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Turkish conflict in Germany?

Nina Niebergall
November 5, 2016

Anger and desperation motivated many Kurds living in Germany to march in Berlin, Cologne, Dortmund and Hanover. The protests over the arrest of Kurdish politicians from the HDP party were peaceful.

Türkei Kurden demonstrieren in Istambul
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Suna

Hundreds of people joined spontaneous protests over the jailing of Kurdish politicians Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag from the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). Thousands aired their grievances on social media platforms. "This is Erdogan's final declaration of war on the Kurdish people," said Ali Ertan Toprak, head of Germany's large Kurdish community when talking with DW.

Both politicians have been in the crosshairs of the Turkish government since it began jailing over 30,000 people that it called "enemies of the state" in the wake of July's failed military coup. The government in Ankara accuses the leftist-liberal HDP of supporting the banned Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) and thus supporting terrorism. The party denies the accusation. Nevertheless, over the past several weeks numerous oppositional Kurdish politicians have been removed from office, journalists have been persecuted and pro-Kurdish media outlets have been closed down. The HDP's electoral success last year made it a serious political force in Turkey and Demirtas one of Erdogan's most important rivals.

'Robbed of democratic possibilities'

Demirtas, says Toprak, was not only a symbol of hope for Kurds in Turkey and Germany but also for Turkish democrats. "By jailing democratically elected Kurdish politicians committed to finding a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question, the government has robbed Kurds of all democratic options." Thus Erdogan is driving the Kurds into the arms of the PKK. Toprak warns: "Now the conflict will be carried out with violent means - possibly worse than at any time over the last few decades."

Türkei Kurden demonstrieren in Istambul
Turkish police use a water cannon to disperse protestors during a rally against the arresting of lawmakers of the People's Democratic Party (HDP), in Istanbul, Turkey, 05 November 2016. Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Suna

Toprak is certain that the situation "will spill over into Germany, where Turks and Kurds live." When he speaks of Turks and Kurds in Germany, he is talking about 1.5 million people - secular, Muslim, conservative and liberal. The Turkish diaspora is just as fractured as Turkish society itself. No one knows that better than Gokay Sofuoglu, chairman of the Turkish Community in Germany (TCG), an umbrella organization for some 270 associations. His organization is charged with the task of representing all of Turkey's ethnic groups in Germany. He explained to DW that this includes Sunnis, Alevis and Kurds.

Mirror of Turkish society

"Turkish domestic policies are very much present in Germany," Sofuoglu continues. The fact that inner-Turkish conflicts are mirrored in the German-Turkish community has been made apparent over the years by major demonstrations both for and against Erdogan, AKP rallies and even in election returns from Turks living in Germany.

One trend, more than any, is clear: many Germans with Turkish roots still strongly identify with their country of origin. A comprehensive study published this June by Detlef Pollack, a sociology of religion professor at the University of Münster, showed that Turks in Germany feel well integrated but at the same time do not feel as if they are fully accepted as equal members of German society.  

That benefits one man more than any other: Erdogan. In Turkish parliamentary elections held in November 2015, some 60 percent of Turks living in Germany voted for his Justice and Development Party (AKP). The Turkish president has effectively used such feelings of alienation to gain voters' sympathies. His credo: you belong with us. Thus he gives many Turks living in Germany the feeling that they can be proud of their heritage and the things that "their" president is doing for them.

'Labeled terrorists'

"There are groups within Germany's Turkish community that defend everything that Erdogan does because they long for a different Turkey," explains Toprak. He says that Erdogan is pushing the country towards an Islamic dictatorship. And many of Erdogan's supporters see what is happening now as "important step toward reaching that goal." The head of the Kurdish community in Germany adds: Those who are of a different opinion are "declared terrorists and handled as such."

Toprak himself is attacked daily on social media platforms for openly criticizing Erdogan's policies. Just this Thursday, the German edition of the Turkish newspaper "Sabah" ran an image of Toprak together with Germany's Green party co-chair Cem Ozdemir and journalist Can Dundar, who is now living in German exile, labeling them traitors. The newspaper is considered to be a mouthpiece for the AKP. "Of course that leads many Turks with Islamic-nationalist leanings to see us as traitors," says Toprak.

'The world is silent'

Both Toprak and Sofuoglu predict that there will be a number of protests and demonstrations over the next several days. "Kurds and democracy minded Turks will want to voice their opinions," explained Sofuoglu. "That will bring conflict to Germany's Turkish community."

Deutschland Kurden demonstrieren in Köln
Kurdish demonstrators in the German city of Cologne on November 5th 2016Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Hitij

Toprak goes a step further: "If Turkish nationalists take to the streets in the next few days and call for counter-demonstrations, one cannot rule out the possibility that their will be rioting in Germany." He emphasizes: "Kurds are desperate because their democratically elected representatives have been arrested and the world isn't saying anything about it." If people get the feeling that no one is listening to them it could lead to thoughtless acts.

Toprak says that Germany's federal government has a special obligation to deescalate the situation by "condemning Erdogan's actions in unmistakable terms." Demands from the Kurds are clear: immediately suspend EU accession talks with Turkey, end all economic aid and stop arms sales.