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Mehmet and Edeltraud too: prospects for a multicultural Germany

Cem Özdemir
29 May 2003

One of the most tantalising questions that Germany must face up to at the present time is whether it would work for us to construct a sort of “roof”, under which all people who live here – no matter the cultural, ethnic or religious backgrounds from which they come – can establish themselves as part of our civil society. Such a roof must be supported, of course, by stable foundations, in order to fend off attacks of every kind.

I have asked myself for quite a while now how our society would have reacted had a catastrophe comparable to 11 September 2001 taken place in our country – perpetrated by people from a similar background. What would then happen to the already deplorable state of relations between immigrants of Muslim background and the majority population? It seems doubtful that the recent naturalisation legislation, which became law on 1 January 2000, would still find a majority in both houses of the German legislature. Indeed, had the same legislation not been passed three years ago, I doubt if it would have become law in today’s post-9/11 world.

In my view this is not connected only to Islamic realities: rather it has more to do with the general nature of contact with those cultures in Germany that are experienced as “foreign”. For example, relations with representatives of Jewish communities – who are automatically and collectively held responsible for the politics of Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, regardless of details of their work or the nature of their associations with Israel – allow us to predict what would happen in this country if another minority group suddenly found itself the centre of negative national attention.

When it comes to anti-Semitism, one must take into consideration the consequences of modern German history and the subsequent "civil safeguard system" - de-Nazification, education policy and the ‘watchdog role’ of the US media - which have resulted in a large measure of self-control among those whose opinions lean towards the anti-Semitic. However, politicians who claim they are being thanked for finally speaking "what everybody is thinking" illustrate just how thin this protective coating against anti-Semitism actually is.

A certain hierarchy of cultures, peoples and religions appears impossible to eradicate. If I consider the very different reactions to a social phenomenon – like, for example, youth violence – I begin to lose faith in the ultimate realisation of the basic principle of equality or the prohibition of violence, both stated in the German constitution. In the recent case of the juvenile repeat-offender “Mehmet from Bavaria”, everybody was outraged by the amount of sheer aggression shown by one young Turkish person (who was raised – and, therefore, learned his delinquency – here). His deportation to Turkey seemed to become the most pressing domestic political issue in Germany.

Meanwhile, young German people (read: children of native German parents), after setting fire to a facility for asylum-seekers or torturing and beating to death an equally German youth because of his or her clothing, are considered the unfortunate ones – exceptional cases who, with patience and a lot of understanding, can be rehabilitated. Even the most passionate advocates of law and order will mutate into sympathetic sociologists of youth with compassionate hearts for the social environments of these unfortunate creatures. We can say with certainty that it does not matter to the victims which country the parents of their aggressors came from. Yet our politicians and media continue to obsess over the issue and, in so doing, even further sensationalise the immigration issue.

Certainly the aggressive media coverage of cases like Mehmet is not representative of collective public opinion in Germany. My personal experiences alone attest to this – experiences, it should be noted, that many other individuals of non-German heritage, representing all sectors of society, can undoubtedly relate to.

However, in the US a headline like one that appeared in a major German news magazine not very long ago is simply unimaginable. The headline was used for an article describing a membership drive for the Green Party that I helped organise, in which forty-two German citizens of Turkish and Kurdish origin had registered as Greens. It proclaimed: “Özdemir brought his 42 Turks.” Almost 2.5 million people in Germany with Turkish passports know full well the connotation here of the intentionally-chosen word “Turks”. The author of the piece was indifferent to the fact that these were naturalised citizens – German citizens. In this context the term “Turks” carries the same implications as the now outdated terms “Coloureds” and “Negroes” would have in America. To stay with this example: not only in the US would this journalist have had difficulty finding a newspaper likely to print something as insensitive about, say, an African American Congressman.

I can also scarcely comprehend the reactions to the findings of the Pisa Study, which measures the extent to which students nearing the end of compulsory education possess the basic skills needed for full participation in society. In Germany the findings have been oversimplified (and grossly misinterpreted) to mean one thing: all the problems facing the German education system can be attributed to Turkish children who have yet to fully develop their German-language skills. One must make an extra effort to find the reports about German children in the land of Goethe, Schiller and Lessing whose literacy skills are equally astounding.

So what would a positive “multicultural vision” for Germany look like? It must be possible for young people with names like Mehmet, Giovanni and Olga to become part of our society, without their parents’ culture being an obstacle to their acceptance. (It is worth noting here that children and young people from German-Russian backgrounds, despite facing discrimination and integration problems in their daily lives, are generally left out of the discussion and exempted from statistical data, thanks to their distant German ancestry).

A new ‘hyphenated-identity’ could make it possible for “Anatolian-Swabians” to exist, and to be acknowledged like the German- and Russian-speaking Olga. Our Grundgesetz – the German constitution – sets the guidelines for a civil society that strives for shared values and a common language. Therein religious dogmatism and intolerance for dissidents has as little place as sexual oppression disguised and accepted under the blanket of religion. In our schools the entitlement to equal opportunity must be achieved, independent of the native tongue and level of education of the parents.

Not until Germany recognises that immigration issues affect everybody – native and non-native Germans alike – will we have established a protective roof for every member of our society. What we have to acknowledge and, more importantly, accept is the fact that these issues do not only affect Mehmet, Giovanni and Olga. They affect those with names like Hans, Eberhardt and Edeltraud, too.

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