Students at an Imam Hatip school in Istanbul, May 2017
Murad Sezer / REUTERS

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

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  • GONUL TOL is Director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute.
  • More By Gonul Tol