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Governing Islam Abroad: Turkish and Moroccan Muslims in Western Europe

This book employs a comparative perspective that analyzes the foreign religious activities of the two home states with the largest diaspora populations in Europe: Turkey and Morocco.

From sending imams abroad to financing mosques and Islamic associations, home states play a key role in governing Islam in Western Europe.  Drawing on over one hundred interviews and years of fieldwork, this book employs a comparative perspective that analyzes the foreign religious activities of the two home states with the largest diaspora populations in Europe: Turkey and Morocco. The research shows how these states use religion to promote ties with their citizens and their descendants abroad while also seeking to maintain control over the forms of Islam that develop within the diaspora. The author identifies and explains the internal and foreign political interests that have motivated state actors on both sides of the Mediterranean, ultimately arguing that interstate cooperation in religious affairs has and will continue to have a structural influence on the evolution of Islam in Western Europe.

About the Author

Benjamin Bruce is Research Fellow with the Mexican National Council of Science and Technology (Conacyt) at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte (El Colef), Mexico.

Table of Contents


In 2015, Turkey had over 1800 imams serving in foreign countries. The vast majority of these state-employed religious officials are appointed to mosques in Western Europe to provide religious services to local Turkish communities. The same year, Morocco not only sent hundreds of imams abroad during the month of Ramadan for its diaspora communities, but also provided over 10 million euros in funding to Moroccan mosques and religious associations across the continent. Governing Islam abroad is nothing new for either state; in fact, it has become an increasingly common practice since the 1970s. These overseas religious activities take place especially in Germany and France, respectively, the two countries where the majority of both home states’ citizens reside, but also in many other countries in Western Europe and further afield. The purpose of this book is to understand how this phenomenon has arisen, the reasons for its longevity, and the implications it holds for the development of Islam in Western Europe.

The Many Faces of Official Islam in Turkey

Islam and politics have maintained a complicated relationship since the Turkish republic was founded in 1923. As Bein rightly notes, “The debates in present-day Turkey concern contemporary issues, but their historical roots may be traced almost invariably to the late Ottoman period and the early years of the republic” (2011, 155). This chapter gives an overview of the main evolutions in the Turkish religious field in the decades since the end of the Ottoman Empire and the Caliphate to present day. The two principal goals are to present the structures and mechanisms that underlie religious governance in Turkey, as well as to argue that the boundaries between “official” and “unofficial” Islam are more ambiguous and volatile than is often imagined. In order to give focus to this argument, I will consider in particular the Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı, hereafter Diyanet) and its relationships to non-state religious actors.

The Makhzen and the Religious Field

Morocco maintains a continuity with its past in a way that few states in the region do. Though it has gone from sultanate to colonial protectorate to modern state, “it is the only modern Middle Eastern or Maghribi state where the pre-colonial dynasty has continued in power and traditional religio-political notions have become key components of modern identity and statehood” (Bennison 2002, 2). This continuity is most visible in the person of the king, who detains both political and spiritual power in his role as amīr al-mu’minin (“Commander of the Faithful”). In this chapter, I highlight the enduring features that characterize the historical and institutional development of the Moroccan religious field in order to better comprehend how and why the Moroccan state governs Islam abroad. As in the case of Turkey, I focus here on the interplay of “official” and “unofficial” currents of Islam in Morocco over the last century and on the state religious administration: the Ministry of Habous and Islamic Affairs Ministère des Habous et des Affaires Islamiques / Wizārat al-Awqāf wa-Shu’un al-Islāmīyya, hereafter Habous ministry). The purpose of this historical review is to argue that alongside idiosyncratic forms of religious governance, “official” Islam is ultimately an ambiguous notion that responds more to political necessities than theological concerns.

The Development of State Religious Services Abroad

Following World War II, Western Europe experienced rapid economic growth, which has since achieved legendary status as the Trente Glorieuses in France and the Wirtschaftswunder in Germany. As this growth continued, many Western European countries faced significant labour shortages, especially in the industrial sector, and turned to importing workers from abroad.

While countries such as France, the Netherlands, and the UK had already seen migration from their colonies at the beginning of the twentieth century, following the war migration occurred within the framework of official labour recruitment agreements, as in the case of Morocco and France in 1963. The scope of post-war labour migration extended far beyond colonial ties: Morocco signed a similar agreement the same year with Germany, followed by Belgium in 1965 and the Netherlands in 1969. For Turkey, which had never been colonized by any European power, the first such agreement was signed with Germany in 1961. Germany already had experience in this domain, as it had been receiving Gastarbeiter (“guest workers”) since 1955, thanks to agreements concluded with Italy, Spain, and Greece. Turkey’s agreement with Germany was followed by similar agreements with Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands in 1964, France in 1965, and Switzerland in 1967.

Creating a National Islam? Partial Governance and Public Policy Instruments

If governing Islam is to be understood as a form of state public policy, it follows that it has its own set of particular instruments, techniques, and tools. In the cases of Turkey and Morocco, both states conceive of religious affairs as a distinct domain of public policy and employ specific policy instruments to govern the religious field. In addition, they are both part of traditional systems of cooperation and conflict between state, parapublic, and non-state religious actors, and the expansion of state religious activities abroad has forced both to rely even more on the latter two sets of actors than is the case at home. Nevertheless, the transnational context has not altered the fact that religion continues to be framed as its own domain of public policy.

Conversely, neither France nor Germany views religious affairs as a holistic administrative category within state policy. Religion in both countries is subject to different regimes of state-church cooperation or separation in which state action towards religion is fragmented between numerous policy domains that are not necessarily in communication with another. The question of Islam has led both states to take new approaches to religious governance over the last years; however, and despite their many significant differences, both states share the difficulty that they are only able to partially govern Islam.

Exporting Imams

This chapter examines the two sets of actors who are involved in organizing and providing religious services abroad: diplomats and state religious officials. When religion becomes an object of state policy, it also becomes an issue that can be integrated into the same agendas, bullet points, and evaluation schemes, as any other public policy issue. The process of rationalization is reflected in the perspective adopted by state employees in their day-to-day management of religious affairs.

The actors of these policies may or may not be devout believers themselves: indeed, at times this may have an influence on their opinions and actions with regard to particular situations. On the other hand, an individual actor’s religiosity has no bearing on the fact that framing religion

a specifically delimited administrative category contributes to the secular manner by which religion is managed. Sacredness is not at issue: budgets, agendas, and logistics are. This perspective plays an important role in the way that Islamic issues are integrated into the diplomatic and consular services of Turkey and Morocco. Grouped together under a special heading in departmental titles and institutional reports, religious services abroad are the subject of studies, meetings, and bilateral talks and are handled to different degrees by a long list of ministerial departments, parapublic institutions, and the diplomatic networks of consulates and embassies.

National Interests in Transnational Muslim Fields

Since the turn of the millennium, Turkish and Moroccan religious policies abroad have undergone a series of important changes. The catalysts for these changes have come from all sides: internal political developments in both countries, especially Turkey; French and German policies aimed at “nationalizing” Islam; the fallout from Islamic terrorist attacks in Western Europe and North America; and the coming of age of a new generation of French and German Muslim citizens.

This chapter focuses on the principal initiatives that the Moroccan and Turkish states have promoted in their religious fields abroad over the last 20 years. I analyze the interests that have motivated these developments as well as the way that they have been received and conditioned by both French and German authorities, and classify them under three main themes. The first addresses the question of religious radicalization, and how it serves to motivate and justify state intervention in the religious field that goes beyond national security concerns and results in the delegitimization of non-state religious actors. The second concerns home state attempts to control the production of “correct” Islamic knowledge through the training of new state-approved religious authorities. Finally, the third examines the consequences of home state religious policies for transnational Muslim fields, with a focus on the tensions provoked abroad by political developments at home, as well as the ambiguous role played by forms of cultural capital and national Islamic traditions in the religious fields abroad.


In 2017, I went to visit the DITIB central office in the Parisian suburb of Bagnolet. It was Ramadan, but unlike the bustling activity in the streets of Belleville and Barbès-Rochechouart as locals made preparations for iftar, the neighbourhood gave off a quiet, lethargic ambience. The centre, a multi-story reddish building surrounded by large apartment complexes, housed a surprisingly empty mosque, along with the offices for DITIB’s social, travel, and funeral services. In one department, I came across a graduate of the Diyanet’s international theology programme who had recently returned from Turkey with the hope of becoming a religious official; however, after not having been hired she was now contemplating returning to Turkey to study for a master’s in theology. After an interview with the local Diyanet imam, which became considerably more interesting once the recorder had been switched off, I wandered back to Paris while thinking of how normal this transnational reality was for the actors involved in the religious field.

Not a week thereafter, I was contacted by French journalists as a debate began concerning the new president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), who was the head of the Coordination Committee of French Turkish Muslims (CCMTF), close to the Turkish state, and moreover was the former president of the Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD), a lobby for the Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP). While the discussions continued on whether this individual was suited to be CFCM president, I was struck by the sizeable gulf separating the largely inconsequential debates on “French Islam” as opposed to the normality of Turkey’s governance of Islamic affairs abroad for actors on the ground

The confusion over the normative implications of home state involvement is today as present as ever: two months earlier, the Union of French Mosques (UMF) had announced its intention to start training imams in France at the Évry mosque with instructors sent from and paid for by the Mohamed VI Institute in Rabat, which was presented as “good news” for the French government (Hoffner 2017). Meanwhile, on the other side of the Rhine, just a few weeks before my visit to the DITIB office in Paris, the monumental DITIB central mosque of Cologne finally opened its main prayer space amidst continuing debates over the espionage affair as recounted in Chapter 7 (one of the mosque’s minarets is on the front cover of this book). And of course, Diyanet imams continued to arrive throughout the year to serve the community abroad as usual, despite the electoral bombast of Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Martin Schultz, who declared that if elected chancellor he would put a definitive end to the practice.

As stated in the introduction, the objective of this book has not been to endorse any normative arguments about whether these forms of religious diaspora policies are ultimately “good” or “bad,” but rather to shed light on a relatively little known and misunderstood factor that contributes greatly to the development of Islam in Western Europe. My focus has been on explaining how and analyzing why this form of religious governance has become a common feature of the international relations between the states under study since the waves of labour migration first began in the 1960s. Moreover, I have sought to examine the consequences of home state religious policies for the development of Islam in France and Germany. My primary conclusions are as follows.

Bibliographic Information

Title: Governing Islam Abroad: Turkish and Moroccan Muslims in Western Europe

Author: Benjamin Bruce

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

Language: English

Length: 303 pages

ISBN: 978-3-319-78663-6

Pub. Date: August 25, 2018

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