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.
This Islamist NATO member—accused of tacitly supporting ISIS and other Salafi–jihadists—has long held high expectations of becoming a leading global power, and to lead the Muslim world under a new caliphate. To pursue such theocratic goals, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (who famously compared democracy to a train: "you get off once you've reached your destination") has worked to consolidate power, develop an international network of extremist ideologues and teachings, fund terror, persecute his critics, religious, and ethnic minorities, undermine foreign powers, and systematically destroy the remaining vestiges of Turkey's democratic policies and practices from its former secular system.
One of Erdoğan's main tools has been this government agency that too few Western public officials, intelligence agencies, and law enforcement departments know of: the Diyanet. The Diyanet is thus not just a gravy train for covetous officials; it is also the main vehicle for the ideological export of theocratic Turkey's guiding Islamist ideas.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) took over the religious government agency shortly after its ascension to power, turning it into one of the best-funded government agencies and using it around the world to gain control over Muslim communities, conduct espionage operations, lobby, influence, launder, and advance the cause of Turkish Islamism.
Rebuilding the Diyanet
A century ago, within the Ottoman caliphate, the Shaykh al-Islam was the most powerful religious office, working under the sultan. In the 1920s, as the Empire collapsed and a new Turkey emerged, the Shaykh al-Islam was altered into a cabinet, which was then subsequently reorganized into the Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı (Diyanet), under the prime ministry of the new Republic.
Since then, for almost a century, the Diyanet has operated as a national religious authority, but one that exerted little influence over secularist Turkey. It worked in relative obscurity with nothing like the level of power the Shaykh al-Islam once wielded. But with the rise of Turkish Islamists in the 1990s and their election to national office in the 2000s, the Diyanet's role changed considerably.
Erdoğan's rise to power in 2002 marked a turning point in the function of the Diyanet. The Islamist ambitions of his Justice and Development Party are irrefutable and well-studied. And over the past two decades, with Erdoğan in power, the religious government agency has once again become a key political tool for the aspiring caliph.
The Diyanet was indeed a perfect vehicle for Erdoğan's agenda, given that—despite its diminished status—today's Diyanet hails directly from the religious order of the last caliphate. This echo of past religious rule has long attracted the influence and interests of religious radicals—an obvious platform through which modern political Islam can germinate.
In January of 2010, Erdoğan passed Act 6002; this change in the law elevated the Diyanet's position in the Turkish government. After 90 years of secularist conviction underpinning the Turkish system of rule, this significant change in the law suddenly promoted the Diyanet president to the highest appointed bureaucratic position in Turkey.
Beforehand, the Diyanet sat at the fringes of the government—its influence limited to minor religious issues, playing no role in politics. But now the Diyanet head became a serious player with an enormous amount of political influence. Shortly after elevating the Diyanet to the highest ranks in the government, Erdoğan fired the old Diyanet president, replacing him with an AKP colleague.
Under the AKP, the Diyanet has now become one of the largest government organizations, evident by the biggest budget increase seen in any Turkish government institution.
And with Erdoğan's rise, the Diyanet has become the main platform for promoting AKP Islamism—which, across the world, persistently supports Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, as well as Islamism in South Asia and further afield.
The Diyanet has been key to the regime's ideological exports. In fact, the government explicitly tasked the Diyanet to establish itself outside Turkey. Following this directive in Act 6002, the agency has created multiple Diyanet mosques or field offices in countries such as France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and the United States.
As noted by Ahmet Yayla, a former senior Turkish police officer, the Diyanet now has thousands of affiliated mosques, dozens of schools, and official councilors assigned in 52 countries. It also maintains "faith attaches" in 38 regions globally.
The Diyanet maintains the regime's monopoly on religion and has become a mouthpiece for the state's propaganda efforts. By centrally regulating the Friday sermons, the Diyanet controls the network of affiliated mosques around the world, with the Diyanet head preparing texts that its mosques must read out on Fridays.
Yayla notes that even Diyanet officials in the United States have discussed "the distribution of the pre-written sermons to the U.S. mosques" and "the fact that the sermons should address both the Turkish and at the same time U.S. Muslims."
The Diyanet is key to Turkey's efforts to radicalize foreign Muslim populations, often in competition with other Islamist movements for control of Muslim communities around the world. Academics Ahmet Öztürk and Semiha Sözeri found that under the AKP, Diyanet imams working abroad have become religious diplomats for Ankara, working to gain "socio-political influence [over Muslims] in the host societies."
Such overt attempts at ideological imposition can lead to discontent. In Turkey, from a study on the Diyanet's domestic influence, the theologian Cemil Kiliç notes that the sermons comprise overt political propaganda for Erdoğan and his AKP, which has reportedly led more Turks to stop attending mosques entirely.
Months after the attempted coup in 2016, it came out that through Diyanet imams stationed abroad, the Turkish regime had been spying in 38 countries to uncover and track political opposition. Crucially, these imams operating outside Turkey are not just recruited volunteers, but are appointed government officers, required to follow orders from Ankara.
It has now been five years since the coup incident, and Erdoğan's race to imprison anyone affiliated with Hizmet, the political movement allegedly involved, is apparently not slowing down. Globally, the Diyanet has become critical to this effort—serving as the new sultan's vehicle for spying and imprisoning his critics, indoctrinating his people, and promoting his Ottoman ambitions.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.