Islam in Turkey

March 13, 2012 by Ioannis Michaletos

Turkey has been investing considerable resources in expanding its reach both in the Islamic and in the Western world.
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, popularly known as the Blue Mosque for the blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior. (Source: Wikimedia Commons, photo by Radomil)

Turkey, steadily since the rise of the AKP party took power in 2002, has been investing considerable resources in expanding its reach both in the Islamic and in the Western world, by the use of Islamic organizations that spread in dozens of countries and are mainly composed of Turkish-descent citizens. The web of relations and transactions between them and with Turkey are multiple and far-reaching.

The case of Germany

Turkish immigrants constitute roughly 4.5 percent of the German population and exercise considerable clout in domestic political affairs. Over the past decade, Islamic organizations, influenced heavily both by Turkish diaspora and the Turkish state, are emerging as strong hubs for the conduct of soft power policy originating from Ankara and Istanbul.

The Turkish organization Milli Gorus has its headquarters in Germany and has approximately 30,000 active members, but its overall reach is around 300,000 people—mostly Turkish immigrants in the country, but also German converts and some Arab Sunnis residing in Germany, as well as Central Asians and immigrants from Caucasus.

Milli Gorus has influence either direct or indirect in some 2,500 local immigrant groups, associations and foundations in Europe and in about 500 mosques. The organization has smaller branches in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, England, Italy, Belgium and Switzerland. In all, 214 mosques in the Benelux countries, France, Scandinavia, Austria and Switzerland are claimed by the association as their own.

It was formally established in November 1976 in Koln and derives from earlier organizations. It acquired its present name and status in 1995, and it publishes the monthly journal, Milli Gorus Perspective, while it controls some 30 different NGOs across Germany, and also in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Belgium and Norway. The organization has strong links with the AKP governmental party in Turkey and with the Prime Minister Erdogan himself.

Turkish politicians, when visiting Germany, keep up with Gorus leading members and praise them for their work. Furthermore, Milli Gorus publishes the daily newspaper, Milli Gazete, and controls the cable station TV 5. Another ultra conservative Islamic newspaper, Anadolu'da Vakit, is linked with Milli Gorus and has a readership of 10,000 people in Germany. Milli Gorus provides scholarship to 250 Muslim university students per year, by 400 euros per month, and provides lesser amounts to another 1,500 students.

The organization also controls the institute Deutchsprachige Islamische Fraunen, which delivers Islamic seminars mostly to women. This organization has as one of its basic principles for the Muslim population to remain close to the mosques in German cities and actively propagates the need to create Islamic enclaves in any major European city. Further, the Islamic newspaper in Germany, Islamische Zeitung, has at times close relations with Milli Gurus, especially concerning issues of Central Asia or Chechnya. The organization has a commercial company, named Selam Lebensmittelhandels GmbH, which was established in Koln in 1984. That company controls around 20 percent of Halal meat markets in Germany. Overall hundreds of companies belong to Milli Gorus, which is estimated to have an annual turnover of 1 billion euros and has real estate assets of 100 million euros.

The wider Islamic nexus

According to a 2010 report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, some leading Muslim groups in Europe are loosely linked to the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt, including the Union of French Islamic Organisations, Muslim Association of Britain, Islamic Community in Germany and Intercultural Islamic League of Belgium, the Turkish group Milli Gorus and the Pakistan-based Jamaat-i-Islami. They all have similar Islamist roots. In quite a few public occasions members and officials from Milli Gorus have been criticized for extremist rhetoric, and the German counterintelligence is researching their connections for the past 15 years, according to various journalistic commentaries from Germany. It is no secret that this particular organization is strongly linked with the current Islamist government of Turkey and the apparatus of the Turkish Premier Erdogan.

Ronald Sandee of the American Foreign Policy Council, reporting on the situation in the Netherlands, revealed, "The Kaplan or Teblig movement is an offshoot of Milli Gorus. In the Netherlands, it controls three mosques and is headquartered in the southeastern town of Oss. The movement is also called the Kalifat movement—a reflection of its aim to restore the old Ottoman Caliphate. Its tone is far more radical than that of Milli Gorus. The group is known to have received money from Middle Eastern sources, specifically from radical Egyptian cleric Yusuf Qaradawi, who has long been connected to the Muslim Brotherhood."

Moreover, in July 2010, Germany outlawed the Internationale Humanitäre Hilfsorganisation e.V. (IHH Germany), saying it has used donations to support Hamas, which is considered by the European Union and Germany to be a terrorist organization, while presenting their activities to donors as humanitarian help. German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said, "Donations to so-called social welfare groups belonging to Hamas, such as the millions given by IHH, actually support the terror organization Hamas as a whole." IHH e.V. was believed by the German Authorities to have collected money in mosques and to have sent $8.3 million to organizations related to Hamas.

The IHH mother branch in Turkey (although they deny the link with the "German IHH") is the one that organized the infamous flotilla venturing to the Gaza Strip in late May 2010, where the vast majority of the persons aboard were related to the web of the organizations in Europe linked with the Muslim Brotherhood, along with a variety of leftist groups that now openly collaborate with them. In a similar case in Greece in 2011, when a new flotilla was organized to venture into Gaza, individuals from several countries related to the Muslim Brotherhood branches were noted in the Island of Crete trying to organize the expedition. Included were persons regularly visiting and collaborating with the Turkish IHH as well as having close relations with Hamas.

According to a parliamentary initiative by Italian MPs during summer 2010, IHH is tied to Hamas and to the Union of God, an organization designated by the U.S. Treasury as a financial supporter of terrorism. The Coordinating Council of German Nongovernmental Organizations against Anti-Semitism also called on the German government to place IHH on the E.U. list of terrorist organizations, because "like Hamas the IHH is an anti-Semitic organization that promotes terrorism."

Soft power across continents

The Turkish IHH places great pride in its charity work. It is the organizer of Africa Cataract Project, which aims to fight against blindness in Africa, the largest of its kind internationally. The project aims at performing 100,000 free cataract surgery operations in 10 African countries: Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Chad, Niger, Togo, Benin, Ghana, Mali and Burkina Faso. The Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) is now present in 41 African countries and has spent many millions of dollars on humanitarian operations.

The charity work seems to be related closely with the direction of the Turkish foreign policy and the Islamic movement in that country and beyond. Statements by Turkish public officials and private sector stakeholders affirm the close ties between the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and IHH, along with other similar organizations for promoting "Turkey's good name abroad through charity."

In November 2006 in Istanbul, the Turkish government organized a historic "Religious Leaders Meeting of African Continent Muslim Countries and Societies." In 2009 the government invited through its embassies 300 African Islamic students to study theology in Turkey. A major new trade organization in Turkey, the Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists of Turkey, was founded in 2005, apparently representing 11,500 businessmen, and has organized (among its other trade conferences) three sessions with Africa, in which thousands of Turkish businessmen have been informed of opportunities in Africa. Turkey also closely monitors the situation in Somalia, and recently it requested to organize a world summit on the piracy issue in Istanbul, citing its ties with that country.

In parallel the Islamic element in the Turkish administration created more umbrella organizations. The Union of NGOs of the Islamic World (UNIW) is based in Istanbul and was inaugurated in 2005 with the full backing of the Erdogan administration. Today it includes dozens of NGOs from many Islamic countries, including Seychelles, Somalia, Pakistan, Indonesia, Bahrain and others. Amongst its senior members one can find persons of influence from Muslim communities in the United Kingdom, United States, the Balkans, Morocco, Sudan and Iran.

It is the quintessential soft-power NGO umbrella organization that runs in parallel with the rest of the labyrinth of organizations that were established in Turkey over the past decade and aims to amalgamate the web of Islamists across the world into a thorough structure, capable of lobbying effectively on a grand scale. The presence of African states in the UNIW is illuminating of the trial by the Turkish Islamists of creating a triangle structure across Europe-Africa-Middle East, with Istanbul in the epicenter. Hence the motives are closely linked with the ambitions of the Turkish foreign policy establishment, regardless of the religious element.

Population movements

The above multitude of newly established Islamist connections, seemingly evolved from circles within Turkey, is by coincidence revolving with the mass transfer of illegal immigrants from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa into Europe, which accelerated especially after 2003.

Presently, Turkey has lifted travel restrictions with countries such as Morocco and with air travel prices as cheap as 40 euros (one way). Young prospective immigrants travel from Rabat to Istanbul and thereafter are transported to the Turkish-Greek or Turkish-Bulgarian borders where they cross illegally into the European Union. Security forces from those countries have informed the press that the new wave of North African illegal immigrants has been in contact with members of Turkish organized crime, who transport them to the borders and provide them with information, even how to apply for an asylum.

The issue becomes of greater importance because Turkey under AKP's government is actually pursuing a so-called "Islamic Schengen free movement space." According to the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, "Attending the Fifth Summit of Developing Eight (D-8 Summit) held in Bali, Erdogan made an unexpected proposal to create an 'Islamic Schengen.' … He underlined the restricting effect of visas between these countries, and suggested creating a visa system similar to that of Schengen countries."

As it can be easily understood, and as far as the European Union is mostly concerned, that will enact a massive population transfer from Islamic countries into Europe via Turkey. Consequently the relations between E.U. countries and Turkey may be destabilized, and the trend under which Turkey is taking its initiatives clearly points towards seismic culminations between the relations of the West and Islam in the coming years.

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Ioannis Michaletos
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