Turkish people living in Germany are the largest diaspora outside Turkey. The result of the Turkish referendum unveils the wide gap between native German politicians and Germans with Turkish descent. Has integration failed? A research in Hannover.
Valerie Lux Schult
If you want to look for Turkish culture in Germany, it is not difficult to find. Turkish immigrants in Germany largely brought the culture of food with them. You find numerous snack bars where ethnic Germans stock themselves up with all sorts of doner kebab throughout the country. Many cities in Germany have at least one multicultural quarter, where Turkish supermarkets, food stores and shisha bars prevail. For decades Turkish migrant workers have supported the German labour market and contributed to its economic rise. Many Turkish families settled permanently with their children. After a decade of violent eradication of every foreigner during the era of National Socialism, Turkish settlement gave Germany the chance to show its friendly face and grow to become a multicultural country again.
However for most Germans, accepting the religion of Islam in a secular but still predominantly Christian state has been a difficult thing. To this day Christian churches enjoy privileges Islamic communities do not have as they are a recognized legal entity. This leads to a situation whereby school lessons on Islam taught by Islamic legal theologians, are not allowed under German law while lessons on Christianity are offered at every public school.
Therefore the education of Imams is still designed and paid for by the Turkish state. Through the means of religion, Germans with Turkish descent are given an ongoing reminder of their origin. This puts another strong emotional identification for German-Turks to the Turkish state and contributes to the conflict of loyalty many encounter these days while looking at the inflammatory relationship between Turkish and German politicians. For some people the fight between the German and Turkish government reveals the Islamophobic face of the German authorities and hostility towards Turkish immigrants. Others claim that Turks in Germany have never integrated and refuse to adapt their cultural practices and structures to better assimilate into modern western society.
In a calm alley next to the busy high street, the white walls of the Ditib mosque appear. Many Turkish facilities have gathered here around the pedestrian area in Hannover a major city in northern Germany. Ditib mosques are financed by donations by its members but the Imam receives his salary from the Turkish state. Sharp spikes on the white fence signal deterrence, yet the entry door is gaping wide open. After entering the concrete backyard you have to choose whether to go inside the male or the female prayer room.
The voluntary guide of the mosque does not want to talk about politics. Instead he leads me through to the prayer rooms. Pictures of golden Arabic letters on a black background indicating Qu’ran surahs frame the halls. Men sit silently on the floor, which is covered in red carpets designed with blue arrows to indicate the direction to Mekka. Islamic rituals have a heavy emphasis on bodily movements, so you must take off your shoes before praying. White tiles cover the corner where the traditional washing takes place before prayer. This together with the smell of perspiring feet emanating from the neatly aligned pairs of shoes, is not unlike the entrance to a community swimming pool.
Over the wooden pulpit, in the male area of the mosque, hangs the red-white half-moon flag of Turkey. For most mosque visitors, religion and ethnicity are closely intertwined as the guide explains. From this pulpit, in front of the Turkish flag the local imam gives his speech. For the traditional Friday prayers, every imam in every one of the thousands of mosques in Turkey and Germany has to deliver exactly the same sermon. They are designed by Diyanet, the secular Religious Affairs Directorate which supervises the exacerbation of Islam. This establishment gives the ruling Turkish executive an influential leverage over the minds of Turkish migrants abroad.
While the prayer on the 10th March 2017 in the Ditib mosque dealt reasonably with the respect for and non-violence against women, the prayer for the week before had an alarming message. This sermon emphasized a strong vigilance against superstition and heretics. The prayer did not include his full name, but it may be seen as warning to the followers of Fetullah Gülen. Gülen, arch enemy of Erdogan, founded his own Islamic movement striving for education and individual self-healing in opposition to the Turkish Sunni majority teachings whose members are the largest electoral pool for the ruling AKP party.
The fight between conservative Erdogan and liberal Gülen has also reached German territory. In early 2017, Erdogan demanded that his Ditib imams denounce Gülen-followers in their German mosques. As a result, the prime minister of the county of Niedersachsen, Stephan Weil froze the negotiations with Ditib to reach a semi-statutory agreement, which would have facilitated the education of Islamic theologians in public schools and be a prevention instrument against radical Islamism. Although several Ditib-officials apologized and vigorously asserted their commitment to democratic ideals, the scope for dialogue has decreased after Erdogan branded German politicians as non-democratic Nazi turncoats in the wake of the prohibition of his campaign speeches.
“It makes me crazy to see how many Turks in Hannover are for Erdogan” says Abdul Yilmaz*, a member of the Kurdish Islamic Family Centre. He does not want to reveal his name as he fears that if the Turkish authorities read his name in the newspaper they will automatically associate him with the Kurdish terrorist organisation PKK. Yilmaz is not the only one who does not want to display his identity. Erdogan’s harsh measures towards his critics have a deterrent effect even on Turks living in Germany. Many Turks in Germany with citizenship of both countries refuse to speak with me as a journalist about Erdogan. Even as a permanent resident living in Germany, the brutal retaliation of the AKP-regime is feared and many are intimidated by the case of Deniz Yücel, who even as a dual Turkish-German citizen got hurriedly imprisoned without trial by the Turkish justice system after criticising Erdogan.
Yilmaz explains that the approval shown by a large proportion of Turks in Germany to “their leader” Erdogan is due to psychological motivations. Erdogan understands excellently how to present himself as shining example of a hard-working and diligent man. Being ruled as an outsider, due to language barriers and overburdened by complex political issues, Turkish citizens living abroad find that leaders like Erdogan represent a strong “I-know-where-to-lead-you”-way without detours. A way which is for them often blocked in German society. Largely forgotten by ethnic German neighbours and politicians not seeing any need to help with integration, many Turkish communities keep to themselves and are identified as “us” and “them”. Identifying with a strong leader can be a boost to your own self-esteem when you are at the bottom of German societal and business life says Yilmaz. The emotional attraction to a strong man who silences all of his critics and obliviously follows his path may especially fall on fruitful grounds for Turks who still do not feel like they belong or are beloved by German society.
But political scientist Orhan Sat goes even further and does not limit Erdogan’s sense of mission to his persona but to the rise of neo-osmanism in Turkey in general. “We have a steady hegemonial aspiration of neo-osmanism in Turkey nowadays” says the semi-bald haired man to his listeners. Sat, holding a microphone in his hands, is member of a panel discussion with the title “Turkey behind bars” in the grey carpet covered saloon of the German labour union Verdi. Regarding the pestering questions about the dilemmatic situation of Turkey and Germany, it is surprising that only half of the metallic chairs are taken.
Neo-osmanism defines the view that Turkey was once a big empire in the 19th century and its culture is now kept deliberately down by the “West” explains Sat. According to another Kurdish panellist, neo-osmanism has already found its anchorage in Turkish school books and has therefore seeped into the national mentality since the start Erdogan’s mandate in 2002. His description that Erdogan needs the Kurdish people as an enemy to glorify his power is widely shared among the panellists and in the audience. It is no surprise that most migrants with Turkish descent in Germany who are against Erdogan are of Kurdish descent. Widely accepted at the discussion is even the suggestion of lifting the ban of the PKK as a terror organization. Squeezed in between the panellists, neon light shines upon the face of the elderly woman Ulla Jelpke. Red-haired Jelpke ist a leftist deputy member of the German parliament. Her arms crossed over her chest, she leans forward to tell the approving audience that she even filed a war criminal complaint against Erdogan to the Federal Prosecutor General of Germany.
The visitors of the barber shop Atatürk in the east of Hannover could not have a more opposite view of the Turkish president. Between two hairdressing chairs a television screen is fixed above the wall displaying the Turkish news. Most Germans of Turkish descendent prefer Turkish breakfast shows over German morning television, a recent study found out. The loud and colourful presenting style on Turkish television suits them better. “Yes, Turks get very emotional even when it comes to politics”, one of the hairdressers says and sighs. The odour of hairspray fills the air of the small room. “Why is Erdogan always displayed as a bad man in German media and by politicians? I don’t understand this”, says the owner of the barber shop. His face shows real confusion.
“I voted for him”, I get told sullenly by many customers at the salon. One senior, sitting next to me, explains his decision to vote for Erdogan. “Turkey can fly now. Turkey has wings” he tells me while making flapping wing movements with his arms. Around here he is not the only one to tell me about the widespread poverty in Turkey in the past. It is explained to me how little they had to eat back in the eighties and that Turkey has changed massively during the past decades. “At some days in the past, we did not even have bread to feed our family”, one of customers says. Now the oriental country is a booming economy and everyone would be fed. Around here Erdogan is credited most the long-term economic revival and its subsequent eradication of poverty. And it is true that after the 2007 financial crisis Turkey has experienced economic growth rates of up to 4% per year.
But at the panel discussion political scientist Sat has theoretical explanation for Erdogan’s economic policy. According to him, authoritative Islamic rule and neoliberalism goes hand in hand. Free market policies are one aspect of the definition of “islamo-fascism”, a term Sat attributes to Turkey. In the last decade a lot of Turkish enterprises were privatized. This neoliberalist policy of the Erdogan-government have lead to a long-term rise in GDP, as a side-effect many heads of Turkish corporations now gratefully support the AKP-Regime, describes Sat.
But the trajectory has changed in 2017. Looking at independent economic statistics one can see a sharp decline starting from 2016, when suddenly the economic rate arrow drops down to minus two percent. Turkey may have experienced a steady incline regarding prosperity and economic wealth but after the coup d’etat in June last year and its subsequent mass arrests, many investors have withdrawn their investments due to fear of the arbitrary rule of Erdogan. Political stability is the mayor key to attracting foreign investors. An attempted coup and street fights with Kurdish fighters in the East of Turkey do not indicate a calm investment climate.
Interestingly enough politicians and media from both sides, German and Turkish blame each other for not being democratic enough. Germans complain Turkey is as dictatorship, while Turkish official representatives accuse Germany of being a fascist Nazi-country which does not allow Turkish politicians to campaign for the referendum on its territory. All problems in the world derive from the fact that there are misunderstandings in language, noted the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, while a soldier lying in the trenches of the First World War. He represented the view that the more capability one has of using language correctly, the more the world shows its real truth to you. The well-known phrase “the boundaries of my language are the boundaries of my world” derived from this thought. Looking through Wittgenstein’s eyes at the current societal debate with Erdogan jailing critics and German communities prohibiting Turkish ministers from appearing on stage, the chances of enlarging each others’ worlds with a common definition of the word “democracy” and its implications steadily diminishes.
The defective communication on the international level between German and Turkish politicians is symptomatic of the alienation of people of Turkish descent living in Germany. German-Turks who are constantly showered with Turkish television close to Erdogan’s views live in a parallel world to Germans who only consume media where the message of Erdogan as a rising dictator prevails, recognized the German-Turkish faction leader of the green party Cem Özdemir recently in the German newspaper Rheinische Post. He proposed the set-up of an oriental-western media channel. Serving as a role model, there is already arte, the French-German television channel sponsored by the two states, which opened after the fall of the wall to promote tolerance and mutual understanding. French-German peace is consolidated, Turkish-German peace is not. Regarding the high number of three million people of Turkish descent living in Germany, it is time to acknowledge and promote further understanding of each other’s cultures, argues Özdemir, therefore a media platform could tackle sensitive issues first hand and prevent diplomatic escalation. If the outcome would be a shared understanding of “democracy” it would be probably worth it.