German Turks gear up for upcoming election

As Germany prepares to go to the polls on September 24th, the public debate has zoned in on questions of immigration, integration, and Islam. Consequently, German Muslims are under particular scrutiny in the run-up to an election that will most definitely hand a good number of parliamentary seats to the openly Islamophobic AfD party.

German Turks: the largest part of the Muslim voter bloc

German Turks continue to be the largest group of predominantly Muslim voters. To be sure, their share in Germany’s overall Muslim population has been falling – not least because of the arrival of several hundred thousand refugees from the war-torn Middle East.

Yet by virtue of having lived in Germany for many decades, Muslims from a Turkish background are much more likely to hold German citizenship and thus to be allowed to vote: of the three million German Turks, 1.3 million will be able to go to the ballot box in nine days’ time.(( http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/doppelte-loyalitaet-die-deutsch-tuerken-und-die.724.de.html?dram:article_id=388019 ))

A ‘Muslim vote’?

Scientists observing electoral behaviour of Muslims in Germany nevertheless warn of a simplistic conceptualisation of a ‘Muslim vote’. Muslims are not only in themselves a heterogeneous group; they also tend to focus on a whole set of diverse issues that other German voters are also concerned about – ranging from education and employment to security, healthcare, or taxation.(( http://www.islamiq.de/2017/09/05/wahlverhalten-von-muslimen-in-deutschland/ ))

Beyond that, many Muslim voters traditionally voice strong demands when it comes to equality of opportunity and anti-discrimination. This concern does not arise out of their Islamic religiosity per se but rather out of their experiences in the German context: recent studies have highlighted the continued impact of discriminatory practices to the disadvantage of individuals with ‘foreign-sounding’ names on the housing market,(( https://www.hanna-und-ismail.de/ )) in job applications,(( http://www.spiegel.de/lebenundlernen/schule/auslaendische-vornamen-migranten-diskriminierung-durch-firmen-bestaetigt-a-960855.html )) and even when dealing with the state bureaucracy.(( https://www.welt.de/politik/video168461476/Mitarbeiter-von-Jobcentern-neigen-zur-Diskriminierung.html ))

Traditional affiliation with the political left

In the past, these particular concerns meant that German Turks’ political affiliations were clear: at the last elections in 2013, 64 per cent of voters with Turkish roots supported the Social Democrats (SPD). Undoubtedly, an additional factor playing in favour of the SPD was the blue-collar identity of a large share of German Turks – a socioeconomic position that many of the former Gastarbeiter have passed down to their children.

In 2013, another 24 per cent of German Turkish voters chose two other left-wing parties, with 12 percent supporting The Left – a conglomerate of political factions to the left of the SPD – and another 12 per cent coming out in favour of The Greens.(( http://www.migazin.de/2013/10/30/bundestagswahl-2013-so-haben-deutsch-tuerken-gewaehlt/ ))

While the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) obtained 41.5 per cent of the overall vote in 2013, only 7 per cent of German Turks put their trust in Chancellor Merkel’s party. And although Muslims have sought to organise in the CDU, the Conservatives count far fewer men and women of Muslim faith or of immigrant extraction among their representatives than other parties.

Diverging electoral preferences in Germany and in Turkey

By contrast, those members of the German Turkish community who are still eligible to vote in Turkish elections regularly deliver resounding victories to conservative and Islamically-oriented President Erdoğan – rather than to the leftist opposition.

This might be due to the fact that political and ideological preferences diverge fundamentally between those German Turks who still hold Turkish citizenship and those who have acquired a German passport.

Yet it is perhaps more likely that, in the past, German Turks were perfectly capable of balancing an emotionally-driven support for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s agenda in Turkey with a rational cost-benefit analysis of the political game in Germany.(( http://www.bild.de/politik/inland/bundestagswahl2017/tuerken-wollen-nicht-waehlen-52799904.bild.html ))

Ending EU accession talks with Turkey

After years of degrading relations, however, German Turks are finding this balancing act harder to accomplish. More particularly, there are indications that they are feeling less and less represented by the SPD and their traditional, leftist political home in Germany.

Although SPD Foreign Minister Gabriel sought to reassure German Turks of their continued importance to the German government and to his party, the SPD’s relationship to its formerly staunchly loyal clientele is increasingly fraught.

This trend culminated in the TV debate between incumbent chancellor Merkel and her SPD Challenger Martin Schulz on September 3rd: Schulz – somewhat surprisingly and perhaps ill-advisedly – sought to be ‘tough’ on Turkey and announced that, if elected to the Chancellery, he would immediately end EU accession talks with Turkey.(( http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/ausland/tv-duell-martin-schulz-ueberrascht-spd-mit-hartem-tuerkei-kurs-15182702.html ))

Detachment from the SPD

Schulz’s statements may resonate with dominant public opinion in Germany, which is increasingly sceptical of Turkey and its authoritarian President. Yet his brash and somewhat populist stance may also turn out to be politically unwise: Chancellor Merkel noted that talks over EU membership could only be ended if there was agreement among the 27 member states to do so, and that they constituted an important political lever to influence developments in Turkey.(( http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/ausland/tv-duell-martin-schulz-ueberrascht-spd-mit-hartem-tuerkei-kurs-15182702.html ))

In any case, Schulz’s outburst during the TV debate may have done considerable harm to his party’s standing among German Turks. Interviewed by news magazine Tagesschau, a Cologne resident of Turkish extraction who had previously supported the Social Democrats stated that he would not go to the polls on September 24th. Voicing his disillusionment with the SPD, who had always claimed to be the voice of German Turks, he said:

I prefer to have someone who tells me openly and honestly that he doesn’t like me – instead of someone who pretends to like me and at the end of the day does nothing that is in accordance with my wishes and interests.(( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9prj-3VZ44 ))

Mainstream parties “hostile to Turkey”

In this way, Schulz’s announcement, which was ostentatiously aiming to curtail President Erdoğan’s standing in Europe, may actually end up fostering the loyalty German Turks feel towards ‘their’ President.

Erdoğan himself has already called upon his countrymen in Germany not to cast a ballot in favour of parties who are “hostile to Turkey” – a list which, according to him, includes CDU, SPD, and Greens.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/erdogan-und-die-bundestagswahl-wie-stimmen-die-deutsch-tuerken-ab/20294522.html ))

The Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD), an affiliate of the AK Party in Europe, has echoed this statement: in a press release, it condemned (albeit in somewhat broken English) not only the AfD for stoking populist hatred but also The Greens and The Left for supporting “known […] terrorist organizations”. This swipe aims not only at Gülenists but also the PKK, whose secularist struggle for independence is indeed seen in a positive light in some quarters.(( https://pbs.twimg.com/media/DJds1nUWAAImIKd.jpg ))

Pro-Erdoğan splinter parties

The political home of German Turks thus appears to be in considerable flux. As a response, a new Erdoğanist splinter party has been set up in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW), home to the largest number of German Turks.

The Alliance of German Democrats (ADD) uses the portrait of President Erdoğan on its election posters calling for solidarity with the friends of Turkey. Yet the party only managed to obtain 0,1 per cent of the vote at recent state elections and thus has no political significance beyond the purely symbolic.(( https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article168473921/Mit-diesem-Erdogan-Plakat-wirbt-eine-Partei-im-Bundestagswahlkampf.html ))

Another pro-Erdoğan faction, the Union for Innovation and Justice (BIG), recently announced its decision to boycott the elections. BIG seeks to unify the German Turkish vote; a quest that has so far remained elusive: in most of its electoral attempts, the party did not manage to attain as much as one per cent of the popular vote – even in constituencies with large numbers of German Turkish voters.(( https://dtj-online.de/big-boykott-bei-den-bundestagswahlen-87268 ))

A more limited influence?

The failure of these attempts to constitute a quasi-AKP as a viable political force in Germany also points to the limitations of President Erdoğan’s appeal. Some of Germany’s largest ethnically Turkish immigrant organisations continue to be opposed to Turkey’s authoritarian turn.

The Turkish Community in Germany (TGD), as well as the Federation of Democratic Workers’ Unions (DIDF), called upon German Turks to vote in the elections and to defy President Erdoğan’s demand to reject the established political system. This statement was echoed by the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD), a predominantly non-Turkish Islamic umbrella association.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/erdogan-und-die-bundestagswahl-wie-stimmen-die-deutsch-tuerken-ab/20294522.html ))

Ultimately, how German Turks will decide to deal with these competing pressures will only become clear after polls close on the evening of September 24th. One respondent on the street stressed the need to retain a modicum of calm: Mustafa Karadeniz, entrepreneur from Berlin, asserted that

We should do neither Erdoğan nor German politicians the favour that the Turkish President becomes the main topic of the electoral campaign. There are really bigger Problems in Germany: the climate, the automotive industry, the old-age pension system.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/bundestagswahl-wie-viel-einfluss-hat-recep-tayyip-erdogan-a-1165992.html ))

Three of Germany’s Islamic associations forge an “Islamokemalist” front

Amidst escalating political tensions between Germany and Turkey, three of Germany’s Turkish-dominated Islamic associations have made clear their perspective on the causes of the current diplomatic spat.

Joint press release

On the anniversary of last year’s military coup attempt in Turkey, the DİTİB, IGMG, and ATİB organisations issued a joint press release, calling for a “about-face in German-Turkish relations”.(( http://ditib.de/detail1.php?id=610&lang=de ))

In this document, the three signing associations bemoan that “Europe’s highly reserved reaction” to the attempted putsch had “deeply unsettled the people of Turkish descent. It is more necessary than ever to lift German-Turkish relations to the usual, cordial level.”

“Lack of solidarity”

The core message of the statement centres on Europe’s failure to “recognise the great trauma of July 15 [2016]”. DİTİB, IGMG, and ATİB criticise what to them appears to be “widespread disappointment at the failure of the coup”. They castigate the “lack of solidarity with the Turkish people, considering 249 dead and thousands injured”.

The three organisations greeted the conciliatory signals made by Germany’s Vice Chancellor and Sigmar Gabriel, who had in the past repeatedly stressed the need to be supportive of Turkish democracy against the coup plotters.

The Gülenist foe

Overall, the statement paints a picture of Turkey as beleaguered by internal and external enemies, ranging from a PKK terror campaign to instable neighbouring states. It is against this backdrop that DİTİB, IGMG, and ATİB see the coup attempt as having been committed by “a sect-like parallel state, which has infiltrated nearly the entire state apparatus through illegitimate networks and unlawful means” – i.e. the Gülenists.

Implied in this argument is always the suspicion that Germany is either too soft on Gülenists or that it even actively endorses the movement. In fact, a Turkish tabloid recently claimed that the Gülen organization was “Germany’s long arm”.(( https://twitter.com/ercankarakoyun?lang=de ))

Bridging old divides between DİTİB, IGMG, and ATİB

Yet it is not only the statement itself that is of interest but also the entente of the three organisations responsible for its drafting. DİTİB, IGMG, and ATİB joining hands represents the convergence of previously disparate groups under the shared commitment to a strong Turkey led by an increasingly authoritarian President.

DİTİB, the subsidiary of the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) and thus an indirect organ of the Turkish statem has always pursued a line broadly sympathetic to current Turkish governments. Recently it has come under increasingly tight control of the AKP administration.

Islamists and nationalists

IGMG – in its full name “Islamic Community Millî Görüş” – is an offshoot of Necmettin Erbakan’s Islamist movement. As such, it did not use to be on good terms with DİTİB, as long as the old Kemalist elites were in charge of the organisation. This changed after Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s arrival in power: Erdoğan’s own AK Party is a spin-off of Erbakan’s movement.

Finally, ATİB – the “Union of Turkish-Islamic Cultural Associations in Europe” – represents a stridently nationalistic version of Turkish Islam. Whilst some of the Union’s funding is derived from the Turkish state and Diyanet, it also has long-standing ties with hardline Turkish nationalism as incarnated by the “Grey Wolves.”

The rise of “Islamokemalism”

As such, ATİB’s co-signing of the press release with DİTİB and IGMG mirrors the rallying of Turkey’s far-right MHP party to Erdoğan’s persona and his authoritarian leadership style. In this respect, the agenda of the three associations is not as much Islamic as it is concerned with projecting a strikingly nationalistic picture of Turkish greatness.

Şahin Alpay, one of Turkey’s leading intellectuals arrested since the coup attempt, has referred to this marriage of authoritarian nationalism with Islamist references as “Islamokemalism”.(( http://www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2016-10/sahin-alpay-journalist-gefaengnis-silivri-tuerkei-putsch )) This term perhaps better than any other captures current developments in Turkey.

The old question of loyalty: German Turks and their relationship to Erdogan

 

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.

Girl becomes first Briton convicted of trying to join fight against Islamic State in Syria

A British teenager who made a graveside pledge to devote herself to the PKK cause has been convicted of intending to join the proscribed Kurdish terrorist organisation to fight Islamic State.

Silhan Özçelik, 18, from north London, ran away from home, took a train to Brussels, and left behind letters and a video for her distraught family telling them she wanted to be a guerrilla fighter and was joining the Kurdistan Workers’ party’s women’s militia. She is the first British citizen to be convicted for trying to join the campaign against Isis jihadis in Syria.

Özçelik, who was 17 when she went to Belgium in October 2014, had been “smitten” by the PKK since she was 13 after watching a film, Comrade Beritan, about a PKK female guerrilla who threw herself off a cliff rather than face capture and died in 1992. She had also visited the Turkish grave of Leyla Saylemez, whose nom de guerre was Comrade Ronahi and one of three female PKK activists shot dead at a community centre in Paris in January 2013. In the 25-minute video Özçelik left behind explaining her decision to her family, she said she had taken soil from Ronahi’s grave and made a promise, which she was now going to fulfil.

The jury at the Old Bailey dismissed Özçelik’s claim that she had invented the PKK story because she was running away to meet a 28-year-old man in Belgium with whom she hoped to kindle a romantic relationship, and wanted to spare her family shame in the strict, traditional Kurdish community. Dan Pawson-Pounds, prosecuting, said the video and letters, in which she passionately described her love for the PKK, her wish to become a militant and “bride to the mountains”, and her desire for her family to be proud of her, “couldn’t be clearer or more consistent” with her long-held ambition to be a fighter and guerrilla.

There was no evidence Özçelik had joined the PKK, made contact with PKK members or travelled to Turkey or Syria before she returned to Britain from Cologne in Germany in January 2015 and was arrested at Stansted airport.

The jury of nine women and three men took five hours to reach a unanimous verdict. Sentencing her to 21 months in a young offender institution, the judge, John Bevan, described her as “a stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”. He said her sentence was much reduced “because of the highly unusual factors of this case”. She would have to live with the “long lasting consequences of a conviction for terrorism”, he added. As he passed sentence, sobs could be heard from the public gallery where members of her family had sat throughout the trial.

After the trial Commander Richard Walton, head of the Met’s counter-terrorism command (SO15), said: “We continue to remain concerned about the number of young women and girls being drawn into all forms of terrorism.

Turkey concerns about the PKK

Because of the IS crisis in Iraq some European nations decided to equip the Kurds in northern Iraq with modern weapons. This, according to the daily newspaper Der Standard, leads to serious concerns in Turkey. Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu said last week during a NATO meeting, that the terror organization PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) would also be equipped with some weapons. The report explains that the PKK would actively participate in the fight against the IS.

Heightened Tensions Between Turks and Kurds in Netherlands

26 October 2011

 

Tensions between Turks and Kurds in the Netherlands have heightened since 19 October when 24 soldiers were killed by the Kurdish separatist movement PKK in southeast Turkey. During a demonstration against the PKK in Amsterdam protestors attempted to force entry to a Kurdish cultural center holding a memorial for victims of the recent earthquake; grafitti and an arson attempt have targeted a Turkish mosque in Arnhem. In response to messages circulating online calling Turks to come to Amsterdam to protest, Turkish and Kurdish organizations as well as the municipality and the police published a press release against demonstrations, for fear of possible riots. An emergency decree banned gathering in the Museumplein, proposed location for the demonstration, from 14:00-24:00 on 26 October. On 27 October Kurdish organizations asked authorities for protection from “aggression by Turkish rioters”.

 

Belgian police arrest over 100 in anti-Kurdish demonstrations

Over 100 youths of Turkish background were arrested in Brussels after clashing with Belgian police during an anti-Kurdish demonstration. Tensions have run high after the killing of twelve Turkish soldiers earlier this month in an attack by PKK rebels in northern Iraq. The youths were detained for destroying cars, bus stops, and garbage bins in the Saint Josse-ten-Noode neighborhood.