Turkey moves to widen influence among Muslims in Europe

The Diyanet wanted to “tie Muslims in all of Europe to Turkey” with the help of the coordination body supported by the Cologne meeting.
Sunday 20/01/2019
The official inauguration of the Cologne Central Mosque, last September. (Reuters)
Calculated moves. The official inauguration of the Cologne Central Mosque, last September. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - Turkey is moving to widen its influence among Muslims in western European countries following steps by governments there to weaken Ankara’s grip, critics said.

Participants at a conference in Cologne, Germany — under the auspices of Turkey’s state religious authorities and attended by a Muslim Brotherhood representative — created a secretariat in Ankara tasked with organising Europe-wide meetings of Muslims every two years.

The 3-day conference in January also called for the establishment of a “coordination council” to serve as an interlocutor for other organisations and for state bodies.

“Until recently, Ankara’s religious outreach to Europe mainly targeted the Turkish Muslim diaspora,” Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think-tank, said via e-mail. “Lately, the Turkish government has been extending its outreach to Europe’s wider Muslim diaspora, in part as a reaction to the ongoing debates about a ‘European Islam’.”

The meeting in Cologne was organised by Turkey’s Directorate for Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, and its German affiliate, known as Ditib. Turkish news reports said Hussein Mohammed Halawa, secretary-general of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, an organisation in Dublin with close links to the Muslim Brotherhood, was among the approximately 100 attendees. Local officials in Cologne said they knew nothing about the conference, local newspaper Kolner Stadt-Anzeiger reported.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan often casts himself in the role of a protector of Muslims everywhere. He has sharply criticised Israel for its treatment of Palestinians and Myanmar for the forced displacement of the Muslim Rohingya.

Diyanet is an important tool of Turkish soft power. The body sends hundreds of Turkish imams to Germany and other European countries; Ditib runs about 900 mosques in the country. Diyanet has overseen the construction of dozens of mosques beyond Turkey’s borders, among them the biggest mosques of the Balkans, built in Albania.

European countries are wary of perceived efforts by Erdogan’s government to use the approximately 5 million people of Turkish origin in Europe for its political ends, while Ankara accuses Europe of turning a blind eye on an increase in Islamophobia on the continent.

Relations between several EU countries and Turkey were thrown into crisis when Erdogan said the Europeans were applying “Nazi methods” following a ban in Germany and the Netherlands on Turkish election campaign events in their territory.

Turkey has been sending imams to mosques in Germany, Austria and other European countries for decades but that role has come under scrutiny in recent years. News reports in Germany accused Ditib of spying on Erdogan critics in Turkish mosques in Germany, a charge the association denied.

Some European officials have promoted the idea of a “European Islam” to better integrate Muslims into their countries’ societies and to weaken the influence wielded by Turkey and some other nations.

Last November, Germany’s conservative Interior Minister Horst Seehofer called for an “Islam for Germany, an Islam of Germans” and asked Muslim congregations in his country to phase out financial support from abroad, a statement seen as a reference to Turkey. Austria’s government last year closed seven Turkish-run mosques and initiated investigations against 40 imams for allegedly accepting money from Turkey.

Some of the Cologne meeting’s conclusions appeared to be a direct response to those developments. “Islam is a religion of peace that defends the same universal values everywhere in the world,” said an 18-point communique issued at the end of the meeting and posted on the Ditib website.

“Restrictions of Islam defining it as belonging to a certain region or nation by adding adjectives — like ‘German Islam,’ ‘French Islam,’ ‘Belgian Islam’ or ‘European Islam’ — contradict the universality of Islam, which enlightens all eras and places at the same time,” the statement said.

Volker Beck, a former German lawmaker who teaches at the Centre for Religious Studies at Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, said the conference in Cologne was a sign that Turkey was trying to gain a supervising role over Muslim groups in Europe.

The Diyanet wanted to “tie Muslims in all of Europe to Turkey” with the help of the coordination body supported by the Cologne meeting, Beck wrote on Twitter. “Instead of Euro-Islam or German Islam, the answer [for Turkey] is to have all reins over Muslim organisations converge in Ankara.” The Diyanet did not respond to a request for comment.

Erdemir, of the FDD, pointed out that Ankara regarded the issue of a “European Islam” with suspicion. “Erdogan sees these debates as a European attempt to curb his influence, and responds not only by strengthening his patronage of Turkish Muslims, but also other Muslim diasporas,” he wrote.

“This strategy also resonates with Turkey’s growing patronage of Muslim Brotherhood networks globally, as Erdogan aims to bolster his leadership credentials as the patron not only of Turkish Muslims abroad, but also of other Muslim diasporas.”