Ahead of an election where every vote would be crucial to his political survival despite a deteriorating economic prognosis for Turkey, the Turkish president rallied his religious operatives operating abroad to canvass the diaspora. Accordingly, Erdogan has been using his influence in Europe to consolidate his power grid by mobilizing the Turkish and Muslim diasporas in Europe for his own goals. His regime has a long history of using overt and covert methods to target those it perceives as enemies or detrimental to its core establishment, ideology, or interests. For example, the Kurdish opposition has long been a frequent target of such actions. Similarly, leftist groups, communists, Alevites, Gulenists, Furkan Foundation followers or any other social and religious groups not loyal to his regime have also been subject to similar clandestine actions at home and abroad.
Against this background, this piece focuses on one of the most reprehensible criminal long arm activities and violations committed by the government under orders from Erdogan. It will also examine how the autocratic regime has been using state institutions and what appear to be non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as visible actors in the process of its persecution.
It is a well-known fact that the political Islamist regime in Türkiye, led by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been suppressing opposition within the country for a long time. In partnership with shady elements of the country’s former power structures, the government has been using harsh measures to quell political dissent, evoking memories of the witch hunts of the Middle Ages.
As numerous incidents have shown, the actions taken by the Turkish government to silence its critics include a range of heinous crimes against humanity. Hate crimes such as defamation and libel are commonplace, spewing out from a massive propaganda machine against any segment of society that dares to oppose the government. Profiling, once considered a reprehensible act even for the nation’s intelligence agency, has become a daily routine for not only state institutions but also some non-governmental organizations. These profiling files are published in national media outlets as if it were a normal occurrence. Open or covert threats, physical attacks, and torture in the name of the state and for the “noble” purpose of preserving Erdogan’s position are no longer considered crimes. Besides, those who use force in this manner are celebrated and rewarded.
Further, Erdogan’s regime reaches out to ideological foes in the Middle East for investments, threatens military action in the Aegean Sea and accuse Greece of deploying arms in disputed waters, and warns European leaders that Turkey, backed by Turks and Muslims in Europe, would derail any plans devised by European governments. He also wants to set up a branch in Germany for the training of Islamic theologians and has named negotiators for this idea. The Turkish Development and Cooperation Agency (TIKA) and the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities, are also mobilizing their resources to support the Union of International Democrats (UID), which is often described as the long arm of President Erdogan in Europe for mobilizing the Turkish and Muslim diasporas for the goals of political Islamists back in Türkiye.
Religious organizations that are supported by Türkiye also have ties to the UID, notably the Erdogan family-run Türkiye Youth Foundation. Journalist Metin Cihan released papers in January 2022 that proved TÜGVA’s use of state-owned facilities while operating overseas. The foundation could be involved in foreign intelligence activities.
Imams deployed abroad by the government’s Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) to operate as members of teams in Turkish embassies and consulates as attachés and consuls were given the message and orders. President of Diyanet Ali Erbas, a hand-picked ally chosen by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to administer a vast network of imams and mosques supported by a sizable budget, calls periodically the gathering of religious attachés and consuls in the Turkish capital of Ankara. Erbas gives orders to his representatives abroad in a closed-door meeting to collaborate closely with other governmental bodies to achieve the objectives established by Ankara. Furthermore, on June 2, 2022, the attachés and consuls were further brought to the presidential palace for a personal meeting with Erdogan. The presidential communications office did not release any information to news organizations since no information on the discussion’s topic was ever published by the Turkish press.
Under Erdogan’s leadership, the Diyanet has seen a significant transformation over the past ten years and has evolved into a tool for projecting the polarizing and divisive political Islamist ideology of the ruling party both inside and outside of Türkiye. In recent years, those who opposed the politicization of the holy organization were expelled in large numbers and replaced by supporters and partisans whose goal was to carry out the government’s orders while disguising their actions as religious.
President Erdogan relies on the Diyanet, among others, to maintain his numbers in the diaspora. Turkish mosques, associations, and foundations backed and funded by the Turkish government in other countries play a significant role in voter registration and get-out-the-vote initiatives, recently in gathering intelligence and covert operations. He also hopes to win over people who have complaints about the nations in which they reside with his continual criticism of Europe, where the bulk of Turkish expatriate voters’ dwell.
As seen, he has varied tools to achieve his goals. Most importantly, the Diyanet oversees about 90,000 mosques, has a TL 16.1 billion budget for 2022, and employs almost to 140,000 people, including diaspora workers. The Turkish Religious Affairs Foundation, a group with significant assets and an annual budget of well over a billion Turkish lira, provides funding for some of the overseas programs. Erbas, the leader of Diyanet, oversees it.
There are 1,003 branches of the foundation in Türkiye, and it operates in 149 other nations. The foundation’s main goal is to produce a new generation of young Islamists who will support and advance the Erdogan regime’s Islamist ideology abroad by educating and training foreign exchange students in accordance with that philosophy.
All in all, due to Erdogan’s aggressive foreign policy, which has included impeding opposition groups within Türkiye, fuelling proxies such as armed groups or terrorist organisations abroad for his own ambitions, and threatening Europe with a flood of refugees, long arm strategy, many sources cite Erdogan’s regime as a threat to European security, human rights and manipulating internal conditions of many European countries. Thus, it can be concluded that Erdogan regime is a real, present, internal, and external threat to not only his influence areas but Europe.
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