1 Introduction

The analysis of the organizations presented in this article points to a foreign policy shift in Turkey instigated by the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP, Justice and Development Party), which has only been partially understood in its profound impact. Unlike previous Turkish governments, the AKP seeks to assert its interests at home and abroad not only through classical political alliances (NATO, EEC, EU, etc.), but also through instruments of “soft power”. It relies on a policy of emotive communication through identity, religion, language, and culture. By evoking memories (by connecting Turkish identity to the Ottoman Empire and the global umma) and emotions (particularly through language and symbols) and propagating values understood as Turkish or Islamic, the AKP aims to appeal to parts of the heterogeneous Turkish diaspora in German-speaking and European regions and persuade them to support the AKP. Furthermore, Turkish “soft power” endeavors aim to legitimize Turkey’s political engagement in European countries to the non-Turkish majority population of Europe and evoke a positive image of the country and its diaspora. These efforts are supported by Turkish nationalist and Turkish-Islamist organizations established in European countries.

The organizations presented serve as mouthpieces of the Turkish government. At the same time, they act as transmitters of the identity, language, and cultural narratives produced by the Turkish government, aimed at convincing Turkish citizens at home and abroad that Turkey has grown into an important leading actor and spokesperson for Turkic peoples and Muslims in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. The realization of these political goals is also pursued through cooperation with Turkish diaspora organizations. The institutions and organizations presented here, as well as those in Turkey, are intended to implement this political strategy within the Turkish diaspora. This foreign policy doctrine of the AKP is often referred to as “Neo-Ottomanism” by experts on Turkey today, which can manifest in diverse and ever-changing political facets and is by no means limited solely to the classical political or diplomatic level.

The subsequent explanations are intended as a descriptive overview of a small selection of organizations in the political-ideological service of the AKP. An extensive examination of the topic is more than necessary for the development of a national or European counter-strategy.

Chapter 2 provides a brief explanation of the definition of the organizations described in this paper, followed by a concise outline of the background and implications of the developments that have led to the current situation. The paper concludes with a listing and categorization of relatively unknown internationally active Turkish think tanks with close proximity to the AKP.

Turkish nationalist and Islamic organizations and think tanks are defined in this working paper as follows (Abelson et al. 2016): both types of groups or organizations are explicitly guided by a national political interest, utilizing their expertise in the fields of religion, culture, politics, and society in the interest of the current ruling party of Turkey on Turkish soil and beyond the borders of Turkey in the interest of Turkey or the AKP. These groups or organizations can operate as part of a Turkish state organization or as independent and charitable institutions. They can be financed by national institutions of Turkey or through donations from their members and other supporters. The groups and organizations mentioned in this working paper share 1) their political-ideological alignment with the AKP and as a result, 2) their attempt to advance Turkish-religious-nationalistic interests of the AKP at home and abroad.Footnote 1

2 Background

In the coming years, more than 6 million people belonging to the Turkish diaspora will lead their everyday lives in various European countries. Many of them feel a strong connection both to Turkey and to the respective country of their diaspora (Göğüş 2018, pp. 48, 53). A large portion, approximately 3 million, of the Turkish diaspora lives in the German-speaking region – as well as in France, Sweden, Belgium, and Denmark. It is difficult to ascertain how many of them hold the citizenship of their host country.

It should be noted that immigrants from Turkey do not constitute a homogeneous group. This is important because commonly encountered terms such as “Turkish diaspora” or “Turkish immigrant society” might suggest a homogeneity that does not actually exist in reality. Furthermore, the term “diaspora” is now also used for communities that did not suffer from displacement as for example the Jewish community did. Rather, the modern term suggests the connection of emigrants with their former homelands (Bauböck and Faist 2010). In this paper, the terms “diaspora” and “Turkish immigrant society” are used synonymously.

Due to mobility and technological innovations facilitated by globalization, the literature also states that diaspora groups can have multiple identity linkages (Göğüş 2018). These connections in certain cases mean that the political interests or traditions of the country of origin, as well as its political fault lines, can become visible within the respective diaspora in the host country. For example, conflicts between Turkish and Kurdish organizations in Europe can be traced back to decades-long political disputes in Turkey. A prime example would be the various religious and political disputes between Alevi and Sunni communities in Western Europe, which have their origins in Turkey. These and other conflicts are further amplified by religious-political initiatives of the Turkish religious authority Diyanet in the diaspora (Çiçek 2020, pp. 39–54).

The understanding of organization within Turkish political institutions and think tanks also leads to theo-political influences. The German or Austrian branches of the Turkish religious authority, such as Avusturya Türk İslam Birliği (ATIB) or Diyanet İşleri Türk İslam Birliği (DITIB), adopt certain positions of Diyanet, which can lead to conflicts in different contexts, such as the exclusion of Gülen followers, who are held responsible for the “failed coup” in Turkey in 2016, among other things (Çiçek 2020, pp. 39–54). Conflicts between AKP supporters and the Turkish opposition in Europe are also heavily influenced by Turkish (daily) politics. These mentioned developments and challenges are well-known, and European countries are trying to contain political or religious conflicts through different political means (Sunier and Landman 2015).

Religious-political initiatives of Turkish governments have been noticeable in Austria and Germany, as well as in Europe, since the 1970s (Sunier and Landman 2015). From the 1980s onwards, the Turkish state became more involved in addressing the needs of Turkish Muslims, as the newly established Islamic Republic in Iran also contributed to the rise of Islamist forces in Turkey. Millî Görüş benefited from this development both in Turkey and abroad (Gündoğmuş 2017). Simultaneously, an alliance between Turkish governments and Islamist movements was intended to combat communism during the Cold War. One ally in this political coalition was Necmettin Erbakan, the founder of Millî Görüş. However, this led to voices within the Millî Görüş movement suggesting that Turkey should also be transformed into an “Islamic state”. Since the beginning of Turkish labor migration in the 1960s, the Islamist movement Millî Görüş has been managing many mosques in Europe. The founder of the Millî Görüş movement, Necmettin Erbakan, studied in Aachen and was able to establish good networks and organizations, including in Germany, during his years of study (Çiçek et al. 2023; Gündoğmuş 2017).

During the Cold War and in the 1990s, Erbakan and his party were unable to shape Turkish domestic and foreign policy in a religious manner. It was only in the late 1990s, with regional and geopolitical opportunities, as well as the events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent upheavals following the “war on terror” initiated by the US, that new political accents could be set in Turkey and Turkish foreign policy. Since 2002, the religious-political influence of Turkey on the Turkish immigrant society has been systematized and institutionally anchored through the AKP.

3 Implications

Until a few years ago, the AKP was considered a great political hope for Turkey and its transformation into a liberal democracy. In the early 2000s, the party also didn’t seem to fit into the prevalent Turkish-Islamist categories at the time. While their predecessors explicitly referred to themselves as siyasal Islamcılar (political Islamists)Footnote 2, the AKP abstained from such rhetoric and instead used the term muhafazakar Demokratlar (conservative democrats).

It did so following the tradition of major European Christian democratic parties (Hale 2005). Ahmet Davutoğlu (former Prime Minister of Turkey from 2014 to 2016 and professor of International Relations) made a significant contribution to the use of new terms and took the initiative to establish Turkish nationalist, Turkish conservative, and Turkish Islamic think tanks.Footnote 3

In his book Stratejik Derinlik (Strategic Depth), he encouraged future decision-makers of Turkey to invest in state, university, and independent research institutions, as well as think tank organizations, in order to bring about a change in political perceptions of siyasal Islamcılar both within and outside Turkish society and make changes in domestic and foreign policies, especially with regard to the Muslim diaspora (Davutoğlu 2001). In 2013, as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Davutoğlu, went so far as to seek the revival of the “Ottoman grandeur” and recall the “Ottoman spatial order” through the influence of Turkish organizations and think tanks.

The last century (the period of the Republic) was only a parenthesis for us. We will close that parenthesis. We will do so without going to war, or calling anyone an enemy, without being disrespectful to any border, we will again tie Sarajevo to Damascus, Benghazi to Erzurum to Batumi. This is the core of our power. These may look like different countries to you, but Yemen and Skopje were part of the same country a hundred and ten years ago, as were Erzurum and Benghazi (quoted in Scott 2019).

The statement by the former Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister is important in multiple respects. The administration of President Erdoğan and the AKP have reweighted and reshaped Turkey’s identity politics, memory politics, values politics, and (foreign) political strategy through “soft power” institutions in two steps. This allows them, in the first step, to assert their influence in the traditional conflict between the center (Kemalist-military forces) and the periphery (Islamic forces) and also to align a portion of Kemalist politics with a new Islamic-political orientation (Abelson et al. 2016). In short, overcoming Kemalist-military tutelage goes hand in hand with incorporating Kemalist foreign policy into that of the AKP. Military engagement in Syria, Libya, and Azerbaijan served as examples of this new blend in foreign policy.

The above quoted argumentation by Davutoğlu reveals the following belief that can be summarized in brief sentences: The fundamental fault lines within Turkish society run along centralist and traditional forces, particularly in the periphery. Centralist forces (Kemalists) have assumed important bureaucratic positions and control over traditionally religious groups (Islamists) and ethnic minorities (Alevites, Kurds, etc.) since 1923, thanks to their control of the military. These two groups, centralists and traditionalists, emerged towards the end of the Ottoman state. The empire’s modernization of the army allowed new elites to rise to societal prominence, and only after the collapse of the Sublime Porte (Ottoman Empire) during World War I were they able to ascend as the center of the state. However, what they failed to achieve was a deep and sincere relationship with society as a whole. This repeatedly led to the centralist elites consciously reinforcing authoritarian tendencies within Turkey, thereby obstructing the development of a democratic culture.

According to Davutoğlu, the second step is intended, among other things, to lead to a societal image and perception change of the muhafazakar Demokratlar in both domestic and international arenas through the establishment of “soft power” instruments, such as think tanks. This is aimed at facilitating the advancement of political interests. In short, while the center’s elites are criticized for lacking a connection to society, the forces of the periphery are primarily characterized by their deep bond with society and the centuries-old traditions on Anatolian soil.

Since 2002, traditional Turkish-Islamic institutions (such as Diyanet) as well as think tanks have collectively worked to suppress critical voices against the AKP within the Turkish public. Furthermore, through joint collaboration, these institutions, among others, have been able to secure votes from the Turkish immigrant community in various European countries for the AKP (Özkan 2020, pp. 226–243). Even outside of political election periods, these organizations are involved in silencing or minimizing critical voices against the political objectives of the AKP, both domestically and internationally (Özkan 2020, pp. 226–243).

4 Changed Conditions and Political Fallout: Turkish Organizations on the AKP Course

Following the political strategies and recommendations of Davutoğlu, among others, the AKP decided to actively involve the Turkish diaspora in its politics and incorporate “soft power” strategies into its foreign policy approach after their electoral success in 2002. With a parliamentary majority in hand, the AKP decided to modify the Turkish constitution, particularly regarding the electoral law. The aim was to provide Turkish citizens living abroad with the opportunity to have a say in Turkish politics from their respective European locations without the need to travel to Turkey (Adar 2020). During the Turkish presidential election in 2014, it finally happened: many members of the Turkish diaspora, such as those in Germany, were able to cast their votes at specially established overseas polling stations. Prior to the election, legal matters were clarified, and the approval of the respective regions or countries was obtained. As previously noted by Sinem Adar, the majority of eligible Turkish voters in Germany voted for the AKP in both 2015 and 2018. One important reason for this is that the AKP’s political-cultural and political-religious communication, as well as its political influence, work very effectively through the Turkish religious authority Diyanet and its European branch organizations (such as DITIB, for example) (Çiçek 2021, pp. 39–70). Similarly, the AKP has been able to reshape the Turkish media landscape in its favor over the years, with critical voices being arrested or hindered in carrying out their work (Akyol 2016). As a result, it leaves little space for political initiatives by various opposition parties (Çiçek 2021).

This reorientation in Turkish foreign policy ensures that the Turkish diaspora society is continually influenced by various Turkish organizations in terms of identity, language, and culture. The AKP and its members, as well as affiliated organizations, emphasize this repeatedly. The spokesperson for the Turkish president and Islamic theologian, Ibrahim Kalin, points out that this approach is an important strategy of the AKP in order to promote Turkey’s interests through these political channels (Kalin 2011, p. 14). It also allows for direct influence on the policies of the host countries of the Turkish diaspora. Similarly, but with a focus on foreign trade, Kürşad Tüzmen, the Minister of Foreign Trade from 2002 to 2009, stated that the Turkish diaspora is an important part of the national economy (Göğüş 2018).

The reorientation is also noticeable institutionally, especially since 2003 – more on that shortly. It is worth noting that the AKP has also modified the institutions established before its era for its political purposes (Kalin 2011, p. 14). This includes the Dış İlişkiler ve Yurt Dışı İşçi Hizmetleri Genel Müdürlüğü (Directorate General for Foreign Relations and Services for Workers Abroad), founded in 1967. In parallel, Turkish consulates previously functioned as representatives and spokespersons for the Turkish immigration community before the AKP’s time in government. These institutions are still utilized by the Turkish government today to advance their own interests and those of their overseas citizens.

On June 17, 2003, a parliamentary investigation committee presented a report on how Turkey could better strategically support its citizens abroad. The committee was unequivocal that the Turkish government needed to engage more actively overseas (Mencutek and Baser 2018). To this end, they proposed making legislative changes and establishing institutions primarily responsible for dealing with the affairs of their citizens abroad. A central body for coordination was advocated for. In 2010, the organization Yurtdışı Türkler ve Akraba Topluluklar Başkanlığı (Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities, YTB) was founded.

The current head of the YTB, which is primarily active abroad, Mehmet Köse, referred to Cologne as the “capital of the Turkish diaspora” (Göğüş 2018; Zeyrek 2018) during his visit to Germany in March 2018. As an organization subordinate to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Turkey, it aims to preserve Turkish identity, culture, and language through close networking with the Diyanet on European soil (TurizmNews 2018). The focus of the organization is on cooperating with Turkish institutions (UID; previously UETD) and associations (e.g., DITIB or ATIB) abroad and in jointly coordinating political events and initiatives (Göğüş 2018). This results from a presidential decree that tasks the YTB with exerting political influence on the Turkish diaspora (Zeyrek 2018; Türk Devletleri Teşkilatı 2018).

Connecting various Muslim groups also forms part of the organization’s remit. This is due to the fact that various European countries have a strong interest in developing a “Euro-Islam” in collaboration with major Islamic actors, thereby ensuring the independence of their Muslim population from their countries of origin. Similarly, the YTB encourages and supports the political-participative efforts of Turkish citizens and religious associations for active participation in the politics of their respective countries. The organization believes that the formation of such a vested interest community would strengthen the bond between Turkey and the Turkish diaspora. The “diaspora youth” is a particular focus of the organization, which aims to enable young people, who have the potential to become significant figures in the Turkish diaspora, to develop their potential through targeted individual support (Adar 2020).

In Austria and Germany, among others, the YTB partners with the Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD), which was founded in 2004 and renamed to the Union of International Democrats (UID) in 2018 (Steudel 2014; Doğanay 2020). Similarly, DITIB and ATIB are also interested in collaboration and cooperation (Bozay and Çiçek 2023, pp. 11–20). In addition, the organization also supports political and social actions of the Austrian Islamic Federation (Perspektif 2018). As demonstrated by the German example of the Alliance for Innovation and Justice (BIG), it is conceivable that political parties founded by Turkish migrants in Austria will also cooperate with the YTB in the future. Furthermore, Turkish consulates frequently provide the necessary space for the YTB to bring its political content to the Turkish diaspora (Havadis 2019). BIG and the Alliance of German Democrats (AD Democrats) are both political parties that were initiated in 2010 and 2016, respectively. Both can be categorized as close to the AKP due to their political-ideological convictions. It is noteworthy that individual members of UID, BIG, and AD Democrats maintain a close network. For instance, the AD Democrats founder, Remzi Aru, was a member of UID for some time (Göğüş 2018).

Three organizations should be explicitly mentioned here: the Yunus Emre Institute (YEE), the Turkish Presidency for International Cooperation and Coordination (TIKA), and the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA).

The YEE declares itself an independent institution, whose main objective is to promote Turkish culture and language abroad. According to its own statutes, it legitimizes its global political and societal activities by arguing that Turkey is a country whose history and culture can be traced back over many centuries, thereby inherently (both Turkey and the YEE) positioning it as a key actor in international relations (Ünal 2017). According to the YEE, the world is larger than “the 5” – meaning the USA, Russia, Great Britain, France, and China. This indirectly reiterates the political position of Davutoğlu (quote above), in other words, that Turkey as the heir to the Ottoman Empire can today bring regions together using the means of “soft power” and act as a political mediator. This is a crucial reason why its staff are trained in international relations and diplomacy before their deployment abroad. The organization, funded by public means, opened its first offices in Sarajevo in 2009. This occurred, among other reasons, because the Balkans play an important geo-political and religious-political role in the AKP’s foreign policy. After that, more establishments were opened in Tirana and Damascus.

By now, the YEE operates over 100 establishments worldwide. It was founded in 2007, among other reasons, to support TIKA (Ünal 2017). Looking back, a three-step strategy can be identified: First, YEE institutes and offices were established in regions close to Turkey. In a second step, between 2012 and 2015, EU countries were brought into focus in line with AKP’s European policy. In the last step, since 2016, coinciding with an expansive AKP Africa policy, institutes were established on African soil (Mencutek and Baser 2018; Adar 2020). Other regions such as South America have been increasingly brought into focus in recent years. As reiterated by the YEE, the institution, in cooperation with others including the state-sponsored YTB and other Turkish establishments, conducts “public diplomacy” globally (Mencutek and Baser 2018; Adar 2020). The focus of the YEE is not only directed towards the Turkish diaspora, but also towards groups that show a proximity to Turkey. Many of their activities are funded by the Turkish state. Since the “failed coup” of 2016, the cooperation between the Turkish government and the YEE has intensified. It adopts narratives from the AKP and disseminates them in its sphere of action. It also engages in theological politics and attempts, for instance, in German-speaking regions through intra-religious events, to present Alevites and Sunnis with a “homogeneous” Islam.Footnote 4

TIKA was established in the 1990s. At that time, its strategic focus included, among other things, bringing the newly emerged Turkic states on the former territory of the Soviet Union into an alliance with Turkey and establishing a “Union of Turkic States”. However, this endeavor was not successful. Until 2002, various projects of the organization only received little support by the governments of the time. While TIKA implemented more than 10,086 projects worldwide between 2002 and 2011, the corresponding number from 1992 to 2002 was only 2241 (Nuroglu 2013, p. 7). The increase after the turn of the millennium is mainly due to the changes under AKP rule. Even within this organization, the belief holds a special place that Turkey’s history and culture – in the sense of a definition by Davutoğlu – as a successor state to the Ottoman Empire particularly enable it to create an archaeology of the Ottoman-Turkish heritage in different regions and to establish future alliances based on this past. This makes TIKA a “soft power” actor in AKP’s foreign policy (Nuroglu 2013, p. 7).

The multifaceted theological-political commitment of TIKA, in cooperation with Diyanet, YTB, and YEE, is justified in the Balkans among other reasons, by the aim of warding off radical Islamist currents from Saudi Arabia or Iran and moreover, curbing their influence on the local Muslim communities (Nuroglu 2013, p. 5). At the same time, TIKA politically stages neo-Ottoman and Turkish-nationalist narratives and symbols in the Balkans. In recent years, the political aim of TIKA has been to support the identity politics of the AKP. About six years ago, the organization built a monument in Mogersdorf, Burgenland, for the battle that took place there on August 1, 1664, between the armies of the Ottoman Empire and the Habsburg Monarchy. Ottoman monuments, mosques, bridges, and further symbolically significant historical establishments have been renovated in the Balkans or in Asia in line with the neo-Ottoman identity politics of the AKP. The main, but not exclusive, focus of this organization lies outside the European Union.

The last organization discussed more extensively here, SETA, is one of the most active (foreign) political establishments that have emerged under the AKP. This think tank was founded in 2005, and the number of its current employees is estimated to be between 70 and 120. SETA repeatedly emphasizes its political independence. At the same time, various publications by the organization take a pro-AKP stance. The Global Go To Think Tank Index Report classified it as 34th among the “Best think tanks with a political affiliation” worldwide in 2018 (Özkan 2020, p. 228).

Current and former AKP ministers have led the organization or were significantly responsible for its strategic and content orientation. Noteworthy individuals include Davutoğlu or the current spokesperson of the Turkish President, Ibrahim Kalin, who succeeded Davutoğlu as the director in 2009 and was significantly responsible for the political orientation. Since 2014, Burhanettin Duran has been the director of the organization. Before him, Taha Özhan was the head of the think tank, before he became political chief strategist for Davutoğlu in 2015. According to various sources, the organization is financed not only by the AKP, but also by influential Turkish-Islamist companies (e.g., Tivnikli family’s Eksim Holding) (Özkan 2020, p. 229).

Eksim Holding operates in the construction and energy sectors, among others. Yusuf Aksu and Barbaros Ceylan, as well as Ruşen Ahmet Albayrak, whose son is President Erdogan’s son-in-law and was the Turkish Minister of Finance until recently, have also subsidized the organization from the beginning. Detailed information about the supporters is not provided by SETA, even on their own homepage (SETA n.d.).

Many of SETA’s publications until 2013 focused on convincing both Turkish and foreign public opinion that, unlike the Kemalist elite and the military, the AKP offers a political space to various Turkish political groups, thereby enabling the formation of a democratic civil society (Özkan 2020).

The journal Insight Turkey was taken over by SETA in 2007 and has since served as an important political voice of their organization. Until 2014, articles from Gülen followers, Turkish liberals, and leftists were published in the magazine, aiming to convince the public that the AKP is fighting against Kemalist political patronage alongside democratic forces (Özkan 2020, p. 230).

These publications presented AKP policy as a religion-open strategy for creating secularism in Turkey, which, unlike Turkish laicism, does not give in to authoritarian temptations. For this purpose, authors from the most diverse political spectra were invited to publish their positions. In short, SETA functions like the organizations mentioned earlier as a political mouthpiece for the AKP. Since 2013, the authoritarian “turn” of the AKP has been significantly defended (Özkan 2020). Furthermore, the organization is also significantly involved in the publication of the European Islamophobia Report, which has been issued since 2016 (European Islamophobia Report 2022).

5 Conclusion

The AKP attempts to implement its political strategy through numerous organizations that it has either launched itself or that adhere to its political line. This is mainly due to the fact that some of the Turkish citizens living abroad are able to participate in elections in Turkey. The AKP wants to benefit from this significant increase in the importance of the Turkish diaspora. This is primarily achieved through the communication of specific topics concerning Turkey, and parallel to this, through discourses on Turkish identity, language, and culture. The continuous political staging of specific topics and their communication are among the tasks of the organizations presented in this working paper. This may possibly give the impression in the diaspora that the AKP has more interest in them than do the countries where the Turkish immigrant society has settled.