Turkey seeking to expand influence among Europe’s Muslims - analyst

Ankara plans to widen its influence among Muslims in western European countries following steps by the European governments of Germany and Austria, to weaken Turkey’s grip, wrote Thomas Siebert in his column for the Arab Weekly.  

A secretariat in Ankara has been tasked with organising Europe-wide meetings of Muslims every two years following a 3-day conference in, Germany held under the auspices of Turkey’s state religious authorities and attendance Muslim Brotherhood representatives, Siebert said.

The meeting in Cologne, organised by Turkey’s Directorate for Religious Affairs (Diyanet), and its German affiliate, known as Ditib, saw attendance from the European Council for Fatwa and Research, an organisation in Dublin with close links to the Muslim Brotherhood, with local officials saying they had no knowledge of the gathering,  according to local newspaper Kolner Stadt-Anzeiger.

Diyanet is an important tool of soft power for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who often casts himself in the role of a protector of Muslims everywhere, Seibert wrote, noting that the religious body sends hundreds of Turkish imams to Germany and other European countries while constructing of dozens of mosques beyond Turkey’s borders.

The directorate’s affiliate Ditib runs about 900 mosques in the country, which is home to nearly 5 million Muslims.

European countries are wary of Erdogan’s efforts to use the millions of people of Turkish origin in Europe for its political ends,  Seibert wrote, noting that Ankara accuses Europe of turning a blind eye on an increase in Islamophobia on the continent.

“Turkey has been sending imams to mosques in Germany, Austria and other European countries for decades but that role has come under scrutiny in recent years,”  the Arab Weekly article said, pointing to news reports in Germany accused Ditib of spying on Erdogan critics in Turkish mosques in Germany, a charge denied by the association.

Germany’s Interior Minister Horst Seehofer last November called for an “Islam for Germany, an Islam of Germans” asking Muslim congregations in his country to phase out financial support from abroad, in what was seen as a reference to Turkey.

Meanwhile Austria’s government last year closed a total of seven Turkish-run mosques and initiated investigations against 40 imams over allegations that they were accepting money from Turkey.

The conference in Cologne was a sign that Turkey was trying to gain a supervising role over Muslim groups in Europe, according to Volker Beck, a former German lawmaker who teaches at the Centre for Religious Studies at Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany.

Turkey’s top religious body is looking to “tie Muslims in all of Europe to Turkey” with the help of the coordination body supported by the Cologne meeting, Beck said on Twitter.

“Erdoğan sees these debates as a European attempt to curb his influence, and responds not only by strengthening his patronage of Turkish Muslims, but also other Muslim diasporas,” Seibert quoted Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, as saying.