A charged political atmosphere
On July 31st, 2016, up to 40,000 people, most of them German Turks, congregated on the banks of the river Rhine in Cologne to show their support for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the wake of the country’s failed coup. German media and politicians presented the rally in an overwhelmingly negative light. This is perhaps not surprising, given the fact that the came at the highpoint of months of diplomatic rows between Berlin and Ankara – including, but not limited to, renewed dispute surrounding the German government’s position on the Armenian genocide, the Turkish government’s refusal to let German parliamentarians visit German soldiers fighting ISIS from Turkey’s Incirlik Airbase, President Erdogan’s defamation lawsuits against a German comedian, as well as the lukewarm German reaction to July’s putsch attempt.
Whilst the scenes of rioting and violence conjured up prior to the rally did not materialise in the end, the spectre of large crowds waving Turkish flags nevertheless sent shockwaves throughout the German political scene. Subsequent weeks witnessed growing calls that German Turks be more active in displaying their loyalty to Germany. Conservative Die Welt newspaper chastised them for remaining silent in the face of Islamist terrorism while loudly supporting Erdogan. This, the paper argued, “raises questions about the attachment of large swathes of the Turkish community to our federal republican democracy.” ((https://www.welt.de/debatte/kommentare/article157395025/Tuerken-in-Deutschland-muessen-ihre-Loyalitaet-klaeren.html ))
Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared to pick up on this view when she asserted in mid-August that “we expect from all those with Turkish origins who have been living for a long time in Germany to develop a high degree of loyalty to our country.” ((http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2016-08/angela-merkel-deutsch-tuerken-loyalitaet-deutschland )) Concomitantly, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière announced his support for the abolition of legal provisions allowing dual citizenship. ((http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2016-08/innere-sicherheit-thomas-de-maiziere-doppelte-staatsbuergerschaft-abschaffung )). On a more polemical note, young CDU hopeful Jens Spahn encouraged all those with too much of an interest in Turkish domestic politics to return to their country of origin. ((https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article157406464/CDU-verurteilt-tuerkische-Aufmaersche-Erdogan-empoert.html ))
Sources of support for Erdogan
Amidst all this furore, the question why large numbers of German Turks remain extremely supportive of Erdogan – the AKP received close to 60 per cent of the Turkish German vote in last November’s elections ((http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/tuerken-in-deutschland-waehlten-erdogan-partei-akp-a-1060661.html )) – has been less explored by politicians and the media.
Yet when interviewed by the Forum am Freitag TV magazine ((http://www.zdf.de/ZDFmediathek/beitrag/video/2838240/Deutschtuerken-mit-Doppelherz?setTime=83.633#/beitrag/video/2838240/Deutschtuerken-mit-Doppelherz )), Seyran Ateş, Turkish-born publicist and outspoken critic of the Erdogan administration, deemed the continued support for Erdogan among German Turks to be eminently comprehensible: after Turkish emigrants had for a long time been viewed as convenient suppliers of migrants’ remittances at best and as national traitors at worst, Erdogan has been the first Turkish leader openly welcoming German Turks as full-fledged citizens and members of the Turkish nation. At the same time, economic growth and rehabilitation of religiosity have enabled Erdogan’s mostly lower and middle class supporters in Germany to look upon their country of origin with pride.
Long-standing issues of social acceptance
These feelings were echoed by Bilgili Üretmen, a blogger and fervent Erdogan supporter born and raised in Germany. ((http://www.zdf.de/ZDFmediathek/beitrag/video/2838240/Deutschtuerken-mit-Doppelherz?setTime=83.633#/beitrag/video/2838240/Deutschtuerken-mit-Doppelherz )) He cited economic and social development, greater stability, and the ability to be more open in one’s religious practices as Erdogan’s main achievements. Commenting on Merkel’s call that Turkish citizens be more outspoken in their allegiance to Germany, he asserted that “loyalty is not a one way street” and that Merkel’s demand was “absurd”.
Üretmen stressed that in his view German Turks had contributed a lot to German society for decades; yet that German politics towards Turks and Turkey had remained antagonistic. Moreover, he bemoaned a lack of social acceptance, noting that in Germany “everything that is foreign is seen as a problem”, as well as the fact that German Turks are still predominantly perceived as “toilet-cleaning headscarf-wearing women” rather than as a diverse and successful community.
As Euro-Islam has reported in the past, Üretmen’s comments are illustrative of broader trends and perceptions among Germany’s Turkish population, with shortcomings in terms of social inclusion and of thorny questions of religious acceptance being frequently-cited concerns. ((http://www.euro-islam.info/2016/07/14/religiosity-integration-participation-new-survey-attitudes-experiences-citizens-turkish-descent-germany/ ))
The search for the moral high ground
A little more than a month after the pro-Erdogan demonstration, Cologne came full circle when 30,000 Kurds used the same spot by the Rhine to criticise the AKP government and demand the liberation of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. Although the PKK is considered a terrorist organisation by the EU and forbidden in Germany, the rally elicited only scant public and political attention. ((http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2016-09/koeln-kurden-abdullah-oecalan-demonstration-kundgebung ))
The fact that such a degree of toleration was extended quite nonchalantly to the pro-PKK rally was promptly picked up upon by AKP supporters. Perhaps not unreasonably, they interpreted this as a sign of German double standards. ((http://www.euro-islam.info/2016/08/01/tensions-supporters-erdogan-partisans-gulen-rise-germany/ )) Yet their claim to be recognised as the pristine defenders of democracy loses its moral clarity when taking into account not just the course of events in post-putsch Turkey but also developments in Germany: Turkish German partisans of Erdogan have themselves engaged in aggressive and at times violent actions against Kurdish and Gülenist dissident individuals and institutions; actions that appear to have been condoned or perhaps even coordinated by the Union of European-Turkish Democrats (UETD) – the very same organisation that also organised the pro-Erdogan rally in late July. ((http://www.euro-islam.info/2016/08/01/tensions-supporters-erdogan-partisans-gulen-rise-germany/ ))
German Turks as well as German politicians thus gradually come to realise that in the complex struggle between rival Turkish political forces and factions, it is increasingly difficult to maintain neutrality. At the same time, siding with any single one of these forces – be they the AKP, the Gülen movement, or the Kurds – comes with enormous strings attached, since no single player ticks all the boxes of democratic accountability and openness.
Taking sides thus involves a high price – a price that German politicians have not been willing to pay. Instead, they have been flip-flopping between condemning and courting Erdogan: while depicting him as a neo-Ottoman dictator, they have nevertheless signed the EU-Turkey deal on refugees; while lambasting the AKP government for its lacklustre response to ISIS, they have nevertheless refrained from pulling out German soldiers from Incirlik; and while they passed a parliamentary resolution determining that the killing of Armenians amounted to genocide, the Merkel government promptly distanced itself from this position. After so much vacillating of their own, German politicians should perhaps refrain from asking for declarations of unconditional loyalty from their Turkish German citizens.