Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with President Ebrahim Raisi in attendance, Tehran, July 19, 2022

Turkey And Iran Use Religion For Influence Building In US And Europe

Tuesday, 12/12/2023
Majid Mohammadi

Majid Mohammadi is an Iranian-American sociologist and political analyst, who contributes opinion and analysis to Persian, Arabic, and English news outlets. He has published dozens of books.

The Islamic Republic in Iran and the Erdogan regime in Turkey act with remarkable similarity in using religion to gain loyal followers in the West.

What the Shiite regime in Iran did over four decades to make religious institutions state-owned entities with success, Atatürk did in a secular regime and made all religious institutions officially state-owned by establishing the Department of Religion (1924).

The Grand Mufti of Turkey is appointed by the executive branch. Diyanet organization has more than 150 thousand employees and about two billion dollars of government budget. The imams of around 85,000 mosques in Turkey and 2,000 mosques abroad (under the supervision of this department) are recruited by this organization and the contents of their speeches are also sent weekly, which is done in Iran by the Friday Prayer Office in Tehran. 

Until the 1970s, the Diyanet organization operated within Turkey, but after that, it expanded its network to countries with Turkish immigrants. Since the 1990s and with the rise of the Islamists, this organization has expanded its facilities and staff and received tremendous funding by quadrupling its budget in one decade. It has become a tool for expanding Turkey's ideological, political, and even security sphere of influence in the Balkan Peninsula, Central Asia, Western Europe, and the United States. Thus, civil and independent religion neither exists in Iran under the Islamist regime nor in Turkey under the Erdogan regime.

When the government claims to promote religion as a tool to shape social and political life, and religion is a means of gaining and maintaining power, it harms both religion and the state. It is for this reason that the behavior of the Khamenei and Erdogan regimes in using religious institutions to consolidate their power and expand their influence are very similar, while they operate in two different political systems.

Worshippers attend Friday prayers outside Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey August 7, 2020.

When religious institutions become state-owned, religion becomes a tool of power and it doesn't matter if you have an Islamist or a secular political system. This is why the Diyanet organization acts in the same way as the Mustafa University and the Shiite regime's Islamic Culture and Communication Organization in terms of political-religious propaganda abroad. Erdogan and Khamenei are acting in the same way in financing and expanding religious institutions worldwide. They have formed a network of mosques and religious centers that serve as venues for the gathering of religious followers who are residents of other countries. Using their religious networks these governments promote their political and ideological agendas.

It is important to pay attention to the organizational structure, funding, and programs of these centers. Turkey's state mosques are managed in the US by an organization called "Dyianet Center of America" with its headquarters in Maryland and its 29 mosques scattered all over the United States. The Dyianet Center of America website mentions these mosques under the title of its branches. As of 2018, Diyanet was operating in 36 countries with 61 branches. 

All the Turks who attend the mosques linked to Diyanet Center of America did not immigrate to America from Turkey, but some of them immigrated to the United States from countries such as Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan. What brings these people together is their religious orientation and cultural background. Using the tendency of these Turkish-speaking peoples to worship and congregate, the Turkish government subjects them to political propaganda and buys their loyalty.

The budget for the construction, maintenance, and programs of thousands of mosques affiliated with the Diyanet Center of America and European countries is provided by the Turkish government; missionaries and managers of these centers are sent by the government and receive government salaries, and all programs are approved, funded, and implemented by the Turkish government. Any program that does not fit into the government’s political Islam agenda and the expansion of its influence in the world (especially in Western countries where there is freedom of religion) is not tolerated and immediately canceled in these centers and mosques. 

The Diyanet- and the government which manages it- see Islam as one of the features of the identity of Turkish citizens living abroad. The macro-political strategy of Erdogan and Khamenei regimes is to rebuild Ottoman and Iranian empires with a cover of Islamism based on a mixture of religious beliefs and national-historical pride. Therefore, Diyanet is “committed to protecting the Muslims’ religious and cultural roots in the face of assimilationist policies.” Based on this statement, Turkish diaspora’s integration into host societies is something that should never happen.

Due to the author’s observations in mosques under the administration of Diyanet in the New York/New Jersey area, the authority and legitimacy of the political regime of Turkish Islamists are promoted in three ways:

1. The presence of political officials of the regime in religious ceremonies and giving prizes to children and financing religious centers and mosques with public resources;

2. Using these mosques and centers for political mobilization in favor of the government in areas such as voting for the ruling party candidates in elections; and

3. Recruiting forces for networking, gathering information from the opposition, and distributing positions, rents, and facilities available to the government.

President Tayyip Erdogan and Head of Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs Ali Erbas pray as they stand next to the President of Court of Cassation Mehmet Akarca during the opening ceremony of a top judicial court building in Ankara, Turkey, September 1, 2021

The activities of the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet Isleri Baskanligi) are based on multi-purpose missions. The main mission is to promote Sunni Islam, but without other missions, this department would not have expanded to this extent it has and would not have received huge funding. 

The main content of religious centers and mosques is holding religious ceremonies (such as Friday and congregational prayers, Eid al-Adha and Fitr, and the celebration of the birth of the Prophet), delivering various religious services such as Hajj and Umrah as well as various religious educational activities for Turkish migrants, children's religious education (recitation of the Qur'an, the principles of religion) and the establishment of religious classes and schools (for the teaching of jurisprudence and theology). What is really presented in this content is a kind of political perception of Islam and injecting it into the minds of Muslim children to internalize the ideology of political Islam. It is used as a tool for Turkey’s propaganda and indoctrination. The main discourse of the content of these programs is not human rights articles based on the equality of rights of all people, including men and women, Kurds and Turks, Muslims and non-Muslims, homosexuals, and non-homosexuals.

There have been accusations of Diyanet personnel gathering intelligence and spying on behalf of the Turkish state. In January 2017, the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DİTİB) admitted that some of its imams in Europe had spied for the Turkish government and supplied Ankara with intelligence on people supposedly linked to the Gülen movement, a religious group the Turkish government accuses of masterminding a coup attempt in July 2016. 


More News

News at a Glance
IITV News (42) - London
News at a Glance
News (12') - LON

The Truth is in Your Voice

Send your Videos and Photos to us