Mosques, migrants and the military are now Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s new weapons in his threats against the West. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “has earned the title of Caliph” according to Turkish journalist Abdurrahman Dilipak.
Erdogan is the head of NATO’s second-largest army; he has spies throughout Europe through a network of mosques, associations and cultural centers; he has brought his country to the top of the world rankings for the number of imprisoned journalists and has shut the mouth of German comedians with the threat of legal action. By keeping migrants in Turkish refugee camps, he controls immigration to Europe.
The worse Erdogan behaves, the greater his weight in Europe. In a 2015 meeting, Erdogan reportedly was “openly mocking” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and other “senior European leaders”, as Juncker asked Erdogan to consider how he was treated “like a prince” at a Brussels summit.
According to Stratfor’s George Friedman:
“Turkey now is the 17th largest economy in the world, it is larger than Saudi Arabia, it has an army and military capability that is probably the best in Europe, besides the UK and they could beat the Germans in an afternoon and the French in an hour if they showed up.”
Turkey’s 2018 military budget increased to $19 billion, 24% higher than 2017, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Erdogan has placed Turkey’s military — once a bastion of Turkish nationalism and secularism — under his political authority. While Europe is pacifist and refuses to invest in its own security or, like Germany, support NATO’s budget, Turkey is belligerent.
Ever since his Justice and Development Party (AKP) became Turkey’s dominant political force in 2002, for Erdogan, elevating the public role of Islam has been more than a slogan. At public gatherings, the Turkish president has made the “rabia“, a hand gesture of four fingers raised and the thumb hidden, to protest the overthrow of Egypt’s Islamist then President Mohamed Morsi by Egypt’s military. Erdogan evidently sees himself as a global Islamic leader with national elections to win. Through four million Turkish Muslims in Germany and vast communities in the Netherlands, France, Austria and beyond, Erdogan does indeed have enormous influence in Europe.
As a leader of the Ummah [Islamic community], Erdogan challenged the leader of Christianity. In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a famous lecture at Germany’s University of Regensburg, where he diagnosed Islam as inherently flawed. During his address, the Pope quoted a 14th Century Christian emperor:
“Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”.
The Muslim world erupted in anger. In an apology tour of Erdogan’s Turkey, Benedict XVI reversed his firm position of just two years before and supported Turkey’s joining the European Union. The year before becoming Pope, then-Cardinal Ratzinger had said that Turkey should never join the European Union. “Europe is a cultural continent, not a geographical one,” Ratzinger said to Le Figaro.
“It is its culture that gives it a common identity. The roots that have formed it, that have permitted the formation of this continent, are those of Christianity. […] In this sense, throughout history Turkey has always represented another continent, in permanent contrast with Europe. There were the wars against the Byzantine empire, the fall of Constantinople, the Balkan wars, and the threat against Vienna and Austria. That is why I think it would be an error to equate the two continents.”
Ratzinger said the something similar in another instance, that “Turkey in Europe is a mistake”:
“The European continent has its own Christian soul and Turkey, which is not the Ottoman Empire in its extension but still constitutes its central core, has another soul, naturally to be respected”.
Both Benedict and Erdogan understood that Islamic Turkey has been the nemesis of Christian Europe — from October 7, 1571, when Europe inflicted a catastrophic defeat on the Ottomans at the Battle of Lepanto, until September 12, 1683, when Europe again defeated the Turks at the outskirts of Vienna, the city they had historically tried to capture as a base for the conquest of the rest of Europe.
It was in the half-century that followed the fall of Constantinople in 1453 — the great Eastern Christian center, whose collapse marked the end of the Byzantine Empire — that Christian Europe started to expel the Ottoman Turks from the continent. Now it seems as if Erdogan, by other means, is trying to pursue a historic Turkish revenge on Europe. Erdogan is seemingly using this ideology of conquest to cement his internal and external power.
Erdogan’s most powerful tool in his relations with Europe has been migrants. “You cried out when 50,000 refugees were at the Kapikule border”, Erdogan said in 2016, referring to the border with Bulgaria. “You started asking what you would do if Turkey would open the gates. Look at me — if you go further, those border gates will be open. You should know that”.
Last month, during his military operation against the Kurds, Erdogan repeated the same threat:
“Hey EU, wake up. I say it again: if you try to frame our operation there as an invasion, our task is simple: we will open the doors and send 3.6 million migrants to you.”
Europe, unable to control its own borders, is stalling.
Since he came to power, Erdogan, in a building spree, has reportedly built 17,000 mosques (one fifth of Turkey’s total). The largest is located in Camlica, the Asian shore of Istanbul. From Mali to Moscow, by way of Cambridge and Amsterdam, Erdogan is ceaselessly active in “diplomatizing” his religion. The “biggest mosque in the Balkans” is Turkish and is located in Tirana, Albania. “The largest in West Africa” was built by Erdogan in Accra, Ghana. “The largest in Central Asia” he built in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The “largest mosque in Europe” will be his new Turkish mosque in Strasbourg. He is planning to open Turkish schools in France.
Erdogan has empowered Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), which now has 120,000 employees and a budget the size of twelve other ministries combined. In 2004, with 72,000 employees, the Diyanet was about half that size. This is the religious network with which Erdogan has a foot in European affairs.
In Germany, Turkey controls 900 mosques out of a total of 2,400. These Islamic centers not only serve members of the Turkish diaspora, but also stop them from assimilating into German society. Speaking with Turks in Germany, Erdogan urged them not to assimilate, and called the assimilation of migrants in Europe “a crime against humanity“. He apparently wants them to remain part of Turkey and the Ummah, the global Muslim community.
Last year, Austrian authorities announced the closure of several Turkish-controlled mosques after “children in a Turkish-financed mosque re-enacting the first world war battle of Gallipoli.” According to The Guardian:
As many as 60 Turkish imams and their families face expulsion from Austria and seven mosques are due to be closed under a clampdown on what the government has called “political Islam”.
Austria’s chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, said the country could no longer put up with “parallel societies, political Islam and radicalisation,” which he said had “no place in our country”.
Erdogan, however, knows that against Europe, numbers are on his side. “Make not three, but five children. Because you are the future of Europe,” Erdogan told the Turkish diaspora. Eurostat, the official statistics agency of the European Union, shows that in terms of birthrates, Turkey is ahead of Europe. In one year in Turkey, more than 1.2 million children were born, while only 5.07 million children were born in all of the EU’s 28 member states. What would Europe look like if 80 million Turks joined the EU?
Already in 1994, when Erdogan was campaigning to become the mayor of Istanbul, he talked about “the second conquest of Istanbul“. (The first conquest was the defeat of Christian Constantinople in 1453.) According to the exiled Turkish novelist Nedim Gürsel, Erdogan, when he was mayor of Istanbul, took it upon himself to commemorate the Turkish conquest of Constantinople. “Celebrating a conquest that took place more than five centuries ago may seem anachronistic, I would even say absurd, to European leaders”, Gürsel writes. “For Erdogan, the capture of Constantinople is another pretext for challenging the West and giving back to its people its repressed pride”. Last January, Erdogan chose the tomb of an Ottoman forebear to pledge a victory over Syria.
“You will not turn Istanbul into Constantinople”, Erdogan said after the Christchurch massacre. Erdogan is obsessed with history and takes it far more seriously than Europeans do. “We will change Hagia Sophia’s name from a museum to a mosque”, Erdogan said earlier this year. The Hagia Sophia, built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in AD 537, was for 900 years the greatest cathedral in Christendom – until 1453 when the Ottoman Empire defeated the Byzantines and took over Constantinople; then it became one of Islam’s greatest mosques. In 1935, President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk turned it into a museum; Erdogan has pledged to turn it back into a mosque, and recited a Muslim prayer in the formerly Christian site.
Erdogan has also been expanding Turkey beyond its borders – starting with Cyprus, the Greek Islands, Suakin Island (Sudan) and Syria. “We are a big family of 300 million people from the Adriatic to the Great Wall of China”, Erdogan said in a recent speech from Moldova. The borders of Turkey, he stated in Izmir, span “from Vienna to the shores of the Adriatic Sea, from East Turkistan (China’s autonomous region of Xinjiang) to the Black Sea”.
To expand his country’s influence, Erdogan is also using Turkey’s military. “Not since the days of the Ottoman Empire has the Turkish military had such an extensive global footprint”, the journalist Selcan Hacaoglu reports. The Turkish-American political scientist Soner Cagaptay titled his new book, Erdogan’s Empire.
Mosques, migrants and the military are now Erdogan’s new weapons in his campaign against the West.
Giulio Meotti, Cultural Editor for Il Foglio, is an Italian journalist and author.