Erdogan’s new influence in Germany

Michael Laubsch

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives before a meeting with European Commission President and EU Council President at the EU headquarters in Brussels on March 9, 2020. (Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP) (Photo by JOHN THYS/AFP via Getty Images)

When German Chancellor Olaf Scholz made an inaugural visit to Turkey in March to ask the Turkish President to act more as a mediator in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, at a joint press conference following bilateral talks between the two heads of government he was taken by surprise and participants reported that even the now famous “Scholz smile” froze on the Chancellor’s face for a brief moment. What happened?

Surprisingly, apparently without prior consultation with his counterpart from Berlin, the autocratic ruler on the Bosphorus addressed the issue of the training of Ditib imams, who work in German mosques under the control of Turkish authorities.

Erdogan presented the idea that the Islamic prayer leaders should be trained in the future at the Turkish-German University (TDU) in Istanbul, a seminar that was founded 14 years ago as a cooperation between Germany and Turkey, partly with German funds. According to the Turkish President, a branch should now also be set up in Germany for the training of Islamic theologians.

The Turkish President has now named two negotiators for the design and specification of this idea, and Scholz has also promised to “appoint two officers” in order to prepare “appropriate steps”, Erdogan reported. The Federal Chancellor did not respond to this point of view and left the President’s statements uncommented.

Should Erdogan’s plan come true, it would have serious consequences for imam training in the Germany, because the Ditib mosque associations, which are under the absolute control of the Turkish state, have had problems recruiting for years now. According to estimates by the German Ministry of the Interior, around 90 percent of the Islamic clerics who work in Germany are sent from abroad. In the case of the Turkish Islam associations, which are supervised by Ditib, it is the religious authority Diyanet in Ankara. The German government actually wanted to end this control and has been demanding proof of German language skills from imams since 2020, which makes entry more difficult. It also supports theological training courses based in Germany.

Since last year, for example, there has been a new training course for imams from the Islamkolleg Deutschland (IKD). The training takes place exclusively in German.

The project is financed by the German Ministry of the Interior. The founding members of the Islamkolleg include Islamic theologians, Muslim public figures and associations such as the Central Council of Muslims in Germany and the Islamic Community of Bosniaks.

At the presentation in 2020, the IKD chairman emphasized that the curricula of the new imam training would be drawn up independently of any state influence at home or abroad. The main intention should be to prevent political sermons in the sense of the nationalist Turkish government policy, anti-Semitism scandals, espionage, militarism with such training and further education – everything that many associate with the places of worship of the large Turkish mosque associations.

But Turkey is not willing to give up its influence on Turkish Muslims in Germany. Two years ago, the Turkish President decided “par ordre du mufti” to establish a theological faculty at the TDU without consulting the German partners.

Experts believe that the Turkish government’s goal behind this is not to lose the monopoly and ideological influence on theologians and imams.

When asked about Erdogan’s most recent statements on the theological future of the TDU, the German Chancellery declined to comment. Legal responsibility in the German government falls within the area of the Ministry of Education. According to a spokesman for the German government, there is basically no comment on “internal government action”.

The Federal Ministry of Education and Research is surprised by the presidential decree from Ankara. A spokeswoman says that the founding of a theological faculty can be decided solely by the TDU committees responsible for this and jointly by the German and Turkish sides. The equal German-Turkish steering committee is responsible.

The government in Berlin seems to have been taken by surprise by Erdogan. Only since Chancellor Scholz’s working visit to Turkey has the federal government been aware that Erdogan and his Islamic AKP party are planning to found a theology faculty at the TDU.

According to research in the German media, however, this does not seem to be the case. As early as autumn last year, the deputy president of the Turkish religious authority Diyanet reported to the German Ministry of the Interior that the TDU was interested in cooperation with the religious authority Diyanet. This could “possibly be part of the future approach to training imams,” say the minutes of the meeting, which were drawn up by the German embassy in Ankara and the German daily newspaper “WELT” quotes.

So the German side was informed, but at the time also had reservations about the idea of an Islamic theology course at the TDU. By 2020, Germany had invested almost 30 million euros in the TDU, but so far has left public comment on negative headlines that happened in the TDU: homophobic and racist statements by lecturers, complaints against critical scientists who had opposed the policies of AKP and Erdogan.

It is not yet clear whether the German government will continue to provide financial support to an educational institution, where German funds would go directly to an organization that acts as a propaganda tool for the nationalist Erdogan government: Ditib!

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