[OPINION] Council of Europe asks Erdoğan to stop promoting political Islam in Europe

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An elderly couple sits next to a booth with scarves bearing portraits of the Turkish President near Cologne's Central Mosque, one of Europe's largest, prior to its inauguration by the Turkish Presidenton September 29, 2018 in Cologne. AFP PHOTOS
Abdullah Bozkurt

Abdullah Bozkurt

The multinational proposal tabled last year by the parliamentarians of the Council of Europe (CoE), the large intergovernmental organization that champions democracy, the rule of law and fundamental human rights in 47 European countries, has led to a resolution that calls on the regime of Islamist Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to stop funding Islam for political goals.

The resolution states that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) urges member states to “put an end to any foreign funding of Islam which is used for the purpose of national political expansion into other States under the guise of Islam.” Considering the accompanying report extensively quoted Turkey and Erdoğan’s long-arm Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), which has been funding imams and mosques in Europe, the message is clearly directed at Turkey. Among the 47 member states, only Turkey has been engaged in extensive foreign funding of partisan imams in Turkish and Muslim diaspora groups across Europe, which at times amounted to gathering foreign intelligence on regime critics.

The motion, which was filed by 33 PACE members on Oct. 13, 2016 and paved the way for drafting the report and resolution, specifically mentioned the Diyanet and asked PACE to investigate its role in the development of Islam in other CoE member states. The PACE Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy approved the motion in its decision on Jan, 23, 2017 and appointed Swiss lawmaker Doris Fiala as the rapporteur of the report. The report was debated by PACE during the autumn session held on Oct. 10, 2018, and it was overwhelmingly approved by a vote of 115 to 10 with four abstentions. The report’s language is unequivocally clear that foreign funding of political Islam as Erdoğan and others have been advocating “should not be allowed in Council of Europe member states.”

The report highlights the controversial roles that both the Diyanet and the Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD), two important tools at the disposal of Turkey’s Islamist rulers, play on European soil. The Diyanet, which has over 140,000 employees and enjoys billions of Turkish lira from the government budget, was described as “a strong army” by Erdoğan in recent remarks delivered to muftis and imams. He asked them to do more because the desired outcome had not yet been achieved. On Aug. 22, 2017 rapporteur Fiala sent eight questions to several members states including Turkey asking them to explain how the funding of religion works and to list public and private contributions. She said the responses would help her better draft the report with a complete picture, but Turkey declined to respond to the questionnaire.

Fiala makes reference to CoE executive arm the Council of Ministers’ document dated May 19, 2015 and titled “The fight against violent extremism and radicalisation leading to terrorism – Action Plan.” The document, also signed by Turkey, talks about the educational aspect as a way to tackle radicalism in the chapter “Living Together as Equals in Culturally Diverse and Democratic Societies: Setting Out Competences Required for Democratic Culture and Intercultural Dialogue.” The rapporteur believed organizations that oppose such living together should not be allowed to receive foreign funding. It is clear that Erdoğan’s political Islam, which does not tolerate cultural diversity or democracy, has no place in Europe. Erdoğan, who publicly declared that there can never be interfaith dialogue between Islam and Christianity, apparently sets out a completely different path for Turkey and Europe no matter what document Turkey puts its signature to.

In addition to radicalization through foreign funding, which is clearly on the agenda of many European countries, Erdoğan’s Turkey stands apart from the rest in the sense that mosque and imam networks were also used for espionage and intelligence-gathering activities. The report said prosecutors in Germany, Austria and Switzerland have conducted espionage investigations into certain organizations such as the Diyanet and UETD. The report states that “Turkey occupies a special place” when it comes to funding of mosques, in contrast to Iran or the Gulf States. “The Diyanet sees Islam as one of the features of the identity of Turkish citizens living abroad or European citizens of Turkish origin and, as such, part of a political strategy based on a mixture of religious beliefs and national pride, which some observers have called Islamo-nationalism,” Fiala wrote in her report.

Erdoğan’s cronies at PACE tried to change the language of the report but failed to convince the assembly, and most of the amendments proposed by the Turkish delegation led by Cağatay Kılıç, a former aide to Erdoğan, were rejected. Lawmakers from various member states criticized Turkey for promoting political Islam and for funding religion in a non-transparent manner. For example French Senator André Vallini said, “We have seen the impact of the elections there and how the Turkish diaspora was exploited in Europe.” In response to defensive arguments from Kılıç, Rapporteur Fiala said: “You have an organization with 100 000 people under your president, Mr Erdoğan. Please understand that many member States, including Switzerland, are frightened about what is said in our countries. We do not even understand the language.”

Erdoğan’s instrumentalization of the Diyanet, UETD and other Turkish government agencies to promote not only a divisive political Islam but also unlawful spying activities that target regime critics, opponents and dissidents has started to attract more attention in the European debate. However, the clandestine efforts by the Erdoğan regime to undermine the values of democracy abroad are not limited to using official or semi-official institutions. The Turkish government has secretly started to fund and support front NGOs that not only target Turkish communities but also non-Turkish Muslim diaspora groups around the globe. In many cases, the funding is diverted through shell companies owned and operated by religious networks that coordinate their actions with the Erdoğan government in Turkey.

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