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DITIB wants to break free of Erdogan

Ben Knight
August 15, 2016

German-Turkish Islamic organization DITIB says it will cut financial links with the Turkish government following increasing anger at the president's repression. But it insists it is politically independent anyway.

Köln Moschee DITIB
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Hitij

The Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB) has tried to disassociate itself from the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after a string of German politicians said the organization's recognition as a religious community would need to be re-assessed in the wake of Erdogan's repression of his political opposition.

"The question is how long Turkey will continue to support the DITIB imams," DITIB spokesman Zekeriya Altug told the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung" (FAS). "We will have to look around for alternatives in our financing in the long-term."

DITIB was founded in Germany in 1984 as a branch of the Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), a Turkish government department that administers Islamic education and administration. Many observers say Diyanet's power and budget have increased substantially since Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002 and it now actively promotes conservative Sunni Islam both at home and abroad.

Islamic school course in Frankfurt
DITIB is hoping to be recognized as a religious community in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Holschneider

Imams in Germany

In Germany, DITIB has grown into an umbrella organization that says it represents over 900 mosque societies in Germany and some 70 percent of the Muslims in the country.

As part of its mission, DITIB plays host to imams sent to Germany by Diyanet for five-year periods, telling "Die Welt" newspaper recently that there are some 970 such imams currently working in the country. Their wages are paid by the Turkish state, and, much to the irritation of many German politicians, they have been educated in Turkey and often don't speak any German.

But now, that will change - DITIB wants all its imams to be German citizens who speak German and have been educated in Germany. Altag told the FAS that "in ten years at least half our imams will have been socialized in Germany." In the long term, he added, DITIB would become fully independent of the Turkish government.

New status in doubt

The new pressure on DITIB in Germany is part of the political fallout from the attempted military coup in Turkey in mid-July and Erdogan's subsequent campaign of repression against political opponents.

DITIB, along with other Islamic organizations, has been trying to gain "religious community" status in several German states, which would afford it the same constitutional privileges and protections enjoyed by Christian churches.

But this looks less likely now. "The events in Turkey certainly throw a new light on the recognition process of the Islamic associations," said Hannelore Kraft, state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, the German state with the largest Turkish community. "Doubts are growing that DITIB meets the criteria to be categorized as a religious community," she told the "Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung" last week.

On top of that, the government of Lower Saxony is threatening to suspend negotiations over a "state contract" with DITIB that would allow the organization to help draw up Islam lessons in German schools. DITIB is already part of a board that does this in NRW, though as only one of eight partners.

DITIB mosque with imam
DITIB claims to represent some 70 percent of Muslims in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Naupold

The Green party has shown similar skepticism - even over DITIB's latest promises. "It's good that DITIB is slowly recognizing that its dependence on Ankara is perceived as a problem in Germany," the Greens' religious affairs spokesman Volker Beck said. "But it's not just the money."

Beck was concerned that DITIB's close association with the Turkish government and with mainstream conservative Sunni Islam would marginalize other Muslims. "DITIB is a Turkish-Sunni association," he told DW in an emailed statement. "Being Muslim is a religious profession of faith, but being Turkish isn't."

"If Islamic organizations want to be recognized as religious communities, they have to spurn political or national traits and restructure themselves," he added. "That is what German constitutional law requires."

At the same time, Beck criticized calls by other political parties to suspend talks with DITIB as "pointless." "We just have to know who we're dealing with," he wrote in the "Tagesspiegel" newspaper.

For his part, DITIB spokesman Altug appeared nonplussed at this new concern. "DITIB is and remains politically neutral," he told the FAS.

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