The BigBrotherAward 2017 in the “Politics” category goes to the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs, in short DİTİB, represented by its General Secretary, Dr Bekir Alboğa, because imams working for DİTİB are said to have spied upon DİTİB’s members and visitors, exposing them to persecution by the Turkish state.
This BigBrotherAward is unusual. For once it is not – as you would normally expect from us – about a data leech that depends on the digital world and has some kind of technological requirement. But this award is about hands-on espionage, about exploiting face-to-face contacts, and all this in the context of a religious community.
The practice of religion, freedom of speech and social contact, “real life” as it is called today – spying in this context by DİTİB imams is a violation of elementary basic and human rights in Germany, on the request of state agencies in Turkey.
In December 2016, the Turkish paper “Cumhuriyet”, known for its critical stance towards the Turkish government, published documents proving that imams for DİTİB, an association registered in Germany, had collected information on members and visitors and had passed it on to Turkish government agencies. At the heart of their interest were suspected followers of the influential Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen. The Turkish government accuses the Gülen movement of being responsible for the attempted military coup of July 2016. No hard evidence for this has been brought forward so far.
The imams’ dossiers contain detailed information about alleged Gülen followers, such as details on their mosque visits or personal links in Turkey. A private tuition centre for children was described in the dossiers as a “haven of evil”. An evaluation by the interior intelligence agency of the German Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia (Landesamt für Verfassungsschutz Nordrhein-Westfalen) found that among the people targetted were at least five educators of German nationality. Those targets who were later informed by German agencies about their findings denied being Gülen sympathisers.
Imams working for DİTİB are civil servants of the Turkish state, subject to the Turkish Presidency of Religious affairs, Diyanet. Their dossiers were compiled in response to a request from Diyanet to Turkish embassies and consulates in September 2016. But the contents of the dossiers indicate that DİTİB’s snitching has been going on for a longer amount of time.
After the “Cumhuriyet” publication in December 2016, a German member of parliament for the Green party, Volker Beck, immediately filed charges with the Public Prosecutor General of the Federal Court of Justice (Generalbundesanwaltschaft) for suspected espionage (§ 99 German penal code [StGB]: secret service agent activity). It took several weeks for the investigation to start. A search of the homes of four imams only took place on 15 February 2017, after Chancellor Merkel had returned from a visit to Turkey. In the meantime, six prime suspects (of the sixteen that were inculpated by the Public Prosecutor) had returned to Turkey under directions from Diyanet.
When the dossiers were made public, DİTİB indignantly spoke of insinuations at first. Soon the DİTİB general secretary Bekir Alboğa promised that these “grave allegations” would be investigated in a “clean and transparent” way. He did admit that dossiers had been compiled, but said that this had been a “mishap” based on a “misunderstanding”. Soon after that, Alboğa denied having confirmed any spying activities.
In their sparse communications on the matter, DİTİB continually point out that these had been private activities by Diyanet imams without any organisational participation from DİTİB. They do not accept responsibility for what happened in DİTİB premises, under their roof. Also, we have not heard of DİTİB regretting or condemning espionage activities in their mosques.
The President of the Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), Mehmet Görmez, declared that “there is no espionage activity”. The imams ordered to return to Turkey had exceeded their authority, but not committed a crime. He spoke of his “great sadness” that efforts to protect mosque congregations in Germany had been labelled as espionage. DİTİB had been operating “on the basis of the law” for decades. He said he could not imagine mosque associations ignoring the law. DİTİB declared that the affair had been resolved internally.
The Turkish Minister of Justice, Bekir Bozdağ condemned the police searches of imams’ homes as “a clear violation of international agreements and of the German constitution”, which codified freedom of religion and faith.
These dossiers compiled by imams are part of a comprehensive intelligence gathering by Turkey and especially by the Turkish secret service MİT, which according to an unnamed “influential security politician” quoted in the German paper “Welt am Sonntag” oversees more than 6,000 informers in Germany. According to this report, German security authorities assume that around 150 MİT personnel are working at the Turkish embassy and in the consulates. The teachers union GEW (Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft or German Education Union, literally “Education and Science Workers’ Union”) even reported that school students of Turkish origin had been encouraged to film teachers making critical remarks about the Turkish government, and pass these recordings on to consulates.
The objective of these MİT activities is to monitor the Turkish community in Germany, to influence it in Erdoğan’s favour, to intimidate and isolate government opponents, and to influence German authorities and public opinion in Germany. Supposed regime critics spied upon in Germany that travel to Turkey have to fear arrest, criminal persecution and mistreatment, possibly even torture. And even German politicians such as Cem Özdemir of the Green party, Michelle Müntefering of the Social Democrats (SPD) or Emine Demirbürken-Wegner of the conservative CDU are under MİT observation for alleged sympathies with the Gülen movement.
German authorities are making a lot of allowances for the sensitivities of the Turkish government, not least because they want to avoid any threat to the refugee deal that is supposed to block the so-called Balkan route. DİTİB is given a ‘soft treatment’ for the sake of maintaining communications with Islamic communities in Germany. In spite of all that, the Public Prosecutor General and the Police have opened investigations and taken first steps to pursue the rights violations, and to protect the affected people.
What is obvious, however, is that the German authorities are mainly guided by diplomatic interests. These highly political considerations must not lead to a sacrifice of personality rights and human rights of the mosque visitors that were spied upon.
It would be fatal if people were impeded from exercising their religion by espionage. DİTİB cannot be allowed to simply declare their spying scandal to be over, they must make their internal affairs transparent and face public scrutiny.
On the other hand, it would be too simple for us to only make demands on DİTİB. The German state and German society, too, must move and and open the way for a free exercise of the Islamic faith – for example, by supporting politically independent Islamic groups.
A turnaround towards transparency at DİTİB will only be possible if the Turkish-Islamic Union liberates itself from its dependence on and from the influence of Turkish authorities such as Diyanet. German institutions must make this a condition for continuing to recognise DİTİB as a partner. Also, all espionage activities, including those under the roof of a religious organisation, must be fully investigated and treated as crimes and prosecuted without diplomatic considerations, not just addressed within the organisation. Twenty individual criminal investigations have been opened by now. Espionage is a violation of German criminal law. It is not “an internal matter”.
The fundamental right of informational self-determination does not only apply to ethnic Germans but also to people with a migration background. They must be able to engage in peaceful religious or political activities without fear of reprisal.
For having destroyed that certainty, DİTİB deserve the BigBrotherAward 2017 in the Politics category. Congratulations!