Turks in Germany have found themselves at the centre of a squabble as Ankara and Berlin exchange blows over “integration”.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have become entangled in a row over the integration of Turks in Germany. Erdoğan angered his German counterpart and the German right when, during a recent visit to Germany, he addressed a 20,000-strong crowd of Turks in Cologne.
Although he told them that they must integrate into German society and see themselves as part of Germany, they should also not lose their Turkish cultural identity. The Turkish leader went on to describe forced assimilation as “a crime against humanity”.
Some German commentators have speculated that Erdoğan's comments were motivated by his sense of being jilted by Merkel and the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who have both expressed reservations about Turkey's future membership of the EU.
And Erdoğan's comments on German Turks would appear to be an analogy of how he feels about his country's position in the EU fold: that Turkey should be allowed to become a full member of the European community without having to discard its cultural identity and history nor settle for the “privileged partnership” mooted by Merkel. I am personally in favour of Turkey, which has been a major player on the European stage for centuries, becoming an EU member, especially if it keeps up its current pace of reform.
Perhaps annoyed at Erdoğan's ability to pull such a large crowd of German-Turks, Merkel quipped: “If you grow up in Germany in the third or fourth generation, if you have German citizenship, then I am your chancellor.”
The trouble for Merkel is that, due to Germany's tough nationality laws (which were relaxed somewhat by Gerhard Schröder), not many Turks in Germany fit her description. Only an estimated 500,000 of the 2.7 million or so Turks living in the country have German nationality. If Merkel wishes her Turkish population to feel more “German”, perhaps she ought to give them a greater stake in society by making it easier for them to acquire citizenship.
Of course, Turkey is in no position to be throwing stones at Germany, given the way it handles its own minorities and the nationalist pressures it exerts on its citizens to conform to a certain notion of “Turkishness” that has been a hallmark of the republic established by Mustafa Kemal “Atatürk” (Father of the Turks).
“I have nothing against most of what Erdoğan said,” a German friend told me. “But what would've been the reaction if Merkel had gone to Turkey and demanded Kurdish-language schools and told Kurds how far they should integrate into Turkish society? Turkish conservatives and nationalists would've reacted much more harshly to such a speech than their German counterparts have.”
Following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, Kurds lost most of the autonomy they had enjoyed for centuries and saw their native land divided between four countries. In Turkey, although Kurds theoretically have equal rights under the law, they have endured decades in which their civic and cultural rights have been curtailed. Turkish laws still severely limit the use of the Kurdish language, and ban Kurdish names and traditional dress.
Luckily, Turks in Germany do not suffer the same oppression as Kurds in Turkey and Erdoğan would do well to take home his own advice and give Kurds the cultural and political space they deserve in order to bring an end to the century-old conflict between them and the state.
Despite the heated rhetoric of the Erdoğan-Merkel row, the two conservatives seemed actually to agree on the basic issues: “I am pleased he [Erdoğan] pronounces himself in favour of integration and learning the German language,” Merkel acknowledged.
However, she had a “but” up her sleeve: “Long-term life in a country also involves a stronger acceptance of its habits.”
This raises the vexed questions of how far integration should go before it becomes harmful, whether assimilation is more beneficial than diversity or vice versa, and how much cultural difference a society should tolerate.
To my mind, there is a fundamental contradiction between the importance liberal democracies in Europe assign to individualism and this type of conformist pressure. For instance, which “habits” precisely does the German chancellor wish Turks to be more accepting of? Does “acceptance” mean understanding and making allowances for these habits or does it mean adopting them?
If it means adoption, what should we, then, do with all those native Germans who reject those same traditions? Should native German cultural minorities, such as environmentalists, communists and converts to other religions be ostracised or penalised for not accepting certain “habits”?
That would be a huge problem for Germany which has an old tradition of eccentric individualism. For instance, in the inter-war years, “orientalist” lifestyles were all the rage among the Bohemian crowd, including Baron and Baroness “Omar” Rolf and Elfriede von Ehrenfels, and Lev Nussimbaum, aka Essad Bey and Kurban Said.
Moreover, all this talk of integration would be more convincing if Europeans tended to practise what they preached when living abroad. But the general western habit is to set up little islands of home wherever they settle down, whether that is in Dubai, Cairo, Beijing or Singapore.
Despite many notable exceptions, the majority tend to describe themselves as “expatriates” even if they have spent the greater part of their lives in another country – some even continue to do so for generations. In Cairo, I have run into ageing Brits, Italians and other Europeans who can hardly string together a sentence in Arabic and live in a cocoon of expat institutions.
An example that might interest Merkel is Helenendorf, a Black Forest village, located not in the Schwarzwald, but nestled rather bizarrely between the Azeri desert and the foothills of the Caucasus. In the heart of this Muslim region, German immigrants constructed a typical German hamlet, kept up with the latest trends in Germany, brought in German teachers and established Azerbaijan's only cognac and wine industry. But instead of facing animosity at their failure to assimilate, they were generally viewed with fascination and thrall by the local tribes and were accepted as a bizarre addition to the region's cultural mix.
More grimly, if we were to turn to one of the darkest chapters of European history, what good did assimilation do German Jews? Their faith in “Bildung“, Goethe, Kant, or even their conversion to Christianity did not save them from Nazi rage. I am not comparing those horrific times with the current situation, but we must be wary of the dangers of vilification and demonisation, which is becoming all too popular when it comes to Muslims among some groups.
While the conspiracy theories involving “fifth columnist” Muslims have not reached the paranoid heights attained by anti-semitism, where capitalism and communism were both depicted as evil Jewish conspiracies for world domination, we need to tread carefully so that the current talk of a global “jihadist” conspiracy and the march of “Islamofascism” does not lead to potential tragedy.
People of a liberal or progressive disposition should steer political discourse away from the emerging struggle along religious or ethnic lines and focus it on political issues. We should recognise that the political views held by Muslims are as diverse as those held by the rest of society. We should also protect the minority rights of Muslim conservatives, but should not allow this to infringe on the rights of other potentially vulnerable groups, such as women and homosexuals.
What Germany, Turkey and the rest of an increasingly multicultural, yet polarised, Europe need to realise is that suppressing diversity is not the way to go, but managing it in a way that is good for everyone is the best path forward. Once we sort that out, the EU membership of a liberal and multicultural, yet Muslim, Turkey will not seem that radical a notion.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 18 February 2008.