Islam Critic Necla Kelek An Enthusiastic Defender of Freedom

The Turkish-German writer Necla Kelek is a vehement defender of democracy. Her criticism of Islam has made many German intellectuals uneasy. But has she been unjustly vilified?


The Turkish-German writer Necla Kelek.
Christian Thiel / DER SPIEGEL

The Turkish-German writer Necla Kelek.

There are also problems among Germans, it's not just the Turks, a young man points out. Necla Kelek is familiar with this objection -- it's one she hears again and again. She grimaces for a moment but then smiles gently and says in a confessional tone, "There are also a lot of things not right in Germany."

The young man is satisfied, and Necla Kelek later admits that certainly not all Muslims pose a problem for democracy in Germany. In fact most of them certainly don't -- but there are still the few who do and they are the ones she has chosen to focus on. It's the problems she is concerned with, she says.

Kelek, 52, a German woman with Turkish roots, is sitting in the cultural center in Achim, a town near Bremen in northern Germany. She has just finished a reading from her new book, "Himmelsreise" ("Journey to Heaven").

The book casts a critical look at Islam and condemns the oppression and lack of freedom within Turkish communities and families in Germany.

Hate Monger and Holy Warrior?

Such views have made Kelek a controversial figure. The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung has labeled her a "hate monger," while the center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung has called her a "holy warrior." People often talk about Kelek in the same breath as Henryk M. Broder, a controversial polemic journalist who writes for SPIEGEL.

The interesting thing about Kelek is that she defends all of the terms that form the basis of German society: freedom, democracy, enlightenment, secular order, civil society. Yet in doing so, she draws harsh criticism from Germans. She's a woman who makes people uneasy. But why?

One accusation is that Kelek has been unable to rid herself of the humiliation she suffered at the hands of her own family and that this is why she condemns Islam as a whole. Kelek has often recounted her life story. As a child, she came from Turkey to a small city in the German state of Lower Saxony, but never fully arrived in Germany. Breaks were the worst part of the school day because she stood around alone, not knowing what to do. Before and after school, Kelek lived in a completely Turkish world. Her father ran that world like a dictator, her mother obeyed, and the children had to humbly serve their father.

When Kelek disobeyed one of his orders and locked herself in her bedroom, her father forced his way in with an axe, seized his daughter by the throat, and swung her around. He disappeared shortly after, and Kelek never saw him again. He is now dead.

Kelek experienced what it was not to be free, a situation that applied in particular to women. The mothers had to obey the fathers, and many girls were married off to men from Turkish villages while they were still children. Kelek's sister was among them. Kelek herself escaped this fate -- "You're too ugly," her mother told her.

'Our Society Is so Marvelous!'

Kelek studied technical drawing, and then was given the opportunity to study sociology through a grant from the Hans Böckler Stiftung, a foundation with close ties to labor unions. She calls the people from the foundation "my true parents." After spending a period working as an academic, Kelek now makes her living mainly as an author.

She has since obtained German citizenship, but when Kelek talks about Europeans, she says "the Europeans," not "we Europeans." Questioned about this, she says she counts herself among their ranks, but has to smile, as if she's been caught out. It's a fairly big leap from a Turkish identity to a European one.

Kelek generally speaks in a calm, quiet voice. At the reading in Achim, again and again she invites the audience to criticize and debate. When she speaks of the freedoms denied to Turkish girls, her tone grows sharp, but she's still a far cry from a "hate monger."

Oddly enough one of the things that can make a conversation with Kelek somewhat disconcerting is the enthusiasm with which she praises freedom. It's unfamiliar because Germans don't talk this way anymore.

Questioning Creates Discourse

Kelek says words like "freedom," "democracy," "civil society," and "enlightenment" in a tone others reserve for the describing amazing soccer goals. "Our society is so marvelous!" she exclaims. It pains Kelek that she rarely meets Germans capable of mentioning the word "freedom" without immediately alluding to the downsides, whether it be obsessive consumption or pornography. Perhaps it's necessary to have experienced a lack of freedom in order to have such enthusiasm for it. And once the unease subsides, it's actually gratifying to experience Kelek's enthusiasm for the foundations of Western society.

Kelek is so taken by Germans, she can even find something positive in their endless contrition. "I've come to see that these self-doubts advance them," she explains. Endless questioning creates discourse, she says, and discourse is the basis of all democracy. In the course of two long conversations, never once does a negative word about her critics pass her lips. She defends herself, but welcomes debate.

Her heroes are people like the German writers Ludwig Börne and Heinrich Heine, both intellectual fighters for freedom in the early 19th century. "I would have loved to have lived during that period," Kelek says.

The second source of unease when talking to Necla Kelek is the fact that in her unapologetic criticism of the circumstances in some Turkish families or communities, she fails to constantly add that there are many Turks in Germany who are in favor of freedom, democracy, and enlightenment, and she also lacks the usual discomfort that suggests criticizing other ways of life can sometimes border on racism.

'Religion Is Part of Freedom'

There are two reasons, it seems, why Germans often make lousy defenders of their own values -- their detachment and their fear of being accused of intolerance. But a free society needs enthusiasts like Kelek. Otherwise, it risks becoming cynical.

Kelek finds herself in a dilemma familiar to all those who defend freedom and tolerance -- namely, that freedom can never be complete freedom, and tolerance never complete tolerance. This means that a rational person who fights for freedom and tolerance is necessarily also always fighting for intolerance and a lack of freedom. In other words, those who fight for tolerance must also be intolerant of those who are intolerant.

Thus the accusation against Kelek turns out to be an empty one. It is during a debate such as the current one that a democratic society determines where it draws the line between what it will tolerate and what it won't.

Headscarves cannot be tolerated as long as they remain an expression of the oppression of women, Kelek says. Sharia law cannot apply in Germany, and forced marriages of young girls are shameful. What happens in mosques and Koran schools, she adds, should be transparent and founded on Germany's democratic constitutional order. "Religion," she declares, "is part of freedom. It does not stand above it."

It's only natural that "Himmelsreise" is a one-sided book, singling out the aspects that, from a Western perspective, argue against allowing an unlimited Islam in Germany. The book is, after all, a contribution to a debate -- an important contribution. Others can take up the role of responding to her views, but Kelek doesn't deserve to be vilified.

Fighting For Every Immigrant Child

An event in early March demonstrated the importance of Kelek's position. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) invited 1,500 Turks living abroad to a conversation in Istanbul. Ali Ertan Toprak, deputy chairman of Germany's Alevi community, said afterward, "They wanted us to integrate in Europe, but with the single goal of representing Turkish interests."

In addition, the Islam Conference -- a dialogue series initiated by the German Interior Ministry -- failed to reach an agreement with representatives from Turkish organizations on common core values. Kelek participated in the conference and considers it to have "successfully failed." It became clear, she says, that these representatives didn't place importance on common core values.

For Kelek, the central point is that Muslims should be able to become European citizens, with an appreciation for democracy, freedom, and secular society. Particularly in light of the growing proportion of Muslims in the population, society needs to fight for every single child of immigrants. It's not enough to count on every oppressed person emerging with a disposition toward freedom and democracy, as Kelek did. Democracy requires a critical mass of democrats -- otherwise, it collapses. The multicultural approach has given too little consideration to this aspect.

Kelek is fighting for nothing less than an Islamic enlightenment in Germany. As a devout Muslim, she has every right to do so. Her goal is to have many religions, but a single understanding of government and society.

This consensus leaves enough room for individual cultural differences. Kelek, for example, the enlightened Turkish-German woman, has done something that isn't easy for a European to comprehend. She visited her father's grave in Turkey and found it neglected. So she paid to have the grave fixed up again, and did it in such a manner that she and her siblings will be able to have their final resting place next to the man who oppressed and abused them. She wouldn't want to be buried anywhere else.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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