By Megha Ram
Contributing Writer

Imagine you are walking down the street and you hear Turkish spoken all around you, döner restaurants are scattered throughout the city, and you see women in headscarves walking by. Perhaps you are in Istanbul? Or maybe Ankara? While this description indeed may be representative of many Turkish cities, it also aptly describes Kreuzberg, a district in Germany’s capital Berlin, where about one-third of the population is Muslim, the majority of them ethnically Turkish.[1]

At the onset of the 21st century, about one-tenth of Germany’s population was made up of immigrants, and Turks comprised the largest immigrant group.[2] Large scale Turkish immigration to Germany began in the 1960’s as part of a guest-worker program. In subsequent years, the Turkish migrant population increased dramatically when many of the workers decided to stay in Germany, bringing their families from Turkey.[3] Since it was assumed that these guest workers would return to their home country eventually, there was little done in the way of integration policies, and thus “parallel societies” [4] were formed. Lisa Peters*, a German student currently on an Erasmus exchange program in Turkey, describes the lack of integration represented by these parallel societies,

“Sometimes I am in the city center surrounded by Turkish people and they
are only speaking Turkish. Or sometimes I go into a shop and the shopkeeper
barely speaks German and I want to buy something, but I can’t. I think in
Germany there is a fear of losing our “Germaneness” and that the German
identity is changing.”

Over the years, issues of integration, prejudice, and identity have taken the form of overt clashes as well as unsaid tensions. In fact, it is these unsaid tensions that create feelings of mistrust and illuminate the insecurities within German society over identity and assimilation. Lisa elaborates,

“I have a Turkish friend that I used to talk to about this issue, and she used
to say that they [Turks] are normal people and its ridiculous to think that
they will kill you in the streets or something. So if I am walking through the
city center and there are a lot of Turks I am usually calm, but there is just a
feeling of uncertainty. I mean, if someone asks you if they will hit you, you
say probably no, but it is in the back of your head. I can’t understand them
and I feel separate; I don’t know if they are laughing at me or talking about
me and I would rather just get home fast, especially at night. I don’t feel the
same way around Germans at night – I don’t feel uncertain.”

According to Ghassan Hage, a Professor of Anthropology and Social Theory at the University of Melbourne, these types of feelings manifest in a “tribal” mentality. This mentality emerges when people feel threatened because of their ethnicity and subsequently self segregate with their own ethnic group. Hage describes how the majority group feels susceptible and responds by developing “a border mentality”.[5] There is also a similar feeling among minority groups who feel discriminated against and subsequently develop a reactionary “we need to protect ourselves” mindset.[6] Although Hage specifically used these terms to describe the relations between the Lebanese and Anglo communities in Australia, his theory proves saliently applicable to other immigrant communities as well, including the Turkish minority in Germany. Fabian Maier, like Lisa a German exchange student in Turkey, comments on this tribal mentality and how it is evinced as self-segregation by both sides,

“There is a getthoization of Turkish kids; some stay together and become
aggressive against all others. Then on the other side there are some neo-
Nazis present in Germany who beat people up because they have a different
skin color.”

These are clearly extreme expressions of a tribal mentality, however Lisa’s personal discomfort in the Turkish-dominated districts of Germany shows that less extreme versions of this mentality are conspicuous in mainstream German society as well.

Turkish-German students express similar feelings of separateness when they speak about their place in German society. Ethnically Turkish, Ali Akyol is currently an Erasmus exchange student at Bilkent University in Turkey, however he was born and raised in the small town of Biberach in Southern Germany. There were relatively few Turks in Ali’s village and he grew up playing soccer, going to school, and making friends with the other German children in his village. This environment enabled Ali to integrate into German society in a way that most Turkish-German youth do not. The majority of the Turkish-German population, youth included, fail to integrate primarily because the Turkish population is large enough in big cities to function as a separate entity. As may be expected, this makes integration less vital for daily life and subsequently there is little intermingling between the groups. Although Ali feels he is well integrated in many ways due to his upbringing in a small village, he continues to question his place in German society,

“Personally I feel integrated into Germany because I speak the language,
I was born there, I went to school there, and I worked there. But German
people don’t give me the feeling that I am very welcome when they talk about
my Turkish background and ask me questions about my religion in a disrespectful
way. Sometimes they ask me why Turks are violent and I have to explain the
circumstances of the Turkish population in Germany to them again and again.”

Berkay Ozbek, a 22-year-old Turkish-German student studying in Turkey, describes similar feelings of separateness from mainstream German society,

“At home [in Germany] we speak Turkish, eat Turkish food, and are
connected to Turkish culture. Also, our family friends are all Turkish
families either from the Mosque or that my parents have known for years.
I do feel connected to German ideas, the German lifestyle, and to where I
was raised and the people in my life, but I do not feel connected to the
country itself. I don’t feel like I belong to a state.”

The lack of integration into the German community stems partially from economic differences that have been perpetuated over the generations. The first major waves of immigration consisted of unskilled labor generally recruited from poor regions of Turkey to work in low-skill jobs. Thus, the initial Turkish immigrants were from lower socio-economic classes and largely illiterate, which prevented their participation in mainstream German society. This economic gap began a vicious cycle; the economic discrepancy contributes to the continuing divergence in educational attainment, which in turn perpetuates the economic gap. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) assesses a student’s level of essential knowledge for participation in society. In 2003, PISA revealed that the math scores of second-generation Turkish students were over two years behind the math scores of German students. Furthermore, according to The Economist, one-sixth of immigrant-background students drop out of school compared to one-tenth of German students.[7] Berkay saw this divergence in educational attainment play out among his childhood friends,

“Before kindergarten I used to play with the other Turkish kids in my
neighborhood. Once school started I became interested in school and I
felt more connected to a lot of the German students who studied, while
the Turkish kids from my neighborhood kept playing. There were four
of us Turkish students from the neighborhood in my class when we started
kindergarten, but all of them except me had to repeat first grade, and from
then I was the only Turkish student in my class until high school.”

Although Ali is currently a University level student, he also has personal knowledge of the academic hurdles many young Turkish-German students face,

“They don’t have the necessary help from their parents because their
parents probably work in low paying jobs and don’t have time or energy
to help with schoolwork. In my family, my father works in a factory all day –
so when I was younger and he used to come home from work, he was too
tired to help me with my homework and he couldn’t communicate well.
My mother only went to elementary school in Turkey and so she was not
able to help me either.”

Although these circumstances made it more difficult for Ali to succeed academically, he did well in school. He attributes this to his upbringing in a small German town where he made German friends and benefited from their educational expectations and the German language skills he acquired. However, for the Turkish-German youth that live in big cities, the lack of parental involvement drastically reduces their chances of a receiving a complete education and attending University. In addition, they grow up in an environment where German is not commonly spoken and thus prospects for success in a German language school are diminished even further.

The Turkish-German students that do succeed in school often continue to wrestle with their identity. Both Ali and Berkay described their life as a choice between two identities, especially as they got older and advanced in their schooling. Berkay felt that he had to make a decision during his college years about which group he would become a part of,

“I could have chosen to be with the Turks and been isolated. Or I could
choose to just go with the German people and have a connection with my
school and my peers. For me it looked like a choice and now I am the only
Turk in my group of friends at University.”

The Turkish youth seem to be caught between worlds, not completely fitting in with the Turkish culture of their parents and grandparents or their current German environment. A similar separation from German identity, albeit on a lower level, is also seen in other immigrant groups. Fabian, although ethnically German, was born in Tajikistan and moved to Germany when he was two years old. His grandparents moved to Tajikistan from Germany during WWII and his parents’ generation was born and raised entirely in Tajikistan. When Fabian’s family moved back to Germany, his family moved to a lower class neighborhood with high populations of Russian, Ukrainian, and other former USSR migrants, in addition to those of Turkish heritage. Although Fabian is ethnically German, he describes himself as in between the German and immigrant communities of Germany,

“I don’t consider myself really German; growing up I spoke with Russian
and Polish kids in my neighborhood a lot and we had the feeling of being a
separate community, but that changed in high school. I have mostly German
friends now, but when my friends find out my immigrant background they
make jokes – the clichés about drinking vodka and wearing leather jackets.”

In Fabian’s neighborhood, the Turkish immigrants shared a similar socioeconomic status with their Russian and Polish neighbors, but found it more difficult to integrate into German society. As Fabian explains, media representation and growing Islamaphobia in the years following 9/11 are contributing factors,

“If you go by media coverage, the problem with Turkish youth not integrating
seems to be way bigger than with Eastern European kids. You read about both
making trouble, getting into fights, and having higher levels of unemployment,
but in the media the characterization of Turks being ‘loud and aggressive’ is
more prominent. I think what adds to the situation is that the Turks have a
Muslim background, so some tabloids play the side that ‘Muslims’ are causing
the trouble.”

Therefore, while economic and educational considerations impede integration, it is evident that cultural and religious differences also separate the two communities.

Furthermore, the Turkish immigrants that choose to go to Germany face the challenge of preserving their culture and heritage in a foreign environment. Turkish immigrants amplify their “Turkishness” in order to protect and maintain their culture as a reaction to the dominant German culture. Berkay explains how Turkish-Germans must perform a challenging balancing act in order to integrate into German society without losing their Turkish culture,

“In Germany if you want to integrate you get the values of German people.
You can’t coexist; you have to give up your identity and Turks are patriotic,
so they don’t want to do that.”

However, when large groups of immigrants resist integration or are unable to successfully integrate, it creates resentment and in extreme cases can impede the proper functioning of the state. Hannah Schneider, a 21-year-old German student says,

“If you go to another country then you really have to adopt certain things
like language, some rules, and some moral aspects of the culture you came
to. I think Turkish people are really different. They have to adopt the rules
of German culture and integrate better.”

Hannah explains that it is difficult for many Germans who feel this way to express their opinion due to Nazi German history. This historical legacy prevents Germany from acting like other European nations in regards to their Muslim populations and Islam in general,

“In the Netherlands there is one party that is really anti-Islam that has
gotten more and more popular. There would never be a party like that in
Germany that gets popular because of our history – we would be seen as
Nazi Germany. The party of neo-Nazis in Germany would never get so
popular or into government. Also, in France they do not allow the head-
scarf in school. Germany also doesn’t do this because of the history, and
because it will be labeled as racist,” Hannah said.

Other avenues of discussion center on cross cultural education as a solution to many of the integration issues plaguing Germany. While Hannah emphasizes that the Turks should adopt some aspects of German culture, she also stresses the importance of increasing knowledge about Turkish culture among Germans,

“You have to adopt the rules of your new country, but you also have to
keep some rules of your culture. You shouldn’t forget where you come
from. I think German people also need to get to know more about Turks
and should do more to get educated about the Turkish lifestyle and religion.”

There have been a few government and private initiatives aimed at increasing integration through mutual understanding and education. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) oversees integration courses that bring ethnic Germans and immigrants together in order to improve social cohesion. The BAMF publishes the “Blickpunkt Integration Ausgabe,” which provides information about integration initiatives throughout Germany. In addition, the BAMF provides language seminars as well as courses about German history, culture, and the legal system. Each lesson costs 2.35 Euros, however the government subsidizes 1.35 Euros, making the cost 1 Euro per lesson. The typical integration course is 645 lessons; meaning one course costs 645 Euros.[8] Regardless of the course’s potential effectiveness, 645 Euros is a steep price to pay for many immigrant families. In addition, the existence of these courses is not widely known – of the five German and Turkish-German students interviewed for this article, only one knew that the government offered any integration programs.

This lack of knowledge about integration policies may be related to the taboo nature of integration discussions. The controversy over failed integration is ubiquitous, however it is still regarded as an off limits topic that is often circumvented in the political and policy making arenas. According to Fabian, politicians use vague speech instead of directly addressing the issue,

“I hope we can directly address the points that have gone wrong.
Openness and directness on both sides would be great, but now it
seems that everyone jumps at the opportunity to get offended.”

While acknowledging this research is limited to five students, it illuminates at large the complex problems of identity and integration between minority and nonminority sides that define the Turkish experience in German society. Of course, as with any problem there are two sides, but perhaps in this case that is precisely the fundamental problem. Limited interaction between these disparate communities throughout the years has led to an ingrained lack of understanding on both sides. If the people can find ways to learn about each other, they can then increase cross-cultural understanding and perhaps develop a higher level of mutual respect. While the complexities of the issue make an easy solution impossible, increasing understanding and respectful dialogue may bring Germany one-step closer to a solution – whether it is successful integration, restricted migration, or something else entirely.

*All real names of interviewees have been replaced for anonymity.

Image by Megha Ram, used with permission from the writer.


[1] Dowling, Siobhán. “Dispelling the Myth of ‘Parallel Societies’: Are Berlin’s Muslims a Model for Integration?” SPIEGEL ONLINE – Nachrichten. 28 Apr. 2010. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.

[2] “Germany – Ethnic Groups.” Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.

[3] “Germany’s Turkish Minority: Two Unamalgamated Worlds.” The Economist – World News, Politics, Economics, Business & Finance. The Economist, 3 Apr. 2008. Web. 07 Oct. 2011.

[4] Pötzl, Norbert F. “Muslims in Germany: Life in a Parallel Society – SPIEGEL ONLINE – News – International.” Spiegel Online – Nachrichten. 16 Apr. 2008. Web. 01 Nov. 2011.

[5] Hage, Ghassan with Stephen McDonell (interviewer). “Interview with Dr Ghassan Hage.” Four Corners. Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 26 Aug. 2002. Web. 29 Oct. 2011. http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/stories/s677558.htm

[6] Hage, Ghassan with Stephen McDonell (interviewer). “Interview with Dr Ghassan Hage.” Four Corners. Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 26 Aug. 2002. Web. 29 Oct. 2011. http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/stories/s677558.htm

[7] “Germany’s Turkish Minority: Two Unamalgamated Worlds.” The Economist – World News, Politics, Economics, Business & Finance. The Economist, 3 Apr. 2008. Web. 07 Oct. 2011.

[8] “Overview of Integration.” BAMF – Integrationsportal – Bundesamt Für Migration Und Flüchtlinge – Integration – Startseite. Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF). Web. 31 Oct. 2011.

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