Germany needs to accept Turkish influence - analyst

German officials have expressed concerns about the Turkish government’s powerful hold over the large Turkish community in Germany. 

But an expert on that community says they should be wary of pushing too hard to eliminate Turkish influence, as Turkish-origin Germans maintain a strong bond with their homeland and may need its support as they face a rising threat from anti-immigrant far-right groups. 

Some two-thirds of Germany’s 4.5 million Muslims are of Turkish origin, representing the largest Turkish community outside Turkey and Germany’s largest immigrant group. The Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB) is Germany’s largest Islamic organisation, and was set up in 1984 as a branch of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, though it has since been officially de-linked. 

DITIB oversees some 900 mosques, for which the Turkish government trains and assigns imams. In 2017, several DITIB imams confessed to acting as informants for the Turkish government, though a German investigation into possible spying was closed after seven of the accused imams fled the country and others were found to have committed only minor infractions. 

Hüseyin Çiçek, research associate at the Erlangen Center for Islam and Law and an analyst of Turkish immigrant communities, says DITIB imams likely do report regularly to Ankara, particularly about possible followers of Fethullah Gülen, whom Turkey sees as responsible for a failed coup in 2016. Some 14,000 suspected Gülenists are said to have fled to Germany since the coup attempt. 

These imams “have an obligation to report what’s going in on their mosques, in their communities,” Çiçek told Ahval in a podcast. “They are also receiving their Friday sermons from Turkey, so there is a very strong connection.” 

Visiting Berlin last year, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said thousands of terrorists were moving freely in Germany, pointing to Gülenists as well as those connected to armed Kurdish groups that are outlawed in Turkey. 

More than half of the nearly three million people of Turkish origin in Germany are still able to vote in Turkish elections, thus Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) see them as a key constituency. 

As a result, says Çiçek, these Turks remain closely connected to their homeland, even after up to half a century in their adopted home. Turks began arriving in Germany in the 1960s, as guest workers needed to fill growing labour demand in the booming post-war economy. 

“The Turkish community in Germany created ties with Turkey from the first moment they migrated into Germany, and those connections have gotten stronger and stronger,” said Çiçek.

The list of top Turkish officials who attended a mosque opening in Cologne last year included not just Erdoğan and the head of the Diyanet, but also the foreign minister, the defence minister, the minister of treasury and finance, and a former prime minister. 

“They try to show that Turkey is not so far away,” said Çiçek. “Turkey is part of the Turkish community in Germany and tries to support them the best it can.” 

Today, he added, the Diyanet aims to influence this community not only with religious teachings but in looking to bring congregants in line with the policies of Erdoğan and the AKP. 

Berlin has repeatedly expressed its desire to erode this Turkish influence, and earlier this month provided start-up funding for a domestic imam education programme, with the hope that it would eventually expand and eliminate the need for imams sent from Turkey. 

Çiçek sees this shift to a domestic, German form of Islam happening slowly, over perhaps a generation. “They are still in the beginning of this process to train imams in Germany,” he said, adding that until it was completed Germany would need to continue to import imams. 

Still, Çiçek expected that, in the end, losing Turkish imams would not have much impact on these communities. “The connection with Turkey is not only on the level of religion,” he said, pointing to close-knit Turkish neighbourhoods as well as Turkish media outlets in Germany.

On Monday, several of those outlets reported that a far-right extremist group emailed a bomb threat to one of the most prominent Turkish mosques in Berlin, the grand, Ottoman-style Şehitlik Mosque. Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency said dozens of mosques in Germany had received bomb threats in recent months. 

“We have to take these threats very seriously, because enmity against Muslims and Turkish people is rising,” said Çiçek.

In April, German authorities reported that attacks on mosques and Muslims declined in 2018, to 813 from 950 the previous year. But the number of injuries caused in the attacks increased and analysts said many attacks go unreported. 

The manager of Berlin’s Mevlana mosque, which suffered an arson attack in 2014, told Turkey’s state-run broadcaster TRT World that anti-Muslim sentiment had surged in recent years. 

This enmity dates back to Turks’ arrival and has nothing to do with Erdoğan and the AKP,  according to Çiçek, who explained that nationalist Germans like those that support the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party do not see Turks and Muslims as part of true German society.

“As the Turkish community has become more successful, that resentment and that enmity grows,” he said. 

Germany would likely be better off if it were able to accept a certain level of Turkish influence and success. Çiçek highlighted the election of Belit Onay as Hanover mayor earlier this month, marking the first Turkish-origin German to lead a state capital and a major city. 

“It’s a logical outcome because people with Turkish backgrounds have been engaging in this field for decades,” he said, pointing to Cem Özdemir, the former Green Party co-chair, and others. “The Turkish community arrived on the political stage many years ago.”