ANKARA — President Barack Obama's decision not to attend the April 2 inauguration of a new mosque near Washington D.C. might have spoild the party a bit. The event was billed, after all, as the highlight of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's recent trip to the United States.
The mosque in the state of Maryland is the centerpiece of the Diyanet Center of America (DCA), a vast complex that includes other buildings such as a cultural center and Turkish baths. The self-stated mission of the project is to "enlighten American society about Islamic culture through religious knowledge."
The DCA arrives in the U.S. as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has made the fear of Islam one of his main campaign arguments, promising among other things that if elected, he will ban Muslims from entering the U.S.
Ankara shelled out $110 million for construction of the mosque. The building, which has two minarets, features Ottoman architecture style in fashion under the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century.
At the height of its power, under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566), the Ottoman Empire's influence was spread across Europe, Asia and Africa. From their base in the Topkapi Palace — their main residence overlooking the city of Istanbul — the Ottoman sultans inspired both fear and respect within the Royal Courts of Europe.
President Erdogan has always been nostalgic for those glory days, yearning to restore Turkey's past greatness, both within and beyond its borders — with Islam at the center of his political and cultural project. For that reason, Turkey began building and renovating more and more mosques worldwide, starting in 2002 when Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power.
The effort began with construction sites in areas that were previously part of the Ottoman Empire, such as the Balkans, where Turkish infuence is still strong. Last year, Erdogan laid the foundation for a gigantic mosque in Tirana, the capital of Albania.
The dome of the Carol Mosque in Constata in Romania — Photo: Alexandra Morton Tyers
"Turkey feels it has a duty toward the Sunni Muslim community. And this duty goes much farther than the borders of the former Ottoman Empire," says Jean-François Pérouse, director of the French Institute for Anatolian Studies (IDEA) in Istanbul.
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Turkey's religious diplomacy is driven by the concept of soft power, Pérouse explains. Borrowed from the academic field of International Relations, soft power states that a country's strength is derived not only from its military and economic dimensions, but also from its culture, its international image and the example it is able to set through both words and actions.
Erdogan likes to extol the merits of the so-called "Turkish model" — a combination of economic liberalism, religious conservatism and democratic standards. In previous years, the model was hailed in some circles abroad. But nowadays it isn't faring as well, mostly because of Erdogan's shifts towards authoritarianism and his ambivalent stance on Syria.
Yes despite Turkey's recent diplomatic setbacks and increasing international isolation, Ankara continues its worldwide project of mosque construction in order to spread a moderate vision of Islam. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, credited in the 2000s as the mind behind the "neo-Ottoman policy," declared that Turkey's vision of Islam could act as an "antidote" to the ideology espoused by the Islamic State (ISIS), which draws its ideas from the Sunni movement of Wahhabism.
As a consequence, the budget allocated to the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet iÅŸleri BaÅŸkanlÄ±ÄŸÄ±) — tasked, among other things, with building mosques abroad — reached $2 billion in 2015, Foreign Affairs reports.
Ankara's efforts have proven controversial in some cases. In Romania, people are divided about the construction in Bucharest of the largest mosque in Europe. Similar fears rose in Albania. "If it doesn't want to look arrogant, Turkey needs to adapt its policy to the countries in which the mosques are being built," says Pérouse.
Nevertheless, Turkey's remains committed to its soft-power push, even in countries where a Muslim presence is not historically strong. The Maryland mosque is a case in point. Similar mosque-building projects are also in progress in Haiti and some South America countries. Leaders in Latin America may remember comments that Erdogan made two years ago, when he insisted publicly that Muslims discovered America three centuries before Columbus.