Cold War Era Relations between West Germany and Turkish Political Islam: From an Anti-Communist Alliance to a Domestic Security Issue

Behlul Ozkan. Journal of Southeast European & Black Sea Studies. Volume 19, Issue 1, March 2019.


In December of 2014, three Turks were arrested in Germany on charges of ‘espionage activities.’ Among them was Muhammed Taha Gergerlioğlu, who had served as ‘sociometric consultant’ to the Prime Ministry under Turkey’s ruling Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party, AKP). Mysteriously, in November of the following year, Gergerlioğlu was released after 11 months of detention, having been ordered by the German courts to pay a fine (Özcan 2017). Needless to say, it is remarkable that such a high-ranking individual as Gergerlioğlu could have remained under arrest in Germany for 11 months without provoking a strong reaction from Turkey. Meanwhile, in the summer of 2015, numerous Gülenists from the police and judiciary fled from Turkey to Germany, including Zekeriya Öz, a prosecutor in the high-profile Ergenekon trials, which had led to the arrests—on baseless charges—of dozens of Turkish military personnel, state bureaucrats, journalists, and academics. Following the coup attempt of 15 July 2016 masterminded by the Gülen network, in which more than 250 Turks lost their lives, the ranks of the Gülenists in Germany were swelled by an additional 150 Gülenist army officers; German-Turkish relations were further damaged by Berlin’s refusal to extradite these individuals to Turkey. Germany, for its part, alleged that the AKP government was using Turkey’s Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı (National Intelligence Organization, MİT) to have Turkish imams in Germany carry out espionage, while Turkey claimed that Germany had eavesdropped on prominent AKP figures via Gülenists in the Turkish police and judiciary (Deutsche Welle 2016).

An article published in many pro-AKP newspapers in September 2014 claimed that since 2009, Germany’s intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (Federal Intelligence Service, BND), had been in partnership with the Gülenist ‘Parallel Structure’ in Turkey’s police and intelligence forces, through which it had eavesdropped on numerous individuals there, including some who held critical government positions (Akşam 2014). The piece further claimed that the archives of these recordings had been smuggled to the German city of Hannover and to Serbia, and that the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office had opened an investigation into the matter. In addition, despite the fact that Turkey has designated the Gülenists as members of an armed terrorist organization, the Fettulahçı Terör Örgütü (Fettulahist Terror Organization, FETÖ) since 2016, BND President Bruno Kahl controversially stated that ‘the Gülenists are a civil society organization whose purpose is religious and secular education’ (Deutsche Welle 2017a). There could not be a more striking illustration of Ankara and Berlin’s conflict of interest regarding the actors of Political Islam.

The present study seeks to explain Political Islam—which in recent years has done so much to shape Turkish-German relations, often for the worse—as a legacy of the Cold War era. It was in that period that prominent Turkish Islamist religious leaders, cemaats, political parties, politicians, and foundations began to establish ties and to organize in West Germany. The two NATO allies, West Germany and Turkey, viewed communism as one of the most pressing issues to be tackled in domestic and foreign policy; Political Islam appeared to be a magic bullet in their joint anti-communist struggle. Both countries’ intelligence agencies and security forces played a crucial role in their efforts to use Political Islam while also keeping it under close state control.

The post-1945 partition of Germany resulted in West Germany being aligned with the US throughout the Cold War and being just as active as its American partners in the struggle against communism, East Germany, and the Soviet Union. In making an ally of Islam, Bonn had more experience to draw on than Washington: Germany had a historical record, dating back to the late 19th century, of forging close ties with the Muslim World. When Turkish laborers began to migrate to West Germany in 1961, there was already a Muslim population living there, consisting of two distinct groups: Soviet Muslim refugees who had gone over from the Red Army to the Wehrmacht and then remained in West Germany after 1945; and Muslim Brotherhood members who had arrived from the Middle East in the 1950s. Bonn’s support of Islam against communism—as well as the activities of Muslim Brotherhood members and Soviet Muslim refugees—had a pronounced effect both on Turkish workers migrating to West Germany and on Political Islam in Turkey itself. Turkish migrant workers—whose numbers steadily grew starting in the 1970s—and an increasingly powerful Political Islam in Turkey were not only affected by Islamist recruitment in West Germany, but as time went on, began to affect the latter.

In the 1950s, West Germany, with only a few thousand Muslims living within its borders, sought to use Political Islam to achieve sway over the Muslim World; by the 1980s, this very same West Germany had begun to view Political Islam as a domestic security issue. During the final decade of the Cold War, West Germany worried about losing its control over Islamist groups, to the point where Bonn entered into a partnership with the military regime which had come to power in Turkey through the September 12 coup and which had embraced the ideology of the ‘Turkish-Islamic synthesis.’ Accordingly, the present study argues that the Cold War-era relationship between Bonn and Islamist organizations in Germany, along with Political Islam in Turkey, was in no sense a one-way, deterministic one. Rather, it was characterized by mutual interaction, whose complex structure this article will attempt to analyze.

West Germany’s Rivalry with the United States in Supporting Political Islam against Communism

Political Islam served two important functions for the West in the ‘struggle against communism.’ First, it was a way of making the Muslim population of the Caucasus and Central Asia—viewed as the USSR’s ‘Achilles Heel’—less dependent on Moscow. Second, it helped create a conservative counterweight to the secular Arab nationalist regimes in the Middle East with which Moscow had forged close ties. As early as the mid-1950s, the US had realized that it could make use of Political Islam for its own ends (Özkan 2017; Ahmad 2001, 14-16). Another country in the Western bloc to play a key role in the anti-communist struggle was West Germany. Following the Second World War, some of the Soviet Muslim refugees who remained in West Germany established close links to the CIA there, taking on important roles in anti-Soviet intelligence and propaganda activities. Radio Liberty—founded in Munich at the CIA’s behest—made radio broadcasts to the different ethnicities of the Soviet Union, while Munich’s Institut zur Erforschung der UdSSR (Institute for the Study of the USSR) produced anti-Soviet propaganda through its scholarly reports (O’Connell 1990).

Starting in the 1950s, refugees from Crimea, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, hired to work for these CIA-sponsored organizations, began to form ties with Islamist groups in Turkey. Nearly all these Soviet refugees had joined the Nazis during the Second World War, serving under Gerhard von Mende in the Ostministerium (the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territory). Von Mende was one of the era’s most prominent experts on Turkic peoples living in Russia; his book The National Struggle of Russia’s Turks was published in 1936 (Kayıplarımız; Gerhard von Mende 1964, 83-84). Just a few months after Nazi Germany surrendered, von Mende met with the American and British forces. In a 1945 report he wrote for the Americans, The Nationality Problem in the Soviet Union, von Mende provided information about the region known as Turkistan (i.e., the Soviet Turkic republics of Central Asia), Azerbaijan, the Tatars, and ‘the pan-Turkish question’ (CIA FOIA MGKA-18 May 7736, 1949). As a result of the relationship he established with the American and British forces, von Mende was able to save educated, elite Soviet Muslim refugees who had served in the Ostministerium from being repatriated to the USSR. Such individuals, who expected to be charged with treason in their home countries, remained grateful to von Mende for the rest of their lives.

With the start of the Cold War, von Mende founded the ‘Research Service Eastern Europe and Office for Displaced Foreigners’ in Düsseldorf (Kayıplarımız; Gerhard von Mende 1964, 83-84). Two important names of people who worked for von Mende at this think tank were Veli Kajum-Khan, the president of the Milli Türkistan Birlik Komitesi (National Turkistan Unity Committee, MTBK), as well as Baymirza Hayit, who coordinated the ‘Turkistan units’ within the Wehrmacht (Andican 2017, 29). Another group of Soviet Muslims who managed to remain in West Germany were put to work at American- and CIA-supported propaganda organizations. Notably, in the winter of 1951, von Mende came to see off Ruzi Nazar—a Soviet Muslim refugee who went to the US to work for the CIA—as he boarded his ship at Bremerhaven. Praising von Mende to the skies to his Central Asian friends, Nazar ‘said that one day people would have to put up a statue of him in Tashkent in gratitude for his services and assistance’ (Altaylı 2013, 267). Without a doubt, anti-communism was the glue that held together these people who, as little as ten years earlier, had been in the ideologically opposed camps of the Red Army, the Nazis, and the US. And it was Islam that, as time went on, would increasingly form the backbone of this anti-communism. According to Kajum-Khan (Kayyum 1961, 8), Islam was the most important dynamic in limiting the scope of the Kremlin’s Middle East policy: ‘The religion of Islam represents a considerable obstacle to this [Soviet] propaganda.’

In 1953, the Eisenhower administration resolved to make use of the ‘religious factor’ and ‘spiritual and material resources’ against the ‘Soviet threat’ (Herzog 2012, 57-58). Significantly, Nazar, who had by then begun to work for the CIA, carried out his first sensational mission in Saudi Arabia during the 1954 pilgrimage season. Nazar recruited from among the Central Asians living in Saudi Arabia, printing thousands of anti-Soviet propaganda materials and distributing them to pilgrims (Altaylı 2013, 287-289). A front-page piece in the New York Times (September 15, 1954) stated that two Soviet Muslims named Ruzi Nazar and Hamid Rashid were distributing propaganda to pilgrims from the Muslim world to the effect that ‘Soviet communism was the enemy of Islam’ and that ‘every faithful Mohamedan had a direct and vital stake in the fight against Communist tyranny.’ Nazar continued his anti-Soviet activities at the 1955 Bandung Conference. At a press conference at Bandung that he had organized as the representative of the Central Asian Turkic republics, Nazar characterized Soviet rule in Central Asia as ‘Communist imperialism’ (New York Times, 18 April 1955). Holding another press conference in Turkey on his way back from Bandung, Nazar stated that the more than 30 million Turks living in the USSR ‘would side with the free world in the event of a war’ (Milliyet, April 29, 1955). Four years later, Nazar came to Turkey to work for the CIA at the US embassy; living in Ankara until 1971, he carried on with his intelligence work, which was now focused on undermining the growing leftist political movement in Turkey.

In 1956, the CIA—which was quite satisfied with the results of Nazar’s Islam-based anti-Soviet propaganda campaign during his pilgrimage two years earlier—sent two more people on a similar mission to Mecca. The individuals selected were a Central Asian named Veli Zunnun and a Kazan Tatar named Garip Sultan, who had worked under von Mende during the Second World War, now worked for the American Committee for Liberation from Bolshevism (AMCOMLIB) and Radio Liberty (Sosin 1999, 11, 277; Hobbing 1958, 22). Upon their return, they held a press conference in Istanbul in which they announced to the Turkish public that Soviet pilgrims in the pay of Moscow were carrying out ‘wide-scale activities with the aim of spreading communism’ among the Arabs (Kohen 1956). Soviet Muslim refugees in West Germany in the employ of the US became increasingly unabashed in their use of Islam to oppose communism. Notably, they often came to Turkey and held press conferences in the course of their anti-Soviet propaganda activities. In the 1950s, as the West was being accused of being ‘imperialist’ and ‘colonialist,’ these refugees were quick to point out that the millions of Muslims in their own homelands were living under the occupation of ‘communist imperialism.’ Their calls for the Muslim world to unite against Moscow represented a major contribution to the US’s propaganda war. They also had close ties to anti-Soviet figures from the Crimea, the Caucasus, and Central Asia who had settled in Turkey, such as İbrahim Yarkın, Tahir Şakir Çağatay, Ahmet Temir, and Aytek Namitok. Most of these individuals attended conferences held in Munich and organized by the Institute for the Study of the USSR; they also took part in US-sponsored anti-Soviet activities. In short, Turkey became a critical location in the US’s struggle against the growing Soviet influence in the Middle East, and in its use of Islam in that struggle. While Islam was an effective ideological weapon against ‘atheist’ communism, the Soviet Muslim refugees working for the US were often insufficiently literate in their own religion and had adopted a modern lifestyle. As a result, they did not possess enough credibility to spread Islamic propaganda and could not always produce the results expected by Washington. In September of 1955, B. Eric Kuniholm, the head of the political division of AMCOMLIB, came to Turkey and met with many high-ranking bureaucrats and politicians, including the minister of the interior. Hoping to use Islam as a counterweight to communism, or, in his words, to ‘line up Muslims to join AMCOMLIB’s covert propaganda battle in the third World,’ Kuniholm met with a number of Soviet Muslim refugees including Said Shamil (the grandson of Imam Shamil, the leader of an anti-Russian uprising in the Caucasus in the 19th century), who was then living in Turkey and working for the Americans. The Turkish authorities, while they supported the US’s anti-communist activities, became aware of Kuniholm’s close ties to Islamists, warning him not to get involved with the ‘Muslim Congress’ comprised mostly of Arab Muslims (Johnson 2011, 86-88). Despite these warnings, the US’s interest in Political Islam grew steadily from the second half of the 1950s onward (Yaqub 2004; Bottici and Challand 2010).

Following his meetings with Kuniholm, Said Shamil attended the Muslim Congress held in Damascus in June of 1956, giving a talk in which he highlighted the mutual exclusivity of communism and Islam. The congress was attended by important figures like Maududi of Pakistan and Said Ramadan of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, who had both played a key role in the growth of Political Islam in the Middle East. Shamil called for ‘the Muslim world to be closely involved with the 40 million Muslims living under Russian occupation’ (Derbendi 1957, 82-87). The September 1956 issue of al-Muslimoon, the magazine of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, referenced Shamil’s talk when calling attention to the Soviet Union’s repression of Muslims. According to the magazine, the Muslim world ought to oppose the Non-Aligned Movement while also refusing any partnership with the USSR (Derbendi 1957, 91-93). In rejecting both communism and the Non-Aligned Movement, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was effectively in sync with American interests in the Middle East, a fact that was not lost on AMCOMLIB.

Starting in 1955, the Munich-based Institute for the Study of the USSR began to publish its Turkish-language propaganda organ, Dergi. This was duly announced by Peyami Safa, a prominent Turkish anti-communist writer, in a column in which he notably referred to Dergi as ‘a social weapon’ (Safa 1955). The relationship between Dergi and Islamist publications in Turkey grew closer in 1956, with the first issue of the journal İslam. The latter journal was owned by Salih Özcan, who played an important role in the rise of Political Islam in Turkey; a pupil of Said Nursi, Özcan took part in the founding of the Muslim World League (MWL). İslam‘s first issue featured the anti-communist writings of Soviet Muslim refugees working for AMCOMLIB, such as Mustafa Edige Kırımal and Mirza Bala. İslam‘s anti-communist editorial line was greatly appreciated by Dergi, which described it as ‘an exceptional resource’ (Tekiner 1957, 104). Garip Sultan, who also worked for AMCOMLIB, wrote a piece which was published serially in three successive issues of the Islamist journal Sebilürreşad. Asserting that it was not the West but the USSR which was the colonizer, Sultan wrote that ‘Asian and Muslim lands’ should oppose Moscow, which was ‘practicing a policy of colonialism in Turkish-Muslim lands’ (Sultan 1957, 249-253). In May of 1962, Sultan was sent by AMCOMLIB to the World Muslim Congress in Baghdad as the ‘representative of American Muslims’ (CIA FOIA NPEW-11 May 7015, 1962). Özcan, from Turkey, was also in attendance. Both Özcan’s (1962) and Sultan’s talks dwelled on the fact that Soviet Muslims were living under a ‘red dictatorship of godless infidels.’ On his return from Baghdad, Sultan gave a press conference in Turkey, in which he criticized that country’s policies, stating, ‘Even Turkey does not care about Muslims living behind the Iron Curtain. The Western world has understood our cause better than Muslim nations’ (Cumhuriyet, June 15, 1962).

By the mid-1950s, Bonn had become troubled by the US’s anti-communist activities on West German soil and its use of numerous Soviet Muslim refugees to serve America’s interests in the Muslim world (Johnson 2011, 91). When the 10-year-long occupation of West Germany by the US, France, and Britain ended in 1955, the Bonn government seized the opportunity to conduct a more assertive domestic and foreign policy, reducing US control over its Soviet Muslim refugees and increasing its own influence in the Muslim world. A March 1956 meeting at the West German ministry of the interior was of key importance in this regard. At the meeting, a decision was reached to support faith and religion in order to protect stateless refugees from ‘communist propaganda’ and ‘Soviet indoctrination.’ According to Meining (2011, 79-80)—the author of one of the most comprehensive works on this subject—Muslim refugees living in West Germany were to ‘assist in representing German interests in the Muslim world,’ in return for which refugee organizations would receive political and financial support from the federal government. This decision would have far-reaching effects for Bonn.

Another meeting held roughly a year later, in April 1957, at the Bundesministerium für Vertriebene, Flüchtlinge und Kriegsgeschädigte (Federal Ministry of Displaced Persons, Refugees and War Victims), serves to highlight the extensive nature of the relationship between Political Islam and West Germany. The meeting was attended by von Mende himself, Veli Kajum-Khan (from von Mende’s team), Nureddin Namangani, Walter Schenk, and Gerhard Wolfrum, representing the ministry. It was decided to appoint Namangani as the head imam of West Germany, and to gather together all Muslims from different ethnic groups—Arabs, Turks, Tatars, Iranians, Central Asian Turks, and Bosnians—under a single religious community (Meining 2011, 93-94). The West German federal government was unhappy with the idea of the Muslims within its borders being used in US intelligence and propaganda activities for Washington’s ends; it aimed to appoint a head imam who would answer to Bonn and thus bring all West German Muslims under government control, while also lessening US influence. In foreign policy, it sought to adopt an image of a country sympathetic to Islam, thus enhancing its relations with the Muslim world and preventing Muslim countries from establishing diplomatic relations with the ‘atheist’ East German regime.

The appointee as head imam, Namangani, had served as an imam for the Turkistan units in the Wehrmacht; his unit’s suppression of the 1944 Warsaw uprising had resulted in his receiving Germany’s highest military medal from Hitler (Johnson 2011, 97). A pious and conservative figure, Namangani came to Turkey in 1950, falling under the influence of Süleyman Tunahan and his followers, known as the Süleymancıs. Namangani’s Soviet background had left him with an insufficient knowledge of religion; he took religion lessons from the Süleymancıs in an attempt to remedy this shortcoming (Yalçınkaya 2006, 207; Akkoca 2007). The Süleymancıs’ power increased to the point where they became one of the most prominent Islamist organizations among the flourishing Turkish community in 1960s West Germany; Namangani may have played a key role in this process.

Starting in the mid-1950s, following Bonn’s decision to make use of Political Islam in its domestic and foreign policy, von Mende’s team began making trips to the nations of the Middle East. The purpose of these travels was to establish influence over Central Asian refugees in the region (via MTBK, which was controlled by West Germany) and spread West German propaganda in the Muslim world. In 1956, Kajum-Khan visited Turkey for the first time since the Second World War, with the specific aim of bringing back Namangani to Germany; in 1957, Kajum-Khan also stopped in Turkey on his way back from the hajj, giving a press conference in which he addressed Moscow’s ‘cruelty towards the people of Turkistan’ (Cumhuriyet, August 10, 1957; Milliyet, September 15, 1957). The growing rivalry between West Germany and the US to exploit Islam also had an effect on Kajum-Khan and Hayit’s activities. In their correspondence with MTBK’s leader in Saudi Arabia, Kajum-Khan and Hayit stressed that Central Asians living in Saudi Arabia should avoid working with Soviet refugees in the pay of the US, such as Nazar, Shamil, and Sultan (Türkistani 2013). Following the US’s example, West Germany took great pains to present itself in the Middle East as a friend of Islam, in opposition to the ‘atheist’ and ‘communist’ ideology of the East German regime.

In the summer of 1959, Namangani and Hayit went on a long tour of the Middle East, sponsored by the Foreign Ministry of West Germany. In their meetings with various parties, they announced that the West German government was preparing to construct a mosque in Munich, a measure clearly intended to bolster West Germany’s image as a state which was friendly to Islam (Meining 2011, 122). A significant development on the Turkey leg of the voyage was the targeting of the famous Turkish communist poet Nazım Hikmet, who had found asylum in the USSR. Addressing the conservative and nationalist elements in Turkish society, Hayit castigated Hikmet, saying: ‘Nazım Hikmet comes to Central Asia from time to time and spreads all sorts of anti-Turkish propaganda. He says that Turkey has long ceased to be the country of Atatürk. He says, “So let us unite and be freed of American rule”‘ (Cumhuriyet, July 8, 1959). This show of support for the fiercely anti-communist Turkish government against Nazım Hikmet was significant in coming directly after the Türkiye Komünist Partisi (Turkish Communist Party, TKP) began a Turkish-language broadcast called Bizim Radyo (Our Radio) from East Germany, which was a major annoyance for Ankara (Cumhuriyet, March 20, 1958). On 5 June 1959, West Germany gave permission to the Islamic Society of Berlin to make a broadcast on Berlin Radio promoting Islam (Alman Müslümanların Mecmuası 1959, 272). Bonn’s use of Islamic-themed radio broadcasts in response to East Germany’s communist dissident radio broadcasts to Turkey was a striking symbol of who was on which side during the Cold War.

Political Islam and the 1960s Migration of Turkish Workers to Germany

When workers began to migrate from Turkey to West Germany in 1961, the West German and American governments were already vying with each other for influence over a local network of Islamic organizations, in particular those consisting of Arab Muslim Brotherhood members and Soviet Muslim refugees. At the forefront of Islamist political activity in West Germany was the Geistliche Verwaltung der Muslimflüchtlinge in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Ecclesiastical Administration of Muslim Refugees in the German Federal Republic), founded in Munich in 1958; the aforementioned Nureddin Namangani was its president. In December of 1958, the Ecclesiastical Administration held a meeting attended by Said Ramadan (one of the most influential figures in the Muslim Brotherhood), Ali Ghaleb Himmat of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Said Shamil, and other prominent Soviet Muslim refugees. At the meeting, they decided to begin the process of constructing a mosque in Munich. Under Namangani’s presidency, the Ecclesiastical Administration gathered together Muslims from different ethnic groups, thus assuring Bonn’s control of them. Its project to build a mosque in Munich sent a message to the Muslim world that an Islamic place of worship would be opened in the heart of Europe—a perfect public relations opportunity for West Germany. Less than a month after the meeting, reports began to circulate about ‘philanthropists in Turkey’ who were planning to support the construction of the Munich mosque (Milliyet, January 4, 1959). In his column for Milliyet, Refi Cevat Ulunay (April 25, 1959), quoting the Münchner Stadtzeitung, wrote that under the imamship of Namangani—who had recently led the prayers to mark the end of Ramadan—different ethnic groups in West Germany had united as an ‘Islamic nation.’ Ulunay’s piece also mentioned the planned mosque, praising West Germany for viewing Islam as a ‘life preserver’ against a process of ‘moral decline.’ West Germany’s pro-Islamic strategy soon began to have an effect in Turkey, where Islamist journals often featured news pieces about the mosque’s construction plans and contributions made by Middle Eastern leaders (Münih’te Yeni Bir Cami, 1961, 14; İhlas 1963).

In 1953, Soviet refugee İbrahim Gacaoğlu, the founder of the Religiose Gemeinschaft Islam (Islamic Religious Society), one of West Germany’s first Islamic organizations, established close ties to AMCOMLIB. However, with its appointment of Namangani as head imam and its mosque project, Bonn checked US influence over West German Muslims. As head imam, Namangani completely upstaged Gacaoğlu, thus forestalling any actions which the latter might take on behalf of AMCOMLIB (Johnson 2011, 97-100). Nonetheless, before long, quarrels and power struggles emerged in the Munich Mosque Construction Commission between the Arab Muslim Brotherhood members and the Soviet Muslim refugees. The Muslim Brotherhood members soon succeeded in having the Soviet refugees expelled from the Commission. With the death of their leader von Mende in 1963, these Soviet Muslim refugees ceased to have any real presence in West Germany. Both Gacaoğlu and Namangani—former Wehrmacht imams who had later been supported by the US and West Germany, respectively—became politically inactive, spending the rest of their lives focused solely on religious matters.

Gacaoğlu endeavored to provide Turkish workers with a place of worship by turning part of his shop in Munich into a prayer room (Çetiner 1966a). Namangani continued to serve as head imam until his return to Turkey in 1976; probably owing to his insufficient knowledge of Islamic doctrine, he was the subject of various scandalous allegations in the Turkish press, e.g.’An imam in Munich has issued a fatwa stating that it is permissible to eat pork’ (Aydın 1965).

With the massive influx of Turkish workers starting in 1961, the US-West German rivalry continued as before, but on a far larger scale, as West Germany’s Muslim population boomed from just a few thousand in the 1950s to hundreds of thousands and eventually millions. There were now hundreds of imams, places of worship, and Islamic organizations being fought over; as their numbers, power, and influence increased, keeping them under supervision became more and more difficult. The Soviet refugees, being unable to return to their homelands, had harbored deep feelings of gratitude towards von Mende and other German officials to whom they reported. Their place was taken by dynamic actors that organized on an international level like the Muslim Brotherhood, the Milli Görüş (National View), and the cemaats. Middle Eastern countries like Turkey, Syria, and Egypt viewed the flourishing of these Islamist organizations in West Germany as threats to their own secular political regimes and hence sought ways to control them. In short, by the end of the 1960s, the relationship between Political Islam and West Germany had become infinitely more complex than it was during the 1950s.

The growth of Political Islam in 1960s Turkey was profoundly influenced by Turkish translations of works by the Muslim Brotherhood. The first of these was a 1962 book by Sayyid Qutb entitled Social Justice in Islam (Kutub 1962). In an era in which the Muslim Brotherhood faced repression in Egypt and Syria, West Germany served as an important liaison to Islamists in Turkey. As early as 1950, the prominent Muslim Brotherhood figure Said Ramadan came to Turkey and met with Islamist groups there; starting in 1963, his articles began to be translated into Turkish and published in Turkey (Milliyet, November 11, 1950). Turkish Islamists took inspiration from Ramadan’s writings about the establishment of an Islamic state and the process of transcending nationalism to unite the Muslim world (Ramazan 1963a, 19, 1963b, 20). The president of the Munich Mosque Construction Commission, Ramadan attended the foundational meeting of the MWL in Mecca in 1962 along with Achmed Schmiede, a German who had converted to Islam and who knew Turkish well enough to be able to write for Islamist journals in Turkey. The Turkish Islamist journalist Şenocak (1962, 278) covered this meeting; his impressions of Ramadan, who was in charge of the proceedings, provide a striking example of how influential the Muslim Brotherhood was in Turkey. Şenocak writes that Ramadan’s fiery talk on the Islamic cause and Islamic unity brought tears to his eyes: ‘As long as I live, I will never forget this champion of Islam, whose every fiber is ablaze with Muslim love and ecstasy.’ Following Said Ramadan, control of the Munich Mosque Construction Commission passed to Ali Ghaleb Himmat of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. In 1969, Himmat came to Turkey to raise money for the construction of the mosque and to meet with President Cevdet Sunay and Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel (Aytul 1969; Münih İslam Merkezi 1969, 21, 25). The mosque was designed by a Turkish architect named Osman Gürel; despite Turkey’s failure to provide the expected funds for its construction, it opened to the public in 1973. Though the Muslim Brotherhood in West Germany was unable to obtain the financial support it was counting on from Turkey after its 1969 visit there, its close ties with Necmettin Erbakan—who entered Parliament following the elections held that year—developed even further in the 1970s.

Erbakan, one of the most prominent figures in Turkish Political Islam, completed his doctorate at Aachen Technical University between 1951 and 1953. During that period, he attended a conference in West Germany, following which he wrote a letter to Abdülaziz Bekkine, who was his şeyh (leader of a religious order); notably, this letter mentions West Germany’s interest in the Muslim world (Çalmuk 2017, 175-176). After finishing his doctorate, Erbakan often visited West Germany, where his brother lived; the strong ties he established there would last throughout his political career. While working as a professor at Istanbul University, Erbakan became close to two Muslim Brotherhood members who were students in Istanbul: Yusuf Zeynel Abidin, an Iraqi, and Syrian-born Fazıl Üveyce (Gündoğmuş 2018, 136). After graduation, both individuals went to West Germany; they remained in touch with Erbakan and became some of his most trusted associates. Erbakan stayed at Fazıl Üveyce’s house during a 1968 visit to West Germany, during which he remarked that if Turkish guest workers did not embrace their own religious and cultural values, they would disappear like the ‘Muslims of Andalusia’ (Gündoğmuş 2018, 187). As two of Erbakan’s most trusted associates from the Muslim Brotherhood, Abidin and Üveyce were key figures linking Political Islam in Turkey and West Germany.

The 1969 elections resulted in Erbakan entering Parliament and founding the Milli Nizam Partisi (National Order Party, MNP), which boosted his organizational activities in West Germany. One of the main complaints made by Turkish laborers in West Germany was about their host country’s extremely small number of mosques and Turkish-speaking imams (Köktağ 1966). Well aware of this issue, Erbakan made the construction of new mosques and the search for imams to staff them into the focus of the Milli Görüş’s activities in West Germany. In West German mosques frequented by Turks, the Milli Görüş raised contributions for alms and ritual sacrifices and also coordinated pilgrimages to Mecca, acquiring considerable revenues in the process. So much so that Islamist groups like the Milli Görüş, the Nurcus, and the Süleymancıs—which all acted under the umbrella of the Almanya Türk Birliği (German Turkish League or ATB), founded in 1969—eventually became rivals and had a mutual falling-out. The Milli Görüş took control of the ATB, while the Süleymancıs operated through the İslam Kültür Merkezi (Islamic Cultural Center or İKM) and the Nurcus through the German branch of the Risale-i Nur Enstitüsü (Risale-i Nur Institute) (Perşembe 1996).

The 1973 elections in Turkey were the main reason why these Islamist organizations had a falling-out that year. The Süleymancı-Milli Görüş split occurred when the former supported Demirel, while the latter traveled to Turkey by car in great numbers in order to take part in Erbakan’s electoral campaigning. The Nurcu-Milli Görüş rivalry, by contrast, had to do with what each group saw as the appropriate place of Islam in politics. Hasan Damar, a prominent Milli Görüş member in West Germany, remarked that the Nurcus of that period constantly criticized members of his own movement, on the grounds that ‘religion and politics are separate matters.’ The Nurcus opposed the founding of an Islamist party as well as propagandizing on behalf of Erbakan in West German mosques. In responding to the Nurcus, Damar took the advice of Mehmet Zaid Kotku, an MSP supporter and the leader of the İskenderpaşa Cemaati, an important branch of the Nakşibendi movement in Turkey. Quoting al-Ghazali, Kotku remarked that ‘politics is the most honorable of the arts,’ adding that ‘our Prophet established a state through politics.’ The Milli Görüş distributed thousands of leaflets in West Germany containing this quote from al-Ghazali along with Erbakan’s life story (Damar 2013a, 83-84).

As early as 1962, the established secular order in Turkey began to feel uncomfortable about the Nurcus’ organizational activities in West Germany and tried to take preventive measures against them. The Turkish press reported on the publication of the works of Said Nursi by the Risale-i Nur Institute, which had been founded in Berlin, and on conferences organized in West Germany by the Institute (Cumhuriyet, May 30, 1962). The relationship between the Nurcus and Achmed Schmiede—a member of the Munich Mosque Construction Commission who attended the 1962 MWL foundational meeting along with Said Ramadan—was highly significant. Following his conversion to Islam in 1954, Schmiede had close ties to Nursi’s pupil Muhsin Alev in Berlin (Ceyhan 2016, 66). A member of West Germany’s Muslim Brotherhood network, Schmiede also published translations of Nursi’s works in the journal al-Islam, of which he was in charge. At a time when Islamists in Turkey trod carefully, Schmiede (1965) could make the bold assertion that ‘the Turkish nation became a nation thanks to Islam,’ and that the ‘Turkish race’ did not, therefore, exist. Starting in 1966, accusations started to circulate in the Turkish press regarding Schmiede’s associate Muhsin Alev and the Berlin Risale-i Nur Institute which Alev headed. It was alleged that the Nur Institute was supported by the Netherlands, Germany, and the US, and that this financial support was sent—with Alev’s coordination—to Nurcus in Turkey (Çetiner 1966b). It was also alleged that the Institute’s 20-25 person managing board included a number of Germans.

In the 1960s, none less than İsmet İnönü and İmran Öktem, the president of the Court of Appeals, described the Nurcus as the most serious ‘danger’ to Turkey’s secular order (Milliyet, September 25, 1966). The Nur movement was an explosive issue in Turkey at the time; Muhsin Alev was actually stripped of his Turkish citizenship (Milliyet May 23, 1967). Necmeddin Şahiner (1970), writing in the newspaper İttihad (the mouthpiece of the Nur movement), expressed his excitement at the movement’s growth in West Germany: ‘Europe is pregnant with Islam; one day, it will give birth to an Islamic state. This yet-to-be-born state even has a name: Muslim, Nurcu Germany.’ The claim that the Nurcus received support from Western countries continued to be made in the Turkish press in the 1970s as well. The newspaper Milliyet, relying on a report by the West German Ministry of the Interior, wrote that Nurcu publications were ‘printed in the US’ and distributed ‘free of charge’ to Turks in West Germany (Özgüner 1979). During this period, as the Nurcu movement began to gain recognition among the public, Fethullah Gülen, who was brought up within the movement, went to Germany to give conferences on the initiative of Hasan Aksay, minister for religious affairs from the MSP (Damar 2013a, 100). Yusuf Zeynel Abidin and Hasan Damar from the administrative staff of the Milli Görüş also attended Gülen’s conferences in West Germany.

1968, the zenith of the leftist mass movement in Europe, was also the year that saw the first clashes between leftist and Islamist Turks living in West Germany. The mass protests by the left that occurred throughout Western Europe on 1 May 1968 also affected political organizations in West Germany that had been founded by Turks. That month, Turkish leftist organizations protested against NATO and the Vietnam War in Bonn and Berlin, and fighting broke out between them and Nurcu and other Islamist groups (Aytul 1968). In June of 1970, there were clashes on a larger scale between Islamist and leftist groups in Berlin: 20 people were injured, and some Turks were arrested (Taşol 1970). However, the West German authorities were fairly lenient towards the Islamist groups. NATO member West Germany regarded the Islamists as a way of offsetting the influence of Turkish leftist working class organizations, which were supported by East Germany, mainly by way of radio broadcasts. The nature of this anti-communist alliance was strikingly illustrated in an account by Özdemir (2014, 94-95), one of the Milli Görüş’s imams in West Germany. According to Özdemir, the West German authorities ‘displayed great enthusiasm’ on hearing that Islamists in West Berlin had applied for permission to hold a march in which communism would be declared the ‘enemy.’ During the march, when the possibility arose of clashes between the Islamists and Turkish leftists, the German police were on the side of the Islamists: ‘The German police took sides with us and encouraged us. There was even a policeman who knew Turkish: he tried to keep our spirits up by saying that the march was great and that I should keep at it the march made a big splash in the German newspapers.’ When Özdemir (2014, 109-110) went to court following disputes with the Turkish consulate in Berlin, he was likewise supported by the West German political police, who told him, ‘We know you. The anti-communist march you organized was a worthy endeavor. We follow what you do and approve of it. If you wish, you can become a German citizen.’ The police set about trying to have the complaint resolved in Özdemir’s favor. Similarly Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Mehdi Akef, who stayed in West Germany between 1984 and 1987, also admitted that he ‘used to deal with the German government in a very advanced way. There were some sensitive issues and I solved with them because I felt they were well advanced in their thinking’ (Pargeter 2013, 165).

Anti-Semitism was at least as influential as anti-communism in the worldview of Political Islam. Throughout his political career, Erbakan would state that the Christian West was the puppet of ‘a handful of Jews’; he constantly reiterated the claim that ‘the Jews’ and ‘Israel’ were at the heart of Turkey’s economic problems. From the 1960s onward, the Islamist media in Turkey began to display a close interest in the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany. Tohum, the journal of the İmam Hatipliler Derneği (Society of Graduates of Religious High Schools), featured a promotional offer for its readers entitled ‘Tohum’s Book List’: readers who purchased these books would receive a free year-long subscription to Tohum (1966). Strikingly, in addition to books by writers favored by the Islamists, such as Sayyid Qutb, Maududi, and Necip Fazıl Kısakürek, the list also included a three-volume Turkish translation of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Along with Hitler’s magnum opus, Tohum featured another promotional offer: a two-volume translation of Mussolini’s Fascism. It cannot be an accident that Islamists—given their obvious anti-Semitism—took an interest in Hitler’s and Mussolini’s works. Around the same time, the newspaper Bugün (January 12, 1969), edited by Mehmet Şevket Eygi, one of Turkey’s most prominent Islamist writers, published articles praising Hitler and promoting anti-Semitism. One such article, entitled ‘Hitler Was a Loyal Friend to Muslims,’ praised the German Führer, stating, ‘Hitler never harmed any Muslims. The Muslims in his army performed their prayers five times a day he granted the Muslims in his army unlimited authority and was very fond of them.’ A serialized article in Bugün (March 22, 1969) concerning Hitler, entitled ‘The Man Who Took on the World All by Himself,’ claimed that if Nazi Germany had won the Second World War, France and Britain’s hegemony over the Middle East would have come to an end. One article in the series, entitled ‘The Muslim World Was Excitedly Awaiting Our Victory,’ proclaimed that Muslim countries would have become independent in the event of a Nazi victory.

These two ideological backbones of Turkish Political Islam in the Cold War era—anti-communism and anti-Semitism—also played a significant role in the flourishing of Islamist organizations in West Germany. The Islamists viewed both leftists and Jews as the ‘enemy.’ A piece by Osman Türkobalı (1970) in the Nurcu newspaper İttihad provides a striking instance of the synthesis of anti-communism and anti-Semitism among Islamists in West Germany. Türkobalı describes the May 1 clashes between Islamists and leftists as an attempt by ‘nationalist, pious Turks’ at staving off anarchy: ‘In order to put a stop to those leftist anarchists, Turkish Muslim workers confronted them and gave the communist rascals a good thrashing.’ As for the newspapers which had reported on the Nurcus’ organizational activities and the clashes with leftist groups in West Germany, Türkobalı accused these of having a ‘Jewish nature.’ According to Türkobalı, leftist newspapers were guilty of libel and were employing ‘Jewish tactics’; the journalists who worked for them were ‘Jewish lackeys.’

The 1980s Bonn-Ankara Partnership Against the Growth of Political Islam

The groundwork was laid for the West German branch of the Milli Görüş in 1969, with the founding of the ATB. Notably, the ATB’s foundational meetings were held at the Bilal Mosque in Aachen, where the Muslim Brotherhood was quite influential; Mehmet Şevket Eygi, who attended the MWL meeting in Saudi Arabia that year, was also present (Özdemir 2014, 92-93; Gürtuna 1969). At the time, Eygi was living abroad: his publication of writings ‘attacking secularism’ had led to an arrest warrant being issued against him in Turkey. In 1976, Muslim Brotherhood member Yusuf Zeynel Abidin, who had close ties to Erbakan, was elected as the present of the ATB; in November of that same year, the organization’s name changed from the Almanya Türk Birliği (German Turkish League) to the Avrupa Türk Birliği (European Turkish League). Around the same time, another close associate of Erbakan, Fazıl Üveyce of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, also joined the ATB. Both Abidin and Üveyce were in frequent touch with Issam Attar, a member of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood living in Aachen. At first, Abidin had no wish to become president of the ATB; Attar then made efforts to persuade him to accept the position, clearly illustrating the interrelationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Milli Görüş. In the words of Damar (2013a, 117):

We took the matter to Isam Attar, the Brotherhood member in charge of Europe. Attar said, Muslims are a single community of believers (ummah). There is no such thing as a Kurd, a Turk, an Arab, or a Georgian. Since the organization has seen fit for you to become president, you must accept this position. A duty of this kind is given to someone—it is not sought. And it is not given to the one who seeks it. When it is given, one must accept it. That is the Islamic way.

At that point, Dr. Yusuf Zeynel Abidin accepted the position of president of the European branch of the Milli Görüş. According to Bekir Gündoğmuş, the author of one of the most comprehensive scholarly studies of the Milli Görüş’s European activities, the presidency of Yusuf Zeynel Abidin and the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood over the Milli Görüş ‘facilitated the transformation’ of Turks living in Germany ‘to a pan-Islamic mindset’ (Gündoğmuş 2018, 184).

The incomes of Turks living in West Germany were well above the average in Turkey. Consequently, the West German branch of the Milli Görüş, by organizing pilgrimages to Mecca and raising contributions in mosques, acquired significant funds, which went directly to the MSP in Turkey. In November of 1979, the Milli Görüş sought to have Islam become an officially recognized religion in West Germany, in order to be able to raise money legally from Turks just as the Church raised money from Christians (Damar 2013a, 246-247). During this period, the Islamic Cultural Center, run by the Süleymancıs, also applied for status as an ‘official public institution,’ aiming to collect an ‘Islamic tax’ from Turks living in West Germany (Cumhuriyet, December 12, 1979). Another source of rivalry between the Milli Görüş and the Süleymancıs was the issue of partnering with West Germany’s Christian Democratic Union Party (CDU). Despite Erbakan’s instructions to meet with the CDU, the CDU formed a relationship with the Justice Party (Adalet Partisi, AP) in Turkey as well as the Islamic Cultural Center in West Germany, run by the Süleymancıs, who supported the AP and Demirel. CDU parliamentarian Hans Reppman was also present at the West German congress of the Islamic Cultural Center, which included Süleymancı leader and AP deputy Kemal Kaçar (Atsız 1980).

Three crucial developments in 1979 had a pronounced effect on Political Islam in Turkey and West Germany in the 1980s: the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, and the increasingly violent nature of the Muslim Brotherhood’s uprising in Syria. The Iranian revolution—showing that it was possible to transition in a short space of time to a state system based on Islam—was a model for the Islamists, while the incipient ‘jihad’ against the Soviet army in Afghanistan encouraged Islamist groups worldwide to radicalize. In addition, the Muslim Brotherhood rebellion against the Hafez Assad rule in Syria led to a strengthening of pan-Islamist awareness and to the normalization of anti-Alevi sectarian discourse. These three important developments in 1979 also affected the Milli Görüş in West Germany. When clashes with the Muslim Brotherhood broke out in Syria in July of 1979, the Milli Görüş organized protests in West Germany, proclaiming the Assad government an ‘un-Islamic regime.’ European Milli Görüş president Abidin gave a speech in which he denounced the execution of 15 Muslim Brotherhood members, stating that ‘Assad the Baathist will definitely pay the price for this massacre’ (Milli Gazete, July 28, 1979). The Milli Görüş organized protests against the USSR’s military intervention of Afghanistan in Vienna, while also holding demonstrations in support of the Iranian revolution in various European cities. Hasan Damar from the Milli Görüş met with Khomeini in Paris, establishing a good rapport with him. After the revolution, Damar and his Milli Görüş colleague Fazıl Üveyce went to Iran and took part in the ‘Congress of Friday Imams’ as a delegation of the West German Milli Görüş (Damar 2013a, 186, 261). In 1984, Damar and Üveyce traveled to Peshawar in order to give the funds they had collected to the Afghan mujahideen leaders. The Milli Görüş delegation met with mujahideen leaders Hikmetyar and Rabbani and visited the ‘mujahideen headquarters’ in a combat zone (Damar 2013a, 214). In 1985, mujahideen leader Hikmetyar visited West Germany and held a meeting in Hamburg, which was attended by members of the Milli Görüş. A scuffle arose between the members of the Milli Görüş and a Turkish journalist; the ensuing exchange served to illustrate how the Milli Görüş’s base had come to adopt a pan-Islamist outlook. The journalist told the people who were manhandling him, ‘I am a Muslim and a Turk,’ to which they replied, ‘There is no such thing as a Turk, only a Muslim. Recite the shahada‘ (Milliyet, November 11, 1985).

The military regime, which came to power through the 12 September 1980 coup, promptly set about trying to co-opt the influence which the Süleymancıs and Milli Görüş members had over Turks in West Germany, as well as the financial revenues they had acquired through their religious activities. Tayyar Altıkulaç, president of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, and Nurettin Ersin, commander of the Turkish Land Forces, played a key role in this endeavor. On 3 February 1981—less than six months after the September 12 coup—Altıkulaç issued an important statement:

Mosques in Germany have become divided on the basis of differences in political parties and political views. This is an extremely shameful state of affairs in the history of our Muslim nation. In order to get rid of these divisions, a September 12 operation needs to take place in Germany, too (Milliyet, 3 February 1981, 7).

Indeed, immediately after this statement, the Süleymancı and Milli Görüş movements, which had been under investigation, found themselves facing charges (Mumcu 2014, 114-119). The military regime started sentencing key figures in the Milli Görüş and the Süleymancıs in West Germany, pronouncing them guilty of anti-secular activities. The military aimed to have the mosques and Quran courses which belonged to the Süleymancıs and the Milli Görüş put in the hands of the Directorate of Religious Affairs. This policy adopted by Turkey’s military regime received warm support from Bonn.

Although the military regime was diplomatically isolated with regard to the West as a whole, Friedrich Zimmermann, the West German minister of the interior, still came to Turkey in July of 1983 to meet with President Kenan Evren, Prime Minister Bülent Ulusu, and numerous cabinet ministers. One of the most important issues to come up during Zimmermann’s visit was that of Islamist organizations in West Germany and the mosques and Quran courses under their control. Memorably, Zimmermann remarked that the West German authorities ‘felt uncomfortable about the activities of fundamentalist religious groups in Germany’ and that these groups ‘know that religion is the institution with the most influence over Turkish workers’ (Tarkan 1983). Zimmermann wanted to know how the Turkish government managed the religious activities of Turkish workers; in particular, he complained that the Quran courses in his country were ‘out of control,’ stating that Bonn was ‘interested’ in the idea of having religious activities in West Germany supervised by Ankara through the creation of a ‘Foundation for Religious Affairs’ (Milliyet, July 21, 1983). Thus, having previously vied with the US during the 1950s over how to make use of Political Islam and the Muslim population in its borders, by the 1980s West Germany was gearing up to partner with Ankara on this issue. Undoubtedly Bonn’s decision was motivated by concerns over the increasing radicalization of Islamist groups in Europe in the wake of the Iranian Islamic revolution and the anti-Soviet ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan. Bonn sought to use Islam, together with its NATO ally Turkey, in order to diminish the power of Turkish leftist working class organizations in West Germany. This strategy was very well-received by the military regime in Turkey, which had adopted the Turkish-Islamic synthesis as its official ideology.

On 11 November 1983, four months after Zimmermann’s visit, the Toplumla İlişkiler Başkanlığı (Public Relations Command, TİB) was founded as a sub-department of the General Secretariat of the National Security Council. The individual mainly responsible for founding TİB was Chief of General Staff Nurettin Ersin (Güllapoğlu 1991, 116). Ersin, who had served as president of the Department of Psychological Operations and head of MİT, founded TİB during his brief five-month term of office as chief of general staff. TİB also played a role in the founding, in July of 1984, of the Diyanet İşleri Türk İslam Birliği (Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs, DİTİB), whose purpose was to bring Islamic activities and places of worship in West Germany under Ankara’s control. The journalist Güllapoğlu (1991, 119-125) has pointed out that the similarity in DİTİB and TİB’s names is not a coincidence: officers and academics who had embraced the Turkish-Islamic synthesis played key roles in both organizations. Furthermore, these officers tasked with augmenting Ankara’s power in West Germany worked in concert with the ülkücüs (ultra-nationalists) in West Germany who made up the electoral base of the Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi (Nationalist Movement Party, MHP). The most striking detail of all is found in an account provided to Güllapoğlu (1991, 107) by a high-ranking diplomat with knowledge of all these activities:

After 1984, our embassy started to receive reports from the German Secret Service (BND) regarding the ülkücüs. In these reports, we were informed that ‘ülkücü organizations that supported the MHP were no longer considering acts of terror or violence’ and that the members of these organizations were prepared to operate by democratic standards.

In light of Zimmerman’s statements during his meetings in Turkey and his concerns regarding Islamist radicalization, the activities of TİB and DİTİB (which were created soon afterwards), and the Turkish state’s promotion of the Turkish-Islamic synthesis, it should come as no surprise that Bonn and Ankara would form a partnership with ülkücüs closely linked to the MHP. Within a short space of time, DİTİB became quite influential in West Germany; its message, ‘Go to the state mosque, not the mosque of the cemaats’ increased Ankara’s authority over Turks living there (Gündoğmuş 2018, 223). At a 1986 meeting at DİTİB’s headquarters in Cologne, TİB member Colonel Altan Ateş spoke in detail about the need for a ‘psychological operation’ against Islamist groups in West Germany that were outside the control of the Turkish state. Speaking to a group of religious functionaries, Ateş requested that they provide Ankara with ‘letters’ and ‘reports’ regarding Islamist groups and organizations, promising that these would be destroyed after being read (Güllapoğlu 1991, 125). In fact, during this period, Turkey’s intelligence forces did ramp up their activities against Islamist groups in West Germany, beginning to collect ‘videotapes and audio recordings’ of them (Akpak 1986). Around the same time, a report on this issue was submitted to the Milli Güvenlik Kurulu (National Security Council). Oktay İşcen, Turkey’s ambassador to West Germany, stated that Turkey needed to send more imams ‘in order to establish our authority in the mosques’ in opposition to the Milli Görüş and the Süleymancıs; Tayyar Altıkulaç, the president of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, opined that ‘When we have a sufficient number of imams, there will be no more dissenting voices’ (Tarkan 1986).

The news story in which these statements appeared contained another startling detail, namely that the imams dispatched to Europe were supported through ‘contributions made by the General Secretariat of the Muslim World League.’ In 1987, journalist Uğur Mumcu would publish a full exposé of the relationship between the Saudi-controlled Muslim World League, on the one hand, and Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs and Islamic cemaats, on the other.

In his book Rabıta, whose title derives from the MWL’s Arabic name (Rabitat al-Alam al-Islami), Mumcu provided a detailed look at Saudi Arabia’s growing influence in Turkey. Mumcu’s book (2014, 175-187) criticizes Turkey’s generals—who constantly professed the importance of secularism—for establishing close ties with Saudi Arabia, a country administered by sharia law. Rabıta poses the following question: how could the secularist Turkish state have agreed for the Saudi-controlled MWL to pay the $1100 monthly salaries of Turkish imams in Europe? Furthermore, Mumcu’s book reveals that Islamist companies and groups have established Islamic banks in Turkey with Saudi capital. Startlingly, the same generals who claimed to be the champions of secularism not only did not oppose Saudi Arabia’s acquisition of a political and financial foothold in Turkey, but even supported it (Özkan 2017).

In West Germany, the Milli Görüş movement was also going through a turbulent period around this time. In order to revitalize the movement, Erbakan sent Cemalettin Kaplan—formerly the mufti of Adana and vice president of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, who ran for Parliament for the MSP in 1977—to West Germany in 1981. In his first few years in West Germany, Kaplan extolled the Milli Görüş and the Muslim Brotherhood in his sermons, stating, ‘There are only two organizations in the world that stand for Islam: one is the Milli Görüş and the other is the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’ (Damar 2013a, 181). However, in the ensuing years, Kaplan left the Milli Görüş; in 1984, he founded the İslam Cemaatleri ve Cemiyetleri Birliği (Union of Islamic Communities and Societies), of which he became the president (Lemmen 2000, 62). Kaplan’s departure and his founding his own organization represented a serious blow to the Milli Görüş. The members of the Milli Görüş claimed that Kaplan, working together with the German and Turkish intelligence forces, aimed at eliminating them entirely (Damar 2013b, 18). During his term as mufti of Adana, Kaplan attended the opening of a mosque constructed at İncirlik Airbase through the contributions of American officers; there, he ‘mentioned how pleased he was and expounded upon the greatness of Islam’ (İttihad, November 11, 1969). Kaplan was assisted in getting his residence permit in West Germany by Murat Bayrak (Sözer 1987), a former deputy of the AP who held an administrative position in the MHP; Bayrak was alleged to have been involved in the weapons trade with former CIA agents Frank Terpil and Edwin Wilson (Mumcu 1990). How an ideological fanatic like Kaplan could have continued his activities in Germany without disturbance until his death in 1995; what connections someone like Murat Bayrak, who faced serious allegations, might have used to obtain Kaplan’s residence permit; whether any intelligence agencies took part in this network of interrelationships—all these are questions which need to be researched further.

Following Kaplan’s departure and DİTİB’s commencement of activities in West Germany, Erbakan began taking steps to prevent the Milli Görüş from losing power. Banned from political activity in Turkey until 1987, Erbakan made a concerted effort to boost the status of the Milli Görüş in West Germany during this period. In 1984, Erbakan came to Cologne, where he had a meeting with Yusuf Zeynel Abidin, Lütfü Doğan (former president of the Directorate of Religious Affairs), Youssef Nada (a financial strategist for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood), and Hasan Damar. At the meeting, it was decided to restructure the Milli Görüş (Damar 2013b, 15-18). On 20 May 1985, it was renamed the Avrupa Milli Görüş Teşkilatları (European National Vision Organizations), and Osman Yumakoğulları became its new president (Gündoğmuş 2018, 196). Towards the end of March, 1986, Erbakan set out on an European tour, during which he visited various organizations and individuals closely linked to the Milli Görüş: the Islamic Center of Munich, the MWL’s Islamic Center in Belgium, Murad Wilfried Hofmann (a German diplomat and Muslim convert then serving as NATO’s Director of Information), the Islamic Center of Nuremberg, and Ahmed Abdurrahman Zai the president of the Islamic Religious Authority of Austria (Milli Gazete, April 15, 1986). During the 1980s, the Milli Görüş in Germany also entered a close financial partnership with Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood. According to the German academic Karl Binswanger, the Islamic Insurance Institute, a subsidiary of the Saudi-controlled bank Dar al-Maal al-Islami, was working closely with the Milli Görüş, providing insurance and credit to Turks in West Germany. The Institute’s representatives in West Germany also served as the Milli Görüş’s regional directors. Similarly, the al-Taqwa Bank in Switzerland was founded not only by prominent Muslim Brotherhood figures Youssef Nada and Ghaleb Himmat but also by others including Refah Partisi (Welfare Party, RP) General Secretary Oğuzhan Asiltürk and Ahmet Algan, the son-in-law of Yusuf Zeynel Abidin, who passed away in 1986 (Cumhuriyet, December 10, 1990).


During the Cold War, Turkey and West Germany’s approaches to Political Islam differed considerably from decade to decade. In the 1950s, Turkey looked askance at Islamism, warning its ally, the US, not to use it as a tool in the struggle against communism. During the same period, West Germany was upset at the US’s policy of disseminating propaganda and doing intelligence work via Soviet Muslim refugees living on West German soil. Yet by the 1960s, neither Bonn nor Ankara scrupled to use Islam as a weapon against communism. The only unchanging factor in both countries’ approach was their tendency to view the Islamists as actors that had to be kept under control at all costs. West Germany was aware of how effective a force Political Islam could be as a counterweight to East Germany—and communism in general—in the Middle East. Starting in the 1950s, Egypt and Syria entered into trade relationships with East Germany; it is surely no coincidence that Bonn allowed the Muslim Brotherhood—which these Arab nationalist regimes viewed as their internal enemy—to organize on West German soil (Pargeter 2013, 162-165).

With the wave of migration of Turkish workers to West Germany starting in 1961, the West German government started to view Political Islam as a force to be reckoned with. Both Bonn and Ankara regarded Islamist organizations as an antidote to the socialist organizations sponsored by East Germany, which were becoming increasingly popular among Turkish working class. An intelligence report published in West Germany at a comparatively late date in the Cold War—1981—named the left-wing Türk İşçileri Federasyonu (Turkish Workers Federation), with 18 thousand members, as the most powerful organization among Turkish working class. The report noted that the Federation, which was said to be influenced by the Turkish Communist Party, had carried out anti-NATO and ‘anti-fascist’ demonstrations (Cumhuriyet, January 26, 1982). According to German intelligence expert Erich Schmidt-Eenboom, ‘since the end of the 1950s there has been a close partnership’ between the BND and MİT; Schmidt-Eenboom further noted that ‘in 1981, the BND provided Turkish intelligence with the most modern technologies in order to keep tabs on the opposition’ (Deutsche Welle 2017b), the opposition in question being comprised in large part of leftist organizations and their leaders.

The West German connection has often been overlooked in studies of Political Islam in Turkey. Erbakan, one of the politicians most responsible for the growth of Islamism in the Turkish Republic, attended a German-language high school and did his doctorate and post-doctoral teaching in West Germany. Trained as an engineer, Erbakan believed that West Germany’s post-1945 industrialization ought to serve as a model for Turkey. Stressing the differences between the two Germanies in his speeches, Erbakan described the communist regime in East Germany—which he had visited—as unsuccessful (Çalmuk 2018, 30-31). In its battles with the Left in Turkey, the Islamist media was also in the habit of comparing East and West Germany, as in the following excerpt from the Islamist newspaper Yeni İstiklal:

Wise Turks, who love your fatherland and nation! When the Reds tell you about the benefits of socialism and Marxism, say to them: ‘If it is really a good system, why is East Germany in such terrible shape? Conversely, why has West Germany become so free, prosperous, and rich? Why are the East Germans fleeing to the West?’ If they cannot answer this question, spit in their faces! And curse the scoundrels who are trying to make Turkey resemble East Germany! (Yeni İstiklal 1965, 1, 12).

The increasing prosperity of Turks working in West Germany became a large source of revenue for Islamist groups recruiting from them. Moreover, during the Cold War, West Germany served as a bridge in the relationship between Turkish Islamists and the Egyptian and Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

The generals’ adoption of the Turkish-Islamic synthesis as the official state ideology following the 1980 coup has been described by Taha Parla as ‘pious nationalism.’ In Parla’s words,

The change which I believe occurred after September 12 consisted of the regime and the bureaucracy’s abandoning the classic secularist Kemalist outlook and endorsing a form of pious nationalism (the emphasis being on the word ‘nationalism’) which was coming into existence under the name of the ‘Turkish-Islamic synthesis’ (the emphasis being on the word ‘Turkish’). In this synthesis, religion is not a system of morality or a social institution but rather appears to be a tool of societal supervision in the hands of a bureaucratic, authoritarian state (Parla 1986, 40-41).

Indeed, in the 1980s, Turkey’s supposedly secular military and state bureaucracy no longer merely saw Political Islam as an antidote to the Left but began to view it as an ideology which—when combined with nationalism—would legitimize the established order in the eyes of society. Thus, Islamist cemaats, while they needed to be kept under close supervision, could also be used to manufacture societal consent. During this period, West Germany was greatly concerned about the radicalization of Islamist organizations in the wake of the Iranian Islamic Revolution and the jihad in Afghanistan; in addition, the Syrian intelligence forces—with the assistance of East Germany—were carrying out assassinations of Muslim Brotherhood members in West Germany. When Bonn decided that Political Islam was getting out of control, it realized that it stood to gain from the Turkish state’s adoption of the Turkish-Islamic synthesis. Since a form of Political Islam supervised by a NATO ally such as Turkey was likely to behave far more predictably, Bonn allowed Islamism in West Germany to fall under the sway of a Turkish state institution like DİTİB.

As this article has demonstrated, Turkey, West Germany, and the US took different stances towards Political Islam—and towards each other—all throughout the Cold War. At times, all three countries worked together; at times, they found themselves to be rivals. In 1988, as the winds of change were blowing in the USSR, the CIA’s former Ankara station chief, Paul Henze, met with von Mende’s former employee Baymirza Hayit in Istanbul to discuss issues concerning Turks in the Soviet Union and China (Cumhuriyet, April 8, 1988). Just as in 1945, all sides realized that a new world order was being established, and attempted to position themselves accordingly. With the fall of the USSR and East Germany and the end of the Cold War, Political Islam came to be viewed in a different light by the US, Turkey, and Germany; the movement itself would also undergo significant changes and take on new importance in the coming era.

Ankara-Berlin relations have been profoundly affected by the AKP’s coming to power in Turkey in 2002; since that time, Political Islam has governed the country single-handedly and has become a formidable political force. In the 1980s, the West German government encouraged DİTİB’s organizational activities on German soil in order to bring local Islamist groups under control; two decades later, Berlin had become concerned that the AKP—which was steadily acquiring greater influence over all Turkish state institutions, including DİTİB—would exert this power over Turks living in Germany. Through the lens of its pan-Islamist foreign policy, the AKP viewed Germany’s Turks—and, more generally, Europe’s Muslims—as part of a single Islamic civilization, of which it was itself the leader. It also saw them as its greatest source of leverage in any disputes with Germany. At suitable opportunities, AKP politicians have sought to display their power by holding rallies in Germany and other European countries. This has put Ankara on a collision course with Berlin, which organized the first German Islamic Conference in 2006 in an effort to ramp up its influence over the Muslims living within its borders. As this article has shown, the current rivalry between Ankara and Berlin has not only involved a large and varied cast of characters—political and civil actors as well as intelligence agencies and security forces—but has been ongoing for seven decades. Today’s tensions between Turkey and Germany on Political Islam are nothing less than the legacy of the Cold War.