Commentary Zafer Senocak

A Disastrous Marriage with No Hope of Dissolution

The relationship between Germans and Turks in Germany is on the rocks. The public discourse on the matter is characterised by mutual prejudice and misunderstanding. A commentary by Zafer Senocak

photo: University of Wales Press
Zafer Senocak: If statistics were to compare social instead of ethnic categories, Turks and Germans would appear to be revealingly similar

​​By now, it's almost accepted that German society includes immigrants but that society has started to develop odd growths. For example, there's been a debate for days now about the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) of Turkish children, which, according to statistics, is lower than that of German children. The connection between intelligence, failure at school and ethnic origin has suddenly emerged in public consciousness as a plausible and simple explanation for phenomena which are in reality complex and ambiguous.

But statistics have become a must for anyone who wants to talk about the relationship between Germans and Turks. The emotional coldness, the fear and the perceived foreignness of those who are different have apparently to be supported by hard facts. Turks beat their wives more often than Germans; their children do worse in school.

The similarities of Germans and Turks

But how would these statistics look if, instead of comparing Germans and Turks, one were to compare social classes? Lo and behold, if one does that (and it's done infrequently enough), then Germans and Turks suddenly become dangerously similar and the differences begin to fade. This is evidently so disturbing that even serious media usually find it more appropriate to publish figures on the basis of ethnic groups. That only betrays their own bias.

Such statistics are not published to enlighten the public, nor to uncover social evils. They are merely an expression of repressed feelings which cannot be spoken out loud in Germany after National Socialism. The figures are apparently objective, but this hides the fact that they stand at the service of racist ways of thinking, aiming to stigmatise others.

For some time now in Germany, a conflict has been waiting to explode. It is a conflict which will concern this country for years and decades to come and which could lead to considerable destabilisation. It's the conflict between Germans and Turks. It has become normal to talk of "the Germans" and "the Turks," not just in pubs and bars, but also in the respectable media. Differentiation has been abandoned in favour of a rhetoric of generalisation and ethnic stereotyping and obsession.

Religion overshadowing all other characteristics

The picture is no longer dominated by individuals but by groups. Now in addition, since the advent of Islamist terrorism, the Turks are also being included among "the Muslims"—a group which extends geographically from Morocco to Indonesia. It's as if religion overshadows all the other characteristics, like different histories, languages and social orientation. Consciously or subconsciously, a strategy of distance towards the Turks has become normal in Germany.

Such a strategy contradicts all the official calls for integration, and represents rather a fear of integration, a fear of a permanent Turkish presence in Germany, which could mean that Turks might in future live "disguised" as Germans. This is, unfortunately, a well-known phenomenon.

The situation was no different when the Jews were gaining their emancipation and equality at the end of the nineteenth century. "Can a Jew be a German?" was the question asked then by scholars and writers, worried about the welfare of the German nation. Nowadays you can't say such things quite so openly.

Demands of the 21st century too much for Europeans

And the Turks are of course not the same as the Jews. They haven't been living in Germany for centuries. But we're also no longer in the nineteenth century, but in the twenty-first. And it's precisely the demands of this twenty-first century which seem to be too much for many people in Europe, not just in Germany.

Those who can't cope with sudden social change, with complex, often contradictory shifts of identity, with cultural upheavals, with the challenges which come from immigration and globalisation—such people often grasp at old reliable patterns of ethnic prejudice and obsession. Prejudice helps to secure the borders between Oneself and the Other.

All of a sudden, the "alien worker" emerges from behind the "guest worker," even though society had already decided to upgrade the guest worker, if not to German citizen, then at least to "migrant."

“I have nothing against foreigners, but…”

Only a decade ago, Turks were being physically attacked by Neonazis in Germany. Even if the names of places like Mölln or Solingen have disappeared from most Germans' minds, they are still remembered by Turks, and they provide a context which is still relevant to their encounters with "the" Germans. The Turks discovered the Nazi in the German long ago, not just in individual cases, but as a pattern of thinking.

That pattern of thinking may well still be hidden by many taboos, but it emerges into the light when people say things which begin with "One must at least be able to say that . . . " or "I have nothing against foreigners, but . . . "

Under such circumstances, it would be a miracle if Germans and Turks were to come closer. In fact, an insecure German consciousness confronts a deeply divided Turkish consciousness. As a Turk, if you want to belong, you're told you may not, and if you don't want to belong, you're attacked for it.

It has become increasingly difficult to see things from another perspective, a skill which is so important for mutual communication and recognition. People are becoming increasingly less able to see things through the eyes of others.

What are you? Turk or German?

Instead, people divide into camps: if you're a Turk, you can't be a German! The rigid borders give rise to an over-emotional atmosphere which makes it harder to think critically about the problems on one's own side and strengthens national feelings.

And those who can't or don't want to restrict themselves to simple-minded descriptions of their own side or the other, because they don't feel themselves to be either one or the other—such people are scarcely heard. Or else they're accused of sitting on the fence.

This is not a description of the failure of the so-called multicultural society—that's here to stay, as long as we see cultures as closed spaces which are complete and harmonious in themselves. It's rather a description of a painful marriage which has been entered into without enough thought on either side.

We won't get out of this disastrous marriage simply by a divorce. It is more likely that the relationship will continue until the children decide whether they want to deal with the issues in a more relaxed and creative way—such as one sometimes finds in the artistic productions of the third immigrant generation—or whether they'll just beat each other's heads in.

Zafer Senocak

© TAZ/ 2005

Translation from German: Michael Lawton

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