Referendum Inflames Concerns Over Turkey’s Grip in Germany

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES AND REUTERS)

The Cologne Central Mosque in Germany is covered in windows that allow outsiders and Muslims to have a view of each other’s worlds. CreditThilo Schmülgen/Reuters

COLOGNE, Germany — The impressive Islamic complex here, Germany’s largest, boasts towering minarets and a soaring prayer hall. But what Turkish officials here seem most proud of are the hundreds of windows, which allow outsiders and Muslim worshipers to glimpse each other’s worlds. The idea, they say, is transparency.

Yet it is what lies beneath the surface these days that concerns both Germans and Turks as Turkey prepares to vote on Sunday in a referendum that could vastly expand the powers of its already authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose reach into Germany — both open and concealed — has become an increasing point of friction.

Since Turks arrived for work in the 1960s, Germany has maintained the largest Turkish diaspora in Europe, now some three million people. For many years, Germany was happy to let the Turkish state provide and pay for prayer leaders and other provisions for its emigrants. This now includes overseeing more than 900 Muslim associations and training and appointing many of Germany’s imams. The large mosque complex here is a part of that network.

But Turkey’s resulting grip in Germany is coming back to haunt both sides. German intelligence agencies and politicians now charge that Mr. Erdogan is using the decades-old arrangement to hunt down and punish opponents as he pursues a desperately wanted victory that would make his authority all but unchallengeable. Roughly half of the Turks who live in Germany hold Turkish citizenship and are eligible to vote.

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The Germans have accused some imams sent by Turkey of spying on Turks living in Germany and of denouncing individuals and institutions critical of the president — right down to kindergartens. Such spying, the Germans said, has allowed the Turkish government to track down, detain and harass their targets’ families and associates back home in Turkey as part of a sweeping purge of Erdogan opponents.

Already, Mr. Erdogan’s long shadow over Germany’s Turkish communities is palpable. On the heavily Turkish Keupstrasse, a street in Cologne, some Erdogan critics voiced apprehension about posting opinions on social media. They waited until they were alone with reporters to express their opinions, speaking freely but then declining to be identified by name.

“Do not underestimate the danger,” said Lale Akgun, a former Social Democratic member of the federal Parliament, an Erdogan opponent and a longtime observer of German-Turkish relations. “This is like a mini-Turkey. Everything they have there, we have here, too,” she added, alluding to Turkey’s many potentially explosive political rifts.

The tensions and the turn toward a more authoritarian Turkey carry worrying implications not only for Germany, but for all of Europe.

In neighboring Belgium, the Flemish authorities this month shut down a Turkish mosque — the second biggest in the country — over its alleged ties to Mr. Erdogan’s governing party. Since then, Belgium’s intelligence chief said, Turkey has halted intelligence cooperation.

In Germany, the spying accusations surfaced in February. Afterward, Turkey’s state religious authority, Diyanet, said it had quietly withdrawn an unspecified number of imams “in order not to damage 40 years of relations.”

Nonetheless, the matter is roiling relations across the board. Turkish-Germans who have lived here for decades said they had trouble recalling a tenser time between Turkey and Europe.

Germany’s foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, recently held urgent meetings with Turkish community leaders, worrying aloud that 20 to 30 years of “successful work at living together can get broken.”

Mr. Erdogan and his associates hurled charges of Nazism at leaders in Germany and the Netherlands after those countries, sometimes citing sudden security concerns, banned rallies by Turkish ministers ahead of Sunday’s vote.

German leaders have denounced a retreat of democracy in Turkey, citing especially the detention — so far, without charges — of the German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel.

As it has for years with members or supporters of the outlawed P.K.K. movement for Kurdish independence, Turkey has handed German officials dossiers with the names of more than 300 people in Germany whom Ankara sees as working against Mr. Erdogan’s Turkey.

Allegedly, many of those who were named support the movement of Fethullah Gulen, a former Erdogan ally now accused of orchestrating last summer’s failed coup in Turkey. Mr. Gulen lives in Pennsylvania.

The dossiers included material obtained by illegal Turkish espionage on German soil, German officials said.

“It is certainly one of the most difficult phases in Turkish-German relations,” said Michelle Müntefering, who heads the Turkey committee in Parliament and was named in one of the dossiers.

“The Turkish government is increasingly following a course that leaves little room for discussion,” Ms. Müntefering said, referring to Turkey’s growing litany of complaints — from last year’s vote in Germany’s Parliament recognizing the Armenian genocide to a crude satire of Mr. Erdogan by the German comedian Jan Böhmermann.

The rise of a populist right wing in Germany does not help, she noted. “Integration requires moderation, not populist, illusory solutions,” she said.

Photo

Voters waited last week at the entrance to a polling station in the General Consulate of Turkey in Berlin. Almost 49 percent of Turks who live in Germany voted in a referendum that would greatly expand powers for Turkey’s president. CreditFelipe Trueba/European Pressphoto Agency

But it is Germany’s largest Muslim association, known as the Ditib, and its close association with Diyanet that is being singled out for special concern.

“Ditib must become independent of Turkey and its religious authority,” Ms. Müntefering said. And its imams, who also have a social function, should learn German and train at least in part in Germany, she added.

The chairman of Ditib, Nevzat Yasar Asikoglu, is counselor for religious and social affairs at the Turkish Embassy in Berlin. He was also directly appointed by Diyanet. Below him is a hierarchy of attaches who visit and advise Turkish-Muslim communities across Germany.

One way of avoiding the suspicion, said Zekeriya Altug, a Ditib spokesman, is to be more open and active. “We must make ourselves much more visible in this society,” he said in an interview at the Cologne mosque.

Others urge training of imams in Germany, “so that dispatching imams becomes superfluous,” said Haci Halil Uslucan, professor at the University of Duisburg-Essen and head of its respected Turkey institute.

But few universities in Germany offer Islamic studies. To a large extent, the root of the problem is a failure to acknowledge that the Turkish “guest workers” and their families who came here in the 1960s would stay. The result was delayed integration and an obstructed path to German citizenship.

In Turkish communities, therefore, Ditib is crucial, said Yildirim Petek, 59, manager of the Ankara Supermarket in Cologne. He cited the need for support and guidance if families raising children in German schools “get badly treated.”

“You see Turkish children here eating pork and wearing Christian crosses because it’s fashionable,” his wife, Eylul, said as she prepared a traditional breakfast at their three-bedroom home in a suburb of Cologne. “The situation is completely out of control.”

“We feel a part of the German community and make an effort to fit in,” she said. “But when we set foot inside this door, shoes come off and it’s a purely Turkish household.”

Between Germans and Turks, indignation often runs high, and social mixing tends to be low. Peter Pauls, a senior columnist for the local newspaper Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, recalled a Turkish wedding he recently attended. He was one of just a few native Germans among hundreds of guests, he said.

The ostracism Turks feel in Germany (whose bureaucracy can easily baffle and alienate natives) has helped fuel support for Mr. Erdogan. In past elections, Mr. Erdogan’s A.K.P. party, which has governed Turkey since 2002, has prevailed among Turks in Germany.

Fully aware of that support, Mr. Erdogan’s government sought to campaign vigorously here and elsewhere in Europe before the referendum. It wanted to make sure diaspora Turks voted, which they were entitled to do in the two weeks up to last Sunday.

Almost 49 percent of the Turks living in Germany and eligible to vote did so, an increase from about 41 percent in parliamentary elections in 2015.

Free buses ferried voters from Turkish neighborhoods to the Cologne Consulate, where several voters explained why they favored Mr. Erdogan.

“We have been treated well by the Germans, but now I must think of my daughter and son,” said Erdem Tasdelen, 47, a textile company manager. He said he had lived here more than 20 years and only recently became a supporter of the president.

“There is discrimination against Muslim communities here,” Mr. Tasdelen added, “and the only person sticking up for us is Erdogan.”

In earlier years, Mr. Erdogan wanted to guide Turkey into Europe, but Germans and other Europeans ignored him, said Aysegul Parlak, 38, a fashion designer from Adana, in southeast Turkey, who came to Cologne six years ago to work with her sister.

“They feel threatened by his potential and power, and they cannot handle the idea of a Muslim country progressing to their level,” she said of Germany and other European governments.

Echoing sentiments widely expressed among Germany’s Turks of late, Ms. Parlak said she did not feel as welcome as she once had felt.

“When I tell people I’m from Turkey, all they do is vent about Erdogan and talk about his authoritarian ways,” she said. “They should look in the mirror. If they faced as many internal and external threats as he does, they would also be firm.”

“There is a lot of hypocrisy,” Ms. Parlak concluded, “and the Turkish community here is becoming very resentful.”