How Turkish is Islam in Lithuania?

By: Egdūnas Račius

September 19, 2019

Lithuania may boast having one of the oldest continuously living Muslim communities in Europe. Though tiny—today not exceeding several thousand people—the Tatar Muslim community has been living on the territory of what used to be the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (now divided among Lithuania, Belarus, and Poland) for some 650 years [1].

A Demographic Overview

According to the latest population census results, there were 1,441 Sunni Muslim Tatars, but this was only 51.6% of all 2,793 ethnic Tatars in Lithuania as of 2011—raising questions about how many Tatars choose to self-identify in religious terms. Moreover, Muslim Tatars in 2011 made only 52.8% of the 2,727 Sunni Muslims in the country, though their share in 2001 was 58.7% of the total of 2,860 Sunni Muslims. In fact, Tatars are among the fastest declining ethnic groups in Lithuania. Ethnic Lithuanians (chiefly converts and their progeny) are the second largest ethnic component in Lithuania’s Muslim population, numbering 185 in 2001 and 374 in 2011.

Comparison of the 2001 and 2011 censuses reveals certain demographic trends in the Lithuanian Muslim community, of which several stand out: the decline of the number of people who identify with Islam, the shrinking numbers of ethnic Tatars and particularly Muslims among them, and the doubling of the number of ethnic Lithuanian Muslims. The proportion of Muslims from other ethnic backgrounds and those who had been born outside Lithuania remained, however, relatively stable and small as there is virtually no immigration from Muslim-majority lands in either Asia or Africa.

Though Catholics nominally constitute a majority of the population (79%, according to official statistics), Lithuania is a secular republic with no state religion. Nine faith communities are, however, formally recognized as “traditional to the land,” including Sunni Muslims. Like other traditional faith communities, the Lithuanian Muslim community is entitled to a modest annual state subsidy, which is used for the maintenance of mosques and other communal buildings. The Spiritual Center of Sunni Muslims of Lithuania-Muftiate (SCSML-M), was established in 1998 by Tatars and has been dominated by them since; until 2018, it served as the sole umbrella religious organization representing Lithuania’s Muslims. In 2018, the Council of Muslim Religious Communities of Lithuania-Muftiate (CMRCL-M) was established by a group of immigrants, young Tatars, and converts.

Official Institutional Support from Turkey 

With such low population figures and no embassies from other Muslim-majority countries, Lithuania has seen interest in its Muslim community come primarily from Turkey. Turkey’s interest in (and purported influence on) Lithuania’s Muslims stems first of all from its perceived ethnic kinship to Lithuanian Tatars, who, however, have long lost their Turkic mother tongue(s) and have been thoroughly linguistically assimilated. Tatars themselves have exploited this feeling of ethnic affinity for some time and—particularly after establishing the SCSML-M in 1998—were very keen on establishing friendly relations with the Turkish Embassy. Through the maintenance of close relations Turkey, Tatars sought to check the growing presence in their mosques of forms of Islamic religiosity hailing from the Gulf, represented by Arab students and the growing numbers of Lithuanian converts to Islam through Wahhabi/Salafi literature translated into Lithuanian. Turkish assistance was also seen by the Tatar leadership in Lithuania as a means to revive Islamic religiosity among Tatars themselves. As part of a broader global trend under AKP leadership, the Turkish authorities have become more willing to extend their “helping” hand to Lithuania’s Tatars.

Lithuanian Tatars are nominally Sunnis following the Hanafi school of law, making it easier for Turkey—where the Hanafi rite has been paramount for centuries—to extend its helping hand through informal supervision of religious affairs of Lithuanian Muslims by the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs (popularly known as the Diyanet). Due to the shortage of local professional imams, the Diyanet, in agreement with the SCSML-M, has for more than a decade sent two imams to the congregations in the capital city Vilnius and in Kaunas, the second-largest city. Unfortunately, since the Turkish imams do not speak Lithuanian or English, and their Russian tends to be rusty, their communication with parishioners is severely impeded and their practical spiritual guidance is very limited. Friday sermons are said in Turkish with an occasional summary in Russian read by a member of the congregation. Imams are sometimes commissioned by congregations to teach the reading of the Quran in Arabic for informal evening and weekend schools convened at the mosques.

The Diyanet was instrumental in procuring a Lithuanian translation of a Turkish religious textbook, Benim Güzel Dinim (My Beautiful Religion), which was then published by a subsidiary of the SCSML-M in 2013. Though there is already a SCSML-M-approved Lithuanian translation of the Quran, the Diyanet is reported to have announced in 2016 its intention to produce its own translation (yet to be published, as of the time of writing).

The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), apparently on the request of the Diyanet, funded a recent and extensive renovation of the brick Kaunas mosque, while three other historic wooden Tatar mosques were also renovated thanks, in part, to Turkish money.

Gülen and the Hizmet Influence

Turkish interest in Lithuanian Muslim life extends beyond state institutions and agencies and includes a presence of the Hizmet organization of Fethullah Gülen. In 2006, Hizmet founded the Vilnius International Meridian School (VIMS) and, in 2008, the Association Balturka Culture Academy. Though owned and run by Hizmet members, VIMS does not display any outward signs of belonging to Hizmet, and its leadership has repeatedly insisted that it is a lay school albeit with a particular ethical code, which apparently is more conservative than those of other schools around the country. Balturka, however, has never shied away from identifying with Islam; its educational and cultural programs have included aspects of Islam as part and parcel of Turkish history and culture. Balturka was instrumental in providing the SCSML-M with a proper headquarters when, in 2013, it allowed the SCSML-M and the Diyanet to take over property owned by Balturka. Turkish President Abdullah Gülopened the new Islamic Culture and Education Center in 2013, which, besides housing the SCSML-M, gave space to a Tatar NGO. 

Since Balturka affiliated with the Pedagogical University in Vilnius, it has secured admittance of numerous members of Hizmet to the university’s undergraduate and graduate programs. Turkish students also study at other Lithuanian universities, both as full-time and exchange students (particularly through the pan-European Erasmus program). Thus, the number of Turkish citizens living in Lithuania at any given point in time in the past decade has been much higher than the official census results suggest.

Changes After the 2016 Coup Attempt

Then came the fateful July of 2016, when the widening split between Gülen and Erdogan culminated in the former allegedly orchestrating a botched military coup. Subsequently, the Turkish government banned Hizmet, labelling it a terrorist organization. The split reverberated across Europe, including Lithuania—Turkish media reported that the Diyanet instructed its imams in Lithuania, like elsewhere in the world, to spy on Turkish citizens resident in the country to determine if they were supporters or members of Hizmet. Hizmet (that is, Balturka) was banished from the premises of the Islamic Culture and Education Center, and the Turkish embassy started pressuring Lithuanian authorities to classify Hizmet members as terrorists and deport them back to Turkey. Instead, Lithuania granted political asylum to some affiliated with Hizmet.

The split in the Turkish segment of the Muslim community in Lithuania had consequences for the entire Muslim population of the country, particularly its Tatar component. Since the chairperson (mufti) of the SCSML-M did not declare Hizmet a terrorist organization and even continued sending his children to VIMS, thus remaining on friendly terms with Balturka, internal dissent—apparently instigated by the Turkish embassy and pro-Erdogan Turks—led to an institutional intra-communal split. A pro-Erdogan Diyanet-supported faction first tried to get rid of the mufti and then, when this failed, founded its own rival muftiate, the CMRCL-M. The CMRCL-M has publicly declared an alignment with the Diyanet and appears to be using this relationship for its own ends. The Diyanet seemingly does not control the interpretation of Islam propagated by the CMRCL-M, save for the Friday sermons. Lately, however, the CMRCL-M-run mosque in Kaunas has no Diyanet-designated imam, as the Lithuanian authorities seem reluctant to grant a visa to another Turkish imam.

Turkish influence was more substantial prior to the July 2016 coup attempt, which in Lithuania led to a split of the Muslim community and the subsequent rise of internal rivalry within its Tatar segment. These developments were skillfully used by the revivalist-leaning segment—composed mainly of immigrants and converts—not only to institutionalize their presence but, by enlisting the Diyanet, to compete with and even successfully marginalize the SCSML-M. Though Hizmet managed to survive in Lithuania, it has also been successfully marginalized by the CMRCL-M and now plays a negligible role in the life of Lithuania’s Muslims.

Communal Rivalries in Perspective

The split in the Muslim community of Lithuania was prompted by demographic shifts within the Muslim population and had been simmering for a while before becoming institutionalized in the aftermath of, and in direct connection with, the failed coup in Turkey. On the one hand, Lithuanian Tatars, having kept their Muslim identity, in practice were littlereligiously conscious as they lacked educated religious leaders. The Soviet period facilitated rapid secularization among Tatars, the majority of whom—even as they self-identify as Muslims—remained religiously non-observant after Lithuania regained its independence. The majority of Lithuanian Tatars today see the religion of Islam as something more akin to a “cultural feature” of their ethnicity.

On the other hand, the bulk of Lithuanian converts to Islam, who might tentatively be viewed as a core of the observant part of the Muslim community in Lithuania, are exceptionally religious and observant. To most of them, becoming and staying Muslim is a state of mind. Recent converts often tend to embrace their new religion in its totality and holistically. Encouraged by expatriates and immigrants, namely conservative Arab students, some converts have begun to undertake Islamic proselytizing in Lithuanian—chiefly through online forums and websites, something hitherto unseen in the country. Though no Islamic NGO from the Arab world has so far tried to establish a direct presence in Lithuania, some, such as IslamHouse and the European Islamic Research Center, have provided financial support to proselytizing efforts in the form of website maintenance and funding for translations of Salafi literature into Lithuanian. Insofar as such proselytizing activities do not seem to have led to the radicalization of any Lithuanian Muslims—for example, no one from Lithuania joined ISIS—the Lithuanian authorities have not interfered with them. The zealousness of the converts has irritated Tatars, many of whom view such conversions as faddish rebellion. Conversely, many converts take a dim view of Tatar secularism, sometimes equating it with apostasy [2].

It is paradoxical that, on the one hand, Turkey appears to have shown much interest in the Muslim community of Lithuania but, on the other hand, has little to no control of the development of either of the two rival muftiates or of the only truly Turkish Islamic organization in the country, Balturka. With no sizeable Turkish diaspora and no other Turkish religious organizations in the country, Turkey seems unlikely to influence the development of Islam in Lithuania to any great degree in the near future. Meanwhile, the Lithuanian Muslim community, particularly the CMRCL-M, may further drift toward more conservative, if not Salafi-influenced, forms of Islamic religiosity, this way inevitably distancing itself not only from Turkish Islam but potentially jeopardizing its ongoing relationship with the Diyanet.

  1. Tamara Bairašauskaitė and Egdūnas Račius, “Lithuania,” in Muslim Tatar Minorities in the Baltic Sea Region, ed. Ingvar Svanberg and David Westerlund (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 21–45; Egdūnas Račius, “Dar al-Harb as the Motherland? The Muslim Tatars of (the Grand Duchy of) Lithuania and Social Contract,” Comparative Islamic Studies 10, no. 2 (2014): 157–177.
  2. Egdūnas Račius, “Muslims in Lithuania: revival at the expense of survival?” in Muslims in Poland and Eastern Europe: Widening the European Discourse on Islam, ed. Katarzyna Górak-Sosnowska (Warsaw: Faculty of Oriental Science, University of Warsaw, 2011), 207–221.

Editor's Note: This article was written as part of the Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power project, a partnership between Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and the Brookings Institution supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the respective authors.

Opens in a new window