On an April visit to Washington, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced that U.S. President Barack Obama had agreed to join Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the opening of a $100 million mosque in Maryland later this year.
The news attracted considerably less notice than it likely deserved.
A year after founding modern Turkey in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abolished the caliphate and created a government directorate of religious affairs, or the Diyanet. Through the management of mosques and religious education, the new body would make Islam subservient to the state to secure the republic’s ostensibly secular identity.
Today, the Diyanet has largely been turned on its head. In the lead-up to June parliamentary elections, Western news outlets have fretted about Erdogan’s crackdown on free speech and his broader authoritarian drift. Meanwhile, his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power since 2002, has wielded a beefed-up Diyanet to promote a conservative lifestyle at home and, increasingly, to project Turkish Islam abroad.
Since 2006, the Diyanet’s budget has leapt fourfold, to 5.4 billion lira (just over $2 billion). Its share of government spending has increased by about a third and its staff has doubled, to nearly 150,000. Its budget allocation this year is 40 percent more than the Ministry of the Interior’s and equal to those of the Foreign, Energy, and Culture and Tourism ministries combined.
The directorate oversees Turkey’s 85,000 mosques, writes Friday sermons, and issues halal certificates to food producers. It also runs a 24-hour television station, Diyanet television, available via satellite, cable, and YouTube, and manages a Facebook page (with nearly 230,000 fans), two Twitter accounts (more than 50,000 followers), and an Islamic lifestyle hotline. Recent Diyanet-issued fatwas have condemned as haram the celebration of the Gregorian New Year, playing the lottery, tattoos, and abortions.
It is impossible to say whether the Diyanet issues these at AKP’s request, but the measures do jibe with AKP social policy. Further, the AKP seems to have little compunction about using the Diyanet for political ends. At Erdogan’s behest, the directorate is building a massive mosque on top of a hill overlooking the Bosporus in Istanbul. And after the government briefly shut down Twitter last year, the Diyanet’s Friday sermon reminded Turks that “freedom requires responsibility,” which many interpreted as a religious stamp of approval on the ban.
The Diyanet has of late shifted its attention abroad. For decades, the directorate answered to a deputy prime minister, which limited its reach and power. Last September, the cabinet placed it under the direct control of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the architect of Turkey’s foreign policy. Turkish media predicted that the move presaged a “religious diplomatic offensive,” as Ankara sought to outflank big-spending Saudi Arabia as the leader of Sunni Islam and assist Muslim-minority communities in the West. Just last week, Davutoglu said that Turkish Islam could be “an antidote” to the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) and that he had assigned the Diyanet the “mission” to battle the Middle East’s sectarian conflicts.
Diyanet's work abroad began in the 1970s, when it started offering religious services to growing Turkish immigrant communities in Europe. To be sure, the Diyanet has long had a foreign presence. Its work abroad began in the 1970s, when it started offering religious services to growing Turkish immigrant communities in Europe. It established a Foreign Affairs department in 1983, under Prime Minister Turgut Ozal, and launched a German arm the following year. Today the Turkish-Islamic Union of Religious Affairs (DITIB) is one of Germany’s most influential Muslim organizations. The Diyanet’s French arm, established in 2003, now ranks among the country’s most prominent Muslim groups, even though Turkish-origin Muslims represent just 8–10 percent of France’s seven million Muslims. In the Netherlands, the Diyanet pays the salaries of the Dutch Islamic Foundation, which oversees some 140 mosques. It also maintains a sizable Belgian arm.
The Diyanet’s reach is increasingly global. In 2011, it signed a deal with China to educate Chinese Islamic scholars and renovate mosques. For the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Ahda, the Feast of the Sacrifice, the Diyanet slaughters goats and lamb and ships the halal meat abroad, mainly to poor countries in Africa. The Eurasian Islamic Council, established by the Diyanet in 1994, holds summits for mufti boards from 50 countries and republics and has brokered agreements on holidays, education, and the promotion of Islamic heritage. Last November, the Diyanet welcomed muftis and scholars from 40 Latin American countries to Istanbul, its first summit for that region. At the closing ceremony, Erdogan famously declared that Muslims discovered America.
But the Diyanet’s greatest influence may be in Turkey’s own backyard. After the attacks of September 2001, the United States pushed Balkan countries to crack down on conservative Islamic organizations, particularly those backed by Saudi Arabia. Ankara stepped in to fill the void, offering a less virulent, democracy-friendly form of Islam. It helped that Balkan Islam is at least partially rooted in Ottoman-era Turkish Islam, Oxford scholar Kerem Oktem wrote in 2012 in Journal of Muslims in Europe. As a result, he wrote, Turkey’s efforts are less “culturally alien” than “politically revolutionary Arab and Iranian efforts at Islamic mission.”
Each year, the Diyanet helps send tens of thousands of Balkan Muslims on the hajj, or annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, and hands out 1,000 scholarships to educate in Turkey imams and religious scholars from Balkan countries. (Turkey’s aid agency, TIKA, hands out another 1,000 annual scholarships and spends billions of dollars each year aiding Muslims around the region and the world.) It contributes to Islamic unions and Muslim NGOs and prints hundreds of thousands of Korans and other religious publications in local languages each year, which it distributes for free. It publishes Diyanet Avrupa, a slick monthly magazine on its work in Europe. Perhaps most important, it has helped build and rebuild dozens of Balkan mosques. “Turkey is now the most influential Muslim country in the [Balkan] region,” Oktem writes.
Today the Diyanet has more than 20 mosques in the works, including the one in Maryland, one in the United Kingdom, three in the Philippines, and one in Tirana, Albania, for 4,500 worshippers. Still, gauging the extent to which Turkey’s increased projection of Islam has enhanced its influence is a tall order. Certainly its reputation is strong among some Muslim-minority communities in the West. In predominantly Muslim countries, these warm feelings extend to top officials. Ankara’s extensive aid work across the Middle East and North Africa, for example, has clearly made an impact. “The Turkish are giving the kind of support we have never seen before,” Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud told Quartz in 2013, referring to Turkey’s help with reconstruction. “They are changing the face of Mogadishu.”
Although Ankara and Riyadh have of late showed signs of rapprochement—cooperating, for example, in support of Syrian rebels—the Saudi-Turkish tussle for Muslim hearts and minds occasionally slips into public view. During a February visit to Cuba to meet with President Raul Castro, Erdogan hoped to finalize a Diyanet plan to build a mosque in Havana modeled on Istanbul’s beloved nineteenth-century Ortakoy Mosque. Instead he learned that Saudi Arabia had beat him to the punch. “If you have promised a Havana mosque to other people,” Erdogan said he told his Cuban counterpart, “then we can build our Ortaköy Mosque in another Cuban province.”
In terms of Islamic ideology, Turkey remains better placed than other Middle Eastern powers to speak to Muslim-minority communities in liberal societies. And on a recent visit to Mecca, the Diyanet head Mehmet Gormez announced plans for an Islamic university in Istanbul, arguing that highly regarded institutions such as al-Azhar University in Cairo and Saudi Arabia’s Medina Islamic University had failed to stem the conflict and violence vexing the Muslim world. “The scholars who graduate from these universities are becoming the problem themselves, rather than solving the problems,” Gormez said, hinting at the radical beliefs of scholars there.
The new university is expected to open next year, with instruction in Turkish, Arabic, and English. Ankara expects it to burnish the country’s bona fides in Islamic theology. In 2013, the Diyanet published a seven-volume modern-day reinterpretation of the hadith, a collection of thousands of reported sayings from the Prophet Muhammad that, as the second most sacred text in Islam, largely dictate Islamic law. Gormez, a hadith scholar who has been increasingly outspoken in recent months, oversaw the project, which took six years and upset many traditionalists. New essays explain the hadiths from the perspective of twenty-first-century Turkey, advocating for women’s education, for example, and dismissing harsh punishments like severing the hands of thieves as “historical.”
In terms of Islamic ideology, Turkey remains better placed than other Middle Eastern powers to speak to Muslim-minority communities in liberal societies. Few Westerners praise the lifestyle restrictions of Iran’s theocratic state. And Saudi Arabia’s Salafist Islam has been linked to the extremist ideology of al Qaeda and, more recently, ISIS. Turkey is a longtime EU-candidate country, meanwhile, and has generally been seen as practicing a more liberal Islam, as suggested by its hadith project, although some observers argue that the AKP’s gradual Islamization of Turkish society has begun to endanger that perception.
CAUGHT IN THE NET
Until recently, the Diyanet’s expanded scope and ambition had met with little complaint within Turkey, mainly because Turkish law stipulates that a political party that questions whether the Diyanet should exist can be dissolved. In 2013, Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag, in charge of religious affairs at the time, said that those who complain that the Diyanet’s budget is too high are “against the presence of the institution itself.”
The three-year-old Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) apparently sees the government’s promotion of a conservative, Sunni Islam as problematic enough, in a purportedly secular state, to risk extinction. In its election manifesto, released in late April, the party states that, should it win, “The Diyanet will be abolished, the state will take its hands out of the area of religion and belief.” Responding a few days later in a speech to industrialists, Erdogan issued a warning: “Those who promise to abolish the Diyanet, it is clear what kind of a lesson our nation will teach them.”
When it opens this summer, the $100 million Turkish-American Culture and Civilization Center, in Maryland, will be one of the largest Islamic compounds in the Americas and a shining example of Ottoman-style architecture. Rising anti-Islamic sentiment in Europe may represent a more direct threat to the Diyanet than the AKP’s political rivals. Since the start of 2014, dozens of Diyanet-backed mosques in Germany, Austria, and Holland have suffered arson and fireworks attacks and been defaced with threatening graffiti. In March, Austria passed a law that bans foreign funding for Islamic organizations and requires imams to speak German. About 60 of the country’s 300 imams are Turkish and paid by the Diyanet. “It will not be possible in the future to have imams employed by the Turkish government,” Austria’s Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz told the Guardian. Germany is considering a similar law, and France has created a council of Muslim culture, as Europe looks to create national Islams largely divorced from external influence.
Relations with Muslim-minority communities are one of the most significant issues facing Western societies today. In the past, governments accepted, even encouraged assistance from foreign bodies, à la Germany’s DITIB. These days, many are eager to deny foreign bodies access and to shoulder the burden themselves. The former policy often fails to fully integrate Muslim immigrants into society, while the latter is costly, potentially alienating and leads to concerns about state control of religious institutions. In the years ahead, Gallia Lindenstrauss, a Turkey foreign policy analyst at the Tel Aviv–based Institute for National Security Studies, envisions the Diyanet and similar bodies accepting greater foreign oversight and working more carefully in the West. “There might be, from time to time, clashes,” she says. “But it’s clear that there will still be a need for mosque building, and I don’t see all of this being done from internal funds.”
When it opens this summer, the $100 million Turkish-American Culture and Civilization Center, in Langham, Maryland, will be one of the largest Islamic compounds in the Americas and a shining example of Ottoman-style architecture. Anti-Islamic groups had taken note of Ankara’s planting of pencil-thin minarets a few miles from the American capital long before the recent attack by terrorist-linked gunmen on a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest in Texas. Citing the AKP’s coziness with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, an article at the Clarion Project said the mosque is “the next step in Erdogan’s desire to increase the Islamist influence in America.”
But it could have the opposite effect. A January study by Bertelsmann Stiftung found that 46 percent of the population of North Rhine–Westphalia, home to a third of Germany’s Muslims and many Diyanet-run mosques, view Islam as a threat. In Saxony, which has a tiny Muslim population, 70 percent do.