Turkey's Diyanet sparks concerns in Central Asia and Caucasus
Turkey's influence on Islam is on the rise analysts say, but the government denies any involvement.
By Alakbar Raufoglu for SES Türkiye -- 03/13/12
When Turkey and Armenia agreed on a "road map" for the normalisation of their bilateral relations in early 2009, Azerbaijan -- Turkey's close Muslim ally, but Armenia's archenemy due to the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh -- reacted sharply.
Turkey is influencing Islam in some regions of the world, analysts say. [Reuters]
The Baku Martyrs Mosque was shut down due to anger over an agreement between Ankara and Yerevan. [File]
''The Diyanet has become a special instrument of Turkish government to increase the Islamic influence in the region,'' Carnegie's Middle East Programme scholar Bayram Balci told SES Turkiye. [Reuters]
Azeri officials, furious that the Nagorno-Karabakh problem was not included in the agreement between Ankara and Yerevan, closed a Turkish mosque in Baku in response to Ankara.
Now, as the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement failed due to lack of progress on Karabakh, Ankara is asking Azerbaijan to reopen the mosque, but things are not as easy as they look.
"Although the officials [in Azerbaijan] insisted from the very beginning that the Turkish mosque was closed for restoration, everyone understands the real reason was the [Armenian] rapprochement," Elkhan Shahinoglu, the head of Baku-based Atlas Research Center, told SES Türkiye.
Baku Martyrs Mosque was built by Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs -- or Turkish Diyanet, which is responsible for the management of Islam -- in 1995.
A few months ago, the Diyanet reportedly appealed to Azerbaijani authorities with an alternative proposal, asking to build a new mosque in Baku, Shahinoglu said.
"Although Azeri authorities reacted positively to the proposal, the solution [has been] postponed," he told SES Türkiye.
Turkey shares ethnic and linguistic ties with the Turkic nations in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
In 1991, the Turkish Diyanet was completely restructured and implemented in the post-Soviet's Turkic-speaking regions.
Today it has representatives in all Turkish embassies in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Bayram Balci, a scholar at Carnegie's Middle East Programme who recently researched Turkey's Islamic influence on Caucasus and Central Asia, says Turkey developed a special policy "to control the evolution of Islam and Islamism in the Turkish republics of the former Soviet Union."
"The Diyanet has become a special instrument of Turkish government to increase the Islamic influence in the region," he told SES Türkiye.
"The Diyanet contributed to the construction, or reconstruction, of mosques in Azerbaijan and other countries, and in the diffusion of Islamic literature in Turkish and in local languages – in Azeri, and even in Georgian and Russian," he added.
Onder Kucukural, an Istanbul-based analyst and PhD candidate in the political science programme at Sabanci University, said Turkey's Islamic influence on Caucasus and Central Asia have intensified in recent years.
"Turkey's Diyanet influence started to reach beyond Turkey's borders in the AKP period," he told SES Türkiye, noting that the Diyanet's budget has increased from 330m euros (771m TL) in 2003 to 1.6 billion euros (3.9 billion TL) in 2012. Its budget is almost double that of the transportation ministry.
"The Diyanet is active in five major areas of support in this region," Kucukural said. In addition to the construction and renovation of mosques and schools, the agency also provides religious service, education, publications, and Social and cultural activities outside of Turkey, he said.
"[It] sends personnel to educate imams in the region, but it also invites people from the [Central Asia and Caucasus] countries to Turkish institutions to support religious personnel preparation," Kucukural said.
The Diyanet organises annual theology conferences and Qur'an recitation competitions, and sends jury members and pupils to compete from Turkey.
"So far, 235 individuals were invited to theology faculties and 746 were invited for Qur'an courses from the Russian Federation," he said.
In Georgia, the Turkish Diyanet plans to rehabilitate three mosques, and build one, in exchange for the recovery of Georgian churches in Turkey. The Tbilisi government has also permitted Turkey to construct a mosque in Batumi.
Kornely Kakachia, associate professor of political science of Tbilisi State University, calls the agreement "very controversial. It still stirs public opinion in Georgia. Any talk related to Turkish religious activities are taken very nervously."
"As long as Turkey considered as ally of the West in the region, its economic and political influence in Georgia is welcome. However, in case Turkey turns its back to West and decides to apply Islamic rhetoric in his foreign policy, it will not be welcome in Georgia and may revive old historical instincts," he told SES Türkiye.
In Central Asia, the Diyanet has become "the main state institution which provides Turkish assistance to the countries in the religious field", according to Zakir Chotaev, Senior Lecturer of the Department of International Relations, at the Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University.
From time to time, he says, some local secular authorities have been showing their discord with Turkey's Islamic influence -- particularly in the crisis between Turkey and Uzbekistan, which resulted in worsening relations between two countries years ago.
"Although the Turkish government might not directly provide the widespread of religious influence in Central Asia, it also not prevent it," Chotaev told SES Türkiye.
Eren Murat Tasar, a lecturer on Islam at Harvard University's Department of History, said that Turkish influence in Islamic circles in the former Soviet Union "ranges from the religious affairs attaches at Turkish embassies, to NGO movements".
"We must keep in mind that it primarily functions through its religious affairs attaches and through various complicated institutional partnerships," he told SES Türkiye.
Meanwhile, officials in Ankara say the government has no role in Islamic influence, "in Turkey, nor abroad".
Mustafa Atas, AKP MP and member of the Turkish Group at the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic-speaking Countries, told SES Türkiye that Ankara "has never intended or tried to use religious ties on its foreign policy, as it's against the international norms and characters of interstate relations."
"The Diyanet, which was created in the Republican period, was given the mandate to carry out religious affairs pertaining to faith, worship and moral principles, to inform society on religion and to administer places of worship. It has nothing to do outside of Turkey or with Turkey's foreign relations," he told SES Türkiye.