The mosque being built in Albania’s capital will be the largest in all the Balkans. Still a few months away from opening, it already dominates a corner of Tirana, overshadowing the neighboring Parliament building from a 105,000-square-foot compound. The building’s walls are clad in pale stone and topped with domes and minarets, which look nothing like any structures that have stood in the area before.
Instead, the building echoes classic Ottoman architecture, and for good reason—it is being funded by Turkey. It’s among a series of new mega-mosques constructed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government at home and abroad. One in Accra, Ghana, is the largest in West Africa. Another in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, is the largest in Central Asia. A complex in Maryland is said to be the largest of its kind in the entire Western Hemisphere. There are at least 2,000 others of various sizes that are funded by Ankara, and still more have been planned or discussed in places such as Venezuela, where Erdoğan is bolstering Nicolás Maduro’s beleaguered government, and Cuba, which Erdoğan claimed Muslim sailors reached before Christopher Columbus. Once completed, many of these mosques remain controlled by Ankara, and—in areas with large Turkish diasporas—deliver the same state-mandated weekly sermon heard in every city, town, and village back in Turkey.
Erdoğan has faced criticism from Western powers in recent years for actions seen as anti-democratic and illiberal: Perceived domestic enemies have been purged and jailed; Kurdish armed groups have been attacked in both Syria and Iraq; banks and foreign powers have been harangued for Turkey’s own financial woes. At the same time, his government has progressively expanded a global soft-power campaign, and mosques are only the most obvious result. It also supports religious schooling, a program for restoring Ottoman-era buildings, and extensive social and aid operations. Most beneficiaries have so far welcomed the assistance, but a few, notably in Germany, now worry that Turkish influence could deepen their own communal divides or even be a vehicle for espionage.