Diyanet: Erdogan’s Islamic vehicle to the Balkans
A billboard at a construction site, with a photo of an Ottoman-style mosque with four minarets and the flag of Turkey, was erected recently in the center of Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. With less than 2 million people, Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, is the home of over 800 mosques. Now the Islamic Community of Kosovo is building the “Central Mosque” at an estimated cost of $35-40 million. Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) is financing the project.
The Diyanet also financed the building of a similar mosque on a 10,000-square-metre parcel of land on George W. Bush Street in Tirana, Albania, the largest mosque in the Balkans, along with dozens of other mosques across neighbouring countries. Turkey’s president Erdogan has put in the field two state organisations, Diyanet and the Turkish Development Agency (TIKA), as vehicles through which Turkey could enhance its Islamic influence in the Balkans.
Diyanet is the official state institution whose role is “to execute the works concerning the beliefs, worship, and ethics of Islam, enlighten the public about their religion, and administer the sacred worshiping places.” Diyanet is also responsible for the religious affairs of the Turkish diaspora. In Germany alone, it administers 970 mosques with imams trained by the organisation.
Austria was the first country to realise that the mosques built with Erdogan’s money are used for political purposes to promote his Islamic agenda. In June 2018, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz ordered the closing of seven mosques built by Diyanet, and deported 60 imams and their families with ties to Turkey as part of the ‘fight against political Islam.’
In February 2016, German law enforcement revealed that clerics from the organisation were involved in espionage against Gulen’s followers. Two years ago, Cumhuriyet, an independent Turkish newspaper, reported that Diyanet was very active in collecting intelligence, specifically on the activities of Gulen sympathisers in 38 countries across Europe, including Germany and the Balkans. Accusations of espionage by the organisation have existed since the 1990s, but these revelations pointed to far more extensive operations than were previously thought.
Meanwhile, Diyanet has extended its religious programme to countries whose connection to Ottoman history is tenuous by building over 100 mosques outside Turkey. The president of Diyanet, Ali Erbas, said that they have extremely experienced investigative reporter from Macedonia.
In the countries with majority Christian populations in the Balkans, such as Serbia, Macedonia and Croatia, Turkey is investing in major development projects, while in Albania the investments are geared mainly toward building Islamic religious institutes. “It has been shown that the most powerful and sustainable influence in this region, especially among Albanians, is made precisely through the instrumentalisation of the religion”, says Neziri.
To be sure, anyone who even scarcely follows Erdogan’s ambitions in the Balkans cannot escape the conclusion that the Turkish leader had a specific, well-articulated Islamic agenda which he is determined to entrench in the psyche of the Balkan people by building mosques and appointing imams that follow his doctrine. It is part and parcel of Erdogan’s vision to restore elements of the Ottoman Empire under his leadership.
Erdogan himself and many other Turkish officials have openly spoke about their dream that by 2023, the centenary of modern Turkey, the country will enjoy as much sway and influence that was once enjoyed by the Ottomans. Erdogan uses Diyanet as one of his main vehicles to that end.
For the Balkan states, this will certainly turn out to be nightmarish unless they prevent Erdogan from exploiting them in the name of Allah, while debasing Islam to serve his long-term menacing plot. Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. Arbana Xharra authored a series of investigative reports on religious extremists and Turkey’s Islamic agenda operating in the Balkans. She has won numerous awards for her reporting, and was a 2015 recipient of the International Women of Courage Award from the US State Department. [email protected]ben-meir.com www.alonben-meir.com