Does Turkey use ‘spying imams’ to assert its powers abroad?

The Merkez mosque in the Kreuzberg neighbourhood of Berlin is run by Turkey’s Dinayet agency, like 900 other mosques in Germany. Christian Mang/Reuters

This article, originally published on April 4 2017, offers a useful primer on the international politics at play as Turkey prepares for its April 16 referendum to determine the future of its democracy under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

On April 1, Germany launched an investigation into the Diyanet, the Turkish government agency in charge of regulating religious activities.

Prosecutors are exploring the possibility that some Diyanet imams in Germany spied on members of the the Gülen movement, an international faith network that follows the Turkish-born, United States-based preacher Fethullah Gülen.

Confidential documents leaked in February 2017 by Austrian politician Peter Pliz suggested that Turkish embassies in over 30 countries across Europe, Africa, Asia and beyond had been sending Diyanet reports on alleged Gülenists residing within their borders.

Witch hunt on the Gülen movement

Turkey’s July 15 2016 attempted coup was a watershed event in the ongoing conflict between Gülen and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The Gülen movement presents a public face of education, philanthropy and media commentary, but it also has a political wing. When it was allied with Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP, in its Turkish acronym) in the early 2000s, its members were able to access strategic positions in the state bureaucracy.

Head of the Gulen movement, cleric Fethullah Gulen, at his home in Pennsylvania in 2016. Charles Mostoller/Reuters

But things have gone downhill since. Though details remain murky, Erdoğan has accused the Gülen movement of plotting his overthrow. Shortly after the attempted coup, Diyanet head Mehmet Görmez declared Gülen the head of a terrorist organisation and branded him a heretic.

Now, it seems, the Diyanet has been undertaking something of an international intelligence operation against his network.

Accusations of spying imams have further strained already tense relations between Turkey and Europe.

Belgian authorities rejected the visa applications of 12 Turkish imams seeking to work in the country, spurring outrage in the Turkish community.

In March, Bulgaria expelled a Turkish individual allegedly associated with the Diyanet, saying he was a threat to national security. Norway and Romania may soon do the same, according to the Stockholm Centre for Freedom.

Diyanet Centre of America Imam Ali Tos makes the call to prayer for Iftar Celebration in June 2016. US Department of Agriculture/Flickr

Spying imams

According to the leaked documents, Diyanet imams stationed abroad have been instructed to gather intelligence on alleged Gülen movement members or sympathisers.

The dossiers were to be presented during an August 2016 Religion Council meeting in Ankara, in which Erdoğan participated. In February this year, Turkey’s minister of justice, Bekir Bozdağ, protested the move, arguing that searching the Gülenist imams’ residences was a violation of German law and irreconcilable with human rights and religious freedom.

The Diyanet’s president, Mehmet Görmez, said that while some imams may have exceeded their duties, his agency did not engage in espionage.

In truth, though, Turkey has long instrumentalised religion for political purposes, and the Diyanet has been its main tool. Founded in 1924 by the early republican Kemalist elites, just before Turkey became the first Muslim majority nation to become officially secular in 1937, the Diyanet has functioned as a fundamental ideological apparatus within the state.

Its role has varied over time. During the Kemalist era, the Diyanet was the only authority able to monitor religious activity within the newly secular nation. After a 1980 coup, the military regime reinstated political Islam, and the Diyanet became an important tool of Turkish foreign policy, with staff increasingly deployed to countries with large Turkish and Muslim populations.

Throughout the AKP’s period in power under Erdoğan, the Diyanet’s finances and activities have expanded significantly. Its 2017 budget is higher than the money allocated to 11 other Turkish ministries put together, and currently all of Turkey’s 86,760 mosques fall under its jurisdiction.

It employs more than 117,000 people in Turkey and 40 other countries, including Sweden, Nigeria, Japan, Mauritania and Kosovo, and operates more than 2,000 mosques abroad. The Diyanet also provides religious education for imams and supports the construction and maintenance of mosques, not just for Turkish Muslims but for all Muslims in countries where it operates.

Provided, of course, that they are Sunni. The agency, which follows mainstream Hanafi Sunni Islam, is indifferent to the diversity of Islam in Turkey. Though it has been criticised by other Islamic sects, the Diyanet continues to impose Sunni views on the diaspora and Muslim communities abroad.

One of Japan’s largest mosques, Tokyo Camii has been run and directed by the Diyanet. Guilhem Vellut/Flickr

Erdoğan’s religious arm?

Though the agency has declared that it would never mix religion and politics, its monitoring of Gülen movement members in Germany and elsewhere suggest an expanded international role as an arm of the AKP government.

As Turkey continues to woo Europe for EU membership and prepares for a controversial April 16 referendum that could give more power to Erdoğan in his 2019 reelection bid, the espionage allegations raise questions about Turkey’s political future.

What role is the Diyanet playing in Erdoğan’s regime abroad? How is it linked to the Gülen Movement and Turkish foreign policy? And how dangerous is this increasingly evident mix of religion and politics for Turkey, an ostensibly secular nation?

The Diyanet’s implication in Turkish domestic and foreign politics opens a new chapter on Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism. By exporting domestic conflict and anger abroad, the president is further threatening Turkey’s unique – and already fragile – separation of church and state. And he is imperilling Turkey’s quest to join a European Union already nervous about his nation’s candidacy.