Turkey’s Erdoğan squeezes critics in Germany, poisoning integration

Among Germany’s nearly 5 million Muslims, around 3 million are of Turkish origin, and since Turkey’s failed coup in 2016 they have faced increasing pressure from Turkey-linked groups in Germany to conform to the nationalist Islamist views of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

“The neo-Ottoman foreign policy of the Turkish government and the AKP is to bind the minorities of Turkish origin in Europe more closely unto itself,” Sevim Dağdelen, German parliamentarian for Die Linke and head of the German-Turkish Inter-parliamentary Friendship group, told Ahval in a podcast.

She pointed to the sizeable presence of the ultranationalist Grey Wolves in Germany, as well as members of Millî Görüş (National Vision), the Islamist predecessor of the AKP. Last month the government of neighbouring Austria launched a new body to examine the activities of political Islam in the country after a group linked to the Grey Wolves attacked a demonstration of leftist Kurds and Turks. “Turkey’s Islamists depend on Grey Wolves both inside and outside Turkey,” veteran Turkish journalist Pınar Tremblay wrote this week.

A decade ago, the Turkish government created Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB) to promote cooperation among Turkish citizens around the world. In 2018, YTB head Abdullah Eren urged Turks abroad to assist Ankara in its global battle against the followers of Fethullah Gülen, the Muslim scholar Turkey blames for the coup attempt.

That same year German media reported that Turkey's intelligence agency, MIT, had developed a smartphone app through which any Turkish citizen in Germany could report anyone, regardless of nationality, for criticising Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or his government. In January, Germany announced plans to collaborate with Ankara to open three Turkish schools, in Berlin, Cologne and Frankfurt.

But Dağdelen sees Germany’s largest Muslim group, the Turkish Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DİTİB) as Turkey’s main proxy in Germany. DİTİB , which is largely run by the Turkish government, oversees more than 900 mosques. In 2017, DİTİB apologised for some of its imams passing on information to Ankara.

Yet this past June, a documentary by German television channel ZDF detailed how Turkish intelligence increasingly relies on DİTİB mosques to find supporters of the Gülen movement or the Kurdish cause. According to the film, DİTİB imams are ordered to collect information about targets and their whereabouts and pass it on to the Turkish embassy and consulates.

“It is a poison to integration efforts in Germany,” said Dağdelen. “There are more than 6,000 agents and informants, like spies, active in Germany who are working for the secret service of Turkey.”

Dağdelen would know. In 2016, she called on Germany to ban Erdoğan after a €100,000 ($122,000) bounty was placed on her head following her support for a German resolution on the Armenian genocide. She has since faced repeated threats and been assaulted at her office and put under police protection.

“I was targeted personally by the Turkish president,” she said. “If he starts to target someone there are thousands and ten thousands of fans of him who are so insane and threatening you. That’s why I have been attacked several times.”

The German government has suspended federal funding for DİTİB and sought to eliminate or significantly reduce Turkish influence on its Muslim communities, notably with last year’s launch of a domestic imam education programme. In 2018, the German government provided 297,000 euros in funding for DİTİB, down from 1.5 million euros the year before, and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution classified it as a nationalist, rather than religious, organisation.

Still, Dagdelen thought Berlin’s quest to de-link DİTİB from the Turkish government was wrongheaded, as its imams are trained in Turkey and paid by the Turkish government and the head of DİTİB has diplomatic status in Germany.

“He is a representative of the Republic of Turkey. He is not a representative of a religion,” she said, adding that the government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel had mishandled the DİTİB issue. “They say, ‘Yeah we have to force them to disconnect from Turkey’. This is like if I would say ‘I have to disconnect the German embassy in Turkey from Germany’. It’s absurd.”

Muslim Brotherhood figures have been known to attend DİTİB events, yet some German states still work closely with DİTİB .

“Even after it has been revealed that DITIB imams are working as informers for Erdoğan, the federal government has issued hundreds of work visas for new prayer leaders from Turkey,” said Dagdelen, adding that a key reason for this is maintaining trade ties, which led to Germany exporting €345 million worth of weapons to Turkey last year.

“We have to stop the cooperation with DİTİB,” said Dağdelen. “We have to strengthen the secular Muslims, the democrats, the liberals, but not these reactionary troops of a Muslim Brother like Turkish President Erdoğan.”

Unless the German government moves to block Turkish influence - including halting funding for Turkish schools, curbing Islamist and Turkish nationalist groups and ending cooperation with DITIB - Dagdelen thinks the threat to Erdoğan critics in Germany will only increase.

Exiled Turkish journalist Can Dündar, who lives in Berlin, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post last December detailing how Turkey has in the past arranged attacks on dissidents abroad, particularly Kurdish figures in the 1980s and as recently as 2013. Some 10-15,000 Turkish citizens fled to Germany after the failed coup, and Erdoğan has said Germany is hosting thousands of terrorists and expressed admiration for the U.S. mission to kill Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

“Some countries eliminate terrorists whom they consider a threat to their national security, wherever they are,” he said last October. “This means they accept that Turkey has the same right.”

Dündar argued that Turkey was plotting to assassinate Turkish dissidents abroad, pointing to a possible attack on the alleged Gülenists or Kurdish activists in Germany.

“It’s very likely,” said Dağdelen, who in 2017 displayed the flag of the Syrian Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG), in German parliament. “We know that there are a lot of real threats and danger for prominent opponents who are living in Germany...They do have the infrastructure. It is already here in Germany and the European Union.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.