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Religion and Society

Turkish Islam in Europe: Political Activism and Internal Conflicts

Two muslim women rolling out a poster of Erdoğan during his visit to Cologne for the opening of the new mosque, 2018 [© Markus Schnabel / Shutterstock.com]

Since the AKP took power in Turkey, the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) has become an instrument of political influence and one of the main interlocutors of European states

Last update: 2019-07-18 14:41:23

Since the 1990’s, those who identify themselves as “Turks” or those who are identified as such by European public opinion (not always the same individuals or groups) became gradually visible, physically through mosques and associations but also socio-politically through an identifiable activism and sometimes disturbing entryism. Thus, since the arrival of political Islam to power in Turkey in 2002 and even more since it started to control all the levers of the power in 2010, “Turkish Islam” attempts to play the role of the “leader” of European Muslims by several contradictory means, but, in any case, always solidly attached to Turkish internal issues. Therefore, what happens in Turkey at the political, sociological, or identity level touches directly the suburbs of Köln, Strasbourg, Brussels, or Amsterdam on the one hand, and the specific minority regions of Greece, Bulgaria, or Kosovo on the other hand. This article will first focus on clarifying some concepts and stereotypes when it comes to the subject of “Turks in Europe”, before analysing the actors and promoters of Turkish Islam in Western and Eastern Europe. It finishes by highlighting the ongoing conflict between “official Islam” and the Gülen movement.

 

Who the Turks who Live in Europe are

 

While analysing Turkish Islam in Europe one should first clarify the geographic and thus historical and political contexts. Indeed, Turkish Islam in Europe takes different meanings in different parts of the continent. There are mainly three types of communities.

 

In Western Europe, especially Germany, Austria, France, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands, Turks are mainly immigrants or descendants of immigrants born in these countries. Their attachment to Turkey is related to both nationalism and religion. They are framed and controlled by Turkish authorities, mostly committed to the interests of Turkey, thus forming a diaspora or at least displaying diaspora reflexes and behaviours toward Turkey. They are seen by the central authority in Turkey both as susceptible to the danger of assimilation and as potential lobbies acting in favour of Turkey. At the same time those generations especially who have been born, raised, socialised, and educated in these western counties are object of policies of “host” countries intended to “integrate” them, and also of the homeland, in order to keep or reconstruct their loyalty to Turkey. They form a large and diverse group estimated at 4 to 5 million individuals.

 

In Eastern Europe, and especially in Balkan countries, Turkish minorities are a legacy of the Ottoman Empire. They live mainly in Bulgaria (around 1 million), Greece (around 150,000) and in some other former Yugoslavian areas such as Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro. Since the 1990s once again these minorities have become the object of Turkish attention and of an aggressive policy since 2010’s within neo-ottomanism superficially developed by Ankara.

 

Non-Turkish Muslim populations, descendants of other Muslim immigrant groups in Western Europe and members of Muslim minorities or majorities in the Balkans are also targets of Turkish Islam, while Turkey wants to become the champion of Sunni Islam in Europe through model building efforts and political and identity activism, but also by financing Islamic projects (mainly mosques and schools). Thus, it’s not possible to reduce Turkish Islam anymore to only “Turks”.

 

The second necessary clarification concerns the qualifier “Turks”. In Western Europe, those who are perceived as Turks are not always ethnically Turks, and those who are actually ethnically and linguistically Turks are not always Sunni Muslims. First of all, the largest ethno-linguistic minority of Turkey, Kurds, are widely present in diaspora too, not only because Kurds have participated in the economic migration flows of the 1960’s and 1970’s to the countries mentioned above, but also because, especially after the 1980’s and during the entire 1990’s and 2000’s, there are large numbers of them who escaped repressive policies in Turkey to find asylum in Scandinavian countries, in the United Kingdom, and again in classic immigration countries such as Germany or France. Because they are originally citizens of Turkey, it’s hard to estimate their proportion in the diaspora but depending on the country 10 to 15 percent of “Turks” are not ethnically Turks and thus do not factor in the scope of the Islamic framing policies of the Turkish Republic. Moreover, the largest religious minority of Turkey, Alevis, followers of a heterodox Islam according to some observers, or of a syncretic religion according to others, are also present in diaspora, in similar percentages. They are definitely not factored within the scope of the “Turkish Islam” since they both don’t follow classic Islamic precepts (attendance to mosque, headscarves, Ramadan, etc) and because in several European countries, such as Germany or Austria, Alevi associations are recognized separately from other “Turkish” religious organizations. Finally, one should add that not all Turks in Western Europe are citizens of Turkey, and many citizens of Turkey living in Westerns Europe are non-Muslims like Armenians in France, Greeks in the United Kingdom, Jews in France and Belgium, or Syriac and Chaldean Christians in Sweden.

 

In contrast, in former Ottoman territories, Turkishness is assimilated to Muslimness. For example, in Greece and Bulgaria, Slavic speaking Pomaks and Muslim Roma populations are included in Muslim minorities, recognized as such, yet perceived as “Turks” from Turkey. In addition, even if Albanian and Bosnian Muslims are not seen as “Turks” by Turkish authorities, Islamic cultural policies and identity-domination discourses from Ankara include them, too.

 

Finally, nuance must be brought to the qualifier “Muslim”. In spite of the foregoing deconstruction of the category “Turks,” it’s true that the majority of Turks living in Western Europe are Muslim. However, this Muslim identity do not cover the same social realities. As is true in Turkey, large sections of Turkish minorities living in Western Europe are mostly secular. They do not follow the visible precepts of Islam or follow only its cultural and festive aspects. Thus, these Turks can be considered as “Muslims” only in accord with their self-perceived level of belonging and not according to their behaviour. Nevertheless, the framing policies of Ankara, implemented in order to attach or reattach generations born in Western Europe to the “homeland,” are also targeting these secular segments of Turkish minorities in Western Europe. It’s true that to some extent, children of secular Turks can be Islamised through a process of searching for their identity. However, the opposite is also true, i.e., segments of children born in Western Europe in conservative families do display a sort of “exit from religion,” as Marcel Gauchet puts it[1], not in the sense of forming antireligious sentiment but in the sense of interiorizing the folklorization of formerly religious behaviours.

 

Actors and Promoters of Turkish Islam

                                                                                      

The actors and promoters of Turkish Islam in Europe can be divided into two different categories highly interconnected: extern (from Turkey) and intern (the minorities).

 

The main ideological apparatus of the Republic of Turkey is without any doubt the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet). Founded in 1924, this public institution served as a transmission belt for centralized state policies, mainly in the nation-building process. After the military coup d’état of 1980, the area of action and the field of activities of Diyanet have both been enlarged. Not only did Diyanet become one of the main framing institutions of the Diaspora, but also its scope extended well beyond solely religious affairs. During the 1980’s and 1990s, Diyanet was the main tool of struggle against political Islam in Europe originating from Turkey. However, since the 2000’s, as the same political Islam took up and monopolized the power inside Turkey, Diyanet discourse has been reversed, becoming the main megaphone of the ruling AKP in Europe as an identity and political tool. The mosques depending on Diyanet in Western Europe gathered Turks loyal to Turkishness and the Turkish state in religious, linguistic, cultural, and especially nationalist activities. The institution also became one of the main interlocutors of Western European states that are concerned about the control of European Islam. Here, one faces an intractable paradox: on the one hand, countries like the Netherlands, France, or Germany express clear anxieties about these imams sent and paid by Turkey, who are at the service of Turkish authorities and loyal to their master. On the other hand, given that many western countries failed to construct local Islamic organizations free from “homelands,” they prefer to deal still with Turkey in order to keep the control over Islam. This security-oriented approach, considering European Muslims not as citizens but as potentially dangerous foreigners, is well instrumentalized by Turkish authorities that want to maintain a leading role in promoting Turkish identity and Islam in Europe. The recent developments of the “International Theology Programme” are an example. Turkish authorities understood that in the near future, western European states won’t accept imams sent by Turkey (Austria has already started in 2017) and will prefer to recruit them from among Euro-Turks who can know and follow European values and lifestyles. To prevent this danger, an “International Theology Programme” has been launched, in order to identify young Turks from Western Europe, loyal to Turkey and sufficiently Muslim, to be trained in Strasbourg-France and Istanbul and Ankara in Turkey, and to recommission them as Turkish civil servants to their respective countries[2]. The Strasbourg program did not work and is currently closed, but the problem seems to be that none of these young Euro-Turks wants to be an imam after graduating.

 

In the Balkans, things are different. The Diyanet is not solely at the service of Turks but is one of the three state apparatuses in the region, alongside the Yunus Emre foundation and the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, through which Turkey exercises a new form of soft power (sometimes not very soft) in the region. According to some observers Diyanet is becoming a parallel diplomatic entity in countries such as Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo, or even Bosnia Herzegovina[3].

 

Indeed, since the consolidation of the AKP power in Turkey, Diyanet has become the solid and undisputable arm of the Turkish central authority in Europe[4]. Above all, it increased the visibility of “Turkish Islam” by building mosques everywhere (not only in Europe but also in Central Asia and in the Philippines) with the aid of TIKA. The Cambridge Mosque in Western Europe and the Tirana, Skopje, or Olovo mosques in the Balkans are good examples[5]. Another indicator of the monopolization and turkification of European Islam can be seen in the enthusiasm of publishing and distributing copies of Quran everywhere in Europe in 28 different languages, together with educational and material support for imams[6]. One should add that since 2019 the French Council of the Muslim Faith, the interethnic Islamic umbrella association, is headed by Ahmet Ogras, a Turkish businessman close to the Diyanet and Turkish authorities. French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his will to reorganize completely French Islam, and Turkey doesn’t want to completely concede control.

 

But, despite the fact that Diyanet is in the process of monopolizing the Turkish Islamic scene (and beyond) in Europe, other historical organisations are still present. The main organization is Millî Görüş (National Outlook) considered to be the Islamic opposition between the 1970’s and the end of 1990’s to an official Islam represented by Diyanet and its external organ DITIB (Diyanet İşleri Türk İslam Birliği)[7]. The term of Millî Görüş appeared in 1975 as a title of a book written by the historical leader of political Islam in Turkey, Necmettin Erbakan. As political Islam has been partially repressed in Turkey, the movement has rapidly organized in diaspora especially in Germany among Turkish immigrants as Islamische Gemeinschaft Millî Görüş[8]. Since the 1980’s, the movement has institutionalized in all Western European countries. Unexpectedly, in 2000, Millî Görüş protected its autonomy vis-à-vis Diyanet without merging into a broad official Islam. Furthermore, most of the AKP officials are former Millî Görüş militants. This organization is especially strong in Germany and in France, where, in Strasbourg, is building a monumental Turkish mosque.

 

Other more marginal Islamic organizations, such as historical Sufi brotherhoods (Süleymancı, Nakşibendi) or political movements (Ülkücü – far right), are also present and active in a more covert manner. Indeed, if Millî Görüş and Diyanet take a proselytising approach, at least towards Turks living in Europe, brotherhoods are more present in familial and clan circles and recruit among these small “market niches”.

 

Conflict with Gülen Followers

 

It’s not easy to define the exact nature of the Gülen movement, considered, depending from perspectives, to be a simple volunteer charity movement, an occult and esoteric movement like Opus Dei, an aggiornamento of Islam, a political and religious alliance aiming at world domination, a parallel state in Turkey, or simply a terrorist organization[9].

 

An Imam of Diyanet, Fethullah Gülen, started the “movement” in the 1970’s in accord with the Nurcu brotherhood doctrine[10]. During the 1980’s and especially the 1990’s the movement received mixed reactions from the Turkish governments. While its activists have been seen as potentially dangerous inside Turkey, various governments from opposite political sides have supported their schools and other “cultural” activities outside of Turkey, mainly in Central Asia and the Balkans. When the AKP came to power in 2002, an unbalanced coalition started between the new power and the brotherhood. While the AKP extensively utilized the media and network support of the Gülen movement, the latter could infiltrate all public services and ministries thanks to the support of the AKP officials and previous movement members already on the inside, including by openly cheating in the examination processes to enter in public services. This cooperation reached its peak during the second mandate of the AKP between 2007 and 2012. During this period, not only education, the police forces, and justice could be partially dominated by Gülen followers, but also the army. The historical Kemalist and secularist institution of the country, has been emptied through the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials that included at the same time former “deep-state” criminals alongside with military officials[11]. The conflict between the AKP, which consolidated its power after the 2010 referendum, and the Gülen movement that started to claim more and more power became an open conflict starting in 2013. Between 2013 and 2016 the AKP tried to “cleanse” the public services of individuals suspected to be close to the Gülen movement and, by extension, of all opponents from all political backgrounds. The July 15, 2016 attempt of coup d’état, which failed ridiculously, was a breaking point. Since then, the witch-hunt has started – not only in Turkey, through an unprecedented purge owing to the decree-laws suspending the legal system, but also abroad. Enormous pressure is leveraged in the Balkans, Africa and Central Asia to push foreign governments to shut down Gülen schools or transfer them to the Yunus Emre foundation, and loyal Turks in Western Europe, including Turkish civil servants such as imams and teachers, are tapped to identify and spy on individuals suspected to be close to Gülen ideas. For example, in 2017, a dozen Turkish imams were placed under investigation in Germany on suspicion that they were spying on followers of Gülen at the request of the Ankara government. Ultimately these inquiries were dropped. But this climate of suspicion is still present in Germany, in France, and in the Netherlands. The recent debate in France concerning the possibility of settlement of Turkish schools in the French territory recognized by the French educational system, also relates to this desire to replace former Gülen-related activities. Actually, more than these official attempts to foil the possible comeback and re-legitimation of Gülen related activities, the relations among Turks in diaspora is execrable. Former allies from similar cultural, religious, and social backgrounds living in Western Europe started to hate each other, to boycott schools, shops, or firms, and to avoid frequenting the same public spheres.

 

Conclusion

 

The European states’ attitudes towards Turkish Islam(s) in Europe are, naturally, mixed and incompatible. On the one hand, many states (such as France and Austria in Western Europe, and Macedonia and Albania in Eastern Europe) consider the Turkish entryism to be a threat to the social cohesion of local Muslims. Nevertheless, this constant mistrust is translated on the ground into a de iure alliance, especially for the importation of imams controlled with an iron fist by Ankara. In addition, in the classic European immigration countries support for the AKP is strong, even stronger than in Turkey, as shown by the six last elections in which the external vote has been authorized[12]. Turkish activism in European Islam is observed by public authorities with suspicion, but also, for the moment, with an incapacity to react (except for Austria). As for the AKP-Gülen conflict, the Balkan states are more at the front than the Western European countries, where Gülen-related activities are more limited. This conflict, nevertheless, has a direct impact on the everyday relations among Turks in Europe and, beyond, among all Muslims.

 

*The author would like to thank Eda Ayaydin for her careful reading and constructive criticism

 

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation
 
© ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

[1] Marcel Gauchet, Un monde désenchanté ?, (Les Éditions de l’Atelier/Éditions Ouvrières, Paris, 2004).

[2] Benjamin Bruce, “Imams for the diaspora: the Turkish state’s International Theology Programme”, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Special Issue on Political Remittances and Political Transnationalism: Practices, Narratives of Belonging and the Role of the State, published on January 15, 2019.

[3] Samim Akgönül, Ahmet Erdi Öztürk (eds), “Religion as foreign policy tool : Scrutinising the multi-dimensional role of Turkey's Diyanet abroad”, European Journal of Turkish Studies, no. 27 (2018), https://journals.openedition.org/ejts/5906.

[4] Zana Çıtak 2013, “The institutionalization of Islam in Europe and the Diyanet: the case of Austria”, Ortadoğu Etütleri vol. 5, no. 1 (2013), pp. 167-182, http://orsam.org.tr//d_hbanaliz/makale7.pdf.

[5] Ahmet Erdi Öztürk, “Transformation of the Turkish Diyanet both at Home and Abroad: Three Stages”, European Journal of Turkish Studies, no. 27 (2018), http://journals.openedition.org/ejts/5944; see also https://www.bbc.com/turkce/haberler-turkiye-48294387.

[6] Ahmet Erdi Öztürk, Transformation of the Turkish Diyanet.

[7] Benjamin Bruce, Governing Islam Abroad Turkish and Moroccan Muslims in Western Europe, (Palgrave, London 2019), pp. 15-43.

[8] Samim Akgönül, Milli Görüş, in Peter Frank, Ortega Rafael (eds), Los Movimientos islamicos Transnacionales (BellaTerra, Madrid, 2012), pp. 213-221.

[9] Indeed, the “movement” is named differently in different periods and circumstances. The most commonly used terms are Fethullahçı (“Fethullahists”), using the first name of the founder and leader Fethullah Gülen. The term has been used mainly by secularist rivals in the 2000’s), Hizmet (“service”, the positive name used by the followers and supporters), Paralel (“parallel”, the term used by the AKP after the corruption scandal of 2013, to designate a “Parallel state”), and FETÖ (abbreviation for Fethullahçı Terör Örgütü “fethullahist terrorist organization”, the term used standardly by a range of political actors since the coup d’état attempt of July 2016).

[10] This doctrine is itself a sub-emanation of the Naqshbandi order. The Nurcu follow the teaching of Said-i Nursi (1877-1960), a persecuted mystical religious leader of the first decades of the Republic.

[11] Ahmet Şık, (interviewed by Deniz Çakırer), The Gülen Community and the AKP, in Esra Özyürek, Gaye Özpınar, Emrah Altındiş (eds), Authoritarianism and Resistance in Turkey Conversations on Democratic and Social Challenges (Springer, London, 2018), pp. 81-92.

[12] Samim Akgönül, 2017, pp. 120-140.

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