Geopolitics

Why Turkey Is Building Mosques Around The World

A recently inaugurated mega-mosque near Washington D.C. is one of many the Turkish government has built in an effort to extend its influence and tout a moderate model of Islam.

Erdogan inaugurates the new mosque in Maryland on April 2.
Adrien Lelievre

-Analysis-

ANKARA â€" 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.

Ottoman nostalgia

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 â€" their main residence overlooking the city of Istanbul â€" 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 â€" 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 â€" 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.

An ISIS antidote?

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" â€" 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 BaÅŸkanlığı) â€" tasked, among other things, with building mosques abroad â€" 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.

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Society

Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe


BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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