The City Council of Wuppertal, a municipality in western Germany with a substantial Muslim population, has voted to approve the construction of a controversial new mega-mosque that will be controlled by the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a tireless propagator of political Islam in Europe.
The new mosque will be controlled by the Turkish government’s Directorate for Religious Affairs, known in Turkish as Diyanet, which Erdoğan wields to spread Turkish Islamism worldwide. Diyanet operates hundreds of Turkish-funded mosques in Germany and other Western countries that Erdoğan uses to promote Islamism, spy on political opponents, and spread pro-regime propaganda. In the United States, a $110 million Diyanet mega-mosque just outside Washington, DC has been described as a “Trojan horse” because it is used by the Turkish government to influence American politics and help Muslim candidates win elections — under the guise of a religious institution.
City officials in Wuppertal say the new mosque will revitalize a heavily blighted neighborhood at no cost to German taxpayers, but critics counter that the move — which comes less than six months after neighboring Cologne approved the public sounding of the Muslim call to prayer — will further strengthen Erdoğan’s power projection in Germany and ensconce Turkish Islamism in the country.
At its meeting on March 6, the Wuppertal City Council (Wuppertaler Rat) approved, with full support from all mainstream parties, an application to build a mega-mosque and community center in a dilapidated part of the Elberfeld district. In addition to the mosque, the complex will include residential buildings for senior citizens and students, commercial space and office towers as well as a clubhouse and a kindergarten. The 30-million-euro project, which has been in the planning stages since 2009, will encompass 6,000 square meters (65,000 square feet), making it one of the largest Islamic facilities in Germany.
The Wuppertal mosque project is generating heated controversy because it will be controlled by the Turkish-Islamic Union for Islamic Affairs (Türkisch-Islamische Union der Anstalt für Religion, DITIB), the largest Islamic umbrella organization in Germany. DITIB, described as an “extended arm” of the Turkish state, is financed by Diyanet and used by Erdoğan to control the sizeable Turkish diaspora in Germany.
The Turkish government pays the salaries of almost 1,000 Turkish clerics in Germany who lead more than 950 DITIB-controlled mosques across the country, according to an investigative report published by the German newspaper Die Welt. Turkish imams in Germany — many of whom do not speak German — are effectively Turkish civil servants who do the bidding of the Turkish government. They are trained at state-run theological seminaries in Türkiye and sent to Germany for a period of five years. The imams answer directly to so-called religious attachés (Religionsattachés) at Turkish consulates across Germany. The composition of DITIB’s Executive Board is determined by Ankara and DITIB’s statutes ensure that Diyanet exerts political and theological influence over German mosques.
In recent years, Diyanet and DITIB have attracted attention for Islamic radicalism. In January 2016, Diyanet ruled that, in accordance with Islamic jurisprudence, it is halal (permissible) for a father to feel sexual lust for his own daughter. In April 2016, Diyanet’s monthly children’s magazine included a comic strip that glorified martyrdom. In 2017, several DITIB imams in Germany were accused of spying on opposition figures for the Turkish state. In 2018, children at a DITIB mosque in Herford were required to dress in military uniforms emblazoned with Turkish flags and re-enact an Ottoman military victory over European forces. In February 2022, the leader of a DITIB mosque in Göttingen was handed a suspended prison sentence for posting anti-Semitic insults on social media networks. In June 2022, the German newspaper Welt reported that the imam of a DITIB mosque in Hamburg is an acolyte of the founder of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.
DITIB maintains close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. In June 2019, the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger revealed that a three-day “Islamophobia” conference organized by the Turkish government and held at DITIB’s Central Mosque in Cologne was attended by leading operatives of the Muslim Brotherhood. A spokesman for the Interior Ministry of North Rhine-Westphalia said it was worrying “that DITIB, which has come under criticism in the recent past for Turkish nationalist activities, does not distance itself from the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, but openly maintains relationships with people from this spectrum.”
Erdoğan currently is using DITIB mosques to garner votes from the Turkish diaspora ahead of Turkish presidential elections scheduled for May 14. During the past 18 months, DITIB mosques in Germany have sponsored more than 650 campaign events for Erdoğan’s ruling AKP party, according to the German newspaper Münchner Merkur.
German Islam expert Eren Güvercin compared the mosque controversy in Wuppertal to a years-long debate about Cologne’s Central Mosque, a DITIB-controlled mega-mosque. “The DITIB Central Mosque in Cologne was praised at the time for its open architecture,’ which was supposed to symbolize DITIB’s ‘transparency,’” he said in an interview with Münchner Merkur. “The opening of the Central Mosque was actually a demonstration of power (Machtdemonstration) by Erdoğan, to the exclusion of Cologne civil society.”
Volker Beck, a former German lawmaker who is now a professor at the University of Bochum, said that DITIB habitually serves as “Erdogan’s espionage or election campaign agency.” This behavior, he told the German newspaper Bild, “should not be rewarded by the city of Wuppertal.” Beck warned against naïveté when dealing with DITIB: “My experience from Cologne shows that if they want something from the city, they become transparent. When they have what they want, they go back to acting as a Turkish state agency.”
Officials in Wuppertal — where self-appointed Sharia Police have attempted to enforce Islamic law on public streets — dismissed concerns about DITIB. Social Democrat Stefan Kühn rejected accusations that the mosque project would further Turkish Islamism in Germany and said that Wuppertal has “a trusting relationship” with the local DITIB community. Christian Democrat Rolf Köster said that the mega-mosque is a “great opportunity” for the neighborhood. He added that while meddling by the Turkish government “cannot be ruled out,” the city has “firm faith in the promise of openness, transparency and financial independence from Turkey.” Wuppertal City spokeswoman Martina Eckermann said that the existing mosque currently used by the community is “bursting at the seams and can no longer remain in this cramped space.”
German Islam expert Susanne Schröter said in an interview with the German newspaper Bild that it is “unbelievable” that politicians from all the mainstream parties are committed to DITIB, whose mosques “preach against integration, spread war propaganda, support military actions in Syria that violate international law, and host election campaign events by AKP politicians.”
The chairman of DITIB’s Wuppertal branch, Ersin Özcan, insists that the organization is completely independent from Turkey. “Nothing from Turkey is whispered in our ears,” he told Westdeutsche Zeitung. The project will reportedly be funded entirely by the local Muslim community, but skeptics doubt that they can raise 30 million euros on their own without help from abroad. FWI reached out to Özcan for comment on how the mega-mosque will be financed and if it will be independent from the Turkish government. He did not respond.
The most vocal criticism of the mosque project is coming from hard-left anarchists who have threatened violence if the city, to make space for the mosque, demolishes an abandoned building in which they are squatting. The so-called Autonomous Center Wuppertal (Autonome Zentrum Wuppertal, AZ) warned against the “Erdoğanization” of Germany and described the mosque’s approval as an “election campaign gift” for the Turkish president.
In an open letter, AZ said that it was “long overdue that we from the left more resolutely fight the influence of the Erdoğan regime in Wuppertal.” The letter described DITIB’s Wuppertal branch as “Erdoğan’s extended arm” which “stands for the extremely authoritarian, repressive and warlike policies of the regime.” It concluded: “We want the municipality’s trivialization and support of DITIB to stop!”
Soeren Kern is a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow.