By Abdullah Bozkurt
May 08, 2015
Drawing on the infamous Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and Ayatollahs of Iran, Turkey's chief political Islamist, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his associate zealots in the government have been preoccupied with the idea of constructing mega mosques in Turkey and abroad to build influence and project a politicized religious discourse to the masses.
This unprecedented move, which is only paralleled by the satellite mosques built by Saudis and Iranians over decades for political purposes, has set Turkey on a voyage into uncharted waters, one that may well create a backlash against Turkish interests in the long run. It is also a great disservice to the religion of Islam, which is already being abused by Saudi and Iranian extremists as part of an effort to penetrate and gain influence in host countries. Given that the current political Islamist government in Turkey has so many pro-Iranian officials in senior positions, it is hardly surprising to see the same Iranian Mullah template now being deployed by Ankara.
The construction of a giant mosque on Çamlıca Hill, overlooking the Bosporus and on the Asian side of İstanbul, will make it one of the largest Islamic shrines to be built in Turkey since the republic was founded in 1923. This was Erdoğan's idea to project his religious credentials to Muslims in Turkey. The highly controversial construction was actually largely financed by kickbacks and forced contributions elicited from corporations under intense government pressure. That situation confirms the long-held view that political Islamists care more for symbolism than substance when it comes to religious observance.
That is why the former head of the İstanbul Police Department's Financial Crimes Unit, Yakub Saygılı, who exposed a massive corruption scandal involving government ministers, told main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) lawmaker Erdal Aksünger that he asked his family not to have a funeral service at that mosque because it is being built with corrupt funds. But for Islamists, ethical and moral values that are deeply embedded in Islamic discourse simply do not matter as long as they reap political benefits. These hypocrites have also embarked on a new project of turning some 80,000 mosques that are officially managed by the Directorate of Religious Affairs in the country into places of propaganda for their partisan ideology.
The same sinister goal is also pursued by Erdoğan and his company of zealots in mosque-building projects abroad, which are either financed by government funds or through foundations indirectly controlled by the government. From building a mosque in Athens to resurrecting a nonexistent mosque on a hilltop in Havana, and from Moscow to Washington, Erdoğan has been commandeering an ambitious global mosque network project that is overseen by highly politicized Religious Affairs Directorate.
Mehmet Görmez, the head of the directorate, who recently became famous for his lavish lifestyle that includes a brand new luxury Mercedes and the costly renovation of his official, Jacuzzi-filled residence, said in March that Turkey has been building mega mosques in Moscow, Washington, Tirana, Skopje, Pristina, Mali, Congo and Ghana. He said all these mosques are as big as the historic Blue Mosque located in Istanbul. For example, the one that is being constructed by the Diyanet Foundation in Tirana will be the largest mosque ever built in the whole of the Balkans.
In Turkey, almost all mosques and prayer halls were generally built with funds raised exclusively by citizens. People-driven projects traditionally furnished neighbourhoods with mosques to meet the demands of local communities, rather than the political project now being used by parties to advance their own ideological and political goals. For its part, the government provided tax benefits, paid Imams and provided free utilities, but the locals administered the mosques. With Erdoğan and his political Islamist associates in government, this decades-long tradition was trampled on in favor of benefiting Islamist politicians.
Unfortunately Erdoğan's highly controversial policies amounting to social and political engineering have deepened polarization and escalated tension among mosque congregations. Many mosque-goers stopped attending Friday prayers because sermons dictated centrally by the government-controlled Religious Affairs Directorate are catering to political Islamists' narratives rather than the true teachings of Islam. For example, when Erdoğan's close political and business circles, and family members were incriminated in a multi-billion dollar corruption scandal in December 2013, Imams were instructed not to talk about how Islam forbids corruption, thievery and influence-peddling, in favor of giving sermons on how terrible it is for a Muslim to speculate and spread rumors based on media stories.
The same polarization is now being exported to expat communities abroad, especially in European countries such as Germany, Austria, France and the Netherlands where many Turkish immigrants live. Since the Turkish government appointed imams to many mosques there, the same polarizing narrative is also heard in these places. What is more, the mosque networks in these countries are seen as venues for conducting political campaigns to gain votes for Islamist politicians or to mobilize people on behalf of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). When Erdoğan faced a huge wave of protests in the summer of 2013 over the Gezi events, he had his own people to tap into and stage protests in the mosque networks in Germany, Austria, France and elsewhere.
How does Erdoğan finance this network? For one, funds are earmarked from discretionary or slush funds that are not subject to any auditing at all and are completely off the books. Second, some of the funds are funneled through a scheme of development and restoration projects. Third, government-controlled foundations like the Religious Affairs Directorate raise funds from both Turkey and abroad from donors. The last, but not the least method, is the use of so-called “black money” obtained by abusing the state's powers, which includes the use of state-owned banks; commissions forcibly taken out of fees for business permits, construction and mining licenses; and kickbacks from public tenders. Çamlıca Mosque is prime example of this illicit and illegal scheme; it is being built using donations contractors were forced to make upon being awarded public contracts and tenders.
Behind all this grandeur lies a big appetite within Islamists to plant the seeds of their ideology that lacks strong support in Turkish society. Let's remember that Turks are overwhelmingly Muslim, but they are not political Islamists. They are rather subscribers to the Sufi tradition in Islamic discourse, which is more moderate, humble and inner-oriented, rather than showcasing with a heavy emphasis on symbolism. Hence Erdoğan and his political Islamist ilk know that their ideology is not supported by the bulk of the nation. They came to power through democratic channels with a promise of political reform, corruption-free government and caring for the poor. Now that they have failed utterly on all these promises, Erdoğan does not want to leave power and instead has hastened the political Islamist project to build an ideological base.
The main challenge to this project comes from Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who has inspired an impressive network in a global movement called Hizmet, a civic advocacy group that is quite savvy in its interfaith and intercultural dialogue, science education and outreach activities to diverse groups in an effort to contribute to global peace. Gülen, who has been highly critical of Erdoğan's corrupt government, believes that political Islamists have done great deal of damage to the fundamental teachings of the Islamic Prophet and the principles laid down in the Holy Quran. Gülen has strongly opposed the exploitation of Islam for political goals and personal enrichment. Erdoğan is apparently infuriated with Gülen because the Islamic scholar, thorough public speeches, exposed the real face of these political Islamist zealots who mask their opportunism behind a religious veil.
To coordinate and support Erdoğan's mosque network project, the government stacked key agencies with many Islamists. That includes the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TİKA), the Prime Ministry's Overseas Turks Agency (YTB), the Yunus Emre Institute and the Public Diplomacy Coordination office. State-owned media outlets such as the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) and Anadolu Agency were also directed to support this project through propaganda-driven reporting.
Nevertheless, this project is doomed to fail, as there is no strong support from Turks in general for what Erdoğan and his Islamist associates are up to. It is not reflective of our values and way of life in Turkey, as we have been accustomed to moderation and diversity for centuries; it is deeply embedded in our rich and colorful culture. Second, the mosque-building project will face increasing challenges from host countries when suspicions arise over the ulterior motives pursued by Erdoğan.
The attempted fait-accompli last month by Turkey's outgoing Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu who claimed that US President Barack Obama had agreed to join Erdoğan at the inauguration of a completed Turkish mosque in Washington was immediately denied by the White House. Obama saw through how Erdoğan has been contemplating staging a show using the White House and moved to thwart his efforts in the US capital. Perhaps others will follow suit when Erdoğan pushes further on the ideological front to project himself as the self-declared caliph of all Muslims, pretending to care about mosques. The only thing Erdoğan values is power, and mosques are simply building blocks for him to harvest more of that.