Turkey’s coming political proxies in Europe

In August 2018, life was good for up-and-coming Swedish politician Mikail Yüksel, who was running for parliament for the left-leaning Centre Party and widely expected to win.

Then it emerged that Yüksel had ties to the Grey Wolves, the ultranationalist militant youth wing of Turkey’s far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), for which his father had served as mayor of Kulu, in central Turkey. The Centre Party cut him loose.

In Turkish media, Yüksel made himself out as a martyr for his homeland, arguing that the Centre Party had demanded he speak out against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and decried him as Ankara’s mouthpiece when he refused.

“That spin was used only in Turkey. There was nothing about it in Sweden at all, because that would have been very easy to dismiss,” Magnus Norell, a former analyst for the Swedish Secret Service and a senior policy advisor at the European Foundation for Democracy (EFD), told Ahval in a podcast. “It’s blatantly false. There was absolutely no attempt to try to get anyone to try to say anything like that.”

Yet it likely ensured that when Yüksel launched his own party a year later - the pro-Muslim Nyans, or Nuance Party - it would be embraced and supported by Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), with which the MHP has partnered in Turkey’s parliament. 

“We want Islamophobia to be declared a crime. We want Muslims to be recognised as a minority in the constitution,” Yüksel told Turkish pro-government outlet Daily Sabah last August.

His new party, which aims to gain protected status for Muslims like that afforded to Jews and Roma and make anti-Muslim speech a hate crime, tends to echo Ankara’s talking points on Islamophobia and Muslims under siege in the West.

That’s no coincidence, according to Norell, who argued in a June article for the Washington Institute that Nuance highlights how Erdoğan and the AKP have become increasingly invested in small European parties in an effort to expand their reach and deepen connections with the Turkish diaspora in Europe, which is about 5 to 6 million strong.

“It’s clearly an attempt by the AKP to influence policies in Europe,” Norell told Ahval. “This trend has been going on for a few years, and I would argue that quite recently there have been some real efforts to succeed.”

Much has been written about the way Turkey uses its vastly expanded Directorate of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, as a foreign policy tool across Europe, which has in turn spurred push-back from the likes of France, Austria and Germany - countries that have moved to shutter Turkish mosques or end Turkish training of imams.

But little ink has been spilled on the AKP government’s direct outreach to and influence over emerging political parties in Europe.

Norell pointed to the Netherlands, where in 2015 two Turkish-born former members of parliament founded the pro-Muslim, pro-immigrant Denk party, which went on to win three seats in the election two years later. The party leaders refrain from criticising Erdoğan or Turkish policies and are said to be closely linked to the AKP.

Erdoğan highlighted this policy on Albania TV in 2017, arguing that there is nothing wrong with Turkey supporting European parties and groups that share the AKP’s vision. Prominent among those is the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement founded in Egypt nearly a century ago that aims to unite Sunni Muslims and advocates for a state under Islamic law.

The Brotherhood, whose members in past decades included the leaders of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, has political affiliates across much of the Arab world and has in recent decades put down roots across Europe through a variety of Muslim organisations mainly linked to religious education.

Norell said that Brotherhood-linked groups had proliferated in Sweden, abetted by political parties looking for Muslim votes and by the government. “In western Europe, it’s fairly easy to get public money for all sorts of civil society initiatives,” he said. “If you learn how the system works it can be very beneficial.”

In an article last month, Swedish journalist Johan Westerholm, author of “Islamism in Sweden”, said the Muslim Brotherhood’s network had begun collaborating with the Swedish Armed Forces' civil organisations.

The Muslim Brotherhood and affiliated groups have, according to Norell, emerged as the go-to voice of the Muslim community in Sweden and much of Europe. Many of these groups are linked to the AKP, which has boosted its support of the Brotherhood since the 2013 ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

Lorenzo Vidino, director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University and a leading scholar on the Muslim Brotherhood in the West, argues that Turkey is today the Brotherhood’s leading backer in Europe, partially through Milli Görüs, a Turkish Islamist movement that was inspired by the Brotherhood and birthed the AKP.  

One reason for the persistent presence in Europe of groups linked to the Brotherhood or the AKP is that any investigation into these organisations’ Islamist connections carries a political danger. “You always run the risk of being accused of being an Islamophobe,” said Norell.

A trickle of successful investigations has begun to alter the landscape. Mehmet Kaplan was Sweden’s Minister of Housing and Urban Development on April 16, 2016, when local media published photos of him dining with the Swedish head of the Grey Wolves.

Two days later Sweden’s national television station published an investigative report on Kaplan’s close ties to Erdoğan’s government, arguing that it was part of a Turkish strategy to influence foreign governments. Kaplan resigned that day.

More recently, one of Sweden’s leading Islamic educational institutions, Ibn Rushd, was found to have been linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and stripped of its significant government funding. Finally, there’s the example of Yüksel’s eviction from the Centre Party.

For now, parties like Denk and Nuance, as well as Brotherhood-linked groups, remain able to take advantage of the current moment, with its focus on equality, social justice and identity politics, as well as the rising far-right. “All these trends and things happening at the same time is sort of playing into Erdoğan’s hands,” said Norell.

The far-right Sweden Democrats have seen their popularity surge due to a backlash against an immigrant wave in 2015. In response, Nuance is able to portray the country’s Muslim community, which in reality is hugely diverse, as a single besieged entity.

“Nuance can really argue that, ‘We are the real deal here. We are closer to you’ - ‘you’ meaning Muslims - ‘than these other parties. You can go with us and we can have an impact that they can’t’,” said Norell, predicting that the party would do well in the next election in 2022. “I think they will enter local assemblies.”

Norell said that long before the news reports, people knew Kaplan was connected to Erdoğan and the AKP, but it was hard for Swedes to talk about it, to acknowledge that sort of corruption. “I think there’s been a certain naïveté here, because it’s so un-Swedish,” he said.

We may see a similar naïveté in regards to Nuance and similar parties in other European Union states. A few years down the line, Turkey could be the quiet hand behind a number of political proxies across Europe, according to Norell, who said the prospect is so novel that EU states had no official position on its legality. 

Yet Ankara’s ultimate goal may be less about shaping policies within European governments than simply expanding its reach and its voter base - a smart move when the latest polls have the president behind his main challenger. 

“The main reason for Erdoğan to do this is to tie the Turkish community’s loyalties to the AKP,” said Norell. “He’s trying to create a loyal diaspora in Europe, which of course can come in handy on a rainy day.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.