The intentions behind Turkey’s use of ‘mosque diplomacy’
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan concluded his recent visit to Germany, which is home to a community of 3 million Turks, by officially opening one of Europe’s largest mosques, despite protests. He underlined the fact that the mosque, in Cologne, stands as a symbol of peace and thanked the German authorities for their assistance with its construction, while the two countries remain at odds on several issues.
A state-sponsored strategy to establish mosques in a number of countries, from Cuba to China, has emerged as a soft-power instrument for Turkey, one that aims to create a unified Turkish diaspora. Although part of Turkish politics since the 1970s, the concept of diaspora has become more apparent in policy-making discourse during the past decade.
The idea of strengthening ties with Turkish and other Muslim communities abroad has shaped this new policy and led to the adoption of a fresh approach to the 6 million Turks living outside of their home country. The Directorate of Religious Affairs, more commonly known as Diyanet, has emerged as the most influential organization in pursuing Turkey’s recent diaspora policy, by establishing mosques in several countries.
Diyanet, Turkey’s official Islamic authority, was created by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish republic, in 1924 with the aim of maintaining control of religious activities in a secular, republican country. Since the 1970s, it has played a significant role in providing religious services to the growing number of Turkish expatriates, with Diyanet officers serving as religious affairs attaches who assist Turkish communities overseas.
It established a Foreign Affairs Department in 1983, under former Prime Minister Turgut Ozal, and launched German, French and Dutch branches in the years that followed. In the past decade, the institution has gained considerable significance, with its activities not limited to Europe.
In the US, Caucasia and Africa, Diyanet is now engaged in an active strategy of increasing the number of mosques. For instance, the Diyanet Center of America (also known as the Turkish American Community Center) was launched in 2008 and is run by Turkish officials out of a mosque complex in Maryland built in 2013. Diyanet also signed an agreement with China in 2011 to educate Chinese Islamic scholars and restore mosques in the country. In addition to building mosques, Diyanet has also established camps for Rohingya refugees and sends food to poor countries in Africa during Ramadan.
Turkey’s “mosque diplomacy” is driven by the concept of soft power, a term coined by Joseph Nye who argued that a country’s strength is derived not only from its military and economic might, but also from its culture and its international image.
In recent months, Diyanet has also started to play a role in Syria. Since the start of Turkey’s military involvement in the war-torn country in 2016, the directorate has become a crucial body that Ankara will rely upon post-conflict. The organization has announced it is spending $1.6 million to repair and renovate mosques in Turkish-controlled areas that were damaged or destroyed by the conflict, after which Turkey will send imams to them.
Turkey’s religious outreach in Syria is significant in cementing its presence in the cities it controls, with the aim of investing in its future policy regarding the country, though this policy will be undoubtedly be unwelcome in some other countries that have an interest in post-conflict Syria.
Diyanet is clearly having a positive effect on Turkey’s foreign policy-making. However allegations, mainly by European countries, that Diyanet mosques are involved in espionage to gather information have created tensions between Ankara and other nations from time to time.
The German domestic intelligence agency the BfV, for example, has reportedly decided to scrutinize the activities of the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (Ditib), which is affiliated with Diyanet, to determine whether or not to put the organization under official surveillance. Ditib manages about 900 mosques in Germany, including the new central mosque in Cologne, and has about 800,000 members in the country.
And when Austrian authorities decided in June to close seven mosques and expel Turkish-funded imams, Turkey reacted harshly, describing the move as racist.
Almost all countries establish churches or other religious institutions in other nations to expand their soft power. For instance, Russia officially embedded the concept of soft power within its 2013 foreign policy doctrine, and the Orthodox Church plays a significant role in this. Moscow exerts its policy in the Middle East through the discourse of protection of all Christian minorities.
Turkey’s “mosque diplomacy” is driven by this concept of soft power, a term coined by Joseph Nye, who argued that a country’s strength is derived not only from its military and economic might, but also from its culture and its international image.
Despite European reactions, Ankara remains committed to its soft power push, even in countries where the Muslim presence is not historically large. Europe should not view this mosque diplomacy in an adverse way, as this not only increases tensions between Turkey and the EU nations but also harms the status of the Turkish diaspora in Europe.
Turkey aims to bring together its diaspora for its own causes, which is how any other country that aspires to have a stronger role on international stage acts.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.