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Under the leadership of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) has Islamist roots, religion has become a critical instrument of Turkish foreign policy. In countries from Latin America to sub-Saharan Africa, Turkey is building mosques, financing religious education, restoring Ottoman heritage—and advertising its unique brand of Islamic leadership along the way.
Fusing Sunni Islam with Turkish nationalism, the state institutions and civil society organizations behind the country’s religious outreach promote Turkish language and culture alongside religious curricula, and they erect the Turkish flag at the sites of new projects. In the minds of those executing the policy, Turkey, as heir to the Ottoman Empire, is Islam’s last fortress and the natural leader of a revival of Muslim civilization.
Turkey is not the only regional power using Islam in a bid for hegemony. Iran and Saudi Arabia also disseminate their respective versions of Islam by funding organizations and mosques. Turkey is attempting to position its brand of Islam as a more tolerant, less extreme Sunni alternative to Saudi Wahhabism—and therefore more fit for regional leadership. In contrast to the conservative Hanbali school of Islam, the foundation of Wahhabism, the Hanafi school that predominates in Turkey is relatively liberal and provides considerably more space for the interpretation of religious law.
But the nationalist tinge in Turkey’s religious diplomacy could stand in the way of its success. It already irks European countries, which see Turkey’s actions as polarizing and detrimental to the integration of Turkish immigrants, and Middle Eastern states, which view Turkey through an imperial lens. The AKP has taken Turkey’s religious outreach to unprecedented levels, but in this international context, suspicion of its intentions could well limit its prospects for success.
One of the most visible means through which Turkey has broadcast its religious credentials has been by constructing megamosques around the world. In 2015, Erdogan inaugurated one in Tirana, the capital of Albania. In the spring of 2016, he attended the opening ceremony of Diyanet Center of America, a mosque and cultural center in Maryland that bills itself as the largest Islamic campus in the Western Hemisphere. In September, he opened one of Europe’s largest mosques in the German city of Cologne, which is home to a large Turkish community. He has plans to construct mosques in Cuba, Romania, and Venezuela.
The Turkish state backs these projects through the Diyanet Foundation, which functions under the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet). The Diyanet was established in 1924 to promote a secularized version of Islam as the Ottoman Empire disintegrated and the modern Turkish state was born. Within Turkey, in addition to constructing and maintaining mosques, the Diyanet hires imams, offers religious education to the public, interprets Islamic norms, and writes sermons that are read each week in the country’s mosques. Until the 1980s, the Diyanet did not play a prominent role outside Turkey’s borders. Following the 1980 military coup and the resulting diaspora, both Islamist and leftist organizations began to gain influence among Turkish immigrant communities in western Europe. The military government, needing a way to compete with its respective messages, expanded the Diyanet’s operations to Europe. There, it used the organization to promote a secularized version of Islam to Turkish immigrants in order to prevent their radicalization.
The AKP has both expanded the Diyanet’s international mission and made it more distinctively an instrument of the party’s political and ideological agenda. Starting in 2010, what was once a semiautonomous institution has come firmly under the government’s control. That year, the ruling party appointed a new chairman to the Diyanet who was more devoted to fulfilling the AKP’s demands than his predecessor. Legislative reforms significantly expanded the mission of the organization and strengthened its bureaucratic and administrative capacity—including its involvement in foreign policy. The Diyanet Foundation now operates all over the world, from Latin America to Europe, Africa, and Asia, offering religious services to Muslim communities: organizing trips to the haj, educating preachers, publishing books, and translating the Koran into local languages. It also provides scholarships for students from Africa, the Balkans, Central Asia, and Latin America to study religion in Turkey.
Nor is the Diyanet Foundation the only such instrument of Turkish religious soft power. The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, another state institution, has also significantly expanded its international presence under the AKP. It has been responsible for restoring Ottoman heritage sites worldwide, including dozens of monuments in the Balkans; the historic mausoleum of Gul Baba, a famous Ottoman warrior and poet, in Hungary; a bazaar in the Iraqi town of Kirkuk; and a consulate building in Ethiopia.
Humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with an Islamic bent have further promoted Turkish influence in parts of the Middle East and Africa that once belonged to the Ottoman Empire. These groups offer aid, including medical supplies and food, and they assist in developing infrastructure such as wells, orphanages, and schools. Since it came to power 16 years ago, the AKP has relaxed bureaucratic limitations on these NGOs, allowing them to receive more donations and expand their work abroad. Many senior AKP officials have close ties to humanitarian organizations. Leaders of the NGOs, for their part, consider themselves important actors in Turkish foreign policy. They frequently invoke Turkey’s responsibility to the former Ottoman lands and its role as a leader of Islamic civilization.
Nowhere has Turkey’s religious diplomacy been more effective than in Somalia. At the height of a devastating famine in August 2011 that the Western media largely ignored, Erdogan led a delegation of senior cabinet ministers, NGO leaders, businesspeople, journalists, and celebrities to visit a camp full of starving children in Mogadishu. The trip took place during the holy month of Ramadan, and Erdogan’s message was clear: Turkey would not abandon its Muslim brothers and sisters. Since then, Turkey has spent more than $1 billion on aid to Somalia. A Turkish company runs the Mogadishu airport, and Turkish Airlines is the only international carrier that flies there. The Diyanet Foundation and other Islamic NGOs run religious schools. There is a hospital in Somalia named after Erdogan. Turkey’s aid agency is responsible for garbage collection. Somalis trust Turkish Muslim organizations more than they do Western ones. Perhaps as an outgrowth of this trust, trade between the two countries has expanded rapidly, and Turkey has established its largest overseas army base in Somalia.
Turkish-style religious education is popular in other parts of Africa, such as Chad, Ethiopia, Ghana, Niger, and Nigeria. Islamic organizations, including the Hudayi Foundation and Suleymancilar, run religious schools called Imam Hatip schools, which combine Islamic and scientific teachings. Erdogan is one of many prominent graduates of these schools. They have grown in popularity since the 9/11 attacks because many Muslim countries have come to see Turkish Islam as an alternative to more radical currents. Authorities from Afghanistan, Chad, Niger, Pakistan, and Somalia have all expressed interest in adopting the Turkish-Islamic model of education offered by Imam Hatips for this reason.
Turkey also brings students from other countries to receive religious education at international Imam Hatip schools in the cities of Istanbul, Kayseri, and Konya. More than 1,000 students from 76 countries studied at these schools between 2014 and 2015. A state-affiliated education association called the Maarif Foundation has also played an active role in promoting Turkish-style religious education abroad—offering scholarships, building schools and dormitories, and training teachers.
Owing to historical animosities, Middle Eastern states have been less receptive to Turkey’s religious outreach activities than African ones. Many Arab countries that were once ruled by the Ottoman Empire still see Turkey as an imperial power. Many Turks, for their part, view Arab countries as traitors for allying with the British against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Since the rise of the Islamist-rooted AKP in 2002, that enmity has started to slowly give way to cultural rapprochement. To enhance its soft power in the Middle East, the AKP has primarily relied on its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, which does not have a chapter in Turkey but is closely aligned ideologically with the AKP. Necmettin Erbakan, the founder of the AKP’s predecessor party and in many ways its intellectual father, had strong relationships with Muslim Brotherhood leaders throughout the region. In the beginning of the twenty-first century, religious NGOs affiliated with the AKP continued to build on those ties, hosting international conferences and forums on the future of the Muslim world in Istanbul and making the city into an important center for the Brotherhood. Qatari-backed Al Jazeera, the largest news network in the Middle East, has also helped advance Turkey’s image as a model Muslim country.
In the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, however, the Middle East has become perhaps the region most deeply skeptical of Turkish leadership. Turkey’s damaging engagement in Syria and its authoritarian turn under Erdogan have shattered its image in neighboring countries. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood—which Turkey relies on heavily to accomplish its goals—is now considered a failure by many Muslims and labeled a terrorist organization in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Turkey’s intensifying nationalist rhetoric and frequent references to the Ottoman past rattle regimes such as Egypt and the UAE that see an imperial agenda behind Turkey’s religious diplomacy.
European countries have also grown uneasy about Turkey’s religious outreach activities. Through the Diyanet, President Erdogan has been able to expand his influence among the Turkish diaspora across Europe. The Diyanet pays the salaries of imams who are sent from Turkey, and it tightly controls the messages they deliver. The weekly Friday sermons are the same as the ones delivered in Turkey, issued from the Diyanet’s headquarters in Ankara. This has been deeply unsettling to European officials, who argue that Turkey’s interference in the religious lives of immigrants is preventing successful integration.
Globally speaking, Turkey’s religious outreach has yielded mixed results. In war-torn Somalia, both the political elite and the local population have appreciated Turkey’s efforts, which have built trust and prepared the way for future cooperation between the two countries. In the Balkans, invoking Ottoman heritage and casting Turkey as the protector of Muslims has predictably played well with Muslim communities and less well with non-Muslim ones. Turkey has found few takers in the Turkic republics of Central Asia, which are mostly secular.
Its overtures in the Middle East and Europe have been met with increasing skepticism. The nationalist and far-right parties making gains across Europe are hostile to Turkey’s religious outreach. In the Middle East, the blend of Islam and Turkish nationalism will continue to evoke unpleasant memories of the Ottoman Empire. So long as it is ruled by a party with Islamist roots, Turkey will continue to conduct a foreign policy to which religion is integral. But as nationalisms gain ground globally Turkey’s particular brand of religious outreach could become harder to sell.