Surveillance of its Largest Turkish–Islamic Association Would Be Risky for Germany
Reports have emerged that the German intelligence service, Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, is considering placing surveillance on the largest association of Turkish–Islamic communities in Germany. The timing of these public contemplations is curious given the signs of reconciliation after years of heated rhetoric and accusations. This September and October witness a flurry of high-profile Turkish and German government visits, most importantly President Erdogan’s state visit to Berlin this week. Erdogan is scheduled to officially open Ditib’s new main mosque in Cologne during his trip.
Ditib, which runs more than 900 mosques, is an organization central to Turkish–Islamic life in Germany. It plays an important role in countering extremism, promoting interfaith dialogue, serving as a point of contact for German governments, and even providing religious education in some schools.
Ditib has been criticized in Germany for its close ties to the Turkish government’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, Diyanet. Turkey’s Diyanet provides Ditib financial support and its imams are educated in Turkey. Especially since Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian turn after the coup attempt in 2016, Ditib has been accused of serving as an outpost of President Erdogan in the Turkish–German community. Recent years have witnessed several scandals involving Ditib communities, ranging from reported prayers for Turkey’s military success to pictures of military re-enactment surfacing, showing children as “martyrs.” The German federal state prosecutor opened investigations into 19 Ditib imams in 2017, accusing them of spying on Turkish opposition individuals and alleged members of the Gülen movement in Germany. The charges have since been dropped.
These incidents caught the attention of the German interior ministry’s intelligence service for protection of the constitution, who mentioned the investigations against the imams in its 2017 annual report. Apparently, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz recently sent dossiers to the 16 German Länder, asking them and their Verfassungsschutz bureaus for assessments, comments, and further material regarding the case until mid-October. If Ditib were to be deemed a threat to the German constitution as “suspected” case, the organization could be subject to surveillance as well as advanced and covert intelligence methods. Due to Germany’s federal structure, the Bundesamt für Verfassungschutz can only reach a decision regarding the federal level of Ditib. Classification would also be up to the Länder, each making their own decisions regarding the respective state’s Ditib sub-organizations.
Some experts have expressed doubts about the evidence of the association threatening the state of Germany and warned about the consequences certain classifications might have. Either way, the Länder and the federal government are caught in a tough position. The protection of the state and its constitution should be conducted thoroughly and without fear concerning foreign relations. If a threat emerges, authorities should be able to act. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that Ditib is a serious threat to the German constitution. The Turkish government’s influence surely is too vast, and the scandals mentioned above are unacceptable. However, there are already means in place to address potentially criminal offenses, as the investigations of the federal prosecutor show.
Consequences domestically and internationally could cause serious harm. Given Germany’s history, even suspecting someone officially of being a threat to the constitution, legal repercussions aside, has far-reaching consequences in the public perception. In this case, and major parts of Turkish–Islamic community in Germany would be cast as enemies of the state. This would be a political gold mine for Islamophobic and xenophobic politicians. Parts of the Turkish Diaspora have repeatedly been criticized by several members of the German public for voting for President Erdogan and his AKP. Labelling the largest Turkish–Islamic association in Germany a threat to the state without justifiable evidence is certainly not going to foster an increase in identification with “German values” among its members. While the Turkish government seems to have used both Ditib and Diyanet for political gains, Diyanet also plays a role in protecting affiliated communities in Turkey and in Germany (due to Ditib) from extremist Islamist ideologies. To avoid unintended consequences, these aspects should be kept in mind by German decision-makers. Additionally, Ditib most likely could no longer continue to be the important member of the German Islam Conference, leaving a considerable vacuum in the Turkish–Islamic dialogue with the German public.
If the Ditib is placed under surveillance, any rapprochement with Turkey would hit an obstacle. It is an invitation to the Turkish government to distract from its economic issues and possibly cast itself and Turkish people as being unjustly targeted. The fact that the majority of religious Turkish citizens at home and abroad represent Erdogan’s core constituency makes a strong reaction more likely. Plus, the to-be-removed head of the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz Hans-Georg Maaßen recently stated sentiments similar to the right-wing populist AfD’s message and allegedly counselled AfD heads on how to avoid Verfassungsschutz surveillance. Taking steps to surveil Ditib in this context sends a devastating signal to migrant communities, especially since the Verfassungsschutz’es role in the National Socialist Underground’s (NSU) terrorist actions until 2011 still have not been sufficiently disclosed.
The intelligence services should undoubtedly be able to address security threats of various kinds. Ditib’s excessive dependency on the Turkish state is a concern and it has certainly taken steps in the wrong direction, especially following 2016, and should ensure that aforementioned incidents do not happen again. Nevertheless, classifying the association as an enemy of the constitution seems overblown and would most likely do more harm than good. Though the German government stopped funding Ditib this summer, there is room for private negotiations about the future of the Diyanet’s influence on Ditib. Chancellor Merkel and her minister’s might even seize the moment to demand possible structural changes of Ditib given the Verfassungsschutz’es actions and Ankara’s current desire for support in Turkey’s economic downturn. Of course, it would follow the risky path of an increasingly transactional relationship, but still avoid damage of the scale a surveillance of the largest Turkish–Islamic association would cause for Germany domestically and with Turkey.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.