Two Unamalgamated Worlds–Germany’s Turks Do Not Properly Belong. But What Is It They Should Properly Belong To?

Two unamalgamated worlds

Germany's Turks do not properly belong. But what is it that they should belong to?

From The Economist print edition
Apr 3rd 2008 | BERLIN

HE DID not plan it that way. But when Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, arrived in Germany for an official visit in February he found the Turkish community in turmoil. A few days before his arrival nine Turks, five of them children, had died in a fire in the south-western city of Ludwigshafen. A hate crime, many Turks suspected. The month before, Roland Koch, the conservative premier of the state of Hesse, had tried to win re-election by promising to deport foreign criminals (two-thirds of Turks do not have German citizenship). The transparent appeal to xenophobia backfired, costing Mr Koch his majority and perhaps his job.

Mr Erdogan both calmed tempers and inflamed them. In Ludwigshafen he reassured sceptical Turks that German police and firemen could be trusted. But then he seemed to urge them to hold themselves aloof from German society. Assimilation was a crime against humanity, he told a crowd of 16,000 in Cologne. Turkish children should be able to study in Turkish-language schools and at a Turkish university. With that, he largely wore out his welcome. Politicians across the spectrum accused him of fomenting Turkish nationalism on German soil. Perhaps, some mused, the European Union should suspend membership talks with Turkey.

These are awkward times in the fraught 47-year history of Germany's 2.6m Turks, the country's largest ethnic minority. They have powered Germany's industry, populated its cities and produced more than a handful of millionaires, artists and politicians. Doner kebabs, invented by Turks in Berlin, are edging aside currywurst as Germany's favourite fast food. Yet on average these Turks are poorer, less well educated and more violent than ordinary Germans. Even those who speak Germany's language, carry its passport and thrive in its economy are not sure they belong. We're in, but not in all the way, says Yasemin Kural, who works in public relations.

How Germany deals with its minorities is a mounting preoccupation for its leaders. In cities with more than 200,000 inhabitants 45% of children under 15 have a migration background, meaning either that they immigrated themselves or have parents or grandparents who did. Across Germany, the proportion is nearly a third (including children born to ethnic-German immigrants). Migrants have starring roles in crime, poverty and now terrorism, both as perpetrators and as victims. They and their children account for 36% of the population at or near the poverty line and for 29% of the unemployed.

They are also an asset. Migrants can relieve the shortage of expert labour that now plagues industry and the dearth of children that threatens Germany's future. The chancellor, Angela Merkel, rightly insists that their integration into Germany's society and economy is decisive for its well-being. Much of what must be done, such as upgrading education, is colour-blind. But to convert foreigners into fully fledged Germans, Germany is having to redefine itself.

Opening the door, and closing it

The story of Turks in Germany can be told as a tale of two shocks. In 2001 Germans were stunned by mediocre results in the first international PISA test of reading and maths, which was largely due to the poor performance of its migration-background students. The second shock was September 11th 2001, when Turks became Muslims in the eyes of many Germans and thus a threat to peace. The PISA shock matters more.

The school authorities in Neuklln, a multi-ethnic part of Berlin, deployed guards to 13 schools in December 2007, not so much to enforce good behaviour as to ward off outside gangs. That modest deterrent barely begins to address their problems. In one such school, Thomas Morus, only two or three of the 50 or so pupils who graduate each year find apprenticeships, the stepping-stone to employment for most young Germans. Four-fifths of the students, with Turks the biggest group, come from homes where German is not the first language. Most speak neither German nor their mother tongue well, says Volker Steffens, the school's principal. Thomas Morus entered the news briefly in 2005, when a student defended the honour killing of a Kurdish girl because the whore lived like a German, prompting Mr Steffens to send a written rebuke to pupils and parents.

As a Hauptschule, Thomas Morus is in the lowest of the three orders of high school into which most German children are streamed, usually at ten but, in Berlin, at 12. Just 14.8% of German children but 45.4% of Turks end up in Hauptschulen, which ought to prepare them for simple trades but often fail to do even that. In Neuklln they are a dumping ground. Graduates cannot work out how many square metres of carpet would cover a floor, says the district's education chief, Wolfgang Schimmang. The negative selection of Thomas Morus's student intake, says Mr Steffens, is downright extreme.

The plight of Turkish students has many causes, but they begin with an earlier act of negative selection, the guest-worker programme launched in the 1950s. From 1961 onwards, Turkish workers streamed out of the Anatolian countryside to take up West Germany's offer to join its economic miracle, which needed unskilled labour to keep it going. Alongside lesser numbers of Italians, Yugoslavs and others, the Turks mined coal, forged steel and manned factories, transferring their earnings back to the home country they assumed they would return to.

When the miracle ended, Germany tried to get rid of them. It shut the door to new guest-workers in 1973, which had the unintended effect of encouraging migrants to import their families. By the early 1980s the government was offering Turks cash to return; it was accepted only by the few who were planning to go back anyway.

As the migrants dug in to Germany, they lost their footing in its economy. The steel and coal industries of the Ruhr slumped in the face of foreign competition. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 the government withdrew subsidies to industry in West Berlin; more than 200,000, many of them Turks, were fired, says Nihat Sorgec of BildungsWerk in Kreuzberg, which trains young Turks for work. Many eluded unemploymentand some entered the middle classby starting their own businesses; Turks own more than 70,000 across the country, often doner-kebab joints. But many drifted. The unemployment rate among foreigners is more than double the overall German rate of 7.8%. In Neuklln, says Mr Schimmang, 40% of the workforce is jobless and half the families live off government handouts.

Guest-workers are bequeathing some of their handicaps to later generations. Having grown up in Germany, the young are better educated than their parents and would be strangers in Turkey if they returned. Yet many Turks remain misfits at home. In the 2003 PISA test the maths scores of second-generation Turks placed them more than two years behind their German contemporaries. A sixth of migration-background pupils drop out of school, compared with less than a tenth of Germans. And Turks are three times as likely as non-migrants to have committed multiple acts of violence.

Schools are supposed to even out the odds among children of different backgrounds, but by the time migrant children arrive at Thomas Morus, its director thinks, it is almost too late. Their parents are education-shy and boycott the get-togethers over coffee that the school offers. At home, satellite television beams foreign-language programming at children whose German is already imperfect.

Germany has few ethnic ghettos. Heavily Turkish Kreuzberg, once on the periphery of West Berlin and now at the centre of the united city, feels more like Greenwich Village than the South Bronx, and even Neuklln rocks, according to the cover of a Berlin entertainment magazine. But migrants and Germans lead largely separate lives: when German children reach school age their parents flee (along with middle-class Turks), leaving poorer migrants alone together. The education system transmits inequality among parents extremely strongly to the successor generation, says Frank Kalter, a sociologist at the University of Leipzig.

Not by design. Hauptschulen spend more per student than loftier tiers of high school, and in Berlin there is a supplement when the proportion of foreigners passes 40%. But the effort falls short. The city's teachers have been demoralised by pay cuts and a heavier teaching load. Many were transferred unwillingly to Neuklln from East Berlin's shrinking schools; less than 1% of the district's 2,500 teachers share their students' migrant backgrounds. That may be why the concern Thomas Morus's staff feels for its students seems tinged with a sense of estrangement. More than two-thirds of Turks see themselves as victims of discrimination, says Faruk Yen of the Centre for Studies on Turkey in Essen. And alienation can be dangerous.

The radical fringe

When police rounded up the plotters of what would have been Germany's worst terrorist attack last autumn, Germans were shocked to learn that two of the four young conspirators were Turks. Turks account for the bulk of Germany's 3.2m-3.4m Muslims. But the border between religion and politics, policed until very recently by the Turkish state, has been largely respected in Germany, too. Islamic activism appears to be confined to the non-Turkish element of Germany's Muslim population, said a study published last year by the International Crisis Group. Now that assumption looks shaky. In the past year the amount of Turkish-language material preaching jihad over the internet has exploded, intelligence officials say.

Even more than most Europeans, Germans are wary of Muslims. According to a 2006 survey by the Pew Research Centre, 82% of Germans were very or somewhat concerned by the rise of Islamic extremism, compared with 77% in Britain and 76% in France. In Germany 51% of Muslims thought many or most Europeans were hostile to them; in France 39% of Muslims had that feeling and in Britain 42%. Disputes over headscarves and mosques bruise Muslim feelings as often in Germany as elsewhere in Europe (minarets should not ostentatiously overshadow church spires, Ms Merkel has said). After September 11th 2001, Suddenly we were all suspect, says Ahmet Iyidirli, a politician from Kreuzberg.

Partly in defiance, says Werner Schiffauer of the Europa Universitt Viadrina, the Turkish community is becoming more Muslim, reinforced by a global quickening of Islamic feeling. Profound faith is probably less widespread than its symbols: drug-dealers in Frankfurt flaunt Islam as rappers do bling. But 29% of adult Muslims attend mosque regularly and 87% call themselves believers, according to a recent study by Germany's interior ministry.

Religiosity arouses two fears: that the devout will create parallel societies incompatible with German culture and democracy and that a few of their number will become recruits to extremism and violence. The interior-ministry survey found that nearly half of Muslims consider their religion to be more important than democracy; more alarming are the 9% who do not condemn suicide attacks and the 15% of school children who are anti-Semitic or anti-Christian. Islamists who advocate violence account for about 1% of adult Muslims, and just a handful will act on their beliefs. The domestic intelligence agency monitors 28 Islamist groups with 32,000 members, most of them adherents of IGMG, the European arm of Turkey's Islamist Milli Gorus movement. Germans seem to perceive a visible Islamic way of life as an entryway to terrorism, says Oguz Ucuncu, IGMG's general secretary.

Good Germans?

So integration must now proceed along two tracks: guiding Turks into the social and economic mainstream and Muslims toward allegiance to the Rechtsstaat, the state conditioned by the rule of law. There is a risk of collision.

Turkish Muslims are a diverse group. They include some 600,000 Alevis, who practise an easy-going form of Islam, and the same number of Kurds, whose occasional confrontations with Turks in Germany mirror strife between the two peoples in Turkey. DITIB, the largest grouping of Turkish Muslims, is a creature of Turkey's traditionally secular state, which pays the salaries of imams in Germany and until recently wrote their sermons.

Since 2006 representatives of these and other brands of Islam have been part of the German Islam Conference established by the interior minister, Wolfgang Schuble, which seeks to make religion a bulwark against extremism rather than a conduit to it. In March it backed German-language teaching of Islam in public schools and agreed that religious freedom must be bounded by the basic democratic order. The test may be whether IGMG, an informal participant despite the spies' suspicions, can get along better with the German state than it has with the Turkish one. Milli Gorus rejects Turkish secularism and can sound anti-Semitic when berating Israel. IGMG's adherents want to be good German citizens, Mr Ucuncu insists. The group defends religious scruples that look to Germans like a rejection of their normskeeping schoolgirls out of mixed-sex swimming classes, for exampleas exceptions to a general willingness to integrate. We want to immunise against extremism and terrorism, says Mr Ucuncu.

The state's deference to religion alarms secular Turkish groups, one of which is setting up a council of liberal theologians to contest orthodox rulings on issues such as headscarves. Rather than catering to the zealotry of a minority, they insist, the state should ensure that all Turks gain full access to Germany's bounty. Achieving that requires a two-front approach, says Lale Akgun, a Social Democratic member of the Bundestag from Cologne: an education offensive as bold as the one that vaulted workers' children into universities in the 1970s, and an openness offensive to instil a sense of fellowship between migrants and native Germans.

On both sides there is resistance. Even six decades after Hitler, Germany has not sloughed off the idea that Germanness is a matter of blood rather than of culture or allegiance. However high they rise, however good their German, Turks are not allowed to forget that they are foreigners. I employ 100 people and still I'm not seen as German, says Mr Sorgec.

Mr Erdogan's sortie against assimilation plays to Turkish inhibitions, like the sort expressed by Mrs Aydin, a hijab-wearing housewife from Neuklln. She sees no future in Germany for her three children because there are no jobs. Her 17-year-old son has no intention of returning to Turkey, yet is not a German citizen. He is a Turk and remains a Turk, says Mrs Aydin. Even winners are readier to call themselves Berliners or Europeans than Germans. Andreas Cem Vogt, head of marketing at a call-centre company, opted for civilian rather than army service, a common decision, on the uncommon grounds that he did not feel 100% German. With a German father and a Turkish mother, I grew up in two worlds.

The middle ground between assimilation and aloofness is just being marked out. The 2000 citizenship law allows non-ethnic Germans to obtain citizenship. The 2005 immigration law marked the start of an integration push that now enlists all levels of government and the private sector. Some 250,000 migrants have taken federally financed language and civics classes. States are rushing to upgrade children's German before they enter primary school. Under Berlin's Deutsch Plus programme, pre-schoolers who fail a test get six months of tutoring. Attitudes are changing, too. Surveys show that young Turks cling less tightly to Turkish culture than older ones, and that the share of Germans who think too many foreigners live among them has shrunk from a large majority 25 years ago to a narrow one now.

Turks still bristle at what seem to be anti-Turkish obstacles, such as requiring spouses from poor countries to learn a bit of German before arrival. They resent having to choose between German and Turkish citizenship. Germans are unsure what it is foreigners should embrace in order to belong. They want them to absorb their Leitkultur, but the pre-war charisma that made Jews passionate Germans has gone.

That may not matter so much in a Europeanising Germany whose sense of itself is based largely on the rule of law. Refashioning identity is likely to be a collaborative process, enlisting people like Aylin Selcuk, a dental student from Berlin who grew weary of being asked where she came from and whether she spoke German. She started DeuKische Generation to persuade Germans that Turks could be as German as anyone, and to push Turks to embrace the language and norms of their adoptive country. Germans think we'll leave, but I'm mainly German, she insists in Hochdeutsch as mellifluous as anyone's. Astonishingly poised for a 19-year-old, she might just become the first German chancellor to boast a Turkish name.