Spying and Indoctrination Erdogan’s Long Arm Reaches Hamburg

The city of Hamburg’s attempts to better integrate its German-Turkish community are threatened by the Erdogan regime's alleged use of Turkish-funded mosques to spy on opponents.
Quelle: dpa
A Ditib-run mosque in Hamburg. Its imams are paid by the Turkish state.
(Source: dpa)

It isn’t easy to set up a meeting with Sedat Şimşek. The 43-year-old is chairman of the Ditib communities in Hamburg and Schleswig-Holstein, where he is responsible for 35 mosques.

The Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs, or Ditib, is one of the largest Islamic organizations in Germany. So Mr. Şimşek ought to be used to public relations work; but he isn't keen to give an interview and only agrees after repeated requests.

The interview finally takes place at the mosque in Pinneberg, the headquarters of the northern Ditib district. The angular building resembles a garage more than a house of prayer.

Mr. Şimşek, a physicist by profession, seems reticent, even overwhelmed, by the harsh reproaches to his religious association.

Yet Ditib has made itself vulnerable to attack. Ditib imams in Germany are employed by the Turkish state. A few of them are alleged to have spied on supporters of Fethullah Gülen, the preacher and critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and passed information on to Ankara. There are documents supporting this accusation regarding religious communities in the areas around Cologne, Düsseldorf and Munich. The Federal Prosecutor’s Office has begun an investigation.

Mr. Şimşek has heard the accusation that imams have spied on Gülen supporters in Hamburg, too. He says he can neither confirm nor deny the reports. Mr. Şimşek himself doesn’t seem to entirely trust the imams sent from Turkey. He says he was last in Ankara in 2013 and doesn’t have anything to do with the religious authorities there.

Since the failed coup in Turkey last summer, internal Turkish conflicts are also being openly played out in the diaspora.

Since the failed coup in Turkey last summer, internal Turkish conflicts are also being openly played out in the diaspora: nationalists against Kurds and liberals, Erdoğan supporters against Gülen advocates, clerics against laypersons.

Anyone who thought such controversies could be limited to Facebook pages and political demonstrations had learned otherwise by last December. A special unit of the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation in Hamburg arrested a suspected Turkish agent who was allegedly preparing to assassinate Kurdish political activists.

In the meantime, the confrontation has escalated. Politics and the media are focusing on the internal Turkish disputes and questioning the goals and strategies of Hamburg’s integration policy.

Four years ago, the city signed an agreement with several Islamic religious communities. On the basis of shared values, the city allowed Islamic associations to participate in interdenominational religious instruction in schools. The contracting parties “are united in their rejection of violence and discrimination on the basis of origin, gender, sexual orientation, religious faith or political opinion.” There is also a call for “the realization of equal participation of women and girls in education, employment and social life regardless of their religious convictions.”

Lofty words. But many question whether they are grounded in reality. Some say an agreement like this can’t simply be canceled. Others argue it can’t be maintained if a partner like Ditib violates its fundamental values.

Quelle: dpa
President Erdoğan has accused preacher Fethullah Gülen of being behind the 2016 attempted coup.
(Source: dpa)

Get rid of it, demand the pro-business Free Democrats, along with Dennis Gladiator, a conservative Christian Democrat expert on domestic affairs. The rest of his parliamentary group offers more restrained arguments and prefers to use the agreement to put pressure on Ditib. This is also the approach of the center-left Social Democrats, who seek to conduct “norm-clarifying discussions” on the basis of the contract, as parliamentary floor leader Andreas Dressel put it last weekend.

The debate about Mr. Erdoğan’s influence in northern Germany was reignited last summer when construction worker Ali Cebir was caught in Mr. Erdoğan’s sights. He comes from the Kurdish part of Turkey and lives in the Elmshorn district as a recognized refugee. He had disseminated reports on Facebook about border clashes between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish army. In Turkey, this falls under the “reporting prohibition” decreed by Mr. Erdoğan.

At the “request of Turkey,” a German district court issued a summons to Mr. Cebir, who did not appear and was subpoenaed a second time. This time, he had castigated Mr. Erdoğan on the Internet as a “donkey” and “schizophrenic.” Soon after, he received mail from the State Criminal Police Office (LKA) because of “repeated insulting of the state president.” Once again, the investigation by a German agency was being conducted “at the request of Turkey.” It would seem that Mr. Erdoğan attempted to intimidate not only the German satirist Jan Böhmermann but also ordinary citizens.

Okan Türkyilmaz is chairman of the Hamburg section of the association Forum Dialog e. V., which supports Fethullah Gülen. The association organizes readings, lectures and discussions throughout Germany. Sitting in an office building in the district of Rotherbaum, the industrial engineer describes how daily life has changed for Erdoğan critics. The Turkish president has threatened that anyone involved with Mr. Gülen will pay the price. Of the 92 members in Mr. Türkyilmaz's association before the military coup in Turkey, only 23 remain. “People are scared,” he says. They hear about banned entry into Turkey, receive telephone calls from Turkish relatives inquiring whether they still belong to the association.

The tone is harsh. The Turkish government addresses Gülen supporters only with the acronym Fetö: Fethullahçi Terör Örgütü – in English, “Fethullahist Terror Organization.” In the meantime, Mr. Türkyilmaz avoids the large Hamburg mosques and, of course, those operated by Ditib. “I don’t want to subject myself to the angry stares,” he says. Instead the 40-year-old attends a mosque in the Altona district where only imams from Germany preach.

The Ditib association in Hamburg was widely criticized when its youth organization published a drawing of a Muslim man hitting Santa Claus in the face on Facebook. The text read: “No to parties on New Year’s Eve and Christmas.” The Ditib leadership immediately distanced itself, but the damage had been done. This could “no longer be tolerated,” said Mr. Gladiator from the CDU.

Mr. Şimşek leads the way into the classroom of the mosque in Pinneberg. There are rows of chairs as in school; on the wall is the Turkish alphabet, in the corner, a bookcase full of copies of the Koran.

Is Ditib controlled by Mr. Erdoğan? Mr. Şimşek looks astounded, as if he were hearing the question for the first time. “Of course not,” he says. “Ditib is politically neutral. We are a religious community, not a political party.”

Politically neutral? Not entirely. Mr. Şimşek must know that himself. Because Ditib’s link to the Turkish state is inscribed in its statutes. The president of Diyanet, the Turkish religious authority, appoints the chief honorary chairman and thereby determines the make-up of the supervisory board that is the most important committee of the association. Furthermore, a large part of its funding comes from Ankara. The Ditib imams are Turkish functionaries who are subject to the Diyanet.

If we had only imams from Germany in German mosques, that would already be a great achievement. Okan Türkyilmaz, Chairman of the Hamburg section of pro-Gülen association Forum Dialog e. V.

So it is doubly explosive that clerics spied on opponents of the Turkish regime who live in Germany. The orders are said to have come directly from the Turkish capital, from Diyanet.

Meeting Stefanie von Berg, Green Party spokeswoman on religious policy, reveals the dilemma into which the debate about Ditib has thrust the Hamburg government’s coalition parties. The Greens are the junior partner to the Social Democrats in the city-state government. Ms. von Berg says when the agreement was signed, the assessment of Ditib was different. “Today we probably wouldn’t enter into a contract with Ditib.” There is “genuine worry” about developments in Turkey, which is being turned into an autocracy.

But Ms. von Berg says the Hamburg government, known as the Senate, cannot cancel the contract. That would risk everything that has been achieved. "Religious instruction for everyone,” which is still considered exemplary, could be replaced by denominational instruction in which Islamic associations could exert far more influence. They could scarcely be prevented from doing so. Freedom of religion is a basic right, and the law is unambiguous on this issue. So the word from the Senate is that the contract must be “maintained even in difficult times.”

Okan Türkyilmaz takes the same view, in spite of his criticism of Ditib. Canceling the contract is pointless, he argues; the focus must be on putting a stop to the influence of the Turkish government on the work of German mosque communities. “If we had only imams from Germany in German mosques, that would already be a great achievement,” Mr. Türkyilmaz says.

But there aren’t enough teaching posts or enough money to create more. The Hamburg Senate's dilemma is a result of its own neglect of integration policy. Hamburg is dependent on Turkish imams because it doesn’t train enough of its own.

The situation is similar with regard to so-called consular instruction. Some 900 pupils study the native tongue of their parents or grandparents under the supervision of Turkish consular teachers; there is also instruction in Turkish history and geography.

Consular instruction has been going on for 40 years. From this perspective, the current debate shows how consistently the majority in German society has ignored the concerns of its citizens of Turkish origin.

Mehtap Kaplan-Gökce endured this instruction as a child. The 42-year-old is still angry that back then, to the indignation of her secularly oriented family, language instruction was accompanied by introduction to Islamic rituals of bodily hygiene. Today she works on the management board of the Association of Turkish Parents.

One of the association's most important proposals is to introduce Turkish as a regular school subject, taught by trained teachers under the supervision of German school boards. As long this is lacking, Ms. Kaplan-Gökce continues to send her children to consular language instruction. Not because she considers it to have improved since she attended, but because it is better than nothing.

The secularly oriented Turkish Teachers’ Association assessed consular instruction as taking a lecture format, partially nationalistic in tone, with teaching materials from the previous century. Ms. Kaplan-Gökce's parents association is more concerned over pedagogical backwardness than political indoctrination. It says many teachers used to be affiliated with the education-promoting Gülen movement; today they come from the camp of Mr. Erdoğan's AKP party and are religiously oriented, as is their instruction.

A survey by Hamburg University showed that 95 percent of German-Turkish parents want their children to learn to read and write in the Turkish language. Six out of 10 parents whose children aren’t instructed in Turkish criticize the lack of language lessons in Hamburg schools.

If the Hamburg politicians advocating integration want to do something to reduce Turkey’s influence on Germans of Turkish origin, an alternative to consular instruction would be greeted enthusiastically by Erdoğan-critical German Turks in particular.

But the parents’ association says it has tried for years to get an appointment with the senator responsible for schools. His department says it sees no need for anything beyond what is presently offered, particularly in elementary schools. When the university stopped training Turkish teachers in 2014, most citizens accepted the decision with a shrug: the autonomy of higher education, nothing to be done about it.

There’s too little help from Germany – on this issue, Ditib leader Mr. Şimşek is also emphatic. “We have repeatedly called for imams to be trained here.” Unfortunately, he says, politicians have turned a deaf ear. So what choice is there but to turn to Turkey for support?

This article first appeared in newsweekly Die Zeit. To contact the authors: [email protected]