This beast that grows beside us

The Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) is one of the country’s most powerful public institutions. In 2002, when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) rose to power, it employed a staff of 72,000 people. Today it has 130,000 employees. Likewise, the funding it received from the state budget was 450 million euros in 2002 and 1.5 billion euros last year, which is more than the Ministry of Interior gets. It is expected to spend 10 billion euros in 2020-23 (source: Ahval, 29/12/2019).

The Diyanet also runs the country’s Quran Sunday schools, or Kuran kursu. There were 3,699 such schools dedicated to the study of the Quran in 2002. Today there are 18,675 and the cost is €1.45 million a year (source: Ipekyol, 01/06/2020). A similar trend is seen in public education.

Apart from these schools, Turkey also has Imam hatips, religious schools for students aged 10 to 18. Traditionally, they emphasise the teaching of the Quran and used to be aimed at young men who wanted to become imams. In 2012, they were granted the same status as other public schools.

In 2002, Turkey had 450 Imam hatips with 63,000 students. This number had shot up by 2019 to 5,138 schools with 1.3 million students (source: Ahval, 26/10/2019). At the high school level, the 645,000 pupils attending these schools represent just 11 percent of Turkey’s total high school student body, yet the state spent 23 percent of its school budget on Imam hatip high schools (source: Reuters, 25/01/2018).

The Diyanet also runs all 85,000 mosques in Turkey (10 percent of which were built under the Erdoğan government, according to 2015 data), as well as 2,000 abroad, 900 of which are located in Germany and officially run by an affiliated organisation called DİTİB. They are staffed with imams appointed by the Diyanet and paid by Turkey (source: Deutsche Welle, 28/09/2018). The Diyanet also intends to build 30 gigantic mosques on all five continents. It has so far built 103 regular mosques in 12 countries at a cost of 440 million euros: 109 million euros in Moscow, 30 million euros in Tirana, 34 million euros in Cologne, 23 million euros in Cambridge and 90 million euros in Maryland in the United States (sources: & Ahval 05/05/2020).

Another thing we know is that the annual budget of Turkey’s MİT intelligence agency stood at 103 million euros in 2002 and skyrocketed to 407 million euros in 2019 (source: Nordic Monitor, 01/10/2019). Just looking at the photographs of the new MİT compound inaugurated in January this year on a 2,000-hectare plot in Ankara is evidence enough of its expanded importance.

Last but not least, Turkey ranks 15th in the world in defence expenditure and saw the biggest rise in defence spending among the other 14 countries at the top of the chart in 2019, at 24 percent.

All of the above are pieces of the big puzzle that paints a real picture of Turkey today. Other pieces point to the generous support Turkey gave to the Islamic State organisation in 2012-15, to the honours bestowed on representatives of Hamas and other extreme Muslim brotherhoods at AKP congresses, to the exploitation of the Arab Spring uprisings in order to create a commonwealth of Islamic brotherhoods on former Ottoman territory and to the establishment of an Islamic brotherhood in the Libyan administration.

Both as Greece and Europe, we tend to approach Turkey in a manner that overlooks the importance of political Islam. There was a time when some regarded the AKP as the Islamic equivalent of Europe’s Christian democratic parties. Most of the AKP’s officials, including the Turkish president, belong to the Turkish branch of the Naqshbandi-Khalidi Islamic order, whose key positions include the belief that Turkey and the Islamic world have been the subject of systematic exploitation by the West and global Zionism and that their country must become a force to be reckoned with and emerge as the natural leader of the Muslim world. This is the dream, and this is what they have been after for their past 18 years in power.

Views that once appeared extreme have become mainstream in Turkish society, as Turkey experiences a revival of the Ottoman Empire via Islamic extremism. This was evident in the symbolism of the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Even Erdoğan’s greatest rival, the Kemalist mayor of Istanbul, claimed that in his “consciousness and mind, Hagia Sophia has been a mosque since 1453”.

Caught up in this maelstrom of imperial ambition, the country is fast devolving into a Sunni Iran. Just as Iran exerts influence beyond its borders, in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, so Turkey wants its sphere of influence to extend across the eastern Mediterranean. It openly scorns international law and states that it wants to redraw the existing borders. Unfortunately, just one country lies in its path to this end: Greece. So, either we will raise the alarm among the other Europeans about this beast that grows beside us so we can deal with it together, or we will face it alone.

(A version of this article was originally published by Kathimerini and reproduced by permission.)