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Turkish Integration

DW staff (th)February 11, 2008

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan called on his compatriots living in Germany not to give up their ethnicity. Chancellor Angela Merkel struck back by stressing the importance of integration.

Merkel and Erdogan at a press conference
Merkel disagreed with some of Erdogan's comments on educating Turks in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Merkel said she was pleased that Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan had pronounced himself in favor of integration. But she wondered if they were talking about the same thing.

"We will have to continue debating our understanding of integration issues with the Turkish prime minister," Merkel said during a visit to the northern city of Hamburg on Monday, Feb. 11.

Erdogan shocked Germans when he warned Turks against losing their culture during a political speech to 20,000 Turks in Cologne on Sunday.

"Assimilation is tantamount to a crime against humanity," Erdogan said.

Erdogan encouraged Turks living in Germany to teach their children to speak German, but he warned against giving up their Turkish ethnicity. Merkel sharply disagreed with many of his statements.

"I am pleased he pronounces himself in favor of integration and learning the German language, but long-term life in a country also involves a stronger acceptance of its habits," she said. "I don't think we have reached the end of this debate."

Integration debate continues

Statistics show that some 2.4 million people of Turkish origin live in Germany, more than in any other country in western Europe. Some are well integrated into German life. Others live a ghettoized existence where they speak only Turkish and maintain old traditions.

A Turkish teacher stands behind several students
Erdogan called on Turkish teachers to work at Turkish schools in GermanyImage: dpa

Merkel, who has promoted offering Turkey a "privileged partnership" with the EU rather than full membership, has been a proponent of integration for foreigners, holding a series of summits on the issue. Merkel and her conservative Christian Democratic Union take the view that immigrants should adapt to German culture.

This has caused frequent ire in parts of the Turkish community which advocate a multicultural approach.

Ali Kizilkaya, head of the German Muslim group Islamrat, told the Tagesspiegel newspaper that Erdogan's Sunday speech had touched many Turks in Germany by encouraging them not to forget their culture. Kizilkaya said he found it unbelievable that the speech had sparked outrage among German conservatives.

"A lot of Turks finally got the feeling a government leader was listening to them," Kizilkaya said of Erdogan's visit. "That's something Merkel could do too."

Educating future generations

But conservative leaders, such as Bavarian premier Guenther Beckstein, were alarmed by the Turkish prime minister's remarks. Beckstein called them "nationalistic" and "highly displeasing."

Three Turkish students during break from class
Turkish students won't get Turkish teachersImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

"The task (for Turks) is to be good citizens in Germany, to learn German and to speak German in their families," Beckstein told N24 television.

One further sticking point is whether students should be taught in Turkish. Merkel's government has been steadfast in saying that the primary language of instruction needs to be German.

Erdogan, however, suggested that since German-language schools and universities exist in Turkey, the opposite is desirable in Germany. He said Ankara could supply the teachers. Merkel rejected that idea. Teachers need to be trained in Germany, not abroad, Merkel said Monday.

Search for cultural balance

The chancellor said she supported ethnic Turks who grew up in Germany becoming teachers since these young people "know the problems of integration."

Woman writes the word "integration" on a chalk board
Integration isn't seen the same way by everyoneImage: dpa

Merkel said she also gave her backing to more schools offering Turkish as a second language "just like they offer English or French or Chinese."

But Merkel added that she didn't want "a child here going to a Turkish-language school where they learn German as their fifth foreign language."

Merkel also reiterated that for minority youth living in Germany, she is their leader, not Erdogan.

"If you have a concern, then this concern is just as important to me as it is to someone who can say they 500 years of German ancestry," she said. "The German government is responsible for these people, without them sacrificing their cultural plurality."