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Turkey’s post-coup crisis arrives in Europe, dividing the diaspora

Oliver Berg, DPA, AFP | Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attend a rally on July 31, 2016 in Cologne, Germany.

The showdown between Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen following the July 15 coup is not only dividing Europe’s Turkish communities but it's also sowing discord within the diaspora.


In the southern German city of Stuttgart, 15 members of a local football team quit last month after threats vowing to “drink the evil in our blood” targeted the club on social media sites. In the picturesque French town of Sens, a cultural centre was vandalised and burned just a day after the failed July 15 coup in Turkey.

Meanwhile in the Dutch city of Rotterdam, a cultural centre was pelted with stones for two nights in a row, and in Beringen, Belgium, a building used by a Belgian-Turkish NGO was attacked when a mob descended on the premises and reportedly tried to set fire to the building.

From a local German football club to a Dutch cultural centre to a Belgian meeting room, the one thing linking these places is their real or alleged links to the Gulen Movement.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has blamed the movement’s founder, Fethullah Gulen, for the failed July coup, an allegation the US-based cleric has denied.

But that has not stemmed the purges and crackdowns in Turkey, where more than 70,000 people have been either suspended or fired for alleged links to the movement.

The showdown between Erdogan and his former Islamist ally-turned-foe that has gripped Turkey is now making its way to Europe, ripping apart Turkish communities across the continent and posing yet another challenge for European governments juggling a controversial refugee deal with the Turkish government while condemning the excesses of Ankara’s crackdown after the failed military coup.

The war of hearts and minds between Erdogan’s AK Party and the Gulenists is being imported to Europe – and across the world – via institutions controlled by each camp and is destined to escalate as Turkey pushes its NATO allies to cooperate with Ankara’s crackdown on the Gulen movement.

Ankara ups the pressure from Germany to Somalia

The seepage of the Turkish crisis is already taking a diplomatic toll on Germany, home to a three-million-strong Turkish community and historic refuge for opposition supporters, émigré writers and intellectuals fleeing Turkey’s periodic coups and clampdowns.

On Monday, the Turkish foreign ministry summoned Germany’s charge d’affaires in Ankara over a German court’s decision to bar Erdogan from addressing an anti-coup demonstration in Cologne on Sunday via a video link.

Meanwhile the premier of the southwestern state of Baden-Wurttemberg, Winfried Kretschmann, has said he received a letter from the Turkish consul-general asking him to investigate a list of institutions such as private schools suspected of links with the Gulen movement.

Since the Gulen movement – also known as the Hizmet movement – went global in the 1990s, it has spread its operations to 160 countries, where it runs hospitals, health centres and around 2,000 educational establishments. Hizmet schools are particularly popular in Africa, Central Asia and South Asia, where they are highly regarded for the quality education they provide.

Turkey’s crackdown against the movement has spread overseas with governments in Kenya, Nigeria, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan facing pressure to shut down Gulen-run institutions. Somalia has already buckled under the pressure from Ankara, with Somali authorities shutting down schools run by the movement’s Nile Academy educational foundation, as well as Mogadishu’s Deva Hospital last month.

In Germany though, local officials are standing firm, with Baden-Wurttemberg’s premier taking a public stance against what he called an interference by a foreign state. “It’s not acceptable for a foreign state to interfere in our internal affairs,” Kretschmann told the ARD TV station last week. “We have principles, the German state is responsible for these institutions and no one else. We will judge these institutions at our own discretion and we are aware of nothing negative about these institutions.”

Diyanet turns into ‘AKP Europe’

The war of institutions between Turkey’s ruling AK Party and the Gulenists has pitched the vast, shadowy network of the Pennsylvania-based movement against the Turkish government’s directorate of religious affairs, popularly called the Diyanet.

Ever since Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abolished the caliphate and created the Diyanet Isleri Baskanligi, the government directorate has been responsible for running the country’s mosques, including hiring imams, writing Friday sermons and overseeing halaal food certifications.

In 1983, Turkey’s Islamist Prime Minister Turgut Ozal established a Diyanet foreign affairs wing to manage the directorate’s increasing responsibilities among the Turkish diaspora in Western Europe. The next year, the German arm, Diyanet Isleri Turk-Islam Birligi (DITIB) was formed and has since emerged as a leading voice of the German Turkish community.

Erdogan: 'Does the West back democracy or coups?'

Over the years, the Diyanet’s role in overseeing the religious affairs of Turkish immigrants in Europe has been widely praised, with academics and security experts crediting the directorate for the low levels of radicalisation among Europe’s Turkish Muslim communities compared with their North African counterparts.

But since it came into power in 2002, the AK Party has had “little compunction about using the Diyanet for political ends,” according to David Lepeska, a Turkey-based US journalist.

In a May 2015 Foreign Affairs article titled, “Turkey Casts the Diyanet”, Lepeska noted that the Diyanet budget since 2006, “has leapt fourfold, to 5.4 billion lira [around 1.6 billion euros]. Its share of government spending has increased by about a third and its staff has doubled, to nearly 150,000. Its budget allocation this year is 40 percent more than the Ministry of the Interior’s.”

Erdogan’s focus on the Diyanet peaked after the 2011 Arab uprisings, according to several experts. “After the Arab Spring, Erdogan thought he can be the leader of the Muslim world,” explained Emre Demir, editor of the Paris-based newspaper, Zaman-France. “Five years ago, the Diyanet mosques [in Europe] were neutral spaces offering religious services. But then they [the Turkish government] changed the imams, they changed the Turkish diplomats responsible for the mosques and hired AKP people. They in fact transformed the mosques into the political headquarters of AKP Europe.”

Following the July 15 coup, Gulen supporters in Germany have accused DITIB of denying them access to mosques. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Ercan Karakoyun, director of the Gulenist Foundation for Dialogue and Education, said DITIB mosques in Hagen, Duisburg and Günzburg had “hung signs saying that Gulen supporters have no place in their communities”.

DITIB representatives however denied the allegations. "We are a Muslim religious community, and we never turn away anyone who wants to pray in a mosque," DITIB spokesperson Ayse Aydin told Deutsche Welle.

Erdogan accuses the West of ‘supporting terrorism’

The allegations, counter allegations, verbal attacks and counterattacks within Europe’s Turkish communities are being made – mostly in the Turkish language – on social media sites in a linguistic and cultural space far removed from West European power centres. Many experts warn that European officials are unaware of the extent of the bitter disputes within the Turkish community and that could have dangerous consequences.

Noted Turkish scholars and journalists have long accused their Western counterparts of failing, or refusing, to acknowledge the insidious nature of the shadowy, cult-like Gulen movement, which they say, uses “Machiavellian methods” to stage an incremental take-over of state institutions.

But if investigations into the July 15 coup yield credible evidence that the plot was a Gulenist operation planned from the top, the movement is unlikely to be able to sustain its global operations. The failed coup has already put the Gulen movement on the losing side, experts argue, pitting it against the might of the Turkish state.

On Tuesday, Erdogan once again blasted unnamed Western countries, alluding to possible foreign involvement in the coup plot.

"This coup was not just an event planned from the inside. The actors inside acted out a scenario for a coup written from the outside," Erdogan said in a speech at his presidential palace.

The Turkish president singled out Germany for particular scorn, noting that his government had sent Berlin more than 4,000 files on “wanted terrorists”, but Germany did nothing. Instead, he said, the courts decided to bar him from addressing Sunday’s rally. "The West is supporting terrorism and taking sides with coups," he maintained.

Erdogan’s verbal assaults against the West plays to a home crowd as well as the Turkish community in Europe, notes Demir.

“I believe the final aim for Erdogan is that by bullying European governments, he’s reinforcing his image of a strongman at home. This gives the impression that no one can be a true Turk unless you support Erdogan and that anyone who criticises him is a traitor. He does that at home and exactly the same thing is happening within the Turkish community in Europe,” said Demir.

His strategy, according to Demir, could have a negative impact on Europe’s immigrant integration measures. “There’s a lot of Erdogan mania here because Turks have an emotional attachment to their country of origin. They see Erdogan as defiant of the West, where they feel excluded,” said Demir. “What Erdogan is trying to do is to use the Turkish diaspora as a diplomatic tool, a sort of leverage against host countries.”

Erdogan’s European support base

The AK Party has traditionally had a strong support base in Europe: in last November’s Turkish general elections, 60 percent of the Turkish diaspora in Germany voted for the ruling party – a bigger share than it received back home. At Sunday’s rally in Cologne, which was organized as an anti-coup protest, demonstrators waved flags, photographs, placards and scarves emblazoned with Erdogan’s picture as Turkey's sport and youth minister, Akif Cagatay Kilic, addressed the gathering.

France, home to the second-largest Turkish community in the world with more than 400,000 people of Turkish origin, has seen at least two pro-Erdogan rallies in Paris following the July 15 coup.

The AK Party’s steady infiltration of Diyanet mosques in Europe, Demir maintains, “is very dangerous because these are very important for the socialisation of newcomers.”
The recent public displays of AK Party pride on the streets of many European cities coupled with attacks on institutions linked to the Gulen movement has alarmed officials across the continent.

Days after a number of Gulenist cultural centers in Rotterdam were attacked, the city’s Moroccan-born mayor, Ahmed Aboutaleb, appealed for calm.

"Don't import the conflict: it's bad enough that these tensions exist in Turkey," said Aboutaleb. But some Gulen supporters, as well as beneficiaries of the movement’s educational, medical and cultural establishments, fear it’s already too late.

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