The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey has stepped up its campaign to export political Islam to other countries, using a well-funded public foundation run by Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet).
The Turkish Religious Affairs Foundation (Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı, TDV), a foundation with huge assets and an annual budget of well over a billion Turkish lira, has been transformed into an instrument to project political Islamist ideology abroad. The Erdoğan government tapped the organization to build mosques and religious schools overseas and provide scholarships to thousands of foreign students, all aimed at promoting the firebrand religious ideology that at times resembles those subscribed to by radical terrorist groups.
Speaking at an event organized by the TDV on March 15, 2022, President Erdoğan praised the TDV’s campaign abroad and asked foreign exchange students sitting in the front row to help him accomplish certain goals when they complete their religious studies in Turkey and return to their home countries.
“We experienced the Çanakkale victory there [the Dardanelles, referring to the Gallipoli campaign in 1915]. Against whom? Against the entire Crusader world. At that time, university students [enlisted and] fought against the entire Crusader world in Çanakkale [province where the campaign took place]. … It is not enough. God willing, we will achieve more,” Erdoğan said in his speech.
Footage from Erdoğan’s speech at a TDV event on March 15, 2022:
“I see you [exchange students on TDV scholarships] as our mission chiefs all over the world. I hope you will help us when we go to your countries. We will achieve this together with you,” he added.
Then he moved on to recalling his experience when he was sent to Sudan in the 1990s by his mentor, Necmettin Erbakan, the founder of political Islam in Turkey, to attend a religious conference and deliver a speech and how he was helped with his speech by a Sudanese who had studied in Turkey.
The TDV, established in 1975 with the aim of conducting scientific research, publishing, editing and translating works on Islam, is one of the state institutions that have been turned into the long arm of the Erdoğan regime in proselytizing efforts abroad. The foundation enjoys huge assets, most from donations in cash and property, and finances a number of projects organized by the Erdoğan government abroad.
The chairman of the TDV board is Ali Erbaş, president of the Religious Affairs Directorate, a government entity with a huge army of well over 100,000 imams that controls some 90,000 mosques in Turkey and abroad.
According to latest disclosed financial data, the TDV had 1.3 billion Turkish lira in revenue in 2020, the bulk of which came from donations, and spent TL 853.6 million the same year to fund projects. The value of its assets, mostly in the form of properties owned by holding companies and shares in commercial businesses was never declared, but it was estimated to be a multi-billion-dollar figure.
The 2020 budget of the TDV:TDV_2020_budget
The foundation has been active in 149 countries and has 1,003 branches in Turkey. The flagship project of the foundation 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.
In the 2019-2020 school year, the TDV trained 1,359 exchange students in religious high schools (Uluslararasi Anadolu Imam Hatip Lisesi) in Turkey. The main criteria for granting scholarships is that candidates must have foreign nationality or residence and be between the ages of 14 and 16. Turkish nationals are not eligible for the program. Similarly, 1,164 foreign students were funded by the TDV to study theology at the university level in the same school year. Turkish nationals who have dual citizenship or residence abroad and are aged between 18-25 are eligible to apply for a scholarship at this level. Funding for post-graduate studies is also available, with 316 academics benefitting from this program so far.
The TDV also set up a graduate network to keep students who completed their education engaged with Turkey. It links foreign students with Turks during short summer camps and study programs. In 2020 the TDV funded 8,193 students abroad under various programs and provided cash to a number of organizations in Palestine, Somalia, Bulgaria, Romania, Haiti, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia.
The Erdoğan government also uses the TDV to construct landmark mosques in other countries to create hubs for spreading its ideology and building communities that will help the Turkish government’s policies abroad. It allocated TL 85 million in 2020 for construction in foreign countries. Mosques recently built with millions of euros in TDV funding are located in Kosovo, Albania, Russia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kyrgyzstan. Some of the mosques were inaugurated by Erdoğan himself.
The foundation also spent $536 million in 2020 alone to finance projects administered by religious attachés who work out of Turkish embassies and consulates as diplomats in 34 countries.
In territories in Syria where the Turkish Armed Forces are in control, the TDV has been active in funding mosques, schools and camps as part of the Erdoğan government’s policy of carving out a sphere of influence in the northeast of the Syrian Arab Republic. In the Idlib region, where both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria still maintain a presence, the TDV funds seven schools including one named after President Erdoğan and built four mosques. In the Azaz region, it build a mosque and subsidizes 1,791 imams and other religious workers. In Afrin and other places, over 600 imams receive cash from the TDV for their religious operations.
Since 2015 the foundation has bestowed the annual International Benevolence Awards, a signature event aimed at publicizing TDV activities and garnering endorsements for President Erdoğan’s global clout. At the latest ceremony held on March 15, 2022, the TDV recognized Siraj Wahhaj, a US national and Brooklyn imam who claimed all Muslims should gather around Erdoğan’s leadership at a New York event in 2019 attended by Erdoğan as keynote speaker. He accepted his award from the president in Ankara.
2019 video of Siraj Wahhaj, an imam in Brooklyn, asking for a centralized Muslim leadership to be led by Turkish President Erdoğan:
Another award went to Yusuf/Cat Stevens, a British singer and songwriter who converted to Islam. In a recorded video message he sent to the event from the UK, Stevens offered thanks for the award and said he was honored. He praised Erdoğan’s leadership and how many Muslims around the world acknowledged his contributions to peace and stability while ignoring the terrible human rights record of Turkey’s oppressive leader, who has jailed tens of thousands of fellow Muslims in Turkey because of their critical and opposition stance.
Such endorsements the TDV has managed to obtain for Erdoğan abroad are often played out to Muslim communities around the world to promote the Turkish president and help recruit new backers for Erdoğan’s regime.
Although Turkey’s Court of Accounts, which reviews the expenditures of state institutions and audits the government’s spending, said the TDV needs to be audited as well, the Erdoğan government kept it out of the accounting review, dealing a huge blow to transparency in public budgeting.
The TDV has a number of commercial companies it operates with 1,186 employees in Turkey that include Kocatepe Modern Mağazacılık İşletmeleri Sanayi ve Ticaret A.Ş. (KOMAŞ), which runs a wide range of commercial interests from construction and food to insurance and the health industry. It also owns Vakıf Medya Sanat Radyo Televizyon A.Ş., which runs a television and radio network on behalf of the Diyanet; İslam Araştırmaları Merkezi (İSAM), a research center; Yurtlar ve Sosyal Tesisler İktisadi İşletmesi, a commercial entity that manages dormitories and resorts; and TDV Yayın Matbaacılık ve Ticaret işletmesi, a publishing and printing firm.