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Tension in Berlin over Turkey

Mathias Bölinger / groAugust 15, 2015

Germany is home to about 3 million people of Turkish origin. As the Erdogan regime attacks Kurdish positions, spillover fears have heightened in Germany. DW's Mathias Bölinger spoke to interested parties in Berlin.

Image: DW/M. Bölinger

The men come out of the prayer room and take their shoes off the shelf. A handful of believers have come to pray on this particular evening. Most of the men here come from Turkey. Many are retired, but there are some younger men among them. A 40-year-old man with a stubbly beard who came to pray with his young son says he's "really pissed off." He is angry that Europe does not support Turkey in its battle against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been fighting against the state for decades now.

The small backyard mosque in Berlin's Neukölln district is operated by the state-owned Turkish mosque association DITIB. The office of Milli Gorus, which has propagated the idea of political Islam among Turkish Muslims since the 1970s, is located in the same building. The Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, has been observing the group's activities. It's a largely conservative crowd that comes to pray here, the men who share the worldview professed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "For the first time in 80 years, Turkey is moving upward economically," says a man with a mustache like the president's. "That is why the West is attacking Erdogan."

The people here do not understand the international criticism of Turkey's bombing Kurdish positions in northern Iraq. They are convinced that Germany is covertly supporting the PKK to weaken Turkey and that the German government tacitly accepts the fact that the weapons delivered to Kurdish peshmerga fighters in Iraq end up in the hands of the PKK.

Nearly 3 million people in Germany have Turkish roots. The government estimates that about half of them are Kurds. Violence has often erupted between the two groups in Germany, especially whenever the decades-old conflict in Turkey escalates anew. The men in front of the mosque believe that "something is going to happen" in Germany again - and, of course, that it will be instigated by the PKK.

'We are worried'

For now, peace seems to prevail among the various factions. "There are no tensions," says Bekir Yilmaz, the conservative-leaning chairman of the Turkish Community of Berlin.

Ayse Demir, the spokeswoman for the liberal Turkish Alliance Berlin-Brandenburg, is also under the impression that things are quiet. "But we are worried," she says. The more the conflict intensifies in Turkey, the higher the chances of mounting tensions in Germany.

The community is no longer divided into just two groups: supporters of the government and supporters of the Kurdish rebels. Every political movement in Turkey is represented in Germany, as well. There are clubs that support the ruling Islamist Justice and Development party (AKP) and those associated with the secular Kemalists; there are left-wing and right-wing groups, nationalist and religious groups. The main political parties either have official representations or associations that convey their message to the German public. The Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD), for example, is considered to be the voice of Erdogan's AKP.

Like the men in front of the mosque, the UETD has appealed to Germany's government to take Erdogan's side in the conflict. "It is unacceptable that terrorist attacks are only met with silence," says Fatih Zingal, the deputy chairman of the organization, demanding that Germany forbid PKK supporters to travel abroad, like the travel bans imposed on supporters of the "Islamic State" (IS).

The Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) also maintains an office in Berlin. The collective movement of Kurdish, left-wing and liberal groups whose electoral success recently cost Erdogan his absolute majority has its headquarters in the Wedding district. The same building is also home of the Kurdish association Nav-Dem. If you compare this place to the scene in front of the mosque, you quickly understand how different the lifestyles of Turkish immigrants are in Berlin. Portraits of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan hang on the walls of the assembly hall. On a table by the wall, the portraits of fallen PKK fighters are lined up (pictured), as though they were on an altar. Here, they speak of Kurdish liberation and models of self-government that oppose capitalist modernity.

Mehtap Erol is a member of the association and one of the two chairs of the HDP in Berlin. She doesn't hide her sympathy for the PKK. "The guerrillas are the only hope for the people of Kurdistan," she says. The party gives people the feeling that there is "still someone there to protect us," even though not all HDP members would subscribe to this opinion. The pluralistic HDP has managed, for the first time, to bring together Kurdish activists, left-leaning Kemalists, liberals, and representatives of gays and lesbians.

"A lot has changed in Berlin because of the HDP," Erol says. For the first time, Kurds feel that their concerns are being taking seriously in the Turkish community, but also in German politics. "Before, when we took to the streets, people would just say, 'Oh yeah, it's those Kurds again,' but it's different now," she says. The HDP is working with the German Left party. Even Greens co-chairman Cem Özdemir, whose father came from Turkey and who has written books about migration and Turkish politics, has pledged his support.

Mehtap Erol
Erol's HDP has managed to unite a broad coalition of the Turkish leftImage: DW/M. Bölinger

Erol and two other Kurdish activists are sitting on a garage roof, which is like a terrace connected to the clubrooms. Their fears are also growing. Hüsniye Günay is a Yazidi woman who says that she increasingly fears IS supporters in Berlin. The other day, she says, three bearded young men followed her right up to her front door. She runs her fingers over the silver chain she is wearing with a peacock pendant on it, the symbol of the Yazidis. Her mother recently made her promise on the phone to no longer wear the pendant: "She refused to hang up before I swore not to wear it."

They, too, expect more support from the German government, which in their eyes not only means a more determined battle against IS, but also a lifting of the ban on the PKK. The three men in front of the mosque would probably be outraged by that idea. Seda Akter, the third person at the table, explains the unspoken rule for interaction with Turkish neighbors or parents of children's classmates: do not talk about politics or religion. "My views make me a terrorist in their eyes," Akter says. "But, as long as it remains unsaid, we sit together and drink tea."

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