7 Jan 2021

Erdogan’s tentacles: How Turkish socio-religious networks influence Europe’s political landscape?

Ahmad Nazeef

Following the brutal killing of French teacher Samuel Batty on October 16, 2020, Turkey entered into a war of words with France, issuing many provocative statements. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tried to present himself as the protector of French Muslims against the French government. Around the same time, Turkey was involved in other conflicts in Europe relating to energy exploration in the eastern Mediterranean and the violation of Cyprus and Greece’s rights in that region.

Amid this unprecedented tension in the Turkish-European relations, the risk of Turkish influence across Europe was also under the spotlight. The French, German, and Austrian media warned against “Erdogan’s network in Europe” and its influence in the continent. The Turkish government is using its strategic bargaining chips and other cards up their sleeves in Europe. They manifest in an array of political, religious, and civic lobbies, forming an entire network serving Turkey’s interests and simultaneously benefiting from generous financial support and a robust political cover from the Erdogan government.

This paper seeks to draw a map of these networks and lobbies, considered by Turkey as a critical component of its foreign policy toward the European adversary. The paper also attempts to review the historical and political contexts in which these networks had emerged and operate. It tries to identify the mechanisms by which the Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP) utilizes them, either against European governments and societies or to serve the domestic Turkish interests.

Turkish influence in Europe

Soon after the AKP came to power in 2002, Turkey started to get rid of its nationalist secularist uniform designed by the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk. Instead, the country adorned the “Islamist gown” by revitalizing the Ottoman antecedent reviving “Neo-Ottomanism,” a widespread term describing Ankara’s foreign policy in the last 20 years. The term also indicates a return to Turkey’s presence in the territories formerly occupied by the Ottoman Empire, including the Middle East and the Balkans (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia).[1]

Although this new policy had manifested itself clearly during the so-called Arab Spring, Ankara saw this as an opportunity to expand its influence. This Neo-Ottoman imperialist ambition has been speedily transformed into a sort of personal obsession for President Erdogan. This ambition surpassed the old Ottoman maps and became a dream of “undertaking the spiritual and political responsibility to defend all Muslims all over the world,” a pattern similar to the “Islamic Caliphate.” To fulfill this dream, Erdogan focused on the Muslims living in Western countries, as:

  • They live in non-Muslim majority countries where it is easy to play the “minorities” card
  • They give Erdogan and his country an important bargaining chip to pressure Western governments

More than 10 years ago, the AKP government launched a program to build networks designed to impose political, religious, and social influence inside Europe. These networks were built through organizations of different kinds with varying objectives, described as follows:

Religious entities

Religious features dominate these entities and play a significant role in communicating with the Turkish communities across Europe. The most prominent of these entities are:

  • Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB):

Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB) represents the European arm of the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet). It receives direct funding from the Turkish authorities and works under the Turkish government. It has branches in most European countries hosting Muslims of Turkish origin. Although the DITIB branches had been operating in Europe since the early 1980s, under AKP’s rule, they have transformed into a diplomatic tool playing a dual role. Turkey is seeking to impose its version of the “Islamic Union” as the representative of faith in Europe.

Through this Union, Ankara seeks to exercise control over Muslim communities in those countries. The AKP’s rise to power in 2002 marked the beginning of an era witnessing unprecedented political exploitation in the Turkish religious institutions.[2] Diyanet controls 350 of a total of 2,500 mosques across France. It employs 151 Turkish preachers in these mosques whose wages are allocated from the Turkish budget. These preachers have been trained at Turkish religious schools. Diyanet also runs a college for religious education in Strasbourg city, east of France,[3] headed by Ahmet Ogras, a French citizen of Turkish origin.

Weekly magazine Marianne once reported that Ahmet Ogras has “direct ties with Erdogan’s family” through the relatives of his wife, Aminah. The magazine also claimed that Orgas is a prominent member of the AKP and receives his salary from the Turkish authorities. Due to generous Turkish support, Ogras became President of the French Council of the Muslim Faith in 2017, considered the highest authority representing Muslims in France.[4]

The Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs is also widely spreading in Germany and already has offices in eight districts. It pays the salaries of mosque preachers affiliated to the religious attaches in the Turkish consulates. The Union also administers around 960 mosques in Germany, besides hundreds of youth, women, and education associations all over the country.[5] DITIB also controls 147 mosques in Holland. In recent years, the Union has transformed into a charitable institution providing funds for Islamic associations in Holland.[6]

  • Millî Görüş movement

Necmettin Erbakan established the Millî Görüş (National Vision) movement, with religious and political features, in the late 1960s. The movement emerged in an era distinguished by a conflict between political Islam and Turkey’s secularist republic. This movement worked in Europe as an arm of the National Order Party, which was established by Erbakan in 1971 as the first Islamic party in Turkey since the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate/Empire.

Europe offered an appropriate environment for this movement to practice funding and recruitment activities. It also provided the Turkish movement room for activities away from the security and legal prosecution prevailing inside Turkey. After the rise of Erdogan, Millî Görüş was transformed into a movement dedicated to supporting the Turkish state.

Millî Görüş has around 100,000 members in Europe, and German security agencies describe the movement as “an extremist organization.” Numerous German organizations come under its umbrella, including the Union of Islamic Associations in Berlin, Union of Islamic Associations in Nether Saxony district, Union of Islamic Associations in Bremen, and Union of Islamic Associations in Westphalia, among others. This movement also supervises a large number of mosques in Germany.[7]

Fatih Sarikir, the head of Millî Görüş in France, is one of Erbakan’s students. The movement controls 300 mosques and Islamic centers in France[8] and 10 Islamic centers in Paris neighborhoods alone. Sarikir also holds the position of President of the European Council for Islamic Teachings. His group runs about 17 schools and institutes in France.[9] Along with the religious and educational network, this movement also owns a significant commercial, economic network in the Parisian suburbs and eastern France. This trade network was established years ago with the arrival of conservative communities from Turkey’s rural areas.[10]

  1. Political and civic entities

Besides religious entities, some other entities affiliated with Turkey have been characterized by political and social features. Some of these entities are as follows:

  • Union of European Turkish Democrats

The Union of European Turkish Democrats was established in 2004. The organization presents itself as an association dedicated to “enhancing political, social, and cultural engagement of Turks within the European Union (EU) and contributing to their integration into the European society.”[11] However, its real practices make it akin to a lobby working for the AKP and getting its financial and administrative support. The Union’s members enjoy the privilege of holding frequent meetings with President Erdogan and wide coverage in the Turkish official and partisan media outlets, considered close to the AKP.

The Union of European Turkish Democrats works in 17 countries in Europe, particularly in France, Germany, and Austria, where Turkish communities are large. In a 2017 report, the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (a security agency) described the Union as “an organization loyal to the Turkish government of Justice and Development Party, and it imposes pressure to serve the interests of that party, at the political and social levels. It constantly seeks to build connections between several influential organizations and political elites in Turkey and Germany to influence the Turkish diaspora’s opinion and behavior. It can also indirectly influence the political decision-making processes in Germany.”[12]

  • The Grey Wolves

The Grey Wolves is considered a nationalist extremist movement affiliated with the Turkish Nationalist Movements, and an Erdogan ally. It was established in the 1960s but has become close to the Erdogan government in recent years. The movement is in syn with Erdogan’s confrontational rhetoric, particularly against the Kurds, Armenians, and the Fethullah Gulen group.[13]

The Grey Wolves are active in Germany, France, and Austria. On November 4, 2020, France declared its intention to ban the movement following its violent demonstrations in Lyon on October 30, 2020, during which its members clashed with members of the Armenian community. They also vandalized a monument related to the Armenian genocide (at Turkey’s hands between 1915-1917). The demonstrators painted RTE, representing the initial letters of Erdogan’s name, on the monument.[14] On November 18, 2020, the German Parliament approved the ruling coalition’s collective demand, the Free Democratic Party and the Green Party, calling for serious efforts to ban the Grey Wolves in Germany.[15]

  • Council of Justice, Equality, and International Peace

The Council of Justice, Equality, and International Peace calls itself a government organization engaged in a struggle for human rights, youth, democracy, fighting racism and discrimination. It aims to enhance the spirit of citizenship and deepen discussion about the status of minorities and build a more unified society within the new European framework. The organization has a presence in 15 countries in Europe. However, a French weekly magazine L’Express report described the organization as affiliated to the AKP. “It provides supporting positions to strengthen Erdogan’s policies in the face of the countries in which this organization works,” said the report.[16]

  • Equality and Justice Party in France

Islamist activist Shakir Colak established the Equality and Justice Party in France in 2015. The party is considered an extension of the ruling AKP in Turkey. It has a conservative Islamist agenda and targets the Turkish and Islamist communities in France. In a statement issued in the Parliament in 2019, the French Interior Minister said: “This party derives its agenda from the Turkish model and promotes the ideas of anti-secularism and anti-Western trends.”[17] Moreover, the party does not have a social base outside the Turkish minority, which explains its failure in most elections since its inception.

  1. Financial network

Besides religious and political entities, a substantial Turkish financial network exists across Europe. Since the 1950s, a wave of Turkish immigration happened to Europe. The accumulation of immigrant generations led to an improvement in the quality of immigrants. Over the years, their living standards have improved and many of them have transformed from merely paid laborers to those running businesses. Since the 1990s, a Turkish capitalist class started to rise in Europe, running restaurants, travel agencies, banks, and textiles. They also worked as contractors importing food supplies from Turkey. They accumulated large capitals through a network that included over 100,000 Turkish origin entrepreneurs across France, Austria, and Belgium. At least half of them were concentrated in Germany.

Since European studies consider Turks as citizens of the countries hosting them, there is a lack of precise statistics about their economic activities. The activities of such groups are often included as part of Europe’s domestic statistics. However, a large number of Turkish commercial activities in Europe run by religious organizations suggest that their leadership is strongly tied to Ankara’s ruling regime.[18]

Mobilizing support for foreign, domestic policies

In Turkey, the AKP government employs a broad spectrum of entities for two primary purposes – mobilizing them to defend Ankara’s foreign policy, and supporting Erdogan and his government’s domestic policies.

  1. Supporting the Turkish foreign policy

Turkey uses these entities to maintain pressure on decision-makers in Europe or build relationships with influential players in Europe, tycoons, and partisan elites. Turkey also seeks to gain support for Erdogan’s policies and the AKP. This trend was notable during Ankara’s recent diplomatic crises with Germany, France, and Austria. During the last few years, organizations loyal to Turkey have applied pressure against any European legislative attempts to promulgate laws that criminalize Turkey’s denial of the Armenian genocide.

In 2012, the Union of European Turkish Democrats rallied around 15,000 Turks to demonstrate against the French Parliament voting on a law that criminalizes genocide denial.[19] During the last few months, the Council of Justice, Equality, and International Peace firmly confronted the French media’s coverage of the resentment toward the Turkish interference in French Muslims affairs following President Erdogan’s statement on “the oppression inflicted on Muslims in France.”[20]

Ankara also employs the European religious entities affiliated to Turkey’s ruling party to control Europe’s Muslim communities. This trend resonates with Erdogan’s statements considering himself “responsible for protecting all Muslims.” In recent years, Ankara has allied with the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe (FIOE), considered a Muslim Brotherhood arm in Europe. FIOE controls broad segments of Maghreb Muslim communities (immigrants from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia) and many mosques and charities all over Europe, particularly in Germany, France, and Italy.

In compliance with Ankara’s policies seeking to enhance its influence in Europe by using the Turkish and Muslim cards, the Turkish Islamic Union for Religious Affairs resists the European policies, aiming to prevent any foreign interference in the European Muslims’ affairs. These European policies also work toward devising “A European Islam” away from any foreign country’s guardianship. In Paris, Turkey’s strong man, Ahmet Ogras, launched an attack against French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal released in 2018, about “redefining the relations between Islam and the state, and moving toward a French Islam model without any external guardianship.” Ogras described the Islamic faith as a doctrine and, therefore, “takes care of its affairs.”[21] Notably, Ogras holds a leadership position under the Turkish guardianship.

Entities loyal to Turkey in Europe benefit from the freedom of movement and activities ensured within Europe. They exploit this environment to track down Erdogan’s opponents, mainly the Kurds and Armenians. These aggressive pursuits increased remarkably in the aftermath of the failed coup against Erdogan in 2016. The camp of the “perceived enemies” expanded to include those belonging to the Gulen Movement. Entities loyal to Ankara started putting pressure on the European governments to close the schools and associations affiliated with Gulen.

In 2018, a German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (a security agency) report suspected espionage operations to track Erdogan’s opponents. Preachers carried out those operations at the mosques affiliated with the Turkish Islamic Union for Religious Affairs.[22] In September 2020, Feyyaz Öztürk, a Turkish intelligence agency (MIT) agent, confessed to the Austrian authorities that he received orders in August to kill a lady called Aygül Berivan Asla, a Kurdish-Austrian and a member of the Austrian Green Party.[23]

The most obvious example of the use of entities loyal to Ankara to deal with the Turkish opposition groups and Erdogan’s adversaries is the Grey Wolves movement that emerged due to the Turkey-France conflict, following the Nice city attacks in October 2020. The Grey Wolves also started a conflict with the Armenian communities in Lyon and continued to surface amid Kurdish demonstrations, aiming to commit acts of violence.

  1. Supporting Erdogan’s government

Entities loyal to Turkey play influential roles supporting Erdogan and his government by generating various kinds of support:

  • Political support

These entities provide significant political support for President Erdogan and his political party during elections. These entities exploit their religious, media, and trade platforms to mobilize electoral support to serve the AKP and its government since the Turkish citizens living abroad were granted voting rights. For example, out of 700,000 Turkish origin people living in France, 320,000 participate in Turkish elections. A majority of these voters support the AKP.

In the 2014 presidential elections, Erdogan won 66 percent of France’s Turkish votes compared to 51.79 percent of votes within Turkey.[24] During the electoral battle to extend Erdogan’s presidency, 63.2 percent of Turks living in France voted for the amendment. In Holland, 71.2 percent of Turks voted for the amendment even as voters in the most prominent Turkish cities (Ankara, Izmir, and Istanbul) voted against the amendment.[25] This is why Erdogan views the Turkish communities in Europe as a crucial electoral constituent, which safeguards him from political setbacks back home.

  • Economic support

President Erdogan tries to control the Turkish communities and European citizens of Turkish origin. He considers them sources of financial support for the Turkish government, especially the AKP. The remittances sent by Turkish laborers and businessmen settled in Europe for decades help the Turkish economy, which is suffering from profound structural challenges.

The remittances sent home by Turks living abroad during 2019 amounted to $1.659 billion, without taking into account the remittances of companies of Turkish origin.[26] Turkish banking networks, which are spread in Western Europe, also helped the Turks to transfer money to Turkey quickly. There are about 176 Turkish banking institutions across various European cities; among them, there are banks affiliated to the public sector and linked to the Turkish Central Bank, which has branches in Frankfurt, Berlin, and London.[27]

In 2009, the Turkish Parliament passed a law to encourage the Turks living abroad to bring their money home to alleviate the global financial crisis’s impact. In 2012, the Parliament also issued new amnesty legislation, offering tax incentives for inward remittances. In recent years, a new segment of the Turkish community has emerged in Germany and France. This class has accumulated immense wealth benefiting from Erdogan’s foreign alliances, mainly with Qatar, foreign branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Malaysia.

Europe’s response to Erdogan tactics

Tension has plagued the Turkey-EU relations in recent years, with the most significant issues surrounding the conflict over East Mediterranean natural gas and the Syrian refugees. The tension has escalated Europe’s deterrent measures against Turkey-affiliated entities in Europe, particularly in France, Germany, and Austria.

In November 2020, the French government decided to dissolve the extremist Grey Wolves movement following charges of violence. In the same month, the German Parliament agreed to look into the demand for a ban on this movement. The demand came from parliament members belonging to the ruling coalition, the Free Democratic Party, and the Green Party. Germany’s intelligence agencies accused the Grey Wolves of having close ties with Erdogan’s AKP.[28]

In December 2020, the French Council of Ministers approved a law meant to resist Islamist extremism. Following the law’s enactment, they conducted tax reviews and investigations on foreign funds for mosques and Islamic charities, restraining Ankara’s generous support to this network. The new French law prevents the training of mosque preachers outside the EU. The agreements signed between Ankara and Paris for recruiting Turkish mosque preachers were also canceled as the law restricts school teachers’ recruitment from Turkey. These measures will enforce the Turkish religious activities in France and cut down the country’s human resources in the medium term.[29]

Austria has been among the first European country to recognize Turkish activities in its backyard. Since 2018, Austria has prevented all Turkish electoral campaigns on its territories. It has accused Erdogan of “exploiting the communities of Turkish origin in Europe for many years.”[30] The same year, Austrian authorities closed seven mosques affiliated to Turkish communities and dismissed several preachers described as “funded by foreign countries.” The step was taken after an investigation conducted by the Authority of Religious Affairs on several mosques supported by Turkey in Vienna. Forty of the 60 preachers dismissed were affiliated with the Islamic Association in Austria, which is very close to the Turkish government.[31]

Conclusion

The recent terrorist attacks in France and Turkey’s “hostile policies” have shaken Europe and marks a turning point in the European determination to confront the Turkish attempts to infiltrate the European domestic landscape at social and political levels. The awakening of France, Austria, and Germany to this challenge is a significant indicator of this transformation.

Despite the new security and judicial measures, European policies toward Turkish intrusions remain reactive. These measures have not yet transformed into clear policies, except the new French law, which may form a legal base that enables the executive to dismantle Turkish networks in the long term. Till that happens, Turkish-European relations will continue to be defined by fluctuating attitudes and reactions.

References

[1]  For more about the Neo-Ottomanism and its transformations, see; Dorothée SCHMID - Turquie : du kémalisme au Néo-ottomanisme - la revue Questions internationales (janvier/février 2017)    https://bit.ly/2IrkBgU

[2]  Öztürk, Ahmet Erdi. Gözaydın, İştar. (2020) Boundaries of Religious Freedom: Regulating Religion in Diverse Societies Religion and Prison: An Overview of Contemporary Europe. DOI : 10.1007/978-3-030-36834-0_24

https://journals.openedition.org/ejts/5944

[3]  Fir more about the Turkish influence in the French Religious landscape, see the report of French Senate Council, 2020: Rapport de la commission d'enquête sur les réponses apportées par les autorités publiques au développement de la radicalisation islamiste et les moyens de la combattre – 9 juillet 2020. https://bit.ly/36Wv6m0

[4]  Martine Gozlan - Les réseaux d'Erdogan en France – Marianne- Publié le 06/01/2017 https://bit.ly/37RuRbc

[5] The official website of the German branch of the Turkish-Islamic Union for religious Affairs: https://www.ditib.de/default.php?id=5&lang=de

[6]  The official website of the Holland branch of the Turkish-Islamic Union for religious Affairs:   https://diyanet.nl/kurumsal/faaliyetler/

[7]  Mohamed Khalaf, the mysterious group (Muslim Brotherhood) in Europe 3/3 – “The Vision of Faction” group, in Germany, May 30, 2018, at the link: https://daraj.com/5343/

[8] Mélinée Le Priol - Milli Görüs, quand l’islam politique turc prend pied en France - 06/11/2020 - https://bit.ly/3m1Ngqt

[9] - L’union faisant la force et face à un besoin d’organisation entre établissements privés musulmans, l’Union pour les Établissements Privés Musulmans (U.E.P.M) a été créée en 2016.

https://www.ueepm.fr/etablissements/

[10]  - Anna Amelina and Thomas Faist, Turkish Migrant Associations in Germany: Between Integration Pressure and Transnational Linkages, Revue européenne des migrations internationales [Online], vol. 24 - n°2 | 2008, Online since 01 November 2011, connection on January 4, 2021. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/remi/4542 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/remi.4542.

[11]  The official website of the organization: https://u-i-d.org/hakkimizda/#

[12]  A report issued by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (German intelligence agency), 2017: https://www.verfassungsschutz.de/embed/vsbericht-2017.pdf

[13]  David Pauget - Qui sont les Loups gris, ce mouvement ultranationaliste turc dissous par le gouvernement en Conseil des ministres ?

https://bit.ly/33WWHkZ

[14]  Mélinée Le Priol - Les Loups gris, ultranationalistes turcs : sans les voir, « on sait qu’ils sont là » https://bit.ly/2VSw1xh

[15]  Le Figaro - Allemagne: les députés réclament l'interdiction des «Loups gris» https://bit.ly/3qCRclh

[16]  Agnès Laurent avec Paul Conge- Comment Erdogan infiltre la diaspora turque en France. https://bit.ly/39TbeBW

[17]  A statement at the Parliament by the French Minister of Interior, in response to the question by a member of parliament from the communist party, Pierre Ozolyas, about the activities of Justice and Development Party, and the equality. It was posted on the website of Senate Council Portfolio, May 15, 2019, page 6315, at the link: https://www.senat.fr/questions/base/2019/qSEQ19040777S.html

[18]  Paul Dumont, Jean-François Pérouse, Stéphane de Tapia: Migrations et mobilités internationales: la plate-forme turque -  Immigrations turques en Europe : typologies des espaces et des réseaux -  p. 30-77 - Institut français d’études anatoliennes.

https://books.openedition.org/ifeagd/248?lang=fr

[19]  Génocide arménien : 15000 manifestants d'origine turque à Paris - https://bit.ly/3gp5UYt

[20]  A statement issued by the Council of Justice and Equality, Anadolu agency,  https://bit.ly/33UsFhY

[21]  Macron promet une réforme de l’organisation de l’islam en France - https://bit.ly/3n02JZt

[22]  Turkish intelligence agencies expand their activities in Germany, Al-Arab International newspaper, December 1, 2018, https://bit.ly/33WfEnP

[23]  Uncovering a plan of Turkish intelligence to assassinate a Kurdish Austrian lady politician, Ahwal Turkish newspaper, September 24, 2020, at the link: https://bit.ly/37JpQRK

[24] Agnès Laurent avec Paul Conge- Comment Erdogan infiltre la diaspora turque en France. https://bit.ly/39TbeBW

[25]  How the Turks living in Germany contribued to Erdogan winning the election?  https://www.turkpress.co/node/33349

[26]  World Bank database, https://data.albankaldawli.org/indicator/BM.TRF.PWKR.CD.DT?locations=TR

[27]  Paul Dumont, Jean-François Pérouse, Stéphane de Tapia : Migrations et mobilités internationales : la plate-forme turque -  Immigrations turques en Europe : typologies des espaces et des réseaux -  p. 30-77 - Institut français d’études anatoliennes.

https://books.openedition.org/ifeagd/248?lang=fr

[28]  Following the model of France, Germany studies the possibility to ban the Turkish « Grey Wolves » group, DW website in Arabic, November 18, 2020  https://cutt.us/a4bkY

[29]  The French government submits a new version of a bill against extremism, France 24, December 9, 2020, https://cutt.us/VnkFt

[30] Austria bans the Turkish electoral campaigns on its territories, Middle East Online, April 20, 2018, https://cutt.us/FwCy

[31] Austria’s decision to close 7 mosques incites fury in Turkey, BBC Arabic, June 8, 2018,

https://www.bbc.com/arabic/world-44411194

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