Erdogan and His Followers Turkish Referendum Casts Dark Shadow over Germany
Turkey is divided ahead of a key constitutional referendum to grant President Erdogan more power. So too is Germany's Turkish population. Officials are concerned that violence could be the result while ordinary Germans are unable to understand how anyone could support Erdogan. By SPIEGEL Staff
A man in a long, black beard stops and spins around. "What did you say?" he screams in Turkish over the heads of the Hamburg police officers. His adversary leans over a metal barricade and screams again: "You dog!" Behind him, fellow protesters chant: "Murderer Erdogan! Murderer Erdogan!" They hold signs in the air reading "Hayir," or "No." The reference is to the upcoming April referendum in Turkey on proposed amendments to the country's constitution.
The liberal Alevi Cultural Center, along with several other organizations, was behind the demonstration, called to protest the appearance of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu in Hamburg. In response, dozens of people gathered in the northern German city late last Tuesday afternoon to heckle supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The bearded man is furious. "You are the dog," he screams towards the demonstrators. He then adds: "Are you Christians or what?!" His face is contorted in anger as though he has just uttered the worst curse he can imagine.
When asked about it later, he says he doesn't have anything against Christians, but he does add that they are weak and don't have true faith. "Germany is going to the dogs. Should I let my children grow up in such a country? I can hardly bear the Islamophobia anymore." The man was born here and speaks perfect, accent-free German. "Yeah," he says, "we're not stupid. We understand everything that is going on here, including German hypocrisy. That's why we are going to emigrate to Turkey soon."
He's standing next to a white metal fence at the entrance to the Turkish consulate-general's residence in Hamburg. People waving Turkish flags are streaming into the front yard of the elegant building on Alster Lake. Some have wrapped themselves in the banners or wound them around their heads. For the neighbors in this Hamburg neighborhood, it is a strange scene: on the one side are the demonstrators calling out "Erdogan! Dictator!" On the other are 300 supporters of the president chanting "Allahu akbar!"
The evening's events exposed the deep divisions in Turkish society that have been created by the constitutional referendum campaign. President Erdogan is seeking to tighten his grip on power by making himself head of government in addition to his current role as head of state. But it is by no means clear that he will get his way. Which is why he is also doing all he can to secure the vote of Turkish citizens living overseas, thus making the conflict over Turkey's future into a German conflict as well -- one which is becoming a threat, and deepening rifts within German society as well.
On the one hand, the Turkish community is perhaps more divided than it has ever been in the 50 years since Turks began coming to Germany as guest workers. On the other, German skepticism of their Turkish neighbors has grown of late. How is it possible, they wonder, that so many young people who grew up here venerate a man who is seeking to erode those democratic values of which Germans are so proud? Conversely, many of those with Turkish roots wonder why Germans still see them as Muslim aliens, even if they are cosmopolitan, successful and perfectly integrated. Why are the group's achievements so rarely highlighted?
Susceptible to Blackmail?
The conflict is a challenge for the chancellor as well. Many Germans are outraged by Erdogan's provocations and would like to see Angela Merkel stand up to him more decisively. They are concerned that the refugee deal with Ankara has made Merkel susceptible to blackmail and that she has no choice but to accept Erdogan's impertinence.
All of that is toxic for societal cohesion. Around 3 million people with Turkish roots live in the country. If they have a problem, Germany does too. Every political tremor in Turkey triggers aftershocks in Berlin, Cologne and Stuttgart. When the Turkish military launches a putsch to topple Erdogan, tens of thousands of people in Germany likewise sit glued to their televisions out of concern for Turkey's future.
When Erdogan has journalists, lawyers, teachers and scientists arrested, their relatives in Germany are consumed with worry. And when the German journalist Deniz Yücel, who also has a Turkish passport, is locked up as an alleged terrorist, his German and Turkish supporters drive through cities in Germany in protest convoys. What is German and what is Turkish? They have become inextricably bound.
But tensions are rising. Last week, when a journalist from the influential weekly Die Zeit appeared at Cavusoglu's campaign appearance holding a sign reading "Free Deniz," Erdogan supporters attacked him with the flags they were wearing, knocking off his glasses.
The atmosphere, particularly on the radical fringes of the two camps, is becoming more hostile to the point that German security officials have now become concerned that the conflict could erupt in violence in Germany as well. "The fault lines between the various camps in Turkey are mirrored in Germany," says Hans-Georg Maassen, head of Germany's domestic intelligence agency. There is, in short, a part of Germany that is deeply affected by Erdogan.
Yahya Kilicaslan, 32, shows up to his interview with SPIEGEL in a white Porsche SUV. "In my eyes, Erdogan remains a successful politician," the businessman says in a café in the Old Town center of Esslingen, located just east of Stuttgart. "He didn't just talk; he did what he said he was going to do." Turkey, Kilicaslan says, needs political stability to flourish, which is why he is supporting the referendum.
'For Me, He's a Demagogue'
Kilicaslan's enthusiasm shows that the Turkish president isn't just supported by the rural population of Anatolia. The young man is a third-generation immigrant who got his high-school degree in Esslingen before completing a trainee program in banking. He's now in the real estate business. "I see my future in Germany and I feel connected to the people here," says Kilicaslan, who sees himself as being right-of-center politically.
Regarding Erdogan's recent comments comparing today's Germany with the Third Reich, he says: "That's unacceptable." But, he adds, more important than the rhetoric is the fact that Turkey adheres to its international agreements, such as the deal made with Germany in 2016 designed to stem the flow of refugees to Europe.
But what about human rights, the arrest of civil servants and journalists, and the detention of the German journalist Deniz Yücel? "I hope he gets a fair trial," Kilicaslan says. "But I have no sympathy for him at all. For me, he is a demagogue."
Germans don't like to hear such sentiments, and neither do Turkish opponents of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP). Kilicaslan is aware of that. He is one of the few who has been willing to defend the Turkish president in the German media and has appeared on a widely viewed primetime talk show in addition to a national radio program. He says he does so because he wants to help explain how many Turkish-Germans think.
He is frequently attacked for his views. In response, he posted a message on his Facebook page reading: "Yes to debate and critique! No to hate campaigns and violence!" There isn't much uniting those who bitterly oppose Erdogan with those who support him, but when it comes to hate for their adversaries, the similarities are difficult to ignore.
Integration expert Caner Aver, of the Center for Turkish Studies and Integration Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen, sees another commonality uniting the parties to the conflict: "There is a collective malaise. Everybody recognizes that something is going fundamentally wrong at the moment." Though they disagree about the reasons.
Appealing to Deep Emotions
The conflict over the coming referendum has exposed the degree to which many Turks in Germany feel their pride has been hurt and that they are not respected. They feel that, as Muslims, they are constantly on the defensive. When Foreign Minister Cavusoglu appears before them in Hamburg and says, "nobody can sever the bond we have with you. We will always be there for you," he is appealing to deep emotions and strikes a nerve among his listeners. What German politician has ever approached them with such commitment?
A survey conducted on behalf of the University of Münster last year found that 87 percent of German citizens with Turkish backgrounds feel closely bound to Germany. But more than half of the 1,200 respondents also said that they feel like second-class citizens because of their origins. According to the survey, 83 percent get angry when Muslims immediately fall under suspicion following a terror attack.
But it's not just about feelings and emotions. Turkish Germans, after all, have been successful in Germany and have good reason to exhibit more confidence than they sometimes do.
Many AKP supporters, though, have a different understanding of democracy -- despite their integration in Germany and lessons on politics and civics in school. If the majority of a population decides to place its faith in a single party and a single head of state, then other countries simply have to accept that, many believe. The lessons of German history -- the reflex most Germans have to think back to 1933 when hearing such arguments -- are not as deeply rooted among all of those with Turkish roots. They view the separation of powers as largely unnecessary because they believe that Erdogan's patriotism will lead him to act in Turkey's best interests. Plus, those in Germany who watch pro-government broadcasters from Turkey have difficulty separating the propaganda from reality. Because they live in Germany, they have little experience with the more ominous elements of Erdogan's rule.
Neither are they inclined to place much blame on Erdogan's shoulders for the recent spate of terror attacks that have shaken Turkey, for the country's suddenly weak economy or for the ongoing conflict with the Kurdish minority in the southeast. Instead, they believe the fault lies with the Zionists, with the United States, with the Kurds and with Europe. They see accusations that the AKP is destroying press freedoms as a joke. On the contrary, they see the fact that no German media outlet has reported positively about Erdogan's referendum as proof that if anyone has a problem with freedom of opinion, it is Germany.
- Part 1: Turkish Referendum Casts Dark Shadow over Germany
- Part 2: Doubts and Concern Among Turkish-Germans