Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 23 September 2020

Turkey's soft power weighs heavy on Europe's Muslims

Ankara seeks to maintain a level of control over Europe’s Turkish diaspora and silence dissidents

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference in Istanbul. Reuters
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference in Istanbul. Reuters

Since the rise of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to power, Ankara has developed an unrelenting desire to project its influence overseas. From the shores of Libya to north-eastern Syria and the capitals of Europe, Turkey has spared no effort to expand its reach and exert control over populations living beyond its borders.

These efforts are often supported by Qatari funding. The political ideology espoused by Ankara, which is inspired by that of the Muslim Brotherhood, an extremist movement, aligns with those that Doha aims to spread throughout Muslim communities worldwide. Muslim Brotherhood-linked ideologies preach intolerance, and preachers have frequently advocated violence.

Doha’s role in financing the Brotherhood and radicalising the Muslim diaspora has been documented extensively in the Qatar Papers, an investigation published by French journalists last year.

Over the weekend, a report by a committee within the Dutch parliament highlighted the extent of Turkey’s reach within Dutch society. The report discusses, amongst other things, tens of millions of euros that were donated to Muslim organisations and mosques, including Amsterdam's Blue Mosque as well as the Essalam Islamic Cultural Centre and the Middenweg Centre in Rotterdam. According to Ronald Sandee, a terrorism expert, the activities equate to “a kind of soft power” exercised over Europe’s Muslim communities.

In another instance, the report found that the Islamic Foundation, a Dutch charity, was nothing more than an offshoot of Diyanet, the Turkish government’s directorate of religious affairs. All of its preachers are effectively appointed and employed by Ankara. The notion that a foreign government department could operate in the guise of a religious charity in a country as transparent as the Netherlands is alarming. Throughout Europe, more transparency is needed when it comes to funding religious organisations and community centres.

Perhaps most concerning, however, is Turkey’s other main objective in its European activities, which is to maintain a level of control over Europe’s Turkish diaspora and to silence any dissidents within it. This manifests itself through "social pressure and intimidation" directed at the Turkish community, according to the report.

The notion that a foreign government department could operate in the guise of a religious charity in a country as transparent as the Netherlands is alarming

Witnesses who testified to the report’s authors experienced further intimidation after doing so, and pro-Ankara groups went to court in an attempt to stop the release of files requested by the inquiry.

Europe’s Turkish community is very large, and European governments benefit a great deal from their resident Turkish communities, both economically and socially. The children born into the diaspora become European citizens and participate fully in European life. But Mr Erdogan’s policies ensure that Turkey’s problems follow many Turks nonetheless. And while some Turks abroad do support Mr Erdogan and his government, many others do not, and they find themselves being harassed and coerced overseas by the very regime they sought to escape. If Turks and other Muslim communities are to prosper in Europe, this must end.

Updated: June 28, 2020 07:58 PM

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