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Photo Gallery: A Wedge between Germans and Turks

Foto: WOLFGANG RATTAY/ REUTERS

Turkish Diaspora Erdogan's Paternalism Proves Counter-Productive

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a self-styled patron of Turkish immigrants in Germany. But critics say that his aggressive diaspora policy is increasingly driving a wedge between immigrant families and mainstream society.

The young woman from Melle, a town in the northern German state of Lower Saxony, was received like a guest of state. A government representative and several photographers met Elif Yaman in Ankara. A limousine took the 19-year-old to a hotel, where she fell, weeping, into her mother's arms. It was all captured on live TV.

The Turkish journalists and politicians had been waiting for these images, and for what Yaman then said: "I think it would have been nicer to grow up in a Turkish family."

It was the sort of thing Bekir Bozdag loves to hear. Bozdag, 48, is Turkey's deputy prime minister and, even more important in the Yaman case, head of the Office for Turks Abroad.

Seven years ago, a German youth welfare office deprived Yaman's stressed single mother of custody for her daughter. The girl was sent to live with German foster parents and grew up in the German family. Her mother moved back to Turkey.

A few months ago Bozdag began to take an interest in the Yamans. His boss, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is running a Europe-wide campaign against the supposed forced conversion of Turkish Muslim foster children.

In fact, when Muslim parents lose custody of their children, German youth welfare offices try to place them with Muslim families. Only when this is not possible are children entrusted to parents of other faiths.

"You are my family"

Bozdag denounces this practice as "assimilation." "We are facing a great tragedy," he said last year, promising to do everything possible "to rescue our little ones."

But his position is only fueling immigrants' suspicions of German authorities. The Turkish media have been all too pleased to hone in on Bozdag's accusations. "So they're Nazis," the tabloid Takvim wrote. German youth welfare offices are "destroying families," Zaman, Turkey's largest daily newspaper, remarked.

The Turkish authorities hoped that the Yaman case would lend credence to these claims. When officials in Bozdag's office organized a reunion between the mother and the daughter, they staged the encounter like the return of a missing child, as if the Turkish government had heroically fixed something the heartless German authorities had broken.

In the dispute over foster families, Prime Minister Erdogan is placing himself in a role in which he likes to be perceived: as the patron of Turks worldwide. During a campaign appearance in Germany in 2011, he told his supporters: "I am here to represent your interests. You are my family, and you are my siblings."

The most recent campaign is typical of Erdogan's increasingly aggressive policy on the Turkish diaspora. While claiming to support the integration of Turkish immigrants and their children, his government is in fact achieving the opposite effect.

In 2010, Erdogan created the Office for Turks Abroad, an agency in Ankara staffed with about 300 employees, responsible for roughly four million Turks around the world. "We are wherever one of our countrymen is," Bozdag's office promises.

But in recent months the deputy premier has attracted more attention with his attacks against the German government. During a meeting with German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich in February, he criticized language courses for immigrants as a "human rights violation." When two Turkish immigrants died in a fire in Cologne, Bozdag derided the authorities' information policy as "ridiculous." In the dispute over access to the NSU trial for Turkish journalists, he questioned the judges' credibility and said: "From our perspective, this court is finished."

Self-Serving Goals

In this fashion, the Turkish government is using the fact that many immigrants have lost confidence in the German government, as a result of the Sarrazin debate and the NSU murders, to drive a wedge between immigrant families and mainstream society.

Politicians in Ankara have always tried to exert influence on Turks abroad, says Ali Dogan, general secretary of the Alevi Community of Germany, which does not align itself with the Turkish government. But no one, he says, behaves as shamelessly -- and yet strategically -- as Erdogan.

In 2005, the prime minister opened the headquarters of the Union of European-Turkish Democrats (UETD), a lobbying group of his conservative Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP). The organization aims to drum up votes for Erdogan among immigrants, as well as preparing the prime minister's speeches in Germany.

In a speech Deputy Prime Minister Bozdag gave at the dedication ceremony for the UETD office in Berlin, he said: "We intend to address their concerns and search for solutions day and night."

A Champion of Turkish Interests

But that is only part of the truth. The Turkish government is primarily pursuing self-serving goals with its diaspora policy. It seeks to gain the support of immigrants abroad for the AKP and portray itself at home as a champion of Turkish interests.

At the beginning of the year, the Office for Turks Abroad created an advisory board consisting of representatives of immigrant organizations, academics and Islamic officials from around the world, especially from Germany. It includes the general secretary of the Islamist Milli Görü movement, which is under observation by Germany's domestic intelligence agency, and a senior official with the Islamist congregation of the imam Fethullah Gülen.

On its website, however, the Office for Turks Abroad also lists as a member of the advisory council the political scientist Ahmet Ünalan. As an advisor to the education ministry in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Ünalan is responsible for the structuring of instruction in Islam. Ünalan criticizes the polemics of Deputy Prime Minister Bozdag and says that he has since asked to be removed from the list of advisory council members.

The office's official role is to assist the government in providing better support to Turkish citizens abroad. However, Murat Cakir of the left-leaning Rosa Luxemburg Foundation believes that the advisory council members are meant to act as lobbyists for the Turkish government, to promote, for example, a portrayal of the Kurdish conflict or the Armenian genocide in keeping with the party line.

In his controversial speech in Cologne in 2008, Erdogan characterized assimilation as a crime against humanity. At the same time, he openly called upon his fellow Turks abroad to champion the interests of Turkey. "You can apply pressure to bring about parliamentary resolutions in your respective countries. Why shouldn't we engage in lobbying activities to protect our interests?"

Representatives of the Turkish government regularly ask members of the German parliament of Turkish origin, like the Green Party's integration policy spokesman Memet Kilic, to attend AKP events in Turkey. Kilic has declined such invitations so far, determined not to be part of a strategy that exploits immigrants for Erdogan's "neo-Ottoman" agenda.

A Sense of Belonging

Germany now has between 1.1 and 1.3 million Turks who are entitled to vote in Turkey. This makes the country the fourth-largest Turkish electoral district, after Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. However, until now, overseas Turks have been required to travel to Turkey to vote at an airport there. There is no absentee voting. Next year, Erdogan plans to have ballot boxes set up in the Turkish embassy and in Turkish consulates in Germany.

In the 2011 parliamentary election, 61 percent of overseas Turks voted for the AKP, which is a significantly higher percentage than in Turkey itself, where the party garnered 50 percent of the vote. Erdogan is very popular among Turkish immigrants in Germany. He gives them self-confidence and a sense of belonging, which they frequently lack in Germany.

His deputy Bozdag would like to see the right to vote expanded to include former Turkish passport-holders, that is, German citizens of Turkish origin.

Armin Laschet of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), erstwhile integration minister in North Rhine-Westphalia, has called the proposal "harmful to integration policy," partly because he believes it suggests that the Turkish government is in a position to improve living conditions for Turks in Germany.

In Germany, people from immigrant backgrounds still have poorer chances of finding apprenticeship positions and jobs than the children of German parents. Many immigrants feel that German politicians don't take their concerns seriously. This is where the Turkish government comes in, with Erdogan portraying himself as a sort of ersatz chancellor for Turkish immigrants and their children. At the same time, he alienates German society with campaigns like the recent push against Christian foster families.

During his visit to Ankara in February, Interior Minister Friedrich tried in vain to appease the Turkish government. The self-confident prime minister is also undaunted by appeals from Europe. The best way to thwart Erdogan, says Green Party politician Kilic, is through a successful integration policy, one that discourages immigrants from seeking support from Ankara in the first place.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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