By Todd Wehrkamp
This week German national soccer player Mesut Özil retired from the national team, citing reasons of racism and discrimination as a German with Turkish heritage and feeling “unwanted”. This came after vehement criticism for a photo taken with President Recep Erdoğan with a signed jersey that said, “For my president”. Understandably, there was outrage in Germany. Erdoğan is an authoritarian strongman who has a habit of putting his political prisoners in jail, stifling freedom of the press, and abusing human rights. German political journalist Deniz Yucel was even held prisoner in Turkey after being accused of espionage for an entire year.
These events, along with the general climate of anti-democratic, nationalist movements across the globe, made the photo that much more ill-advised. Though Özil claimed he was simply showing respect to his family’s country of origin, the backlash went past ugly. Özil and his teammate İlkayGündoğan, who also signed a jersey and posed for a photo, were booed and called racial slurs during matches by their own fans during the World Cup.Germany was promptly eliminated from the World Cup in major upsets to Mexico and South Korea, with some blaming Özil and Gündoğan for destroying the team’s chemistry.
In a explaining his decision, Özil refernced a double standard for other non-German-born players of European heritage and a series of blatantly racist remarks from important German figures, the most prominent being German politician Bernd Holzhauercalling him a “goat fucker”.The subsequent reaction from the German media has been a month-long condemnation of Özil while breezing over the unapologetic bigotry. Chancellor Merkel has remained diplomatic as always and national coach Joachim Löw has been completely silent. While this story will eventually cycle out of the news, a long-festering debate has been suddenly thrust onto center stage. Everyone in Germany is suddenly talking about Turkish-Germans.A quick history lesson. In the 1960’s, Germany faced a severe labor shortage due to its Wirtschaftswunder, the economic miracle it experienced after being devasted by WWII. In response workers from Southern Europe and Turkey were invited to occupy low-end jobs. They were given the term Gastarbeiter, which means guest workers. This term was used to avoid the more negative, Nazi-era term of Fremdarbeiter, or foreign workers. Nevertheless, the name implied that like most guests, they eventually return home. After the Turkish people came to Germany, found work and started families, moving back to a Turkey with less opportunity was not an attractive option. So many decided to stay.
This is not what the German government had in mind. In the 1970s, Turkish guest workers were offered up to 1500 Deutsche Marksto return to Turkey. Longtime chancellor Helmut Kohl had plans to halve the Turkish population in Germany during his time in office. Fifty years later, there are around 3 million Turks living in Germany, and the relationship between the native German population and those with Turkish background is uneasy at best.I have personally been floored as young, progressive Germans would scoff and make racist remarks when the issue of die Türken came up, calling them aggressive, violent, and dangerous. A friend of mine claimed that Özil deserves criticism for the photo with an authoritarian ruler because he is not aligning with German democratic values. However, if the democracy was so important, why did Germany participate in a World Cup in a country run by another authoritarian ruler? If the symbolism of German democracy means so much I suspect they will not be taking part in the next World Cup in Qatar…right?The more conservative Germansexpress their views more directly by claiming Turkish Germans do not want to integrate and live in a parallel society. A former colleague of mine accused Turkish-Germans of just collecting money from the government and using Germany “so they don’t have to go back to their dirt holes”. Comments like these are often said without caution because the two communities predominantly don’t have anything to do with one another outside of kebab shops.
Differentiating Turkish-Germans from one another is a rare practice in public discourse. In Özil’s case, he was made to be a blanket symbol all Turks in Germany and their apathy toward integrating into German society, even though he is a multi-millionaire who has been living in Spain and England since 2010.
The German view of those with Turkish heritage as a monolith was also exhibited by the reaction to the recent elections in Turkey. Around 1.4 million people in Germany are eligible to vote in the Turkish elections. In the recent referendum to aggregate even more power to President Erdogan, 43% of Turkish-Germans cast their vote. Two thirds of those voters were in favor of Erdogan. That means out of the three million Turkish-Germans, just over 300,000, or 10% voted in favor of Erdogan. It is a small percentage of people not unlike the neo-Nazi Alternative for Deutschland, Pro-Brexit chaps in the UK or the MAGA crowd in the US. They reject liberal democratic values in favor of nationalism and protectionism. But because racism works like that, the headline in Der Spiegel was as follows, Türken in Deutschland wählen Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turks in Germany vote Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was generally accepted and reported as fact by other news outlets and people move on with confirmation that the Turks don’t belong in Deutschland.
Aside from your garden-variety white supremacy, Islamophobia is a deeply rooted source of the conflict. There is a wide ride of Islamic belief amongst the Turkish population from fundamentalist views that Islamic law is more important than the laws of the government to more secular interpretations where Islam is generally not practiced. Like anywhere else, the younger generation tends toward a . Nevertheless, there is tension because Germany is undoubtedly a Christian country. The German constitution guarantees freedom of religion but there is no explicit separation of church and state.Christian holidays are national holidays. Angela Merkel’s ruling party is called the Christian Democratic Union. Refugees in Bavaria can receive expediated asylum if they convert to Catholicism. Though most Germans are not actually active in the church, it is still very much a part of the culture.
Özil has received strong support from the Turkish-German community, echoing his remarks and offering their own stories of mistreatment. Though they were born in Germany, were educated in German schools and speak the language, German citizens with Turkish heritage are generally not considered German. Özil made mention of this by saying that when he wins he is a German and when he loses he is an immigrant. This moment was an open lane for those who do not want immigrants in Germany. Or at least some immigrants.
I live in Germany. I am employed by a German companyand I plan to eventually obtain dual citizenship. I am an immigrant. The difference is that as a white guy from the US. I am not treated like other immigrants. When I speak my native language on the train nobody looks twice. People smile and gush when I say I like living in their country. Nobody has ever offered me money to leave and I have never felt unwelcome.Most Turkish-Germans I have spoken to, as did Özil, say that have two hearts. One for Germany and one for their Turkey. This comment angers and upsets many native Germans because it implies a lack of loyalty. I often echo this sentiment to German friends and colleagues, but when I say it, they simply nod and ask me how often I go back home to see my family or laugh in the ways that I have become “Germanized”.As I was told by 20-something in Munich, I am a “guteAusländer”, a good foreigner.
Daily Show host, Trevor Noah, highlighted a similar situation by saying when France won the World Cup, it was a win for Africa. The majority of the French squad is of African descent. He was immediately corrected in a letter by a French ambassador, explaining that the players were not African, but French, Noah then responded by posing the question, why not both? It is as vexing as it is simplistic, but my duality is accepted because I am white in Europe. Turkish Germans or African French are not. Full stop.
Mesut Özil posed for a powerful photograph without considering all the consequences, but his response to the criticism was a thoughtfuland pointed condemnation of a culture that, frankly speaking, hates who he is. He exposed a double standard that exists exclusively forhis religion and ethnicity, and though we shouldn’t quite nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize, he brought a moment of reckoning in Germany that, despite its dark past, naively believes that it suffers very little from racism. For the first time I am seeing Turkish pundits on prime-time TVgive their open and honest opinion on the racism and discrimination they experience in their home country. With a bit of luck, it can be the start of a discussion that has been on hold for decades.
Todd Wehrkamp is a Berlin-based foreigner who sends hot takes to his friend’s blog.