Helen Pidd, Guardian (London), Feb. 28, 2011
Germany has hit back at explosive remarks by Turkey’s prime minister, who told his compatriots that they should learn Turkish before German and resist assimilation into German society.
During a visit to Germany, Recep Tayyip Erdogan told 10,000 members of Germany’s large Turkish community of his “growing unease” about the way immigrants are treated in Germany.
“You must integrate, but I am against assimilation . . . no one may ignore the rights of minorities,” he said, adding that individuals should have the right to practise their own faith.
“Our children must learn German but they must learn Turkish first,” said Erdogan.
He added: “I want you to learn German, that your children learn German–they should study, get degrees. I want you to become doctors, professors and politicians in Germany.”
Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, promptly hit back, saying that the children of the 3.5-million-strong Turkish community should focus on German to improve their chances in life.
“Children growing up in Germany must learn German first,” he said. “The German language is the key to integration for those growing up in Germany.”
The row threatened to overshadow Erdogan’s Germany trip. He is due to meet the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who caused controversy in October when she said that multiculturalism in Germany had “utterly failed”.
Though his speech reflected Turkey’s unease about what many Turks perceive to be Europe’s increasing xenophobia, it was also an attempt to drum up votes.
There is a general election in Turkey in June and for the first time Turks abroad will be able to vote at Turkish consulates.
Germany, with almost two million eligible voters, will be the fourth largest constituency after Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir.
Erdogan is offering as part of his manifesto a better deal for Turks abroad–specifically, a new “blue card”, which is a kind of dual nationality identity card that would allow Turks with German passports more rights back in Turkey.
It is currently impossible to hold both German and Turkish passports, and Turks who opt for a German one often find life difficult if they return to the country of their birth.
Erdogan’s rhetoric seemed to go down well in Düsseldorf. “The Germans will never accept us but Erdogan does,” one man told Der Spiegel.
Another said: “Finally someone feels responsible for us. For the first time a Turkish prime minister is not forgetting his countrymen abroad.”
On Saturday, Erdogan made an even sharper criticism of German immigration policy, telling the Rheinische Post newspaper that forced integration requiring immigrants to suppress their culture and language violated international law.
Immigration leapt to the forefront of political debate in 2010 after the central banker Thilo Sarrazin published a bestselling book that argued German culture was at risk from Muslims, who he said were a drain on state coffers.
The debate left raw nerves on both sides. German politicians initially closed ranks to condemn Sarrazin’s theories, but later many shifted rightwards in tone as polls showed he enjoyed widespread support. Sarrazin later stepped down.
Erdogan’s newspaper comments were published alongside those of a senior German politician who complained of discrimination against Christians in Turkey.
The Conservative parliamentary floor leader, Volker Kauder, told the same paper that land belonging to a Christian monastery in Turkey known as Mor Gabriel was being expropriated, which he said showed that the Muslim country lacked religious freedom.
“I urge the EU to not open any more negotiation chapters with Turkey as long as Turkey does not guarantee full freedom of religion,” Kauder said.
Erdogan’s speech came before a meeting with Merkel scheduled for today, where Turkey’s bid to join the European Union is likely to be discussed.
The two leaders have a fractious relationship. Last year Merkel made a tense visit to Turkey after Erdogan accused her of harbouring hatred towards Turks.
Germany is home to around 2.7 million people of Turkish heritage who first came in the 1960s to help rebuild the country after the second world war.