The trouble with Turkey’s global mosque-building project

Following his high-profile White House meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, few noticed that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ended his one-day trip to the United States last week with a visit to a vast Turkish-built mosque compound in Maryland. Yet the latter stop may have been more meaningful. 

Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has spent nearly half a billion dollars to build more than 100 mosques abroad in recent years, including in the United States, Germany, Britain, Russia, Ghana, Albania, The Philippines and Kyrgyzstan. Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, oversees more than 2,000 mosques outside the country’s borders, including some 900 in Germany. 

Leading U.S. magazines The Atlantic and Foreign Affairs and British broadcaster the BBC have described Turkish mosque building and Islamic outreach as a soft power project through which Turkey hopes to extend its influence and play a leadership role for Muslims worldwide. 

Erdoğan often flies in to attend mosque openings, as in Cologne and Bishkek last year. “The mosque and its complex will be instrumental in the renewal of religion, language, history, culture and conversation that existed between Anatolia and Central Asia,” he said in Bishkek in September 2018. 

But David L. Phillips, director of Columbia University’s Program on Peace-building and Rights and former senior adviser at the U.S. State Department, believes Turkish-financed mosques outside its borders propagate political Islam and are sources of division and discord, and should therefore be banned.

“There is no reason to have a negative view of Islam, it’s a religion of peace,” he told Ahval in a podcast. “When it’s manipulated by politicians like Erdoğan, it becomes a religion of the sword. These mosques that Turkey is financing through its ministry of religious affairs aren’t really places of worship, they are places for radicalism and mobilisation.”

Phillips points to reports that Turkey’s government allowed foreign fighters to travel through Turkey to join ISIS and that its intelligence agency sent weapons to the jihadist group. He also argues that Erdoğan protected ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed in Syria by U.S. special forces just 5 km from the Turkish border, and that Turkish-backed rebels in Syria (formerly known as the Free Syrian Army, or FSA), who have been accused of roadside executions and targeting civilians, are also extremists. 

On Monday, the U.S. Treasury blacklisted four Turkey-based financial transfer businesses along with two Turkish brothers, for supporting the Islamic State (ISIS). In September, the Treasury sanctioned 10 Turkey-related entities for ties to Islamist extremist groups including ISIS and Hamas.

“We just need to recognise that Turkey is a state sponsor of terrorism, that the FSA and ISIS are one and the same, they are blood brothers,” said Phillips. 

Ankara-based political analyst Dr. Ali Bakeer takes a different view. “Saying that Turkey is following some radical version of Islam is not true at all,” he told Ahval in a podcast.  

Turkish Islam has for decades been seen as more moderate than the strict Salafi interpretations pushed by countries like Saudi Arabia. Yet under the Islamist AKP many believe this has begun to change. 

Lorenzo Vidino, head of Georgetown University’s Program on Extremism, told Ahval earlier this year that Turkey had become the world’s leading supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, which some see as an extremist group. Early this month, a video released by the Diyanet sparked an outcry on social media for its outdated depiction of domestic life and the role of women. 

“Dear young women of Turkey, please just ignore this utterly ridiculous and sexist video,” Turkish novelist Elif Shafak said on Twitter. “You are not domestic slaves. Enough of this patriarchal nonsense.”

Shafak and other writers have in recent months been caught up in a government crackdown on literature as conservative Turkish authorities have sought to bar the publication of what they view as obscenities, including scenes about paedophilia and bisexuality. 

Some two-thirds of Germany’s 4.5 million Muslims are of Turkish origin, and the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DİTİB), Germany’s largest Islamic organisation, was set up in 1984 as a branch of the Diyanet. 

Today it oversees some 900 mosques in Germany, for which the Turkish government trains and assigns imams. DİTİB imams have been accused of spying for Turkey, resulting in a temporary suspension of federal funding in 2017. Berlin has in the past year expressed a desire to eliminate or significantly reduce Turkish influence on its Muslim communities, and last week took two steps toward that goal. 

One new programme will fund efforts at 50 mosques to increase local cohesion and boost integration with their German communities. In addition, the state provided start-up funding for a domestic imam education programme, with the view that it would eventually expand and eliminate the need for imams sent from Turkey. 

Bakeer said Germany and other countries had every right to regulate the mosques inside its borders. “But we have to ask the question, how would the Muslims perceive such a decision?” he asked, pointing to issues of state credibility. 

“Given that there has been a rise in Islamophobia, in radical right groups and neo-Nazis, I think that most probably a big part of the Muslims would not look positively to such steps,” Bakeer explained. “They may see it as these states are trying to control these institutions in order to serve the state’s agenda.” 

One reason European countries might be concerned about foreign influence within their domestic Muslim communities can be seen in the United Kingdom, where Muslim voters have the potential to determine as many as 31 seats in the upcoming parliamentary election. 

Phillips thinks countries hosting Turkish-built mosques should look closely at their operations, who attends them and what they seek to achieve.

“If they prove to be madrassas where radicalisation is becoming routine, then the host countries need to shut them down,” he said. “It’s a betrayal of Islam to turn mosques into centres of radicalisation.”