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José Miguel DIAS ROCHA

Mesut Özil and İlkay Gündoğan are two football players of Turkish heritage who represent Germany in international football. During Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s three-day state visit to the United Kingdom last May, both of them met and posed for photos with Turkey’s president, and handed him over their signed shirts. On the shirt he presented to Erdoğan, Gündoğan wrote: “With great respect for my president”.

This meeting has sparked a huge debate in Germany. Reinhard Grindel, the president of the German football association (DFB) said: “Football and the DFB stand for values that are not sufficiently respected by Mr. Erdoğan [and it is] not good that our players are letting themselves be exploited for the good of his (election) campaign”. In addition, Grindel asserted that “the actions of these players have not helped the integration efforts of the DFB”[1]. The deputy leader of the right-wing nationalist Alternative for Germany party (AfD) Beatrix von Storch, reacted by asking: “Why is Gündoğan playing for the German national team when he recognizes Erdoğan as his president?”. By the same token, Cem Özdemir, the most prominent German politician of Turkish descent, stated that “the president of an international German footballer is called Frank-Walter Steinmeier, his chancellor Angela Merkel and his parliament the Bundestag, the headquarters of which are in Berlin and not Ankara”[2].

Along with the allowed pro-Kurdish HDP, People’s Democratic Party, (which, in the eyes of the Turkish government, is linked to the PKK – Kurdistan Workers Party) rally in Cologne, after politicians have been denied permission from German’s government to campaign ahead of the June elections in Turkey, this has been the main controversy surrounding Turkey and the Turkish community in Germany. According to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), there are about 2.9 million people with Turkish background living in the country[3] – around 1.5 million are Turkish citizens, as maintained by official Germany’s government statistics[4]. That means the world’s largest Turkish community abroad is hosted by Germany and that Turks are the country’s largest immigrant group.

The mass-migration from Turkey to Germany started in 1961, when (West) Germany and Turkey signed a recruitment agreement for Gastarbeiter (guest workers) aged 18 to 45 in order for them to help the “economic miracle” of West Germany after the Second World War. Facing a severe labor shortage, and after some recruitment deals with Spain, Italy and Greece turned out not to be enough, German companies saw in cheap, low-skilled workers, coming especially from poor rural areas of Turkey, the solution to solve their needs. Three years later, in 1964, the deal was changed: the Turkish workers could stay for longer than two years. Before the end of this program in 1973, the workers were allowed to bring their families with them. Some statistics claim that between 1961 and 1973 around 750,000 Turks were accepted after applying for a job in Germany. Half of them returned to Turkey later. It is widely recognized that these workers’ integration in German’s society was never fully achieved, given that many of them were living in on-site dormitories and could not read or write made that inevitable, but, above all, because of their status (as they went to Germany as temporary workers)[5]. Gökay Sofuoğlu, chairman of the Turkish Community in Germany, maintains that “in the beginning [Turkish] people weren’t viewed as having needs, but only viewed as labor” and the fact that most of them did not learn German “denied them contact to society and everyday contact with people”[6]. The results of that initial lack of integration can still be seen nowadays. In Sofuoğlu’s opinion, in general the Turkish community does not have a sense of belonging: Not only because it faces several obstacles within German’s society due to their origins, but also for the reason that “what’s happening in Turkey is more present for Turks here than what’s happening in Germany”, mainly in terms of politics.

Turkish immigrants represent the poorest immigrant group in Germany. Their median monthly household income is 1,250€ (the average, taking into account all the immigrant groups, is almost 1,500€) and they have much smaller houses (less than 22 square meters of living space per person) than non-Turkish immigrants (almost 45 m2). The situation is not better when it comes to analyzing education skills: the number of Turkish children who have graduated from high school and university is the lowest among the immigrant communities and Turkish adults lack qualifications (more than 60% have no professional qualification)[7]. Consequently, it does not come as a surprise that Turks in Germany face an unemployment rate almost three times the national average (about 16 percent)[8]: And more than one-third (36%) of Turks live below the poverty line.

This lack of integration is also clear if one analyzes the role of religion from the viewpoint of ethnic Turks in Germany. A study produced by the Religion and Politics department of the University of Münster[9] shows that half of (ethnic Turks) respondents agree that “it is more important for me to follow the commandments of my religion than the laws of the country I am living in” and that “there is only one true religion”. (It has to be said that these perceptions are much less common in the second and third generations.)

Another point of dissent between the German population in general and people of Turkish origin is the characteristics associated to Islam. While the majority (German) society make a connection between that religion and discrimination against women (82%), fanaticism (72%) and propensity to violence (64%), the respondents of Turkish origin mostly associate Islam with respecting of human rights, solidarity, peace and tolerance.

The same survey reveals the self-perception of Turkish origin community about their own integration. “Being of Turkish origin, I have the feeling of being a second-class citizen” and “No matter how hard I try, I am not recognized as being part of German society” were statements with which more than half of people of Turkish origin agreed, which demonstrates a strong feeling of non-recognition. The good news are that around 90% of the Turkish origin respondents answered that they feel good in Germany and related to the country. In addition, the huge majority (70%) declared they wanted to integrate into the German society unconditionally and without reservation.

One of the authors of the study, Detlef Pollack, said “the message to the majority population is that we should be more sensitive to the problems that people of Turkish origin encounter. (…) It’s our view that this feeling of not being accepted is expressed in the vehement defense of Islam [Pollack was referring to the fact that a “significantly high” percentage – 7% – of those surveyed said violence is justified if the goal is to expand Islam]”[10].

A thing that one should have in mind is that Turkish community in Germany is far from being a monolithic one. Its organizations are very diverse and fragmented: politically they range “from radical left and right-wing nationalist at each extreme to mainstream organizations” and religiously one can find organizations gathering Islamists, Sunnis favoring a secular form of Islam, Alevis, etc[11]. However, usually, those disparate points of view are not enough to prevent those groups from voicing their opinion together when they believe that it is desirable/necessary, especially to “provide greater social justice for immigrants in German society”.

Be that as it may, there is an almost permanent division affecting people of Turkish roots: the one between Germany’s Kurdish and non-Kurdish Turks. Some estimates suggest almost one million Kurds are living in Germany, and the huge majority of them are Turks[12]. As a German interior ministry spokeswoman said, the country “has long been a mirror and sounding board for Turkish-Kurdish conflicts in view of the large numbers of people with Turkish backgrounds living here”[13]. This year, due to the Turkish operation in Afrin (a Kurdish-majority Syrian city), the attacks perpetrated by suspected pro-Kurdish activists on Turkish mosques, cultural organizations, and restaurants in Germany have been on the rise. From the beginning of this year until the end of March, a total of 37 attacks were recorded, while during the entirety of 2017 German police had logged 13 such attacks.

In recent years, from Gökay Sofuoğlu’s perspective, another major split has been happening: this time because of the president of Turkey. The head of the Turkish Community in Germany claims that “critics of Erdoğan and his supporters used to be able to talk to each other calmly, but that’s over”, adding that he has “never seen such deep divisions as we’re experiencing now”[14]. A discord that didn’t stop some 60% of Turkish-Germans from voting in favor of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s proposal of introducing a presidential regime in 2017 or from, three years ago, voting for AKP in the last parliamentary elections. Around 1.4 million citizens with a Turkish passport living in Germany are able to vote in the next Turkey’s snap elections.

Curiously, the majority of Turks who live in Germany vote for the Social Democrats (SPD) or the Green Party, both of them belonging to the left side of the party spectrum in Germany[15]. A study published in 2016 shows that 69.8 percent of respondents (with a Turkish background) feel a political connection with the SPD, 13.4 percent with the Greens. According to Umut Karakaş, from an opinion research institute specializing in immigrant groups, “we know that the Turks who live in Germany are actually more conservative (…) but since Turks are traditionally from the working class, they more often lean towards the left”. Before 2017 elections, of the 11 Turkish German members of the Bundestag, just one was not part of a left-leaning party. In response to this phenomenon (conservative Turks voting for leftist representatives), and since “the conservative social, cultural, and religious views of the Turkish minority are not expressed by their political representatives”, some scholars have used the term “representation gap”[16].

All in all, there are several problems faced by Turks in Germany: “Equal opportunity in the workplace and when finding a place to live, opportunity for promotion in companies and civil service” are some of the common complaints[17]. Sometimes even having a Turkish-sounding name is named as an obstacle for a full integration in Germany. And the fact that most Germans still view Turks as guests is not the most favorable context regarding their integration. As economist Thomas Straubhaar puts it, “guests are not expected to have any emotional devotion to the host, nor does the host feel any obligation to show irrevocable loyalty to the guest”[18].

Despite this, it’s hard to deny that there are some problems within the Turkish origin community: for instance, a recent survey shows that about 63 percent of Turks and people with Turkish backgrounds in Germany predominantly – or exclusively – speak Turkish and many of them just consume Turkish media[19]. These kind of statistics are examples usually used by those who claim that Turks live in a “parallel society”.

There is no magic solution for the lack of integration of Turks in Germany. And cases like the one with which we started this article are not helpful at all. But two things are certain: firstly, Turkish and Turkish origin people are in Germany to stay; and secondly, integration is a two-way street. It requires both parts (the host society and the immigrant community) to recognize their faults and act together to solve them. Detlef Pollack’s suggestion of privileging education, solid German skills, jobs, and social contact (of Turks) with non-Muslims looks a good starting point.


José Miguel DIAS ROCHA – Erasmus Volunteer for SASAM
Click here for the other articles of the author


[1] Deutsche Welle – “Mesut Özil and Ilkay Gündogan criticized for Erdogan meeting”. 05/14/2018.

[2] The Local – “German or Turkish? Footballers’ meeting with Erdogan stokes identity debate”. 05/15/2018.

[3] Deutsche Welle – “’Turks in Germany still lack a sense of belonging’”. 10/29/2016.

[4] Destatis – “Bevölkerung und Erwerbstätigkeit”. 04/12/2018.

[5] Deutsche Welle – “Turkish guest workers transformed German society”.10/30/2011.

[6] Ibid. 3.

[7] Financial Times – “Germany’s Turkish community riven by splits ahead of poll”. 03/11/2017.

[8] Business Insider – “Germany hopes to integrate over 1 million migrants better than it did with Turkish immigrants in the 60s”. 08/18/2017.

[9] Detlef Pollack, Olaf Müller, Gergely Rosta and Anna Dieler – “Integration and Religion as seen by people of Turkish origin in Germany”. June 2016.

[10] Deutsche Welle – “Study: Large number of Turks in Germany put Islam above the law”.06/16/2016.

[11] Selcen Oner – “Turkish Community in Germany and the role of Turkish community organisations”. European Scientific Journal. Volume 10, Number 29, 2014.

[12] José Miguel Dias Rocha – “The Kurdish diaspora in Europe”. 04/02/2018.

[13] Deutsche Welle – “Attacks on Turkish communities in Germany reportedly on the rise”. 03/20/2018.

[14] Ibid. 7.

[15] Deutsche Welle – “How will Turkish Germans vote in the country’s upcoming election?”.08/24/2017.

[16] Şener Aktürk – “The Turkish Minority in German Politics: Trends, Diversification of Representation, and Policy Implications”. Insight Turkey Winter 2010. Volume 12, Number 1, 2010.

[17] Ibid. 3.

[18] Thomas Straubhaar – “Warum so viele Türken in Deutschland scheitern”. 05/26/2016.

[19] Ibid. 15.

sahipkiran Hakkında

Sahipkıran; 1 Aralık 2012 tarihinde kurulmuş, Ankara merkezli bir Stratejik Araştırmalar Merkezidir. Merkezimiz; a) Türkiye Cumhuriyeti’nin ülkesi ve milletiyle bölünmez bütünlüğünü savunan; ülkemizin her alanda daha ileri gitmesi ve milletimizin daha müreffeh bir hayata kavuşması için elinden geldiği ölçüde katkı sağlamak isteyen her görüş ve inanıştan insanı bir araya getirmek, b) Ülke sorunları, yerel sorunlar ve yurtdışında yaşayan vatandaşlarımızın sorunlarına yönelik araştırma ve incelemeler yaparak, bu sorunlara çözüm önerileri üretmek, bu önerileri yayınlamak, c) Tespit edilen sorunların çözümüne yönelik ulusal veya uluslararası projeler yürütmek veya yürütülen projelere katılmak, ç) Tespit edilen sorunlar ve çözüm önerilerimize ilişkin seminer ve konferanslar düzenleyerek, vatandaşlarımızı bilinçlendirmek, amacıyla kurulmuştur.

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