Turkey’s Tensions Migrate To Berlin

Turkey's tensions migrate to Berlin

By Tom Hundley
ChicagoTribune foreign correspondent
November 13, 2007 BERLIN –

The organizers billed it as a demonstration of Turkish-Kurdish brotherhood. They expected about 500 participants, but more than 1,000 turned up and it wasn't long before “brotherhood” deteriorated into a full-blown riot.

The police found themselves caught in the crossfire between two immigrant communities that provide the manpower for many of Germany's menial jobs. Seventeen officers were injured, mainly by flying rocks and bottles, and 15 rioters were arrested before calm was restored.

Community leaders in Kreuzberg, the Berlin district where the Oct. 28 clash occurred, blamed “extremist elements” on both sides, but the incident demonstrated the far-reaching ripple effect of Turkey's threatened military strike against Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq.

It also has raised anew questions about the inability or unwillingness of some migrant communities to break free from the feuds of their native lands, and the parallel failure of Germany and other European nations to successfully integrate the new arrivals.

“The situation here is explosive,” said Safter Cinar, deputy chairman of the Turkish Union in Germany. “If Turkey walks into northern Iraq, it will be very difficult to keep things calm here. Both sides have relatives and friends who are getting killed there.”

If things do erupt on the streets of Berlin or Cologne, it would be a propaganda gift for anti-immigration hard-liners in Germany and perhaps deal a fatal blow to Turkey's fading hopes of gaining membership in the European Union.

There are more than 2.6 million people of Turkish origin living in Germany, representing 3 percent of the population and making them by far the country's largest immigrant community. They were invited as guest workers in the 1960s, and in a miscalculation on the part of the German government and the migrant community, they ended up staying permanently.

Even after it became clear that the Turks were staying, the German government showed little interest in integrating them into German society. It was not until 2000 that the government agreed to grant German citizenship to their German-born children — and in many cases the grandchildren — of the original guest workers.

The wave of migration from the villages of Anatolia also included large numbers of Kurds. Both groups settled in the same neighborhoods and generally managed to co-exist, although there were occasional clashes during the 1990s when the Turkish army waged a prolonged military crackdown against the Kurdish separatists in southeastern Turkey.

“This cafe where we are sitting belongs to a Kurd, but Turks come here all the time and they are welcomed,” Riza Baran, a Kurdish community leader, said in a cozy Kreuzberg establishment where men were sipping tea, chatting on their cell phones or reading Turkish newspapers.

“In the back, they have a banquet room. Many Turkish-Kurdish weddings have been celebrated there; I've been to several. And all the mosques in Berlin are mixed,” he added.

A major complaint among Germans is that immigrants from Turkey don't want to integrate, that they seem to prefer living in a kind of parallel society. What irks these Germans most is that many Turks, including some who have lived in Germany for 40 years, still speak Turkish on the street.

Earlier this year, Germany passed a controversial law aimed at curbing the practice of importing brides from Turkey. Last year, according to government statistics, about 10,000 women from Turkey were brought to Germany as spouses of Turkish men already living here. Very few of the women spoke German.

Under the new legislation, the women will have to pass a 90-minute German language exam before they can apply for a visa. Foreign spouses from countries that do not require visas to enter Germany — this includes most European countries, the U.S. and Japan — are exempt.

Supporters of the law say it is not unreasonable to expect new residents to learn the language of their new country. They also argue that the practice of importing barely literate women from rural Turkey traps the immigrant community in a first-generation cycle.

Immigrant organizations claim the law is discriminatory and violates basic human rights by restricting a person's right to choose a spouse.

In many respects, globalization, the Internet, cell phones, satellite television and low-cost air travel have made it harder for today's immigrants to sever the links to their old homeland and adopt a new culture.

All of Turkey's major newspapers now print European editions distributed in Germany. News from Turkey — and the Turkish government's point of view — tends to predominate.

“You cannot underestimate the influence of the Turkish media on what happens here. Satellite television imports Turkish opinion into every Turkish household,” said Franz Schulz, mayor of Kreuzberg, where 55 percent of the residents under age 25 come from immigrant backgrounds and some public schools in the district no longer have any ethnic German students.

“The young people who are born here, who grow up here but who feel they are not accepted by German society — when their identity is formed, naturally, it is Turkish,” Cinar said.

The Turkish government also sends mixed signals. It tends to view the Turkish immigrant community scattered across Europe as a diaspora that should remain loyal to Turkey.

Most of the major mosques in Germany are controlled by the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs, or DITIB, which is under the direct supervision of the Turkish government. The upside of this arrangement is that it keeps Islamic radicals out of German mosques.

The downside, according to Baran, the Kurdish leader, became apparent a couple of days before the Kreuzberg clashes when the imam in Kreuzberg's DITIB-controlled mosque, a place where Turks and Kurds worship, read a highly nationalistic speech from the chief of staff of Turkey's army.

The speech inflamed passions on both sides of the ethnic divide and set the stage for the clashes, Baran said.