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Are German imams praying for Turkey's military?

Richard A. Fuchs
January 26, 2018

Imams are accused of praying for a military defeat of Kurds in northern Syria. Germany's Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs and politicians in Ankara deny the claims — but suspicions linger.

DITIB's central mosque in Germany
Image: DW/M. Odabasi

The offensive launched by Turkey in a Kurdish region of northern Syria has also sown the seeds of discord in Germany. One reason may be the reports that German tanks have been deployed in the attacks. But it became a particularly emotional domestic matter following reports that the imams of mosques run by the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB) have apparently called on worshippers to pray for a successful military offensive. Spiegel Online reported that an imam from the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg wrote that his community would pray that "our heroic army and heroic soldiers be victorious."

"So 'prayers for freedom' at DITIB Cologne go hand in hand with illustrations of tanks and the recitation of the Surah Al-Fath?" the Green politician Volker Beck wrote on Twitter. "Can they deceive the public with this strategy?"

In a statement, DITIB — Germany's largest Islamic organization and a body closely tied to the Turkish religious authority Diyanet — categorically rejected the accusations and insisted that there was no centralized appeal. The Cologne-based organization noted that the churches of all religious communities choose their own prayers. But DITIB did not expressly distance itself from Turkey's actions in Syria. The lawyer and women's rights activist Seyran Ates, who has Kurdish roots, is not surprised. "The mere fact that the president of the Republic of Turkey uses Diyanet to discuss the war on a religious level, .i.e., using the mosque facilities, is scandalous in my opinion," Ates, a former member of the German Islam Conference, told DW.

The Turkish politician Mustafa Yeneroglu had a different take. "No one prayed for the war, but instead the survival of Turkish soldiers and their allies and for the security of the country," Yeneroglu, a member of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), told DW. "That is the most natural thing in the world." In his experience, German houses of worship have always prayed "for the protection of soldiers and those who died in battle."

Ates, a co-founder of Berlin's progressive Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque, calls such comparisons irresponsible. "It means something else when religious people are drawn into war that his been prepared strategically for a long time and is intended as a distraction from domestic politics," she said.

A Leopard 2A4 tank in the Kurdish region
Turkey deployed German-produced tanks for attacks that have displaced thousandsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/XinHua

'Defending national borders'?

Bernd Ridwan Bauknecht, an Islam teacher from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, told DW that he would like the discussion, which he sometimes finds too emotional, to become more objective. Bauknecht, himself a former member of the German Islam Conference, cannot imagine that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had ordered such a prayer, but he does think it is quite probable that individual mosque communities would engage in it.

"I condemn this, but at the same time I ask for a few moments to reflect on the feelings of many Turkish citizens," Bauknecht said. For example, the past few years have seen attacks on Turkish soil, many by the Islamic State terror organization — but others attributed to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). "Many people really do feel threatened, and that is why defending national borders is perceived in completely different light," Bauknecht said.

Still, Bauknecht said, Islamic associations within Germany have a certain duty. DITIB could regain lost trust by openly and credibly separating itself from Diyanet: "It has to be about German Muslims in Germany — and only about them."

Lengthy postcoup fallout

Authorities have repeatedly detected attempts by Ankara to gain influence within Germany since the failed coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016. In response to a query submitted from the Left party, the Interior Ministry reported that Turkey's government has tried to influence official organizations, interest groups and religious communities in Germany.

There had been previous speculation that Erdogan might use mosque-going Turkish citizens in Germany to gain political influence ahead of the controversial 2017 constitutional referendum that he successfully used to increase his power. Imams are said to have spied on the president's opponents in the Gulen movement.

When DW asked officials at various institutes for Islamic theology at German universities about the prayers for victory in the Afrin region, they seemed to be reluctant to publicly express their opinions. One possible reason for this may be the fact that DITIB representatives hold seats on the advisory boards of university programs.

The German and Turkish flags
The relationship between Germany and Turkey has grown increasingly testyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Charisius

Conflict in Germany

The AKP's Yeneroglu considers the debate completely misguided. Authorities should rather focus attention on vandalism at mosques within Germany, he said. Just last week, walls were smeared with paint and windows smashed at mosques in Minden and Leipzig. There have also recently been skirmishes at airports between Kurdish demonstrators and Turkish passengers. "You should instead be upset about the fact that many PKK supporters are attacking mosques and constantly harassing Turkish Muslims on German streets without the public being upset about it," he said.

Ates, the lawyer, said such statements were an expression of an extremely "one-sided victim role." Of course there are attacks on refugee homes and immigrant communities in Germany, she said. "All this is true, but Mr. Yeneroglu willingly overlooks the hate fueled in the DITIB mosques and the fact that integration policies are not necessarily pursed," she added.

She has called for a rethink. "I think it is fundamentally scandalous that the German government still fully accepts DITIB as a dialogue partner and cooperation partner," Ates said. She concluded that it has become clear to everyone that Erdogan has a direct influence on DITIB's policies. "These illusions in German politics are no longer acceptable to the public," she said.