Turkish Referendum German-Turkish Voices Respond to Erdogan

Millions of Turkish-Germans are eligible to vote in Sunday’s constitutional referendum. Last year’s coup and growing tensions between Turkey and Europe have intensified divisions among them. Die Zeit spoke with eight Turkish-Germans.
A man holds banner calling Turkish voters to vote "no" on the upcoming referendum at a protest in Berlin.

Erol Özkaraca, 53, lawyer, Berlin

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is no friend of pluralistic democracy, and that makes him my political enemy. We Germans have learned that democracy has to be able to defend itself. As the son of an immigrant, I’ve been hearing for 30 years that integration means I should accept the values of the German constitution and live according to them. Now I want to turn that around and ask: How is it that the mayor of Berlin, at a demonstration last month for the victims of December’s terror attack, surrounded himself with enemies of the constitution? With representatives of Muslim associations and mosques under surveillance by the security forces? When people say political Islam has nothing to do with terrorism, to me that’s just a joke!

I say there are enemies of the constitution among immigrants, and there is anti-semitism and dangerous intolerance. And then I’m called a rabble-rouser and compared to right-wing populists. Or I’m called “Islamophobic,” which is a slogan of political Islam. I am a Muslim. Political Islam is my opponent.

Until 2016, I was a Social Democratic representative in the Berlin state parliament. But a few days ago, I resigned from the SPD after 23 years of membership. I started to be alienated from my party when it campaigned for official status for Muslim associations, which would also have increased the status of Islamists. At best, the initiators of this had no idea what they were doing. If Social Democrats were living in Turkey, they would be the first to be attacked by the Erdogan regime. There are thousands of innocent people, including the journalist Deniz Yücel, who are sitting in jail in Turkey. These are our people!

Rosa Hêlîn Burç, 26, PhD student, Bonn

I am a Yazidi, but being a Yazidi is only part of my identity. We were marginalized to such a degree we sometimes forgot ourselves, at least that’s how I think sometimes. There was a period in Turkey when Yazidis’ passports just had a big X where it listed “Religion.” That was in the aftermath of the military coup. Nonetheless, Turkey still means something to me. Just like Germany. So I feel I am under attack when Erdogan accuses Germany of Nazi methods, and also when he carries out a policy of destruction in Kurdish cities.

But the “other” side annoys me too. When German talk show moderators ask Turkish-German guests if they are German or Turkish, I have to wonder why they’re trying to force through some homogeneous image of identity. Nor do I understand why some people here tell Erdogan supporters to go back to Turkey if they think it’s so great there. That just plays into his hands. It supports his narrative about enemies everywhere, allegedly surrounding Turks. Erdogan wins support among people who feel lost in Germany. It would be naïve to believe that these are only “badly integrated” people.

Again and again in the current debate, crude xenophobia has been dressed up as a critique of Turkey. There are enough reasons for honest criticism of the Turkish government. Certainly, in the beginning, Erdogan opened up the country. For a while, you could speak Kurdish in public without being hassled. But the basic right to Kurdish as a mother tongue has never been recognized. It was a cultural opening, not a political one. We can see how brutally the government has acted against the opposition. It’s always said that the AKP government has put the military in its place, but in fact it has only fueled nationalism and the militarization of civil society. Today, the referendum has been distorted into a defense of Turkish national honor.

Ilknur Çeliker, 46, glass blower and home help, Berlin

I’ve been in Germany for 41 years, and I have never experienced anything like now. It is such an insane situation. Recently, I invited all the women from this neighborhood to a meal. I often do this and it always used to be lovely. We laughed until we cried and shared everything. But now suddenly, two women started yelling at each other. I thought they were going to strangle each other. One of them is a teacher who says that anyone supporting Erdogan and voting yes in his referendum is a traitor. “You’re the traitor,” roared the other one, who is very devout. She thinks that if you are a good Muslim, you must support Erdogan.

I am also a Muslim, but I was one for a long time before Erdogan. Like a lot of religious people I know, I ask myself whether Erdogan ultimately wants something like in Iran: an Islamic republic. I absolutely do not want that. I love Germany because I can be free here. In Turkey, I could never have divorced my husband and then lived alone with my daughter, as I did.

Neither Erdogan nor Merkel is my leader. Merkel really overdid it with the refugees. There are too many of them. As a woman, life is more dangerous now. I also don’t want Turkey to join the European Union, because then more and more Turks would come here—and not the normal ones, but the scum.

People opposed to Erdogan often think they’re better educated. But I think everyone should work on themselves first, before starting to lecture others. Where I come from—Osmaniye, a small town near the Syrian border—there were Catholics, Alevis, Assyrians, Kurds, fellahin, Arabs. The main thing is that we are all human.

German writer Feridun Zaimoglu at the Leipzig Book Fair.

Feridun Zaimoglu, 52, writer, Kiel

I was five months old when I came to Germany. I was brought to this country in my mother’s arms. And 25 years ago, I became a German citizen. Back then, there was no provision yet for dual citizenship, so I gave up my Turkish passport. And I wanted that. I wanted to become a German. Ultimately, it came down to pathos, a mild form of pathos: What is my country? That is what I had to decide. And there couldn’t be two different answers.

I don’t know any good arguments for double citizenship. You can't serve two masters. And it's also about fairness. Someone born here and living here doesn't have that possibility, of two different passports. The sons and daughters of migrants do have that possibility. And I think that’s unfair.

Nearly all Turkish and Kurdish associations or clubs in Germany are actually organizations for exiles and refugees. They only look to Turkey. For 30 years, we have been talking about having to overcome these Oriental ways: honor killings, aggression, national pride. All of that has to go into the trash. I'm not interested in male staring contests. I'm not interested in all that aggressive crap. There are certain set ground rules in German society: anyone incapable of learning them, for example, in their behavior toward women, well, I wish them a pleasant journey home.

I do not understand how Turks who were born in Germany and grew up here can still regard Turkey as their homeland. Erdogan incites people. He has poisoned the social climate in Turkey, and now he is poisoning the social climate in Germany. It is a culture war. And in Turkey he makes common cause with real neo-fascists, the Grey Wolves. Compared to them the NPD – the German neo-Nazi party – are like the boy scouts.

As a Turk or a Turkish-German, you can’t accept the benefits of freedom in Germany and then vote for a lack of freedom in Turkey. Anyone who does that is a coward. And sick. If you ask an Erdogan supporter why they’re voting for the constitutional amendments, you won’t hear any arguments. They all sound like they’re paid by the Turkish tourist board. They only know Turkey from vacations, and then they idealize their vacation country. I just want to grab these people and shake them and ask: What is the matter with you? What’s wrong with you?


Mehmet Kocaaga, 38, insurance salesman, Hamburg

“Right now, they all just annoy me. The way people behave with one another at the moment really bothers me a lot. I think basic respect should be shown to a democratically-elected president. Hitler comparisons, calling people “dictator”— the two sides clearly feed off each other. And I am angry with Turks who stoop to that level, too. This populism angers me; everyone should just restrain themselves a bit more.

I am a Kurd. But I’m also a Turk and a German. You know, when my mother came to Germany from Agri, one of Turkey’s eastern provinces, she couldn’t speak a word of Turkish. She learned it from her Turkish co-workers in Germany. We all have a common history. Why does nobody see that? Back then, people in the east of Turkey were forgotten. They lived in poverty. During my childhood, Kurds were oppressed; Turkey was a military dictatorship back then. This is the world we come from. It is paradoxical that it’s called a dictatorship now.

Erdogan was the only one with the courage to stand up to the army, to sit down with a terrorist organization and talk peace. Before, that was unimaginable. The first time I ever heard a Turkish prime minister utter the word “Kurd,” I simply could not believe it. And that was Erdogan. But the other side—I mean the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party—didn’t show enough commitment. I would have liked them to go down that road with him. They had the chance, but they torpedoed the negotiations.

Turkey has also been unfairly treated by other countries. After the coup last year, they acted as if the Turkish government had staged the coup itself. No foreign leader hurried to Turkey to share in the people’s pain and mourning. And today, the coup is completely ignored. You get the impression that people here were more on the side of the plotters. When the head of the German intelligence service comes out and says the Gülen movement had nothing to do with the coup, I think that’s deeply irresponsible. That is only meant to damage the Turkish government.

For me it is important that relations between the two countries are OK and done right. I live here; I intend to retire here. Germany is my home. I’ll probably go out of my mind if Hamburg’s soccer team is relegated to the second division.

Of course, the Turkish side does a lot wrong too. Before, I used to walk around with clenched fists in my pockets, because I often felt doubly marginalized in my life: first by the Germans and then by the Turks. Things really have gotten better. But the Turks still have a Kurd complex, and they’re just going have to get over it. For a long time, I had a problem with the Turkish state. But now I can love that country. And Erdogan did more for us Kurds than any other politician before him. I expect the Turkish government to restart the peace process and to reform the justice system. So not every journalist who speaks his mind can suddenly turn into an enemy of the state.

I personally think that if a president has more powers, he can get more done. No one in Turkey wants a dictator. The people would put a stop to that, as they stopped the coup.

Sacit Dizman, 38, management consultant, Hamburg

My grandfather came to Germany as a worker in the 1960s. He always said: “Germany is a country where a Muslim can live as a Muslim.” Today, there are arson attacks on mosques and I get the feeling that barely anyone is interested. That saddens me.

I work as a volunteer for the Federation of Islamic Communities. In many of our communities, people are asking themselves what is actually going on now between Germany and Turkey? I’ve been advising German and Turkish companies for 10 years, and I travel constantly in both countries. The current confrontation particularly affects someone who feels a connection to both countries.

As someone of Turkish background, I still get the feeling that I'm not wanted. I even find the question strange: Who do I regard as leading my government, Chancellor Merkel or President Erdogan? Of course, the answer is Chancellor Merkel. Germany is my first home, and Turkey is my second home. I think our chancellor often acts wisely. In both countries, there is an election campaign underway: the referendum in Turkey and the federal elections in Germany. Maybe we just have to get through those, and then see how things look after the elections.

I’m exposed to so many different views among my friends. I think a variety of opinions is important. I do not believe Turks will let democracy be taken away from them. They showed that on the night of the coup. It is too bad that a lot of people think so. They do not know Turkey well.

Quelle: dpa
Early voting in the Turkish referendum in Bavaria, Germany.
(Source: dpa)

Mesut Gül, 35, martial arts fighter, Geisenheim

As a martial arts fighter, I know about getting along with people from different backgrounds. It’s all about respect - respect for other people’s achievements, for others’ wishes, beliefs and values. I don't see this kind of respect in the way the European Union is treating Turkey.

For 60 years, the West promised the Turks they would accept them into the European community. They stalled for 60 years, always inventing new conditions. In the beginning, Erdogan did everything to fulfill the requirements. He reformed the country, developed its infrastructure, created jobs and improved the health system. Before he came to power, my father used to send money from Germany every month to his Turkish relatives, so they could go to the doctor. But today, every one of them has health insurance. There should be more recognition of Erdogan’s achievement in improving the lives of millions of Turkish people.

Maybe I can make a sporting comparison: I’m a talent scout for the Hesse state kickboxing team. Supposing for years and years I told a promising young kickboxer that I would soon select him for the team, that he just had to improve his technique a bit, his speed, his strength. Suppose he developed in every respect, and still I didn’t take him. Well, then ultimately he’d feel as if he’d been taken for a ride.

I think a lot of empty promises were made in the past. There was a lot of hypocrisy in dealing with Turkey. Just look at the refugee deal last year: Turkey was supposed to get visa-free travel and accelerated EU membership, and in return they would keep the refugees out of Europe. Well, the refugees were kept out, but EU membership is nowhere to be seen. That's where the disappointment with Germany and the EU comes from. You hear that from a lot of Turks now; it comes out in provocations and gestures of hate. That’s really not OK, but in some ways I can also understand it.

What would I like to see? I’d like to see Western leaders speak openly and honestly with Turkey, and vice versa. That way they could meet on an equal basis.

Burcu Sezgin, 33, sociologist, Berlin (name changed at own request)

I don’t have a Turkish passport, only German citizenship. And if you ask me who is the head of my government, it’s Angela Merkel, no question. But I feel passionately connected to both countries. My roots are in Turkey; it’s where my parents come from. My home is in Berlin. I went to school here, I played in the parks here. It’s where my friends live. It’s where I’m doing my doctorate.

I’ve always had two identities. But now this relationship is breaking down, and suddenly I have to cut away my Turkish roots. Now I'm a traitor because I follow the teachings of Fethullah Gülen, the Sufi preacher. I'm being forced to choose just one country.

Probably Gülen once thought there was nothing wrong with giving Erdogan a chance. In other words, he welcomed his program. Erdogan was the only one to get things moving, who was able to push through reforms. He promised Turks a modern world, respect for faith, education and improvement. People were enthusiastic that they would be able to live their religion in freedom at last.

For me, the break with Erdogan came during the Gezi protests of 2013. His attitude was just unbearable. He behaved so arrogantly toward minorities, dissenters, people on the left, LGBT people and others. He acted with the same kind of authoritarianism as the Kemalists once had. And since then, the situation has got worse: He is instrumentalizing the state and the government for his own personal ends. Earlier, I would never have believed that Erdogan could turn into such a fascist.

The hardest thing is to see Turkish politics tearing my family apart. My parents want me to break off all contact with the Gülen movement. My father is sympathetic to Erdogan and doesn’t understand the Gülen movement. He is active in an official mosque, one supported by the state. He is very suspicious of a sufi movement like the Gülen movement. Things are hardest with my sister. She also supports Erdogan and says she is worried about me. She calls me “traitor.” And since I might never be able to travel to Turkey again, she comes out and says: “You have no homeland.”

This story first appeared in Die Zeit, a sister publication. To contact the authors: [email protected]