Erdogan’s Long Arm in Europe

Turkey is seeking influence and votes throughout the EU and spreading ideas that imperil efforts to integrate the Turkish diaspora.

Then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to Turkish expatriates at an event to mark the 10th anniversary of the Union of European Turkish Democrats in Cologne, Germany, on May 24, 2014.
Then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to Turkish expatriates at an event to mark the 10th anniversary of the Union of European Turkish Democrats in Cologne, Germany, on May 24, 2014. SASCHA SCHUERMANN/GETTY IMAGES

In recent years, relations with Turkey have caused headaches for most European governments. Long gone are the days when most European observers looked at President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) as genuinely democratic interlocutors. European governments routinely disapprove of Turkish foreign and domestic policy on issues including Ankara’s handling of the Islamic State, the migration crisis, and its abusive treatment of journalists, political opponents, and minorities. But they have also been equally taken aback by the AKP regime’s aggressive rhetoric toward EU leaders and its bold attempts to exert influence over the Turkish diaspora and, more broadly, European Muslim communities.

The flurry of provocative statements by the upper echelons of the Turkish political establishment, regularly amplified by Turkish state media, has been troubling. Top Turkish politicians regularly seize on any controversy to accuse Europe of being Islamophobic and urge both Turks and other Muslims living in Europe to reject Western values. In other circumstances, they cross into purely inflammatory speech, such as when Alparslan Kavaklioglu, the head of the Turkish parliament’s Security and Intelligence Commission, proclaimed in March 2018 that “Europe will be Muslim. We will be effective there, Allah willing. I am sure of that.” Most recently, in a January 2019 speech in Izmir, Erdogan himself stated that the borders of Turkey span “from Vienna to the shores of the Adriatic Sea, from East Turkistan [China’s autonomous region of Xinjiang] to the Black Sea.”

But Turkey’s new posture goes well beyond aggressive rhetoric. Over the last decade, Ankara has invested substantial amounts in the growth of both governmental and nongovernmental organizations to further its political agenda throughout Europe. While most of these activities seek to build influence through lobbying, activism, and education, others have more nefarious aims. Indeed, security services in various European countries have consistently detected a dramatic increase in the activities of Turkish intelligence agencies on their territory.

Since the failed coup in July 2016, which Erdogan blamed on his ally-turned-enemy, the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, those operations were expanded to include aggressive monitoring of and, at times, direct targeting for kidnapping of Gulen supporters—as well as Kurdish, secular, and other anti-AKP activists living in Europe. (Turkey has also been accused of abusing Interpol’s “red notice” system by adding the names of a wide array of regime opponents, including the basketball player Enes Kanter, in the organization’s database.)

Internal Turkish government documents revealing some of these dynamics were made public in 2017 by Peter Pilz, a prominent Austrian politician with a long career in the Green Party who acquired leaked documents from sources he wouldn’t disclose. “We were surprised ourselves when we saw that Erdogan’s Turkey has built a tightly meshed spy network from Japan to the Netherlands, from Kenya to the U.K.,” Pilz said. “In every single state, a huge spy network consisting of associations, clubs, and mosques is being employed via the embassy, the religious attaché, and the local intelligence officer in order to spy on Erdogan critics around the clock.” Authorities in several European countries publicly or privately speak of similar dynamics and have times detected plots to kidnap regime opponents on their soil.

Turkish government activities on European soil—whether aimed at espionage or, as most of them are, influence—are led by its embassies, which operate under diplomatic immunity. But the embassies, as Pilz observed, oversee a wide network of nongovernmental entities, which range from religious organizations to private businesses. A key cog in this machine is Milli Gorus (“National Vision”). Founded in the late 1960s by Necmettin Erbakan, Erdogan’s political mentor, Milli Gorus is an Islamist organization with a strong nationalistic spin, a movement that adopts many of the positions, aims, and tactics of the Muslim Brotherhood but adds a neo-Ottomanist twist to them. The movement has long operated in Europe, where it has an estimated 300,000 members and sympathizers and controls hundreds of mosques, mostly in Germany.

Authorities throughout Europe consistently express concerns about Milli Gorus. Germany’s federal and state security services have historically been the most watchful. German agencies do distinguish between Milli Gorus and designated terrorist groups, acknowledging that the former acts within the democratic framework and does not advocate violence inside Germany. Yet their assessment of the aims of Milli Gorus is alarming, and they highlight its strong anti-Western, anti-democratic, and anti-Semitic views. They also present the group as a direct threat to the government’s efforts to integrate newly arrived immigrants and Germans of Turkish descent.

“These ‘legalistic’ Islamist groups represent an especial threat to the internal cohesion of our society,” reads the “Annual Report 2005 On the Protection of the Constitution” from Germany’s domestic security agency. “Among other things,” the report, a summary of which is available online, continues, “their wide range of Islamist-oriented educational and support activities, especially for children and adolescents from immigrant families, are used to promote the creation and proliferation of an Islamist milieu in Germany. These endeavors run counter to the efforts undertaken by the federal administration and the Länder [states] to integrate immigrants. There is the risk that such milieus could also form the breeding ground for further radicalization.” Milli Gorus has long opposed these characterizations, including through the court system.

The Erdogan regime’s support for Milli Gorus is not surprising, but it reverses a policy long held by Ankara. Historically, the Turkish state had been a major supporter of non-Islamist Muslim organizations operating in the various Western countries where a Turkish diaspora existed. Their intent was to counterbalance, not support, groups like Milli Gorus. Aside from those organizations catering to Turkish ethnic-religious subgroups such as the Alevis and Kurds, Turkish Islam in Europe had been traditionally characterized by a competition between institutions promoted by the Diyanet—the Turkish governmental agency for religious affairs, which long supported a Turkish centric yet moderate interpretation of Islam that emphasized the Kemalist strict separation of state and religion—and Turkish Islamist organizations like Milli Gorus.

With the rise to power of Erdogan and the AKP, these dynamics changed radically. By around 2005, as the AKP gradually solidified its hold on power in Turkey, the Turkish government made significant changes to the Diyanet’s personnel and theological positions, which both became more decidedly Islamist. And corresponding to that domestic move was a new policy in Europe: The boundaries between Milli Gorus and Diyanet, which had viciously competed for decades, have become blurred.

Personnel and leaders began to traverse the two groups, and they started undertaking many joint initiatives. In effect, the AKP government brought two rival apparatuses that had vied for influence in the Turkish diaspora under its helm. This policy has a number of aims, but arguably one of the most important is to persuade as large of a segment as possible of the sizable Turkish population in Europe to vote for the AKP. Judging from Turkish election results in the European diaspora communities (in the June 2018 elections, for example, Erdogan polled consistently above 60 percent throughout continental Europe), this strategy largely succeeded, often tipping the balance of the final outcome of the national vote.

Lately, the AKP’s attempts to exert influence on European Muslim communities have gone beyond taking over Turkish diaspora organizations and extended to forming a close partnership with European Muslim organizations and individuals with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. As a result of these changes, the Turkish government or nongovernmental organizations and financial institutions close to the government and the AKP began to provide ever growing support to Brotherhood-linked networks, which, in turn, vocally promote the AKP government. An embodiment of these dynamics, which take place in countries with large Turkish communities (such as Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands) and without (Italy), is represented by noted activist Ibrahim el-Zayat.

Zayat has covered several top positions in Brotherhood-leaning organizations both in Germany and at the European level (earning the title, given to him by the head of one of Germany’s most powerful intelligence agencies, of “spider in the web of Islamist organizations”) and is also an executive at EMUG, a Germany-based company that manages more than 300 mosques of the Milli Gorus network. Highlighting how the ties between Turkish Islamism and Brotherhood-inspired milieus range from financial to personal (and, of course, ideological), Zayat is tellingly married to Erbakan’s niece, whose brother has served as chairman of Milli Gorus in Germany, as well as chairman of EMUG.

This development is hardly surprising. Rather, it simply represents an intensification of a relationship that has existed for decades. Turkish Islamist parties and the Brotherhood in the Middle East—and, by the same token, Milli Gorus and the European networks of the Brotherhood—have always been close despite their independence. Differing local flavors (for instance, Erbakan’s addition of Turkish nationalist ideas into boilerplate Islamism) notwithstanding, Turkish Islamist and Brotherhood networks are tied together by fundamental ideological affinities.

Since the Arab Spring and the dramatic overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, this relationship has further solidified. Brotherhood branches from all over the Arab world have set up shop in Istanbul and receive political and financial support from Ankara; Brotherhood members freely conduct business and run television stations from Turkey.

As Turkey’s economy boomed, Erdogan invested in international diplomacy and humanitarian aid to leverage his influence, both in Muslim-majority countries and Western countries with significant Muslim minorities. In his quest to become the undisputed leader of the Islamic world, Erdogan leverages the Turkish state religious organizations under his party’s control, Turkish Islamist groups like Milli Gorus, and organizations with shared interests and political outlooks like the Muslim Brotherhood and its spinoffs in the West. This dynamic is succinctly explained by Yasin Aktay, former AKP deputy chairman and current chief advisor to Erdogan: “The Muslim Brotherhood represents Turkey’s soft power.”

Europeans are increasingly concerned about the implications of Turkish influence operations on their soil. Countering this campaign is challenging, given that it is organized by a powerful country with deep commercial, political, and security connections to most European countries. For the most part, these efforts are legal. Yet it is increasingly clear that Turkish embassies, religious organizations, and businesses, acting in coordination with the comparatively broad network of entities linked to the Brotherhood, are pursuing interests and promoting views within Muslim communities that are on a collision course with those of European governments.

Lorenzo Vidino is the director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. He is the author of The Closed Circle: Joining and Leaving the Muslim Brotherhood in the West and a member of the Advisory Board of the Austrian government’s Observatory on Political Islam.


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