The Turkish president mobilized his religious operatives working in foreign countries to canvass the diaspora in order to bring him votes in an upcoming election in which each and every vote will be critical to his political survival amid a worsening outlook for Turkey's economy.
The message was conveyed at a meeting last week to imams sent overseas by the government's Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) to work as part of teams in Turkish embassies and consulates as attachés and consuls.
The meeting of religious attachés and consuls in the Turkish capital of Ankara convened by Diyanet president Ali Erbaş, a hand-picked loyalist selected by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to run a huge network of imams and mosques that is financed by a substantial budget. In a closed-door session Erbaş instructed his people overseas to work closely with other government entities in pursuit of the goals set by Ankara.
The attachés and consuls were also brought to the presidential palace on June 2 for a private audience with Erdoğan. No word on the content of the talk was ever reported by the Turkish press, meaning the presidential communications office did not share anything with news outlets.
Although the reliability of public opinion polls is questionable in Turkey, where a climate of fear, brutal suppression of critical voices and the threat of imprisonment for dissent forces people to hide their real views and where most pollsters work with the Erdoğan government, such surveys nevertheless indicate a pattern that shows Erdoğan has been losing support.
Erdoğan and his associates must be quite concerned about the real picture of how Turks feel about the Erdoğan government and a possible voter backlash in the face of soaring food and energy prices, hyper-inflation, increasing unemployment and a rapid decline in purchasing power and the value of the Turkish lira.
Nobody doubts that Erdoğan will use every trick in the book to rig the elections, use mass irregularities and have judges in his pocket to rule in his favor in disputed vote counts. He has already pushed a bill through parliament for gerrymandering and redistricting advantages for his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and he has more up his sleeve to tilt the rules in his favor.
However, if he and his party lose in a landslide, it may be very difficult to him to compensate for the shortfall with such tricks. Therefore, Erdoğan needs each and every vote to narrow the gap as much as possible and win the elections, both presidential and parliamentary.
That is where the votes from the diaspora come into the picture in a way that is hugely important for President Erdoğan, who has relied on government imams to communicate messages to voters in mosques in past elections.
The Diyanet has been radically transformed in the last decade under Erdoğan's rule and has turned into an instrument for projecting the ruling party's polarizing and divisive political Islamist ideology in both Turkey and abroad. Those who resisted the politicization of the religious body were purged en masse in recent years, replaced with partisans and loyalists whose mandate was to do the government's bidding under religious camouflage.
The official data from the 2018 parliamentary elections show that Erdoğan's AKP garnered 52.5 percent of the votes cast by Turkish expatriates, increasing to 60.6 percent when votes for his partner, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), are included. In the presidential election that same year, Erdoğan garnered 59.4 percent of all expat votes in a race against the main opposition candidate.
Turkish mosques, associations and foundations supported and financed by the Turkish government in other countries play an important role in voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns, and President Erdoğan counts on the Diyanet, among others, to keep his numbers up in the diaspora. His constant bashing of Europe, where the majority of Turkish expatriate voters reside, is also aimed at luring voters who have grievances against the countries they live in.
The Diyanet has a TL 16.1 billion budget for the year 2022, controls some 90,000 mosques and employs nearly 140,000 staff including those working in the diaspora. Some of the operations abroad are funded by the Turkish Religious Affairs Foundation (Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı, TDV), an organization with sizable assets and an annual budget of well over a billion Turkish lira. It is controlled by Diyanet chief Erbaş.
The foundation is active in 149 countries and has 1,003 branches in Turkey. The foundation's flagship project is to educate and train foreign exchange students in line with the Islamist ideology of the Erdoğan regime and raise a generation of young Islamists that will help and promote this ideology in other countries.
Diyanet-run mosques in Europe were exposed in a scandal in 2016, with Turkish imams caught spying on critics and opponents of the Erdoğan regime. A document surfaced in 2016 which showed that the Diyanet conducted surveillance on members of the Gülen movement, a group critical of the Erdoğan government, in 38 countries including Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, Norway and Austria.
In December 2016 Turkey had to recall Yusuf Acar, the religious affairs attaché at the Turkish Embassy in The Hague after Dutch authorities accused him of gathering intelligence on Gülenists. Similarly, Belgian authorities rejected the visa applications of 12 Turkish imams seeking to work in the country in 2017.
The government of the central German state of Hessen ended its cooperation with the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Türk İslam Birliği, or DITIB). "The doubts about the fundamental independence of DITIB from the Turkish government could not be resolved," said Minister of Culture Alexander Lorz. DITIB, the German branch of the Diyanet and a religious arm of Erdoğan's Islamist regime, controls imams sent by the Turkish government to European countries.
Abdullah Bozkurt, a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow, is a Swedish-based investigative journalist and analyst who runs the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network and is chairman of the Stockholm Center for Freedom.