Sultan Erdogan and the New Janissaries

Though Western Europe and Washington are reluctant to fess up to this unfortunate fact, Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long ago given up even the pretence of being a democratic polity and is openly pursuing policies detrimental to democracy, the rule of law and Western security considerations. In short, Turkey has become an Islamist dictatorship every bit as inimical to Western interests as Iran, except for being allowed by the West to maintain the charade that it is still a member of NATO and the Western community of nations. This is a dangerous charade that will inevitably come back to haunt us. For the reality is that Erdogan the Islamist has ambitions that go beyond Turkey and even the Middle East.  Well known for his admiration for the Ottomans, Erdogan imagines himself as the leader of a new Ottoman Empire based on an Islamized Turkey, but exerting its influence far beyond. Many would dismiss this as an unrealistic pipe dream, and it probably is just that ultimately. But in pursuing it vigorously, Erdogan has already done much damage both in Turkey and abroad. Suffice it to say that Turks who had lived in Germany and the Netherlands for decades, voted for Erdogan in greater percentages (60% and 70% respectively) than voters in Turkey itself in the last referendum.  

The key to spreading Erdogan’s Islamist message is an organization called Diyanet, a Turkish directorate for religious affairs that is directly subordinated to him. Few if any Western leaders have ever heard of it, despite its importance. It was originally set up by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1924 for the purpose of training imams for the mosques, but more importantly, it was tasked with preventing the radicalization of Turkish Islam. The type of education received in these madrassa-like institutions, called imam-hatip schools, was considered second-rate and did not qualify their graduates for the university or government work. At the time of Erdogan’s takeover of the government in 2002, there were 450 imam-hatip schools with some 60,000 students. Most of them were the sons of poorly-educated yet devout Muslims, which Erdogan, himself the product of such a school, considered prime islamization cadres. And so, after neutralizing the Turkish military by means of bogus but ultimately effective show trials, Erdogan set about to build up and promote an army of pious imam-hatip graduates devoted to him, not unlike the janissaries of the Ottoman Empire, who considered themselves the slaves of the sultan alone. Here it must be mentioned that these madrassas as well as the mandatory religious education curriculum in Turkey is highly discriminatory to the extent that it teaches exclusively the Sunni Hanafi school of Muslim jurisprudence, which is not practiced by the large populations of Alevis and the Kurds, who follow the shafi’i madhab, not to mention the millions of secular Turks.    

Appointing a zealous Islamist (who considered Israel a terror organization on a par with ISIS) to lead the Diyanet in 2010, Erdogan removed all career obstacles previously faced by imam-hatip graduates,  indeed began treating them preferentially for government work and in the military, while providing  the Diyanet with massive amounts of money and islamizing the curriculum to exclude evolution. This promptly made these schools a hugely desirable career choice for aspiring Islamists. And so, by 2015, there were 1961 imam-hatip schools with more than 1.2 million students and a budget of $2 billion.

These exorbitant numbers clearly beyond the needs of the 85,000 Turkish mosques reveal Erdogan’s ambitions in both staffing his government and the military with reliable Islamists, and also his long-term agenda to export his Islamist agenda to Turkish and Muslim diaspora communities in Europe, the Balkans and beyond. Few people realize that after the relative retreat of Saudi efforts to finance radical Islamic projects in the West, Turkey is increasingly the key actor funding the radicalization of European Muslims. It is well positioned to do that due to the large Turkish communities that immigrated to Western Europe as gastarbeiter in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the significant numbers of native Turkish and/or Turkic populations in the Balkans and Central Asia. Many if not most of the imams sent by Diyanet to serve in Europe, as a rule, do not speak the local language and barely know the societies in which they find themselves, nor are they encouraged to get to know them. The one mantra that Turkish officials repeat ad nauseum is that assimilation is wrong, or as Erdogan put it himself “a crime against humanity.” And it may be working. Sevral recent studies have shown that 3rd generation Turks in Germany are no better integrated than those of the first.

Nor are these are the only disturbing news. Information from a number of Western European countries has come that Diyanet and mosque officials work closely with the Turkish intelligence organization, MIT, to spy on fellow Turks on behalf of the Ankara government. One German source revealed that 6000 MIT spies are active in the mosques, while the Dutch head of the Diyanet admitted publicly to have engaged in spying. There are further Turkish efforts to build a number of mega mosques in places where there are few Muslims, like Bucharest and Budapest, as well as attempts in both Eastern and Western Europe to set up parties designed to serve the Turkish strongman. It is not likely that they will stop before the West finally understands that Islamist Turkey is not a friend and begins to act accordingly.  

Alex Alexiev is chairman of the Center for Balkan and Black Sea Studies (cbbss.org) and editor of bulgariaanalytica.org. He tweets it ion national security at tweeter.com/alexieff and could be reached at alexievalex4@gmail.com 

Though Western Europe and Washington are reluctant to fess up to this unfortunate fact, Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long ago given up even the pretence of being a democratic polity and is openly pursuing policies detrimental to democracy, the rule of law and Western security considerations. In short, Turkey has become an Islamist dictatorship every bit as inimical to Western interests as Iran, except for being allowed by the West to maintain the charade that it is still a member of NATO and the Western community of nations. This is a dangerous charade that will inevitably come back to haunt us. For the reality is that Erdogan the Islamist has ambitions that go beyond Turkey and even the Middle East.  Well known for his admiration for the Ottomans, Erdogan imagines himself as the leader of a new Ottoman Empire based on an Islamized Turkey, but exerting its influence far beyond. Many would dismiss this as an unrealistic pipe dream, and it probably is just that ultimately. But in pursuing it vigorously, Erdogan has already done much damage both in Turkey and abroad. Suffice it to say that Turks who had lived in Germany and the Netherlands for decades, voted for Erdogan in greater percentages (60% and 70% respectively) than voters in Turkey itself in the last referendum.  

The key to spreading Erdogan’s Islamist message is an organization called Diyanet, a Turkish directorate for religious affairs that is directly subordinated to him. Few if any Western leaders have ever heard of it, despite its importance. It was originally set up by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1924 for the purpose of training imams for the mosques, but more importantly, it was tasked with preventing the radicalization of Turkish Islam. The type of education received in these madrassa-like institutions, called imam-hatip schools, was considered second-rate and did not qualify their graduates for the university or government work. At the time of Erdogan’s takeover of the government in 2002, there were 450 imam-hatip schools with some 60,000 students. Most of them were the sons of poorly-educated yet devout Muslims, which Erdogan, himself the product of such a school, considered prime islamization cadres. And so, after neutralizing the Turkish military by means of bogus but ultimately effective show trials, Erdogan set about to build up and promote an army of pious imam-hatip graduates devoted to him, not unlike the janissaries of the Ottoman Empire, who considered themselves the slaves of the sultan alone. Here it must be mentioned that these madrassas as well as the mandatory religious education curriculum in Turkey is highly discriminatory to the extent that it teaches exclusively the Sunni Hanafi school of Muslim jurisprudence, which is not practiced by the large populations of Alevis and the Kurds, who follow the shafi’i madhab, not to mention the millions of secular Turks.    

Appointing a zealous Islamist (who considered Israel a terror organization on a par with ISIS) to lead the Diyanet in 2010, Erdogan removed all career obstacles previously faced by imam-hatip graduates,  indeed began treating them preferentially for government work and in the military, while providing  the Diyanet with massive amounts of money and islamizing the curriculum to exclude evolution. This promptly made these schools a hugely desirable career choice for aspiring Islamists. And so, by 2015, there were 1961 imam-hatip schools with more than 1.2 million students and a budget of $2 billion.

These exorbitant numbers clearly beyond the needs of the 85,000 Turkish mosques reveal Erdogan’s ambitions in both staffing his government and the military with reliable Islamists, and also his long-term agenda to export his Islamist agenda to Turkish and Muslim diaspora communities in Europe, the Balkans and beyond. Few people realize that after the relative retreat of Saudi efforts to finance radical Islamic projects in the West, Turkey is increasingly the key actor funding the radicalization of European Muslims. It is well positioned to do that due to the large Turkish communities that immigrated to Western Europe as gastarbeiter in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the significant numbers of native Turkish and/or Turkic populations in the Balkans and Central Asia. Many if not most of the imams sent by Diyanet to serve in Europe, as a rule, do not speak the local language and barely know the societies in which they find themselves, nor are they encouraged to get to know them. The one mantra that Turkish officials repeat ad nauseum is that assimilation is wrong, or as Erdogan put it himself “a crime against humanity.” And it may be working. Sevral recent studies have shown that 3rd generation Turks in Germany are no better integrated than those of the first.

Nor are these are the only disturbing news. Information from a number of Western European countries has come that Diyanet and mosque officials work closely with the Turkish intelligence organization, MIT, to spy on fellow Turks on behalf of the Ankara government. One German source revealed that 6000 MIT spies are active in the mosques, while the Dutch head of the Diyanet admitted publicly to have engaged in spying. There are further Turkish efforts to build a number of mega mosques in places where there are few Muslims, like Bucharest and Budapest, as well as attempts in both Eastern and Western Europe to set up parties designed to serve the Turkish strongman. It is not likely that they will stop before the West finally understands that Islamist Turkey is not a friend and begins to act accordingly.  

Alex Alexiev is chairman of the Center for Balkan and Black Sea Studies (cbbss.org) and editor of bulgariaanalytica.org. He tweets it ion national security at tweeter.com/alexieff and could be reached at alexievalex4@gmail.com 

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