New Islamist Approach to Turks in Germany
by Veli Sirin
Germany's federal election, held on September 22, had two new consequences, one reported widely in global media – the failure of the centrist Free Democrats [FDP] to retain their presence in the parliament, or Bundestag – and the other observed almost exclusively by Turks, whether in Turkey or in the large Turkish immigrant community in Western Europe. That was the public emergence of an ambitious Islamist party in Germany.
In the political contest in September, for the first time, state-level candidates appeared with an Islamist ideology that values separation from – rather than cooperation with – other German parties. The Islamists are represented by the Alliance for Innovation and Justice, known by its German-language title as BIG, founded in 2010 and currently headed by Haluk Yıldız. A management consultant and leader of the Muslim Council of Bonn, Yıldız was elected in 2009 to the Bonn city council on the ticket of the Alliance for Peace and Fairness [German acronym: BFF], a group that joined in founding BIG.
The appearance of an ardent, nationally-organized German-Turkish Islamist party should elicit a strong and critical response from the German authorities as well as moderate German Muslims.
The Islamist BIG does not hesitate to call itself an "immigrant party," notwithstanding that most Turkish and Kurdish people in Germany, whether coming from Turkey or, as with their offspring, born in Germany, favor integration into German society and do not want to be judged by their immigrant origin. For that reason, they have generally voted for the Social Democrats, the Greens, and The Left (the last are ex-Communists), which favor their acceptance as Germans.
But the future of German Turkish and German Kurdish politics is difficult to predict. Germans of Turkish background debate the rise of the "soft-Islamist" Justice and Development Party, or AKP, headed by current Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and its impact on Turks and Kurds in Germany and elsewhere abroad. Since many Turkish immigrants to Western Europe were and are secular, with a considerable number of adherents to the Alevi Muslim religious minority among them, they wonder how the religious, Sunni-oriented AKP will deal with Turks living in the West. To some, the AKP represents an economically prosperous and increasingly influential Turkey; to others, a radicalizing Islamist and authoritarian menace.
BIG disclaims publicly a formal connection with the AKP and Erdoğan – unsurprising, given that foreign financing of political parties is illegal in Germany. But the "immigrant party" in Germany and the AKP share some notable personalities. In a visit to Berlin in 2011, according to Der Spiegel, Nevzat Yalçintaş, a Turkish academic and influential AKP deputy, spoke at a rally during local elections and called on Turks to vote for BIG. BIG may be AKP's spear-point for penetration of the German Turkish community.
Hasan Özdoğan, described by Der Spiegel as the unofficial and unacknowledged controller of BIG, is the chairman of the Union of European Turkish Democrats [UETD], a network established to mobilize support for the Erdoğan regime. In referring to the creation of BIG, Özdoğan declared, "It is time to join our forces."
Both Haluk Yıldız, the public face of BIG, and Hasan Özdoğan, have had extremist links. In the Muslim Council of Bonn, Yıldız defended Bekkay Harrach, a member of Al-Qaida, after Al-Qaida produced videos in 2009 with the Moroccan-born, naturalized German Harrach threatening a terror campaign in Germany if Berlin did not withdraw from the NATO military effort in Afghanistan. German authorities treated the Harrach videos as a credible threat and upgraded their anti-terror watch systems. Germany did not remove its troops from Afghanistan. Yıldız, nevertheless, portrayed Harrach as an Islamic freedom fighter with "hot-headed" tendencies, while downplaying his status in the Bonn mosques where Harrach was a radical preacher. The British Broadcasting Corporation reported in 2011 that Harrach was killed in Afghanistan while fighting under the alias "Abu Talha Al-Almani," or "Abu Talha the German." (The original Abu Talha was a combatant in early Islamic history.)
For his part, Hasan Özdoğan is associated also with the anti-Western and particularly anti-Jewish Milli Görüş [National Vision] movement, formerly led by the Islamist Necmettin Erbakan (1926-2011), Turkey's prime minister for a year, from mid-1996 to mid-1997. As secretary-general of Milli Görüş in Germany, Özdoğan had expressed his surprise that anti-Jewish public rhetoric was considered normal in Turkey, but is prohibited in Germany. Many Milli Görüş cadres have entered the AKP administration under Erdoğan.
Özdoğan admits to no pessimism about the future of radical Islam among German Turks. Although the BIG has not yet been seated in any German state parliament, he has declared, "We are only beginning," and notes that it took years for the Greens to gain serious political influence. "We need a long time to breathe," he says.
While the majority of immigrants and their children want to leave the mark of the foreigner behind, except during vacations in Turkey, BIG stands for primary loyalty to their ethnic heritage. In this regard, BIG, with its separatist outlook, appears unlikely to gain much support from German Turks, who, to judge by their history, after they began moving to Western Europe in search of work in the 1960s, do not want to maintain walls between them and their ethnic German neighbors.
Among other proposals, BIG calls for German Turks and their children, even if they possess German citizenship, to be allowed dual passport status as Turks and as Germans. At present, the right to dual citizenship is denied in Germany except to citizens of the European Union or Switzerland, and in complex cases involving serious hardship for the applicant. Immigrants from Turkey do not qualify currently for German citizenship while retaining Turkish citizenship.
The future of BIG may well depend on how much open and active support it receives from Erdoğan's AKP. The ranks of BIG, for now, remain thin enough to keep it out of national politics; it is doubtful that it will, at least in the near future, send members to the Bundestag. Under German electoral law, a party must receive 5% of votes to be included in parliament. The Free Democrats slipped under the 5% requirement in the most recent election, for the first time since their formation after World War II. The FDP had long served as allies of the Christian Democrats/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU), led by victorious incumbent chancellor Angela Merkel. The FDP loss has left chancellor Merkel searching for a coalition partner, since her CDU/CSU, the Social Democrats, the Greens, and The Left are now alone in the Bundestag. The CDU/CSU could form a government with the Social Democrats or Greens, but not with The Left, because of the association of the latter with the former East German dictatorship and with radical socialism.
But a German think-tank, the Futureorg Institute, determined that 6.9% of German voters of Turkish origin favored BIG. In addition, another German non-governmental organization, Citizens for Europe, carried out a survey among 400,000 residents of Berlin who did not have German citizenship, and therefore could not vote in the local state elections of 2011. Citizens for Europe found that 6% of those it interviewed said that if they had the franchise they would choose BIG. And the German weekly, Der Spiegel, reported last year that The Greens had conducted a study of BIG, which the environmentalists assessed as a competitor among the many Turks and Kurds who have voted for them.
The "immigrant party" has yet to summon mass enthusiasm that might undermine German Turkish and Kurdish loyalty to parties favoring their integration into the majority society. The U.S.-based news portal, TurkishJournal.net, states that in the September 2013 Bundestag contest, BIG received only 2,700 votes for its own candidates and 17,700 for its general party slate. Under the German system, voters cast two ballots, one for a local candidate and one for a list under the party's name. For those concerned about BIG's possible expansion and influence, the poor number of ballots cast for it was evidence that a German Islamist party would likely remain marginal.
This result for BIG was far below the 5% barrier, which, from a pool of 62 million eligible voters, would range from about three million downward according to voter participation. Germany's population of Turkish background, including Turkish Kurds, is estimated at two million, or about 2.5% of the country's total of 81 million.
The alignment of a German Islamist party with Erdoğan's AKP appears to demonstrate that an AKP campaign to penetrate and, ultimately, dominate German Turks has begun in earnest. Such a development, long feared by German Turkish and Kurdish moderate and secular Muslims, may be slender in its probability of success, but its involvement in German Muslim life can only be negative.