Critics say Turkish government using US mosques to play politics, spy on foes

The Diyanet Center is located just outside Washington, D.C., in Lanham, Maryland.
The Diyanet Center is located just outside Washington, D.C., in Lanham, Maryland.


Date posted: July 18, 2018

Hollie McKay

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent re-election is fueling concerns about his growing powers not just in Turkey but here in the U.S., according to experts who believe he’s determined to spread his controversial brand of Islamist-nationalistic fervor through a network of mosques and religious centers.

Some of that concern is focused on the Diyanet Center of America (DCA), a mosque and Islamic center in Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. The DCA was built with the strong support and funding from the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, which under the 15-year Erdogan administration has pushed for the building of mosques and Islamic centers around the world.

Erdogan himself attending the opening of the $110 million center in 2016. But while the DCA’s primary goal, according to its website, is to “providing religious services without regard to politics,” critics say that’s not the case.

“These mosques are not places of worship,” charged David L. Phillips, Director for the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. “They are centers for political mobilization functioning like madrasas, distorting Islamic and radicalizing youth.”

Poised in a quiet neighborhood in the town of Lanham, Md., across the road from a small church and a cluster of humble homes, the DCA fills an entire block, with a series of impressive buildings. And it’s from this location that critics say the Turkish government spreads Erdogan’s brand of Islam, spies and gathers information for his national intelligence service, and tracks Turkish-Americans who they suspect of following Fetullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based cleric and one-time ally the president has named public enemy number one in Turkey.

Erdogan has been running Turkey under emergency rule since a July 2016 coup attempt – which he blames on Gulen – and along the way has imprisoned tens of thousands of Turks from the ranks of the civil service, military, judiciary, and education systems. Erdogan has demanded the U.S extradite Gulen, but those demands have been denied, citing a lack of sufficient evidence.

“Gulen was one of the closest political allies of Erdogan between his party’s ascent to power in November 2002 and their dramatic fallout in December 2013,” explained Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Erdogan pursued an effective campaign to first criminalize the movement and then to designate it as a terrorist organization. Today, a majority of the Turkish citizens see the Gulen movement as a terrorist entity.”

The Turkish flag flies high on the lush grounds of the DCA, whose imams and female chaplains are assigned through the Diyanet headquarters in Ankara, the Turkish capital. And the DCA is one of more than 20 mosques under the Diyanet umbrella, which most of them located in the Northeast.

But many Turkish-Americans who support the Gulen movement – or simply don’t agree with Erdogan’s rule – say they stay far away.


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent re-election is fueling concerns about his growing powers not just in Turkey but here in the U.S., according to experts who believe he’s determined to spread his controversial brand of Islamist-nationalistic fervor through a network of mosques and religious centers. 


“Gulen supporters don’t go to the Maryland mosque because they have a very credible fear of being harassed, intimidated or attacked. This is happening in all Diyanet-funded mosques across the U.S.,” claimed one Turkish journalist in the U.S., who previously worked for a pro-Gulen publication. “Many of the Gulen supporters were not permitted to pray, and ‘Gulenists are not permitted’ banners were hung on walls. But people fear more to be abducted than intimidated.”

A spokesperson for the Turkish Embassy in Washington did not respond to specific questions for this story. But the spokesperson provided a statement claiming the “group in question is not an innocent one focusing on education and charity activities as they prefer to disguise themselves, but rather a terrorist organization which attempted to overthrow the democratically elected government of Turkey with a terrorist coup attempt that cost the lives of 249 innocent Turkish citizens and injured over 2000 people.”

“In that regard, the group should be called with its proper name: ‘Fethullah Terrorist Organization’ and not as the ‘Hizmet movement.’”

In addition to the “terrorism” tag, the Turkish government describes “F..O” as a “cult-like movement” founded upon a “deeply troubling” ideology that masquerades as a pacifist Islamic doctrine, but cautions that those who have studied his “original” teachings warn of the “anti-secular, anti-Western” sentiment.

The embassy vehemently denied any accusations of surveillance.

“Neither the Turkish government nor Turkish citizens have been involved in spying activities against any individual living abroad,” the spokesperson said. “This is yet another example of the smear campaign initiated by the members of F..O. All allegations mentioned in your query therefore are totally false and groundless.”

But some strongly beg to differ.

Abdullah Bozkurt, President of the Stockholm Center for Freedom – an advocacy organization created by a group of Turkish journalists who live in self-exile in Sweden – cautioned the family members and associates who remain in Turkey end up paying the price for surveillance abroad.

“The profiling and unlawful intelligence gathering in diaspora put not only Gulen people but all other critics, opponents and dissidents at risk of imprisonment if they are to return to Turkey, confiscation of their assets, jailing of their relatives with guilt by association,” Bozkurt alleged.

Earlier this month, the Stockholm Freedom Center accused the Erdogan-led government of intensifying its “intimidation tactics” and “refugee espionage” targeting alleged members of the Gulen movement abroad,” after the state-run newspaper Anadolu news agency published information about members using an Episcopalian church in New Jersey for their Ramadan prayer given the mosque concerns.

“Having to use a space provided by a church is not unique, but it is rare,” another member of the movement in the U.S. said. “There are many examples of relatives of supporters being targeted. This is not just a fear, it is a reality.”

Some experts argue the Turkish government’s concerns over the Gulen movement simply make sense.

“Because the government believes that the Gulenist movement was behind the coup attempt, it is understandable that Turks will take a hostile view of its members while being suspicious of their motives,” noted Barak Barfi, Middle East expert and Research Fellow at the New America Foundation. “Turks living abroad, like most expatriates, are largely loyal to the state and willingto do its bidding.”

The Diyanet and Diyanet America did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.

Concerns about Diyanet activities are even more widespread in Europe, where several countries have investigated the mosques and their activities.

“Germany, Belgium, Austria, Netherlands, Switzerland, Norway and Sweden have carried out investigations of Turkish imams, appointed and paid by the Diyanet, for spying on behalf of Turkish intelligence against Turkish citizens living in their countries, who are considered enemies of Erdogan,” said Ahmet Yayla, Associate Professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Austrian officials recently announced they would shutter seven mosques and remove up to 60 imams funded by foreign countries, a violation of a controversial 2015 Austrian law aimed at tackling “Islamist radicalism.” A series of controversial images involving children from inside the mosques sparked controversy in Austia, sparking debate over what was going on behind closed doors.

“It has been known now for some time that many of the imams who are running these mosques in Austria have been promoting Islamic radicalism,” said Alon Ben-Meir, professor and senior fellow at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute. “They are considered servants of the Turkish government.”

And in March of last year, Austrian lawmaker – the now ousted Greens politician Peter Pilz – alleged the Turkish “intelligence network” – which was already under investigation by German, Austrian and Swiss authorities – was far broader than just those three European countries.

Pilz released documents, purported to be on both Diyanet and prime minister’s office letterhead, seeking information on Gulen followers. One such letter, dated September 20, 2016 and viewed by Fox News, was allegedly sent to 38 Turkish embassies in various countries, and signed by Halife Keskin, acting-director general of the Diyanet’s external affairs department.

The letter asked imams deployed abroad to send “detailed reports” about the Gulen movement – its members, their schools, connections to NGOS, associations, cultural activities, human resources and any other relevant tidbits of information.

Around the same time as the release of documents, an official in Turkey’s Vienna embassy, Fatih Karadas, told Austrian newspaper Kurier it was their “religious duty to conduct investigations into whether Turkish-origin citizens were influenced and misused or radicalized by Gulen” – while denying that constituted spying.

Turkish officials called Pilz’s accusations “completely false.”

A few months earlier, in late 2016, Turkey recalled its religious affairs attaché of the Turkish Embassy in The Hague, Netherlands – Yusuf Acar – after he received a “deportation warning” and was accused of collecting intelligence on the Gulen movement. The Diyanet staunchly denied charges it was illicitly gathering intelligence.

Around the same time, authorities in Brussels, Belgium also stated several mosques had received requests from Turkish authorities to spy and inform on Belgians of Turkish origin suspected of being active Gulen followers.

And in neighboring Germany, Green politician Volker Beck filed a criminal complaint in December 2016 against the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), Germany’s largest Islamic group, with over 900 mosques tied to the Turkish government’s Diyanet, over concerns that data was being collected illegally.

The deputy chairman of the German Chancellor’s Christian Democratic party, Armin Laschet, promptly called for the expulsion of all imams associated with the DITIB. A spokesperson for Laschet told Fox News they learned in December, 2016 that “various consulate generals of the Republic of Turkey were collecting information from imams of the Islamic governing body DITIB, among others, about alleged supporters of the Gulen movement living in Germany and sending this information to Turkey at the orders of the Turkish religious authority Diyanet in Ankara.”

German police went on to raid the homes of four imams connected with the DITIB last February. The raids were part of a wider investigation into illegal espionage on supporters of Gulen. No arrests were immediately made.

The investigation closed in December 2017. Volker Beck, German lawmaker and religious spokesperson for the Green Party who filed the initial complaint, told Fox News that no charges were brought forward because “all suspects fled the country.”

Erdogan has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and accused the country of adopting “Nazi practices.”

Yet more issues are being raised. The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) of Switzerland recently issued national arrest warrants for two Turkish diplomats accused of abducting a Swiss businessman in Turkey suspected of having ties with the Gulen movement. The men were reported to have been working at the Turkish embassy in Bern – one as press attaché and another as second embassy secretary – at the time of the incident, which occurred around one month after the coup effort.

Criminal proceedings have reportedly been in progress against the men since March 2017, after the Federal Department of Justice and Police authorized the OAG to take respective legal action.

A representative for the OAG in Switzerland told Fox News the two suspects “do not and did not enjoy diplomatic immunity.” Turkish officials have denied the allegations.

Despite the heavy criticism of Erdogan’s authoritarian rule, supporters note he has an upside in a region ripped apart by chaos and terrorism.

“His government is a stable island in a regional sea of chaos where no less than five states face an al-Qaeda/ISIS threat. Washington has long proved willing to tolerate authoritarian leaders if they can bottle up the jihadist threat,” Barfi said.

Meanwhile, Ottoman-style mosques continue to sprout – and not just in Europe and the U.S. Even Cuba – where only 0.1 percent of the population is Muslim – received its first ever mosque, with another on the way, courtesy of Turkey.

“The Diyanet started to receive substantial funding from state resources. They now have the financial means to invest in foreign countries where there is a Turkish diaspora to provide religious services,” noted Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies. “But there are also claims that the Diyanet funded mosques are being used for political purposes to boost support for the AKP abroad.”

 

Source: FoxNews , July 17, 2017


Related News

Esposito urges Muslims to integrate better to defeat Islamophobia

A world-renowned scholar who has written numerous books on Islamophobia has urged Muslims living in the West to integrate into mainstream society, which he says is the most effective way to defeat the Islamophobia that is taking hold in the West, particularly in Europe.

Peace Islands Institute Annual Ramadan Dinner

New Jersey Bergen Sheriff Michael Saudino had been fasting for the first time when attended the iftar dinner by the Peace Islands Institute (PII). At the gathering with the theme “Understanding hunger and poverty by fasting.” One of the attendees US Attorney Paul Fishman said, “PII serves a significant cause regarding unity and cohesion in the society with its cultural and religious activities.”

Burma/Thailand: Deported Turkish Man at Risk

Burma and Thailand flagrantly violated Furkan Sökmen’s human rights by caving in to pressure from Ankara and deporting him despite his claim for asylum and the real risk of ill-treatment and an unfair trial in Turkey.

Human rights associations up in arms over deputy’s remarks on torture allegations

In an open letter to the Turkish Parliament, six Turkey-based human rights associations on Thursday criticized recent remarks of ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputy Mehmet Metiner, who said the government would ignore allegations of torture and mistreatment if victims were sympathizers of the Gülen movement.

The Istanbul Cultural Center hopes to build bridges though food

The room at the Istanbul Cultural Center just off the FSU campus is filled with both men and women and lots and lots of children. Many of the women are wearing colorful headscarves and long buttoned coats. And most of the men are their husbands, some associated with the university as teachers or students, and others who have taken time away from their own professions in Turkey to accompany their wives who are completing graduate studies here.

‘We see in Mr. Gulen a man teaching God’s words’

As an educator I may be a bit biased, but I think the focus on education that we see in Hizmet, that we see in Gulen and his teachings and his being, that focus on education which is critical to the work of Hizmet is itself the most critical work that can be done in this age.

Latest News

Fethullah Gülen’s Condolence Message for South African Human Rights Defender Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Hizmet Movement Declares Core Values with Unified Voice

Ankara systematically tortures supporters of Gülen movement, Kurds, Turkey Tribunal rapporteurs say

Erdogan possessed by Pharaoh, Herod, Hitler spirits?

Devious Use of International Organizations to Persecute Dissidents Abroad: The Erdogan Case

A “Controlled Coup”: Erdogan’s Contribution to the Autocrats’ Playbook

Why is Turkey’s Erdogan persecuting the Gulen movement?

Purge-victim man sent back to prison over Gulen links despite stage 4 cancer diagnosis

University refuses admission to woman jailed over Gülen links

In Case You Missed It

MHP: Gov’t should not harass its citizens who open Turkish schools abroad

Islam followers from across the world receive teachings of Monroe County religious leader

NBA star Enes Kanter on faith, basketball and political activism

The Public Trial of Fethullah Gulen

Greater Jakarta: Students, parents protest Embassy’s statement

Hakan Şükür’s resignation: Rebellion of a conscience

Bulgarians Outraged at Deportation of Gulen Supporter to Turkey

Copyright 2022 Hizmet News