Erdoğan in Germany: Turkey’s eyes are everywhere

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan arrives in Berlin today for a three-day visit, hoping to renew ties after last year’s row, when the he compared German leaders to Nazis. 

“The fact that the state visit itself is taking place is a personal achievement for Erdoğan, because it was not in the cards a year ago,” said Marc Pierini, senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment and former EU ambassador to Turkey. “But that doesn’t change the atmospherics or the relationship: a photo op is one thing, the outcome is another.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet Erdoğan for lunch on Friday, before a state dinner hosted by German President Frank Walter Steinmeier. The leaders will likely discuss German citizens held in Turkey, along with more than 100 jailed journalists, as well as help for Turkey’s troubled economy following the lira’s 40-percent decline this year. 

“Turkey’s key partners are liberal democracies and they are nervous to see a completely illiberal system with tens of thousands of people in jail with no motive at all,” said Pierini. “When I talk to bankers, investors who have big plans in Turkey, they’re not in a confident mood right now. Progress is needed in the economy, and progress on rule of law is quintessential in fixing the relationship with Europe, and that may take some time.” 

Several top German politicians have declined invitations to the dinner to protest Erdogan’s curbing of democratic freedoms. One who will be there though is Cem Özdemir, a former Greens leader, a fierce critic of Ankara and the most prominent German politician of Turkish descent. He said he plans to remind Erdoğan, “it is not acceptable for him to bring his conflicts to Germany and set up a network of spies and informers”.

This is likely a reference to the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs, or DITIB, the largest Islamic umbrella organisation in Germany. Last year, DITIB admitted that at least a dozen of its imams had been spying for the Turkish state, seeking to identify supporters of the Gülen movement, that Turkey blames for the 2016 failed coup. 

Berlin seems to share Özdemir’s view. Last month, the German government announced it would no longer fund DITIB projects. Now the German domestic intelligence agency, BfV, may put DITIB under official surveillance; for the Gülen spying, for refusing to take part in a recent anti-terrorism march, and for DITIB imams urging worshipers to pray for a Turkish military victory in Syria. This classification would allow BfV to recruit agents, perform covert surveillance, and intercept communications. 

DITIB is a former branch of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, and still largely run by Ankara, though it insists it is independent. The chair of the DITIB board, for instance, is Nevzat Yaşar Aşıkoğlu, who is also the religious attaché at the Turkish embassy and the Diyanet representative in Germany. 

On Saturday, Erdoğan will fly to Cologne, where DITIB is based, to visit the city’s predominantly Turkish Ehrenfeld neighbourhood and inaugurate the sleek and modern Cologne Central Mosque. Germany’s largest mosque, it was built by DITIB and opened just over a year ago after a sharp public debate. 

It can hold 1,200 worshipers, covers 17,000 square metres and includes offices and meeting rooms, an exhibition hall and museum, a library, a youth sports centre, a guesthouse, TV and radio studios, and a covered bazaar. DITIB chair Aşıkoğlu said it had “symbolic meaning” for Muslims in the area. Now-deceased author Ralph Giordano called it a sign of “creeping Islamisation,” while journalist Henryk Broder said it was a political statement. 

Turkey’s leader might agree with Broder’s view. “His message in visiting this mosque is ‘I am the defender of oppressed Turks and Muslims in Germany and around the world,’ which is something he has done for quite a few years,” said Pierini, who pointed out that Erdoğan had urged German Turks to get involved in politics. “His domestic message is ‘you German Turks are our agents in Germany.'”

The BfV’s Islamism Department worries that DITIB-backed Turkish-nationalist activities “are driving a wedge into the Turkish community and boosting Islamophobic tendencies”. DITIB, meanwhile, points the finger at the German government. Last November, after a series of attacks on mosques across the country, DITIB urged German authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice and better protect Muslim places of worship.

Though nearly two-thirds of German Turks who voted in the June presidential election backed Erdoğan, more than half of eligible voters did not visit the polls. The country’s estimated 3 million people of Turkish origin are thus reportedly split in their support of Erdoğan. 

Many side with Deniz Yücel. Recently returned home after spending more than a year in a Turkish prison, the German-Turkish journalist called Berlin’s decision to welcome Erdoğan a betrayal of all the people suffering due to his policies. 

One lives not far from the new mosque. Just over a year ago, Turkey-born German author Doğan Akhanlı was arrested in Spain after Ankara had quietly put him on an Interpol watch list. In the 1970s and 80s, Akhanlı spent several years in Turkish prisons for his writings on the Armenian genocide. Last year, he was kept for two months in Madrid while he fought the arrest warrant before he could return home to Cologne, where he has lived since 1992.

“Our security apparatus could be improved when it comes to the danger from Turkey,” Özdemir said in a recent interview, citing the bulletproof vest Turkish-Armenian journalist Hayko Bağdat wears in public after receiving death threats. “We must make it clear that Germany will not tolerate such a climate of fear.” 

This may be only a slight exaggeration. Ankara has not only been scouring Europe and beyond for members of FETÖ, its acronym for the Gülenists. It is also on the lookout for Turkish-origin journalists, academics, and intellectuals who hold opinions counter to those of Turkish nationalists - those who speak favourably of Kurdish rights, for instance, or talk of the Armenian genocide. And it appears to be using DITIB’s 900 mosques across Germany as listening posts. 

“This narrative that ‘we will track and catch the enemies of Turkey wherever they are’ - that has been a recurrent post-coup,” said Pierini. “That is not acceptable in the European Union. It’s going to be seen as interference, and it can only work if you follow the correct procedures. My worry is that these situations will end up having a negative effect on financial and diplomatic relations.”

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