The Turkish government’s religious arm, which carries out overseas operations in coordination with Turkish intelligence agency MIT, has received a significant injection of funds in the millions of lira from the supplementary budget, according to data reviewed by Nordic Monitor.
In a quickly passed bill in June, the Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) was allocated an additional 276.2 million Turkish lira from the central budget, funded by Turkish taxpayers. For the year 2023, the Diyanet had already been allotted TL 35.9 billion lira, surpassing the budgets of numerous ministries combined. This marks a staggering increase of 123 percent compared to the previous year’s budget allocation.
This isn’t the first instance of the government’s generosity in funding the Diyanet. In the previous year, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan similarly provided extra funds to the institution, elevating its projected budget from 16.1 billion to 23.3 billion by the end of 2022. Despite the supplementary budget, the Diyanet spent more than it received from the central budget.
With the injection of new funds in June, the Diyanet’s budget has now reached TL 36.2 billion. This highlights President Erdogan’s emphasis on the religious aspects of his governmental strategies, aimed at strengthening his administration and propagating the political Islamist ideology overseas.
In a report released by the Diyanet in February and obtained by Nordic Monitor, the Diyanet’s president, Ali Erbaş, proudly highlighted the institution’s transformation into a global network, attributed to the resources and expanded mandate granted by the Erdogan government. He noted that through heightened international engagement, the Diyanet has evolved into a guiding entity for Turkish and Muslim communities residing abroad. Notably, Erbaş emphasized that the Diyanet exerts influence on the agendas of Western nations, actively countering adversaries of Islam and combating Islamophobia.
The international endeavors of the Diyanet are managed by the General Directorate for External Relations, directly under the authority of the head of the Diyanet. This directorate boasts 504 employees stationed abroad, fulfilling their roles as religious counselors at Turkish embassies or as attachés at consulates, while enjoying diplomatic privileges. In the previous year, during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, an additional 213 personnel were dispatched to Western Europe, Canada and the United States to support their activities.
The Diyanet’s 2023 report on its activities:Diyanet_report_feb_2023
The mandate of the directorate entails close collaboration with various government bodies, including the notorious intelligence agency MIT. Imams designated for overseas assignment undergo thorough screening by MIT, followed by comprehensive training and direction prior to their departure. Given that imams engage directly with congregations and local community members, they are encouraged to gather intelligence on individuals pointed out by MIT. This involves reporting pertinent information back to headquarters in Ankara.
The report explicitly states that Turkish imams stationed abroad are charged with fulfilling “any task assigned within their jurisdiction,” a broadly defined responsibility. This all-encompassing directive serves as the foundation for compelling imams to engage in various activities, such as monitoring critics of the Erdogan government overseas, conducting outreach initiatives to establish connections with Muslim communities in alignment with the Turkish government’s political objectives and gathering information that could be deemed valuable for the effective execution of the Erdogan administration’s foreign policies.
The process of selecting candidates for overseas assignments is overseen by a special commission known as BAOKK, comprising representatives from a variety of ministries. This commission is responsible for choosing candidates from a pool of nominees put forward by the Diyanet, conducting interviews with these candidates and overseeing their travel arrangements to and from Turkey.
The chosen imams undergo specialized training seminars, characterized as preparatory measures for their roles in foreign countries. Conducted discreetly, these seminars furnish imams with insights into the specific countries they will be deployed to. Moreover, they receive guidance on information-gathering techniques and the communications channels they are expected to use. These seminars are attended by both Turkish intelligence agents and diplomats from the foreign ministry, who contribute their viewpoints. During the previous year, a total of 495 imams, selected by BAOKK, participated in this training program from August 25 to September 2.
Germany holds a distinctive status in Turkey’s viewpoint due to its sizable Turkish population of approximately 3 million, constituting the largest Turkish diaspora in Europe. Turkish intelligence has exhibited significant activity in Germany, engaging in intelligence collection. Imams are employed as operatives to complement these efforts. During the period between September 26 and 30 of the previous year, a dedicated training initiative was conducted for 260 Turkish imams who were slated for deployment to Germany.
Turkish imams dispatched overseas are additionally tasked with conducting surveys and generating reports as a component of what the Diyanet terms the “confidential Islamophobia report.” These reports are published on an annual basis by the Diyanet and are disseminated only to relevant agencies. The reports are not made publicly available, likely due to concerns of potential backlash from foreign governments, which are already closely monitoring Turkish imams for their potential involvement in espionage within their respective territories.
In total, the Diyanet boasts a substantial workforce of 141,149, predominantly comprising imams, within its extensive organizational structure that oversees approximately 90,000 mosques both in Turkey and abroad. This reported figure excludes employees categorized under the “labor” classification. Gender distribution within the organization is skewed towards males, as over 80 percent of the staff consists of men.
The report highlights that the Diyanet allocated funds totaling TL 128 million to not-for-profit organizations in 2022. This implies that the Erdogan government has utilized its religious arm to financially support religious entities not directly affiliated with the government. Additionally, there was the considerable amount of TL 2.2 billion transferred abroad, which included payments to Diyanet employees as part of their salaries. Among these expenses, TL 95.3 million was attributed to the financing of ongoing projects, although the report did not elaborate on the nature of these projects.
A noteworthy aspect to highlight is the increased use of the Diyanet in formulating security and law enforcement policies under President Erdogan’s leadership. Beyond its collaboration with the intelligence agency, Diyanet has extended its involvement to the training of military and police personnel. The report discloses that in 2022, Diyanet imams put on a total of 1,071 conferences and seminars for 378,678 military personnel, including both officers and privates. Similarly, imams were deployed to police academy schools to give lectures on religious matters, addressing a total of 13,195 police officers.
The Diyanet features a dedicated section focused on handling conversions, with imams playing a key role, particularly those stationed abroad. These imams are directed to enhance their endeavors in promoting this aspect of their work. In 2022 Turkish imams facilitated the conversion of more than 1,000 people to Islam, guiding them through the process and subsequently granting them official certificates to acknowledge their conversion.
The Erdogan government’s agressive utilization of the Diyanet to advance its political objectives has elicited responses from foreign governments, leading to bilateral controversies. For instance Diyanet-operated mosques in Europe were embroiled in a scandal in 2016, when Turkish imams were discovered to have been engaging in spying activities targeting critics and opponents of the Erdogan administration. A document surfaced during that time revealing that the Diyanet had conducted surveillance on individuals associated with the Gülen movement, a group critical of the Erdogan government, across 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) in 2020. “The doubts about the fundamental independence of DITIB from the Turkish government could not be resolved,” said then-Minister of Culture Alexander Lorz. DITIB, the German branch of the Diyanet and a religious arm of Erdogan’s Islamist regime, controls imams sent by the Turkish government to European countries.
Despite facing diplomatic challenges, the Erdogan government persists in employing imams as operatives to further its political agenda abroad. It is actively involved in expanding the influence of this religious network in foreign countries.
The Diyanet has initiated a specialized project aimed at training groups of imams who were born and raised in European countries and hold citizenship there. These selected students from various European nations are brought to Turkey to pursue religious studies at theology faculties, benefiting from a scholarship program sponsored by the Diyanet. This initiative, the “Uluslararası İlahiyat Programı” (International Theology Program), accommodates hundreds of students