Erdoğan's AKP using religion as critical instrument in foreign policy - analyst

Ankara, under the leadership of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is using Islam in a bid for hegemony by funding organisations and mosques around the world, in a move that is being met with mixed reactions, wrote Gönül Tol, director of Middle East Institute's Center for Turkish Studies, in an article she penned for Foreign Affairs Magazine.

Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has Islamist roots, has made religion into critical instrument of Turkish foreign policy, Tol wrote, seeing themselves as heir to the Ottoman Empire and therefore ‘’the natural leader’’ of a revival of Muslim civilization. 

‘’The AKP has taken Turkey’s religious outreach to unprecedented levels,’’ Tol noted, pointing out however, that suspicion of Ankara’s intentions could limit its prospects for success.

The construction of mega-mosques around the world stands out as one example of the AKP’s bid to assert itself through religion.

The inauguration of a mega mosque in Tirana, the capital of Albania, in 2015, followed by the Diyanet Center of America, a mosque and cultural center in Maryland that bills itself as the largest Islamic campus in the Western Hemisphere in the spring of 2016, and in 2018 one of Europe’s largest mosques in the German city of Cologne, which is home to a large Turkish community, stand out as three examples to this end. 

Erdoğan is eyeing Cuba, Romania, and Venezuela next, Tol noted.

Such projects are funded through the Diyanet Foundation, which functions under the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) and was once a semi-autonomous institution. It has since 2010 come firmly under the AKP government’s control.

The Diyanet Foundation does not stand alone in Turkish religious soft power, Tol underscored, pointing to the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA), another state institution that has significantly expanded its international presence under Erdoğan’s AKP, restoring Ottoman heritage sites  in the Balkans, Iraqi and Ethiopia.

Turkey’s development aid has catapulted from $85 million in 2002, when the AKP came to power, to $7.9 billion in 2016.

‘’Nowhere has Turkey’s religious diplomacy been more effective than in Somalia,’’ the article stressed,  highlighting that Turkish-style religious education has gained attention in other parts of Africa, such as Chad, Ethiopia, Ghana, Niger, and Nigeria.

Pointing out that Turkey also brings students from other countries to receive religious education at international Imam Hatip schools in the cities of Istanbul, Kayseri, and Konya, Tol underlined that ‘’more than 1,000 students from 76 countries studied at these schools between 2014 and 2015.’’
However, not everyone has been welcoming Turkey’s ambitions.

‘’Middle Eastern states have been less receptive to Turkey’s religious outreach activities than African ones. Many Arab countries that were once ruled by the Ottoman Empire still see Turkey as an imperial power,’’ Tol wrote, stressing that in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, the Middle East has become deeply skeptical of Ankara’s leadership.

Highlighting Turkey’s damaging engagement in Syria and increasing authoritarianism under Erdoğan, Tol wrote that ‘’Turkey’s intensifying nationalist rhetoric and frequent references to the Ottoman past rattle regimes such as Egypt and the UAE that see an imperial agenda behind Turkey’s religious diplomacy.’’

Equally uneasy about Ankara’s aspirations are European countries, who maintain that Turkey’s interference in the religious lives of immigrants is preventing their integration.

‘’So long as it is ruled by a party with Islamist roots,’’ Tol concluded, Turkey will continue to conduct a foreign policy with religion at the core; however, as nationalisms gain ground Ankara’s  particular brand of religious outreach could become increasingly difficult to pitch.