Dr Paul Stott

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Turkey’s Ministry of Religious Affairs: An increasingly important player at home and abroad

Oct 19, 2021

 

A traditional maxim in research is to ‘follow the money.’ Recent revelations concerning the growing size of the budget enjoyed by Turkey’s Diyanet (the Ministry of Religious Affairs), and its increased focus on global expansion, have alerted new eyes to a trend observable for some years – Ankara is committing more and more on propagating the faith, and is doing so domestically and internationally.

The Diyanet manages the country’s 89,000 mosques. Presided over by Professor Ali Erbas, it employs over 107,000 people, owns at least 2000 properties and admits to a budget of some $908 million, although the Turkish Statistics Institute (TUIK) estimates a sum far higher, at over $1.87 billion. As a nation, Ankara is now spending more on the Diyanet than on most of its universities. There are also significant income streams from religious events where the Diyanet takes on a representative role, such as the Haj and Umrah pilgrimages, and sponsorship of meat produced for the Eid-al-Adha festival. Through its charitable arm, the Turkiye Diyanet Vakfi Foundation, the Diyanet operates an important construction company Komas A.S., further demonstrating the economic base of an organisation that is becoming politically ever more influential. Whilst significant, this is not however a novel approach – those who have researched Hamas and Hezbollah  have found a similar appetite for accumulation, a technique first employed the Muslim Brotherhood.

This month it was announced the Diyanet will expand its operations to a further 17 countries, in locations as diverse as Brazil, Bulgaria and the Philippines. Ali Erbas was appointed leader of the Diyanet in 2017, and received global recognition when leading the reopening ceremony of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. A UNESCO listed building, the Hagia Sophia served as a church for 916 years until the Islamic conquest of what was then Constantinople. It was then a mosque from 1453 until 1934, when the founder of the Republic of Turkey, the secularist Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, developed the site into a museum. The reconstitution of the mosque on 24 July 2020 was redolent with evocative imagery. Erbas delivered the khutbah (sermon) carrying an Ottoman era sword, after President Erdogan opened prayers. Some 350,000 of the faithful assembled, including representatives of the British Islamist media site, 5Pillars. Earlier this year the Independent Monitor for the Press (IMPRESS) found that 5Pillars had breached its discrimination code in an article entitled “The people of Sodom, Prophet Lut and the LGBT movement.” 

The Hagia Sophia proceedings were conducted on the 97th anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne, which set the borders of the modern Turkish state. President Erdogan wishes to amend that Treaty, a political position that potentially challengesthe borders of Greece, Bulgaria, Armenia and Syria.

Erbas’ centrality to the Erdogan project has led to greater critical examination of his words and deeds. In 2019 the Diyanet was accused of sexism after devising adverts warning against excessive mobile phone usage, featured a dutiful hijab wearing wife bringing tea and cake to her husband. At the height of the Covid19 pandemic in 2020, Erbas argued that homosexuality is condemned by Islam as it leads to illnesses, words which provoked considerable anger from opposition figures. In a sign of the narrowing of the distance between the state and religion in contemporary Turkey, government officials took to social media to declare their support, arguing “Ali Erbas is not alone.” This relationship between mosque and state adds to the suspicion that both Erdogan, and Ali Erbas, possess the ultimate aim of permanently reversing Turkey’s officially secular constitution. That the budget of the Diyanet now clearly outstrips that of many of the Turkish government’s ministries, is further evidence of its considerable power.

Erdogan however, is not merely concerned with shaping in events within Turkey. He has described the assimilation of Turks in Germany as a “crime against humanity” and in recent years the influence of the Diyanet has become increasingly apparent in continental Europe. From an initial base providing Imams for Turkish émigré communities from the 1970s onwards, it has become a fixture in a Turkish diaspora now over 5 million strong. Whilst President Erdogan has sought to utilise Turkish communities as a secure voting base, more sinister accusations have emerged of the Diyanet’s branches in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland and Belgium developing intelligence on political and religious opponents of the governing AK Party. This, plus accusations of opposition to the integration of Turkish heritage children into wider society, led the Austrian government in 2018 to push back hard against the Turkish-Islamic Cultural Associations (ATIB) the Austrian branch of the Diyanet. A series of expulsions followed, with the closure of seven mosques accused of advocating political Islam, separatism and extremism.

Whilst the prominence of Ali Erbas and the Diyanet is set to continue, the space in which it operates in Europe is now being contested. As Sir John Jenkins and Clarisse Pásztory argue in a report for Policy Exchange earlier this year, the Austrian state is committed to fighting Islamism as an ideology. Turkey has responded by accusing Austria of racism.

Dr Paul Stott is the Head of Security and Extremism at Policy Exchange.

Dr Paul Stott

Head of Security and Extremism Read Full Bio

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