How Islam in the West is influenced from abroad


Foreign funding of Europe’s mosques is a mixed blessing

Feb 14th 2019Print edition | Special report

THE IMAM of Germany’s largest mosque (pictured) is struggling to fill it. It holds 1,200 worshippers, cost €20m ($22.8m) and was opened last September to much fanfare in Cologne, North Rhine-Westphalia, the German state with the biggest concentration of Muslims. But only a few dozen elderly men attend his Sunday noon prayers.

It might help if the imam spoke German. But he is a Turkish civil servant, one of hundreds sent on three-year secondments by Turkey’s Diyanet Isleri Baskanligi (directorate of religious affairs). It runs Turkey’s 900 mosques in Germany and around 1,000 more in places from Macedonia to Maryland. Like official religious bodies in other Muslim countries, it builds and maintains flagship mosques to project its own national variant of Islam, keep its diaspora loyal and cement its influence in the West.

When Muslim migrants first started to arrive in Europe, there were good reasons for Western governments to outsource religious provision to foreign ones. Most of the incomers were too poor to pay for imams, and the West lacked the skills to cater for migrants’ spiritual needs. Muslim governments had the religious institutions to do it. In addition to building and running mosques, the Diyanet and its local arm, DITIB (see glossary), provided extensive support to communities, running football clubs, summer camps and a subsidised funeral service for Muslims across Europe.

The arrangement seemed mutually beneficial. Western governments preserved their secular credentials, their budgets and, in many cases, the polite fiction that Muslim migrants were outsiders whose presence was temporary. In some parts of Germany and the Netherlands Turkey’s Diyanet was even asked to provide religious education for Muslims in state schools. Middle Eastern Sunni governments spread their own national creeds. Their agents also kept tabs on troublemakers.

After the oil-price shocks of the 1970s, Saudi Arabia embarked on a programme for Muslim hegemony. Its fundamentalist Salafism unnerved some, but it had the petrodollars to finance the project, and it helped reinforce the defences against Iran’s call to revolution. The Muslim World League, the foreign arm of the Saudi religious establishment, built and operated large mosques abroad. They trained a new cadre of imams, offering lavish scholarships at the Islamic University of Madinah in the holy city of Medina, where 80% of the students were religious scholars from abroad.

Muslim autocrats came to value the soft power they gained. Preachers from Saudi Arabia and Algeria delivered diatribes against the menace of democracy, which they castigated as a Western artifice against God’s rule. Egypt’s informants kept watch on the dissident Muslim Brothers who had been chased abroad. Morocco’s mosques promoted the authority of its king and “Commander of the Faithful” over rebellious Berbers from the Rif, many of whom moved to Europe. In recent years Turkey’s imams abroad have been praising the policies of their paymaster, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and sounding an Islamist note.

Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and, to a lesser extent, Iran extended their influence in Europe by helping the 7m indigenous Muslims of eastern Europe recover from the ravages of communism and the Balkan wars of the 1990s. They set up universities and rebuilt hundreds of war-torn mosques. “These were European mosques, and not a single mosque was rebuilt by Europe,” says Muhammad Jusic of the Islamic Community, the Sarajevo-based organisation that manages Bosnia’s Muslim affairs. Mr Erdogan, in particular, is reaping the dividends from restoring Sarajevo’s Ottoman mosques. When he visited the city last year, Bosnia’s president, Bakir Izetbegovic, hailed him as God’s messenger.

Rising jihadist activity in the West strengthened the case for tightening foreign-government control of the mosques. North African officials pointed to their centuries of experience in promoting moderate orthodox Islam. “Morocco guarantees the security of the religion and guards against those entering mosques to plant mines in the psyches of worshippers,” says Ahmed Al-Abbadi, who acts as the Moroccan king’s representative for religious affairs.

But accomplishing this was sometimes hard. Foreign imams on short-term assignments typically did not speak the language of the country they were working in, and seemed more concerned about securing promotion back home than building relations abroad. They slowed down the integration of first-generation Muslim migrants to the West and failed to grasp the difficulties faced by the second generation. “Foreign imams don’t make inspiring role models,” says Khaled Abou el Fadl, an academic from Egypt who chairs the Islamic Studies programme at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The politics of religion

DITIB’s Turkish officials compare its mosques in the West to foreign-run churches, like the Russian Orthodox or Lutheran ones in the Middle East, but many of them appear to be increasingly used for political ends. Sermons reflect Turkey’s tilt from secularism to an assertive Islamism. Having tried and failed for decades to join the EU, says a seasoned European diplomat, the country is now seeking to enter the West through its mosques. At the opening of the giant new mosque in Cologne last September Mr Erdogan and his religious establishment caused consternation by excluding the local officials who had supported its construction. The following month he unveiled a restored Ottoman shrine in Hungary’s capital, Budapest. The expansion of foreign-dominated Islam in Europe shows no sign of abating, even though the continent’s native-born Muslims will soon outnumber its immigrant ones.

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