not yet substantial scientific literature analyzing these Centers. However, YECCs have been discussed in daily newspapers and the Yunus Emre Foundation publishes official bulletins that provide speeches, statements and opinions of political figures as well as providing an overview of the activities of the Yunus Emre Institute. Accordingly, the findings of this paper rely mainly on newspaper articles and official bulletins of the Yunus Emre Institute. (

The Origins of the Yunus Emre Foundation and Cultural Centers

There have been several state initiatives in Turkey aimed at promoting culture and cultural cooperation. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs established Turkish Cultural Centers which function in accordance with the Regulations on Turkish Cultural Centers (1986) and under the Law on the Establishment and Functioning of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey. According to the Ministry, these centers have been established “with a view of promoting Turkish culture, language and art and in order to contribute to bilateral relations between Turkey and other countries, as well as to help Turkish citizens in their adaptation to the country in which they live.” Turkish Cultural Centers are located in several foreign cities such as Berlin, Hannover, Köln, Frankfurt, Almaty, Ashkhabad, Sarajevo, Tehran, Amman, Baghdad, Jerusalem and Damascus. These centers mainly function as access points for Turkish citizens abroad, while also being a platform for the “promotion” of Turkish identity abroad.

The Yunus Emre Foundation was established in 2007 to act in addition to these centers with the aim of introducing Turkish culture, society and language to the outside world. It was established as a state foundation under Law 5653, dated May 5, 2007, with its headquarters in Ankara. Article 1 of the Law identifies the purpose of the Act as the following: “The purpose of this Act is to introduce Turkey, its cultural heritage, the Turkish language, culture and art, and enhance Turkey’s friendship with other countries, increase cultural exchange, and in that regard to present domestic and foreign information and documents on Turkey to the benefit of the world, to serve those who wish to receive an education in the fields of Turkish language, culture and arts, to establish a Yunus Emre Research Institution in Turkey and a YECC abroad.” (Law No. 5653, Article 1)

Table 1. Yunus Emre Cultural Centers Abroad

Source: Official website of the Yunus Emre Institute ( )

The current political elite is inclined to position Turkey as a hegemonic power among its regional neighbors (the Middle East, the Balkans, North Africa and the Caucasus as well as in the Central Asian Turkic republics) using a neo-Ottoman and Turco-Islamist discourse, while tending to instrumentalize migrants of Turkish origin and their descendants to promote Turkey in European countries. Evidently, of late the AKP government has been cooperating with the Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD, Avrupa Türk Demokratlar Birliği,, a conservative union with Islamic inclinations operational in Köln, Berlin, Bremen, Wien, Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris, among other European cities. There have already been complaints voiced from the other segments of society in Turkey and transnational communities such as the secular, social democratic, Alevi and similar groups about the AKP’s biased relationship with the UETD.

The rapid proliferation of YECCs in various European, Balkan, Middle Eastern and Central Asian cities (Table 1) represents a unique case study in understanding the various aspects of the priorities of contemporary Turkish cultural diplomacy. It is also important to note that the Yunus Emre Institute and its cultural centers have been given an important role in Turkish foreign policy. For instance, former Minister of Culture and Tourism Ertuğrul Günay calls these centers the “civil pillar of foreign policy,” (Yunus Emre Bulletin, No: 7, 2010, p.10) and the chairman of the Yunus Emre Foundation Board of Trustees and Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmet Davutoğlu, notes: “Foreign policy is not carried out solely with diplomacy but also with cultural, economic and trade networks. He further argues that the mission of the Yunus Emre Institute is related to Turkish foreign policy’s strategic dimension and popularization of Turkish language, protection of Turkish cultural heritage, and the dissemination of Turkish culture to the outside world. This will enable us to place our historical-cultural richness in our current strategy.” (Yunus Emre Bulletin, No: 7, 2010, p. 8).

Similarly, in his opening speech in Tirana, Albania, President Abdullah Gül, honorary president of the Institute, emphasized: “These centers are Turkey’s invisible power. I mean that preserving the vitality of her cultural heritage is Turkey’s biggest power. Not many countries have this power. We should appreciate its worth.” (Turkish Presidency, 11.12.2009)

Moreover, the symbolism in the name of the Institute and the locations of the centers are reflective of the changing foreign policy priorities of the Turkish state, and thereby the importance of common cultural heritage in Turkish cultural diplomacy. In that sense, the emphasis on certain regions –primarily the Balkans and the Middle East– is complementary to the common cultural heritage approach that has been a fundamental element of Turkish cultural diplomacy in the last decade. This approach is further supplemented by an emphasis on the Turkish language, cultural and historical legacy as well as Turkology.

A Symbolic Name and an Emphasis
on the Turkish Language

The Institute is significantly named after that Yunus Emre, a Turkish-language poet and Sufi mystic of the late 1300s and early 1400s who is considered to be one of the pioneering poets of Turkish culture. His name was chosen for the Institute to convey the importance of the Turkish language. To that effect, Prime Minister Erdoğan stated:

“For thousands of years, we have been the carriers of a unique civilization, history and heritage in which we have molded and collated different cultures, different civilizations, along with our own culture. Turkish is not only the communicative language of the people living in these lands. Turkish is also a language of science and at the same time a language of arts and a language of literature. Turkish is the language of Yunus Emre, Pir Sultan Abdal, Karacaoğlan, Fuzuli, Baki, Nazım Hikmet, Necip Fazıl.” (Yunus Emre Bulletin, No: 1, 2010, p. 4)

As these quotes indicate, there is a growing emphasis on the Turkish language and Turkology.1 The Foundation has also established the Yunus Emre Turkish Education Center (YETEC) in anticipation of teaching Turkish within the framework of the Yunus Emre Institution. The emphasis on the Turkish language is an important step in the introduction of and recognition of Turkish as a common language in Turkic countries, but it also provides for a proficiency-testing component, the Turkish Proficiency Examination System (Türkçe Yeterlilik Sınav Sistemi). This system anticipates the establishment of an examination which will contribute to the recognition of the Turkish language through an international standard while promoting the use of the language.2 On this issue, the director of the Yunus Emre Institute, Ali Fuat Bilkan, stated: “In addition to the success of Turkey’s foreign policy, the investments of Turkish businessmen have increased attention to the Turkish language. Turkey has gained visibility. As Turkey gained economic and political visibility, the popularity of our language has increased. Particularly in the Balkans and Middle East there is an interest in Turkey.”3

As Bilkan notes, owing to the increasing visibility of Turkish economy, the Turkish language has become an important asset in economic ventures and political communications. Musa Kulaklıkaya, president of the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (Türk İşbirliği ve Kalkınma İdaresi Başkanlığı, TİKA) further indicates that Turkish businessmen and their economic investments - and therefore the economic ties that they forge- require Turkish language education.4 TİKA is a state institution that was established under Law 4668, published in Official Gazette No. 24400 on May 12, 2001, and which operates under Turkey’s Prime Ministry.5 TİKA is considered a foreign policy instrument whereby cooperative efforts are carried out in Central Asia, Caucasia, the Middle East, the Balkans and in Africa, in other words, in regions where there is a shared affiliation for Turkish language and culture. Kulaklıkaya explains the aims of TIKA as follows: “Initially we are providing aid to countries with mutual historical, political and cultural backgrounds. These common backgrounds let us answer the needs of these countries much more expeditiously, and this created a nice synergy. As a result of our aid and efforts, we possess a tangible presence in the regions where we operate.” (UNDP, 2009)

While Bilkan and Kulaklıkaya focus on economic and developmental motivations for the dissemination of Turkish language, there is also an aspect of YECCs that tend to act as a supplement to the existing cultural centers of European countries, which goes beyond these motivations. To that effect, Ertuğrul Günay, Minister of Culture and Tourism, noted that “our people have been in Germany for the past 50 years. There is no Turkish Cultural Institute there, but there is Goethe Institute in Turkey, there is a Cervantes Institute in Turkey, there are French and English cultural centers. Now, as of 2008, there is a Yunus Emre [Institute] in all Balkan and Middle-Eastern countries. We are opening YECCs in Germany, England, Russia and France. We will teach Turkish and its dialects.”6 As Günay notes, the dissemination of Turkish language in foreign countries constitutes an important element of the rising trend to put Turkey in the international political arena as a strong actor vis-a-vis the revitalization of local cultural elements.

Neo-Ottomanism and Islam: A Soft Power in the Cradle of Civilizations?

While the promotion of Turkish language constitutes an important element of the Institute’s goals, a close analysis of the Yunus Emre Bulletins reveals that there are repeated references to the cultural heritage of Turkey, with particular emphasis on the “cradle of civilizations” approach. To that effect, during his speech on the occasion of the opening of the Yunus Emre Foundation in Ankara, Ahmet Davutoğlu stated:

“This foundation has two important standing goals. First, to enable the meeting of our national culture and universal culture, and to increase its influence in universal culture... In history, very few nations that have directly encountered different cultures and civilizations have become the subject of those civilizations, sometimes generated cultural blends from these civilizations, sometimes participated in intense and active communication as our nation has.” (Yunus Emre Bulletin 1, No: 1, 2010, p. 6)

Corresponding to the cultural heritage approach, the locations of the Institutes reflect the common cultural heritage approach with a neo-Ottoman undertone. The locations of the first wave of Cultural Centers were in fact purposely chosen to strengthen the common heritage discourse, which would serve as a strong foundation for contemporary Turkish cultural diplomacy. For instance, during his speech at the inauguration of the YECC in Sarajevo, Davutoğlu stated: “This is the first cultural center we have opened. It is not a coincidence that the first Center is in Sarajevo. This is an informed decision that we made after much thought because, if we thought about where Turkish culture was reflected best, this place would be the city of Sarajevo. As Istanbul is the fundamental city of Turkish culture, Sarajevo is the city of our common culture. Similarly, in as much as Sarajevo is a city of the Bosnians, so too is Istanbul. Başçarşı and Kapalı Çarşı, Gazi Hüsrev Bey Mosque and Sultunahmet (Blue Mosque) have the same spirit. Istanbul and Sarajevo are two soul brothers.” (Yunus Emre Bulletin No: 2, 2010, p. 3, italics author’s own.)

Similarly, in his opening speech in Skopje, Macedonia, Davutoğlu noted that the common culture has been engraved into the streets of Skopje (Yunus Emre Bulletin, No: 5, 2010, p. 6). Most importantly, it has become clear from the locations of these centers that the Balkan region is important in the revival of cultural relations and cultural ties. Furthermore, these centers also reflect the motivations of the state to influence the culture of these regions. To that effect, Davutoğlu noted in Skopje: “We would like to make a novel contribution to cultural exchange in the Balkans. Cultural relations between Turkey and Macedonia will lead the way to a new Enlightenment in the Balkans.” (Yunus Emre Bulletin, No: 5, 2010, p. 7)

Similar to Davutoğlu’s ambitious and pretentious statement, President Abdullah Gül stated at the opening of the cultural center in Astana: “We should not keep our language, culture and traditions to ourselves. Rather, we should keep them alive and spread them. After learning our culture and language well, we should not hesitate to learn other cultures. While we have great history in the Balkans and in this region and our works remain standing, training will be given at the YECC here to those who wish to learn Turkish. There is a great demand for the centers. There are cultural centers in great countries. We will introduce the Turkish culture with the YECCs.”7

The Kemalist elite often defined ‘modernization’ as a transformation process along the lines of Western civilization, which inevitably meant the strengthening of Turkey’s ties with the West and a weakening of those with Eastern countries. Particularly in the Kemalist era, the introduction of Latin alphabet and the establishment of the secular state restricting the role of Islam in the public sphere changed the dynamics of the Turkey’s relations with the Middle-Eastern countries, and served to endorse the assumed superiority of Western civilizations.8 However, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has emphasized the predicament of Turkey’s role between Western and Eastern spheres, explaining that being a modern country does not necessarily require Turkey to distance itself from the East and its Eastern cultural elements. To that effect, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan noted that Turkey has responsibilities towards the Middle Eastern region stemming from historical ties: “Turkey is facing the West, but Turkey never turns her back on the East. We cannot be indifferent to countries with whom we have lived for thousands of years. We cannot abandon our brothers to their fate.”9

The revival of these discourses, emphasizing the common history and heritage of the Middle East, is complemented by a more assertive foreign policy and by the institution of cultural initiatives in the Middle Eastern countries. Ahmet Davutoğlu spoke to that efect in his speech at the opening of the YECC in Cairo: “It is not a coincidence that Cairo is selected for the third center. The Cairo YECC is also the first institute we have opened in the Middle Eastern region and the Arab world because we consider Cairo the heart of the Arab world and believe that a culture active in Cairo will be active in the Arab world.” (Yunus Emre Bulletin, No: 4, 2010, p.5)

All these political discourses indicate that Turkey is tempted to increase its authority as a pivotal power in the region, which is being achieved partially through increasing and strengthening cultural diplomacy instruments as a part of Turkish foreign diplomacy. Turkey’s changing role in the region –specifically in the Arab world– is mainly shaped by the various kinds of drives it embraces: A) Its political drive, made obvious by Erdoğan’s discourse on the Palestinian issue and the AKP’s gradual distancing from Israel; B) Its cultural-religious drive, visible in the AKP’s cultural religious affinity with the Arab world rather than the Kemalist laicists; C) Its economic drive, springing from the willingness of the AKP’s electorate and the newly-growing Anatolian bourgeoisie to open up to emerging markets in the Middle East, Africa, the Caucasus, and Central Asia at a time of Euroscepticism, which has been growing since 2005; and D) Its transformative drive, or EU anchor, making it appear as a stable, democratic, liberal, peaceful and efficient country. (Kirişçi, 2011)


In this paper, the promotional activities of the state of Turkey in European countries and in its regional neighbors in reference to the discourses of the ruling political party elite and of members of various institutions, primarily the YECCs, has been discussed. It was revealed that the AKP government has recently generated a cultural/religious/civilizational discourse in parallel with the rhetoric of Alliance of Civilizations to promote Turkey in the EU and other parts of the world using a neo-Ottoman and Islamist discourse. In promotional activities in the EU countries, Turkey has been emphasizing its differences, while emphasizing its cultural and religious affinities with neighbors in the Balkans, the Middle East, Africa, the Caucasus and in Central Asia. In doing so, it seems that the ruling party is more concerned with revitalizing its hegemony in the region rather than advocating Turkey’s entry into the EU.

Turkey is willing to become a soft power and a smart power and recently has been trying to impose its hegemony in the region. However, it seems that there is a discrepancy between the ways in which the ruling political party, the AKP, and the pro-European circles perceive the sources of Turkey’s becoming a soft power in the region. That is to say, the AKP is likely to lean on the idea of Pax-Ottomana and Turkey’s religious affinity with neighboring countries to become a hegemonic power in her region. Pro-European circles in Turkey, however, are likely to believe that Turkey’s growing regional influence derives from its European perspective, which, since 1999, has been perceived positively by neighboring countries, in a way that has improved Turkey’s reputation in terms of democracy, human rights, economy and universal values. It seems that this will be the dilemma of the next decade, which the Turkish political elite will have to resolve.


1.         It is also important to note that there are various efforts that emphasize the importance of the Turkish language in forging and/or strengthening cultural ties. One such effort is the Agreement Concerning the Joint Administration of Turkish Culture and Arts (TÜRKSOY) signed on 12 July 1993 in Almaty by Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. The Agreement established “TURKSOY,” which foresees cooperation among Turkic-language-speaking countries. As such, TURKSOY’s aims and activities revolve around identifying and promoting the common values of those countries, which is in line with the state’s growing emphasis on Turkish language and literature,

2.         Anadolu Ajansı, 21.12.2010,, entry date 10 May 2011.

3.         Daily Zaman, 19.01.2011,, entry date 13 May 2011.

4.         Daily Zaman, 07.02.2011,, entry date 12 June 2011.

5.         For further information on TIKA, visit:

6.         Anadolu Ajansı, 20.12.2010,, entry date 15 June 2011.

7.         Anadolu Ajansı, 26.05.2010,, entry date 13 June 2011.

8.         Bozdağlıoglu, Yücel (2008): Modernity, Identity and Turkey’s Foreign Policy, in Insight Turkey, Vol 10, No. 1: 55-75.

9.      Daily Sabah, 08.04.2010,, entry date 13 June 2011.


Ayhan Kaya

Professor of Politics and Jean Monnet Chair of European Politics of Interculturalism in the Department of International Relations, Istanbul Bilgi University; Director of the European Institute; member of the Science Academy, Turkey; specialist in European identities, Euro-Turks in Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, the Circassian diaspora in Turkey, and the construction and articulation of modern transnational identities; received his PhD and MA degrees at the University of Warwick, England.

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