Turkey: An Ambivalent Religious Soft Power

By: Ahmet Erdi Öztürk

June 6, 2019

Even though Muslims constitute less than 0.2 percent of Cuba’s population, during his 2015 visit to Havana Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made the offer to build a replica of the iconic Ortaköy mosque that graces the shores of the Bosporus in İstanbul. While it remains unclear whether Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs (the Diyanet) and its transnational arm, the Turkey Diyanet Foundation (Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı), will in fact be able to open a Turkish mosque of this stature in Cuba, Turkey has succeeded in putting into operation a well-functioning masjid that has been serving the Muslims of Havana, who are mostly students from Africa and Western Sahara and who it expects will be among the economic forces of the country in the near future. Not surprisingly, in that same year Saudi Arabia provided the Cuban government with funding to build a mosque in Old Havana, but Erdoğan implied that Turkey would be building the main mosque on its own. This reaction might be read as another chapter of Turkey–Saudi competition regarding who should represent, serve, and influence the global ummah, and as another chapter of the broad contestation among international actors for the increasingly competitive market of Islamic soft power.

In a similar vein, in mid-2015 Turkey’s Diyanet, in conjunction with another transnational apparatus of the Turkish state, the international development agency TİKA, started construction of what will be the largest mosque in the Balkans. The Namazgah Mosque is being built in Albania’s capital Tirana, renowned for its constitutional and religious tolerance despite its Muslim-majority demography. Similar to the vision expressed by Erdoğan in Havana, the new mosque in Tirana architecturally resembles those in İstanbul. Although during the ground-breaking ceremony in 2015 Erdoğan portrayed the mosque as a unique symbol of brotherhood between Albanians and Turks—and most Albanian Muslims are pleased to be on the receiving Turkey’s transnational religious services—there have been growing concerns among Albanian scholars and non-Muslim sociopolitical elites regarding the negative effects of Turkey’s involvement in the religious realm through its various transnational apparatuses. Even though some Turkish observers defined this initiative as a part of Turkish soft power projection, in 2018 Albanian scholar Xhemal Ahmeti produced a report for the Albanian government recommending that the state should take concrete steps to protect itself from Erdoğan’s political Islam and, equally, from Salafist movements. The report also hinted that not all of Turkey’s religious policies are perceived within the bounds of religious soft power in the eyes of the locals, since both the Diyanet and other state apparatuses have been using their capacities for purposes other than serving Muslims of the host countries

Manipulating Religious Soft Power

Indeed, Albania is not the first country to realize that the mosques built with Turkey’s money and other services were also used for political purposes to promote Erdoğan's sociopolitical and religious desires. For instance, in June 2018, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz ordered the closing of seven mosques run by the Diyanet and deported more than 40 Turkish imams and their families in consequence of their political activities under the cover of religion. 

A divergence of ideas (and even facts) regarding Turkey’s transnational religious influence via its multifarious institutions is not unique to the Balkans. For instance, in late 2018, with the financial support of the German government, Erdoğan personally opened one of Europe’s largest mosques in Cologne, with a benediction by the Diyanet’s president, Ali Erbaş. Cologne’s new mosque is just one of more than 1,000 Turkish-funded mosques that have been supplying religious services to both the Turkish diaspora in Germany and other Muslims in the country. On the other hand, Germany launched an investigation into the Diyanet to explore the possibility that some Turkish imams have spied on members of the Gülen Movement among the diaspora. The Gülen Movement, controlled by Fethullah Gülen and previously a sociopolitical partner of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), is currently accused of being one the leading actors of the bloody July 15, 2016 coup attempt in Turkey

These “spying imam” investigations are not limited to Germany, as allegations have expanded across Europe from Bulgaria to France, where Turkey has been successfully serving Muslims and trying to remain an influential actor since the late 1970s. No doubt, surveillance activities conducted by imams within the territory of foreign states cannot be defined within the concept of religious soft power, which fundamentally means the promotion of religion for a country’s foreign policy purposes. However, these investigations underline that the Diyanet imams are not alone; on the contrary, they have been working with Turkey’s other transnational apparatuses, which have been seen as soft power tools of Turkey in host countries. 

This complicated picture of Turkey reveals layered perspectives on the instrumentalization of religion in foreign policy and the role of religious institutions in bilateral relations between states, as well as new mechanisms of public diplomacy, nation branding, and extraterritorial authoritarian practices. Yet both scholarly and topical discussions have been scrutinizing issues around either a posited increase or decrease in Turkey’s soft power, or Erdoğan’s surmised political desire to become the patron of the global ummah by overwhelming the Saudis and Iran. One might also claim that all of these different views regarding Turkey’s increasingly religious-oriented soft power implementation — among both Muslims and non-Muslim host country elites — could reflect multilayered relations involved in the process of translating domestic political transformation into foreign policy, as well as the ambivalent structure of the emerging powers’ religious soft power. Above all else, the wide range of Turkish religious, cultural, and economic transnational apparatuses—including the Diyanet, the Yunus Emre Institute, and TİKA—and their long-term presence in more than 50 different countries have made such discussions more intricate, to say the least.

Stretching the Definition of Religious Soft Power 

Since coining the term in the late 1980s, Joseph S. Nye Jr. has modified the concept of soft power multiple times, but he has not explicitly theorized religion as a form of soft power. In 2005, Nye noted merely that religion is a double-edged sword as an American soft power resource, and that how it cuts depends on who is wielding it. In passing he also stated that some organized religious movements have possessed soft power for centuries, noting their missionary efforts as the wielding of religious soft power. After Nye, Jeffrey Haynes, as one of the first scholars to talk about the relation between religion and soft power, noted that religious soft power involves encouraging actors to change their political behaviors. 

Since then, many have examined how religion, religious actors, and organizations have the ability to inform the views of others via activities such as religious education and service, philanthropy, and the provision of health care as is done by many Muslim and Christian religious institutions in Africa and in some parts of the Middle East. Despite the relatively recent appearance of the concept of religious soft power, one might argue that Turkey started to wield religious soft power due to its sui generis understanding of secularism and its transnational implementation well before the concept itself had emerged, via its Diyanet and other state apparatuses. 

In 1924, the Diyanet was formed as part of the state structure for the implementation of all provisions concerning Islamic faith and worship in modern Turkey. At first glance the Diyanet might be understood as a structure composed of religious scholars (in other words, official Turkish ulama), but this would be erroneous since it is a bureaucratic body under state and political control. As such, it has undergone changes under various political forces. Starting from the late 1940s, within the multi-party system, political parties have realized that religious rhetoric could be transformed into votes; therefore, both right-wing and centrist political parties tried to enlarge the real authority of the Diyanet to reach religiously sensitive masses of people. After the re-establishment of the democratic order annihilated by the 1960 coup d’état, the Diyanet gained prominence because the state employed it in its struggle against communism. 

In the 1970s, the Diyanet received a further boost in the form of the Diyanet Foundation. The foundation received tax-exempt status in 1978, and this body has played an important role in financially supporting the activities of the Diyanet both in Turkey and abroad. In that same year, attachés for religious services and imams were appointed at Turkish diplomatic missions in continental Europe. After the 1980 coup d’état, the Diyanet’s mission included the promotion of Turkish Islam abroad, and it began to play a sociopolitical role in the international arena with the aim of promoting Turkey. Thus, Turkey’s Diyanet and Turkish moderate Islam have been actively instrumentalized in Turkish foreign policy as a soft power tool, providing an advantage over other potential actors since they have been seen as a preventive force against some of the radical Islamist movements and ideologies.

The Rise and Transformation of Turkey's Religious Soft Power

After unstable coalition periods, Turkey’s AKP in 2002 initiated a pro-democratic agenda alongside its unofficial coalition partner the Gülen Movement, a shift that positioned Turkey externally as an influential rising religious soft power player focused on democracy and humanitarian aid. With its ascendant economy, domestic reforms aimed at the EU accession process, and a global climate proposing the compatibility of Islam and democracy, Turkey rose as a soft power with religious tools at its disposal. In this, Turkey has become publicly almost more visible than the other Islamic soft power actors in continental Europe, in the Balkans, and in some particular countries like Somalia. The Diyanet has used its attaché offices in Turkish embassies and the Diyanet Foundation to forge agreements with the authorities of many different countries, Austria included, to train imams and provide other religious services. It has opened branches in more than 40 countries, publishing and distributing Qur'ans and religious books in more than 25 languages. It also provides financial support to official Muslim representative institutions in the Balkans, continental Europe, and Africa. Furthermore, the state-run construction companies TOKİ and TİKA have been constructing mosques around the world.

However, it should also be emphasized that Turkey has not managed to establish itself globally as a permanent, solid, and indisputable religious soft power player because since roughly 2010 the AKP has been shifting in the direction of authoritarianism and, in the eyes of some, disproportionate use of Islamist discourse and policies at home and abroad. This process of democratic backsliding has manifested through both domestic politics and significant changes in foreign policy, and the increasingly acrimonious rivalry between the Gülen Movement and the AKP has negatively affected Turkey’s capacity to wield effective soft power. In this transformation the AKP has started to instrumentalize Islam quite differently compared to the previous periods of Turkish attempts to exert influence in the Middle East and North Africa, the Balkans, and beyond. Notably, the Diyanet’s policies have been synchronized with the policies of the AKP, and its budget, administrative capacity, and activities have been gradually expanding throughout these years despite the shrinking economic environment within which the AKP operates. Over time, the Diyanet of the now increasingly repressive and less moderate AKP has started to be perceived differently by various countries and groups around the world.

Multifaceted Reactions to Turkey's Religious Soft Power

On the one hand, Erdoğan’s instrumentalization of Islam and the various religiously-oriented state apparatuses have been very well received in countries such as Somalia and Kosovo, because most of the elites and Muslim components have viewed Turkey’s initiatives as an investment in service of the global ummah. On the other hand, in certain other countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden, where the Gülen Movement and other opposition groups are in exile, Turkey’s transnational state apparatuses, especially the Diyanet, are perceived to export Turkish domestic conflicts and increase Islamist discourses within diaspora communities. Furthermore, these religious soft power apparatuses have started to involve themselves in the host countries’ domestic politics, as in the case of Bulgaria, due to Erdoğan’s new foreign policy mentality. Even though most of the Balkan countries have been presenting a common behavior of avoiding confrontation with Turkey because of its financial investment and respectability among their Muslims, EU member Bulgaria did not shut its eyes to Turkey’s interfering and religiously oriented foreign policy.

This increasingly authoritarian and overtly Islam-based policy of Turkey, it seems, cannot simply be regarded as benign religious soft power or public diplomacy. Rather, the current shift creates varying effects on different actors in neighboring regions: some groups are rather pleased with Turkey’s religiously-fueled approach, while others are seriously concerned. This is why Turkey’s religious soft power is best characterized in terms of ambivalence—particularly given the increasingly competitive market of Islamic soft power. Yet, it should also be noted that over the years Turkey has created an enormous transnational religious network via the Diyanet and other transnational apparatuses, and it still enjoys a broadly positive reputation among Muslim-majority countries. In this regard, if Turkey were to return to its more moderate Islamic course in foreign policy and re-engage in the direction of democracy, it might wield a significant advantage over other Muslim-majority countries that have sought to incorporate Islam as a tools in their foreign policy.

Editor's Note: These articles were 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.

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Turkey: An Ambivalent Religious Soft Power