A controversial event organised by the Taliban at a Cologne mosque of the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DİTİB; Türkisch-Islamische Union der Anstalt für Religion e.V.) during Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent visit to Germany has sparked outrage and criticism.
The controversy arose after a senior representative of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan gave a speech in support of the Taliban government at a DİTİB mosque in Cologne on Thursday.
Videos shared on social media show Abdul Bari Omar, head of the Taliban’s Food and Drug Administration in Afghanistan, speaking at the mosque, urging people to visit Afghanistan to see the situation first-hand.
The German foreign ministry has condemned Omar’s appearance in Cologne, saying it had not been informed of the presence of Taliban representatives in the country, and the authorities have launched an investigation into his allegedly unauthorised visit. Meanwhile German politicians have strongly criticised the event and demanded answers.
“As long as the Taliban in Afghanistan continue to grossly violate human rights, especially those of women and girls, there will be no normalisation with the Taliban regime,” the ministry stressed in its statement.
In response to the backlash, the management of the DİTİB mosque where the event took place issued a statement saying that the event, organised by the Afghan Cultural Association in Cologne, had initially been approved “on the understanding that it would be a religious event”.
“Contrary to the agreement, however, it turned into a political meeting to which an unknown speaker was invited,” the statement said.
According to German news agency WDR, the Taliban official entered the country on a Schengen visa issued by the Netherlands. He had been attending a World Health Organisation (WHO) conference in The Hague from 6 to 8 November.
DİTİB, the largest umbrella organisation of mosques in Germany, is directly linked to the Turkish government’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), which employs the staff and imams of all 90,000 mosques in Turkey and abroad. Diyanet sends Turkish imams to DİTİB’s mosques and thus determines the theological guidelines behind what is preached in the mosques.
This is not the first time an Islamist organisation has used DİTİB premises for an event, as in 2019 DİTİB invited members of another Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood to an event in Cologne.
Since 2003, throughout Erdoğan’s consolidation of power, he has disempowered the military and taken Turkey more and more back to Islam. Diyanet has gained importance as a state authority, and religious schools have been upgraded and expanded. He also founded a European branch of his Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Union of European-Turkish Democrats (UETD) in Germany. This organisation organised Erdoğan’s big election rallies in Cologne and Düsseldorf, for which tickets were distributed in DİTİB mosques.
Diyanet has grown in importance and its links with DİTİB have grown stronger, and the organisation has been accused of collecting information for the Turkish intelligence service following the 2016 coup attempt. Erdoğan further increased his influence over DİTİB by opening its central mosque in Cologne in 2018.
Following the launch of Turkey’s military operations in northern Syria in January 2018, the head of Diyanet called on people to pray in the mosques for a Turkish victory. At the time, videos of uniformed pre-school children dressed up as soldiers also appeared in DİTİB mosques in Germany.
In the run-up to the elections in May 2023, more than 700 AKP election rallies were held in DİTİB mosques in Germany, attended by a total of 124 AKP MPs.
The event sparked ongoing debates about Erdoğan’s alignment with controversial Islamist groups, particularly as it coincided with his defence of Hamas and also with his state visit to Germany.