Turkey seeks to widen influence in Europe, Africa

Building mosques abroad has become a key means of spreading Turkey’s soft power.
Sunday 14/10/2018
Religious outreach. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (2nd-R) cuts the ribbon on the day of the official inauguration of the Cologne Central Mosque in Germany, on September 29. 		     (AP)
Religious outreach. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (2nd-R) cuts the ribbon on the day of the official inauguration of the Cologne Central Mosque in Germany, on September 29. (AP)

ISTANBUL - Turkey is trying to widen its role in Europe and Africa with a soft-power outreach that includes building mosques and embassies as anchors of influence.

For years, Turkish TV soap operas popular in Arab countries were regarded as key symbols for the soft power of a country that sees itself as a leading nation of the Muslim world that provides a 21st-century model for the combination of Islam, democracy and a free-market economy.

But a crackdown on dissent in which 150,000 people were detained after a failed coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016, a growing economic crisis and political differences with Arab countries dented the image of the “Turkish model.”

In March, the Saudi-owned satellite network MBC took Turkish soaps off the air. No explanation was given but Turkey has sided with Qatar in the dispute between Doha and a Saudi-led quartet of countries. Like Qatar, Turkey is a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, seen as a terrorist threat by Riyadh and its allies.

“Erdogan is in control of a much greater institutional capacity, ranging from aid organisations to media outlets, than many of Turkey’s neighbours,” Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think-tank, said via e-mail. “This would have provided him much greater capacity to attain soft power had he not shot himself in the foot with his authoritarian predilection and belligerent rhetoric.”

While Turkey’s efforts to win influence through cultural or economic means have suffered setbacks in the Middle East, the country has done better elsewhere. “Today, Turkey is the country that makes the most effective use of soft power in the world,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in May.

An important tool of Turkish soft power is the Directorate for Religious Affairs, or Diyanet. The body sends hundreds of Turkish imams to European countries including Germany, where Erdogan recently opened a newly built mosque in Cologne. The German arm of Diyanet, Ditib, runs about 900 mosques in the country.

Critics accuse Ankara of using its religious administration to push its political agenda or to spy on Turks living abroad.

German prosecutors are looking into reports that Turkish imams handed information about followers of the US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, named by Erdogan as the leader of the coup attempt of 2016, to Turkish agencies. Authorities in the Netherlands said they were concerned about sermons in Turkish-run mosques in the country that reportedly praised Turkish military incursions into Syria.

Building mosques abroad has become a key means of spreading Turkey’s soft power. A mosque for 5,000 people in Tirana, Albania, built by Diyanet for a reported $34.5 million, is the biggest Muslim house of prayer in the Balkans. Diyanet has overseen the construction of more than 50 mosques in countries ranging from the United States to Russia and Somalia. The organisation has repaired more than 100 war-damaged mosques in northern Syria.

Turkey’s state-sponsored cultural organisation, the Yunus Emre Institute, has stepped up its programme of Turkish language courses. The pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper reported that the Turkish language is being taught as an optional course in elementary and secondary schools in Balkan countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“The Turkish government’s deep pockets remain the most important tool of its soft power,” Erdemir said. “Under Erdogan’s rule, Turkey has drastically increased its budget earmarked for humanitarian aid and development assistance.”

Africa has become a focal point of Ankara’s efforts. Turkey’s investment on the continent has grown from $100 million in 2003 to $6.5 billion today and trade volume between Turkey and Africa totalled $17.5 billion. The number of Turkish embassies has increased from 12 in 2003 to 41 last year.

In his speech in May, Cavusoglu named the partially state-owned carrier Turkish Airlines and the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency as two other effective instruments of soft power.

Turkish Airlines serves 52 destinations in Africa, more than any other airline. In 2012, the Turkish flag carrier sent the first commercial flight by a major international airline to Somalia’s war-torn capital, Mogadishu. The city also boasts a Turkish-run Recep Tayyip Erdogan Hospital.

In some places, soft power and hard power go hand in hand. Mogadishu is the home of Turkey’s biggest overseas military base, which was opened last year at a reported cost of $50 million and is designed to train 10,000 Somali soldiers.

Last year, Turkey agreed to rebuild a ruined Ottoman port city on Sudan’s Red Sea coast and construct a dock to maintain civilian and military vessels. There are plans for Turkish investment to build Khartoum’s planned new airport.

Ankara’s grasp has limits, however. Erdemir pointed out that the financial crisis in Turkey, which has sent the value of the lira down almost 40% against the US dollar since the start of the year, could reduce Turkey’s ability to influence players in other countries through construction or aid programmes.

“Given the economic downturn in Turkey and the ensuing devaluation in lira, Ankara will have to cut back on transfers to its global clients, waning its soft power,” Erdemir wrote.