Turkish President Recep Tayyip inaugurates the Diyanet Center of America (DCA), one of the largest mosques in the United States, in April 2016.
Across Turkey and the Turkish diaspora around the world, wariness of the Diyanet, Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs, is growing. Amid an economic crisis in Turkey, this month journalists, activists, and politicians have condemned the enormous amount of money the Diyanet spends and the apparent corruption of its top officials. Critics also denounced the body's evolving efforts to impose "Islamization" on Turkey. ...
The United States of America is a key target for Turkish Islamist zeal. In April 2016, Erdoğan inaugurated one of the largest mosques in the United States. Funded by the Turkish government, the Diyanet Center of America (DCA) is a massive complex that sits on nearly 17 acres in Lanham, Maryland. Construction began in 2012, and the center was opened in 2016.
There is little oversight in the US regarding this type of foreign funding for religious institutions. In France, by contrast, the government regards such foreign state religious funding as a primary driver of Islamist radicalization and has imposed significant restrictions.
With the directive from Erdoğan's Act 6002, the enlarged and transnational Diyanet footed the $110 million bill for the American field office while Ankara anxiously awaited the projected power and prestige of controlling the most expensive mosque in the US, built just 15 miles from the heart of the nation's capital.
The DCA's registered 501(c) reports over $93 million of assets in its latest tax return.
In fact, today the DCA is among the wealthiest Islamic organizations across America, with its registered 501(c) reporting over $93 million of assets in its most recently filed tax return.
The DCA is not shy about its loyalty to the AKP and openly notes that it "works in full cooperation with the Diyanet"—all to spread the regime's particular strain of Islamism. In the West, Diyanet institutions also work with proxies and supporters of other Islamist movements supported by Ankara, such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
The DCA is not shy about its loyalty to Turkey's ruling party.
For example, in the US, the DCA's research arm, the Diyanet Islamic Research Institute, openly partners with organizations such as the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), one of the most prominent Muslim Brotherhood institutions in the world.
The Diyanet also demands full endorsement of Erdoğan from its partners and congregants, and propagates the idea that all opponents of the AKP are "traitors." European governments have noticed the Diyanet's efforts to enforce loyalty to Ankara among European citizens, with Western officials criticizing Diyanet and AKP efforts to "conduct political propaganda in their mosques" outside Turkey.
Taking advantage of America's religiously tolerant society has clearly paid off for Erdoğan.
Taking advantage of America's diverse and religiously tolerant society was a careful, calculated move on Erdoğan's part. It has clearly paid off. For the last five years, the Turkish regime has been able to successfully run one of its largest government agencies—with zero restrictions—just a few miles from the US Capitol, and all under the guise of a religious cultural center.
However, the level of influence goes much deeper than an expensive mosque in Maryland. The DCA is the head of 28 other Diyanet branches across the United States. Every one of these 28 branches has a president that is unflinchingly loyal to Erdoğan and the AKP. Every so often, Diyanet officials from Turkey come to the DCA complex to hold events and meetings with Diyanet branch leaders from all across the United States.
As other analysts have noted, the DCA must surely be compelled to register under the Foreign Agents Restriction Act, which regulates agents of influence for foreign nations operating on American soil.
Turkish Diyanet officials and imams across the US are working for and advancing the interests of a foreign government without ever having registered as foreign agents. Although many of them have been living in the United States for years, according to their social media accounts, they refer to Erdoğan as "our president" and zealously pledge allegiance to the AKP. Some even run talk shows for their American audience, hosting Diyanet higher-ups as guests.
Across America, these agents consistently campaign for Erdoğan's agenda and aim to proselyte the Turkish regime's interests. In addition, DCA officials are increasingly involved in efforts to partner with and influence senior American politicians. Erdoğan has acknowledged such outreach, even at one point claiming before an American Islamist audience that the AKP regime has directly supported efforts to elect Muslims in America.
A Growing Threat
The Diyanet is also a key institution amid intra-Islamist politics and the battle for control of Muslim communities. Diyanet foreign agents and their communities are on the frontline of Ankara's propaganda war against followers of Muhammed Fethullah Gülen—the leader of the Hizmet movement, a political network Erdoğan blames for the attempted coup in 2016. Gülen now lives in political exile in Pennsylvania.
Followers of Gülen are labeled terrorists by the Turkish regime, which encourages its proxies and supporters to target and report sympathizers to their local Diyanet authorities.
It is difficult to say what happens after that. But it's indicative to look at what these spying Diyanet imams have done globally. Just recently, in Kenya, a relative of Gülen was abducted by Turkish agents from police custody and removed from the country, despite his legal asylum status. While it's hard to imagine abductions of Turkish dissidents taking place in the United States, many across America noticed in 2019 the willingness of Turkish government officials to assault dissidents on American soil.
Various other Turkish NGOs and Islamist proxies also proselyte the Erdoğan regime's interests in America.
The Turkish regime network is deeply rooted in the United States. While it primarily operates through the DCA, the Diyanet in America is just one example of the Turkish regime's efforts to infiltrate and influence.
Other Turkish NGOs and various Islamist proxies also play a major role. For example, agents of Erdoğan have reportedly established "camouflaged shell" organizations to create a conduit for a "problem-free funds-transfer" in the US, to lobby politicians and move money. Wikileaks documents reveal one Turkish regime operative in the US stating, "With this type of structure, funding regulations and tax barriers that limit lobbying activities in the US will be overcome."
There is plenty of other evidence of criminal activity linked to the regime and the Diyanet. For instance, two of many of the regime-linked tax-exempt US front organizations, the Turkish Heritage Organization (THO) and Turkish American National Steering Committee (TASC), were under investigation by the FBI, with leaked emails suggesting the group was conducting espionage operations for Ankara. Nonetheless, all these Turkish proxy groups continue to operate with impunity.
That the DCA is closely interwoven with all these Islamist groups and other Turkish regime proxies across the West is well-established. Cataloging the network of Erdoğan loyalists in the umpteen Turkish charities, media outlets, and NGOs, and understanding the full extent of the enormous Turkish regime influence operation in the United States, however, is only just beginning.
Adam Smith is a writer for Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.