An annual report on "Islamophobia" in Europe is being published under the name of a fictitious organization, presumably to conceal the report's close links to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Security experts say the report — which greatly exaggerates anti-Muslim bigotry in Europe — is a key element of a disinformation campaign aimed at furthering the Turkish government's longstanding goal to criminalize criticism of Islam in Europe.
The 2022 edition of the European Islamophobia Report (EIR), a massive compilation of alleged "Islamophobic" incidents in more than 20 European countries, was published in March 2023 by the so-called Leopold Weiss Institute, which appears to be a front organization for the Turkish government. The EIR was originally launched in 2015 by the Ankara-based Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research. Also known as SETA, the think tank has long been said to be controlled by the Turkish government and Erdoğan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Former Austrian lawmaker Efgani Dönmez, an expert on Islamism in Europe, told FWI that the annual report is part of an ongoing effort by "the representatives and actors of political Islam to infiltrate institutions and use strategies of obfuscation, camouflage and deception" to "influence society in Europe, the Turks living in the diaspora, as well as politics, institutions, and authorities — and parts of the church (interreligious dialogue) — in Europe."
Dönmez said that SETA's name was removed from the annual Islamophobia report because the Erdoğan government "is trying to adopt a softer tone towards the West due to the political turmoil and economic tensions inside Türkiye — in the knowledge that Europeans are needed as partners but also as an enemy." He added that "if you take a look at the Leopold Weiss Institute and the excerpt from the register of associations, then you can easily see that the same actors from the political Islam environment are behind it."
The EIR boasts support from seven academic and activist organizations, most of which are tied to leftwing American universities — principally the University of California at Berkeley. The university affiliations are said to be aimed at giving the EIR a veneer of academic credibility. An FWI investigation of the EIR published in March 2022 noted that the Turkish government had "found a group of American and European scholars and activists willing to promote Islamist propaganda and misinformation in Europe."
In 2019, the German Foreign Ministry, in response to an inquiry from German lawmakers, stated that although SETA "presents itself as independent," it is, in fact, "closely connected to the Turkish government and the Turkish secret service." SETA is used to "disseminate the views of the current Turkish government in the German language under the guise of science and research," according to German officials.
SETA was established in 2005 by İbrahim Kalın, a top Erdoğan advisor who recently was appointed director of Türkiye's National Intelligence Organization (MIT). Since its founding, SETA's key leadership positions have been controlled by Erdoğan confidants, including Fahrettin Altun, who is now Türkiye's Communications Minister, Burhanettin Duran, a senior foreign policy advisor to the Turkish president, and former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who believes that "Islam is Europe's indigenous religion."
According to a German Bundestag report, SETA is financed by the Albayrak clan, which is tied to Erdoğan through kinship. Berat Albayrak, the youngest son of Sadik Albayrak, an octogenarian Turkish journalist and politician, is married to Erdoğan's daughter Esra. Berat was Türkiye's Finance Minister between 2018 and 2020 while Sadik's oldest son, Serhat, was SETA's director.
Between 2015 and 2017, the European Union provided SETA with more than 100,000 euros as part of the EU-Turkey Civil Society Dialogue (CSD), a program aimed at preparing Türkiye for accession to the EU. The European Commission, the EU's administrative arm, discontinued the funding after it learned that SETA used those funds to publish the EIR. An EU statement said that the Commission had "stopped entrusting" Türkiye with the management of EU funds.
The EIR is co-edited by Farid Hafez and Enes Bayrakli, two academics who have built successful careers within the global "anti-Islamophobia" movement. Hafez, who is said to be close to the Muslim Brotherhood, was implicated in Operation Luxor, a high-profile counter-terrorism operation in Austria. Hafez, who now lives in the United States, avoided formal charges after a judge determined there was insufficient evidence to prove that the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organization. Hafez authored the EIR's Austria chapter, which is sparse on details about "Islamophobia" in the country and reads more like a personal vendetta against former Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz and other "leading Islamophobes" opposed to the spread of political Islamism in Austria.
Bayrakli, a professor at the Istanbul-based Turkish-German University, an institution funded by the Turkish state, was until recently SETA's Director of European Studies. He resigned from that position in 2021 amid a controversy over a SETA report that identified the names of hundreds of foreign journalists perceived to be critical of Erdoğan. A self-described Erdoğan loyalist, Bayrakli remains on the editorial board of Communication and Diplomacy, an influential policy journal published by the Turkish presidency. He also works with the Turkish Parliament's so-called Committee on Rising Racism and Islamophobia in Europe.
After SETA's extensive links to Erdoğan were exposed by German lawmakers, the EIR in 2020 changed the name of its publisher from SETA to Leopold Weiss Institute, which, according to the EIR, is based in Austria. An FWI investigation found that Leopold Weiss Institute has no website, does not appear in Austrian business registers, and has no tax identification number. An excerpt from Austria's Central Register of Associations (Zentrale Vereinsregister, ZVR) shows that it operates out of a private residence, and that Farid Hafez is the managing director. Top internet search results link Leopold Weiss Institute directly to SETA, as does an EU database.
Leopold Weiss Institute (Leopold Weiss was a 20th century Austro-Hungarian-born Jew who converted to Islam and sought to become a "mediator" between "Islam and the West") exists in name only and appears aimed at obscuring SETA's continuing role in producing the annual EIR.
In an illuminating Twitter exchange, Sweden's renowned counter-terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp wrote that the Leopold Weiss Institute is completely fictitious and a cover for SETA. EIR co-editor Hafez countered that the EIR is no longer published by SETA. "You are lying," Hafez replied. "The @islamophobiaEIR is not published by this institution [SETA]." Ranstorp referred Hafez to an in-depth investigation of the EIR by the Swedish newspaper Flamman, which documented SETA's links to the Leopold Weiss Institute.
Ranstorp described the EIR as "pseudo-scientific" and the "academization of disinformation." He added that the EIR "has consistently been an illustration and case of foreign state influence operation, in this case Türkiye." After Hafez again insisted that SETA was no longer involved in producing the EIR, Ranstorp wrote: "Publishing EIR reports with SETA for 5-6 years and co-hosting with CageUK [an activist group that defends jihadists] equals no academic credibility. Current publisher is Leopold Weiss Institute which is ... you and your wife."
The director of Stockholm University's Institute for Turkish Studies, Paul Levin, said that Erdoğan uses the EIR as part of a "deliberate strategy" to "politicize the issue of Islamophobia." "SETA can be described as the AKP's propaganda arm. The Turkish government, in a very organized way, uses 'Islamophobia' to counter criticism. The EIR is an example of that."
Soeren Kern is a Middle East Forum writing fellow.