Monday, 1 August 2016

Erdogan’s Germans

Politicians in Austria and Germany are becoming increasingly alarmed over the Turkish president’s influence in their countries.

Yesterday in Cologne, 30,000 German residents amassed in the city center to pledge allegiance to a foreign leader.

The demonstrators, Turkish immigrants or people of Turkish decent, were following a call to action from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, asking people to show solidarity against the attempted military coup on 15 July. They brandished iconographied pictures of the Turkish strongman, waved Turkish flags and chanted their fidelity to Erdogan’s Islamist AKP party.

The Turkish president himself was supposed to address the crowd via a live video address, but this was banned by the police for fear that it would cause the crowd to become "overexcited".

Similar rallies took place across Germany and Austria in the hours and days after the coup, as the two countries‘ sizable Turkish minorities (numbering 3 million and 350,000 respectively) heeded Erdogan’s call for Turks to take to the streets and demonstrate against the coup, wherever they were.


The biggest of these demonstrations immediately after the coup took place in Vienna. It comes at a sensitive time for Austria, as the country will hold a re-run of its presidential election on 2 October. 

The far-right candidate Norbert Hofer narrowly lost in the first election on 23 May, by just 30,000 votes. That result has since been invalidated because of voting irregularities, and it is thought that even a small shift in public opinion will tilt the balance toward Hofer in the re-run. The Edrogan rallies on the streets of Vienna, many fear, will provide such a tilt.

Some Austrian leaders have expressed concerns over the loyalty of Turkish immigrants who have taken to the streets pledging their unwavering loyalty to Erdogan even as he faces criticism from European leaders for the 'purge' of his opponents currently taking place in Turkey. 

Erdogan's government has arrested thousands of officials in the military, judiciary, academia, media and civil service.
The protests, particularly this weekend in Germany, seem to have gone beyond merely protesting against the coup. They are now protesting criticism of Erdogan’s purge.

A religious minority

As Kerry Skyring noted in a report for DW’s Inside Europe, what surprised many Austrians was the incredibly rapid response from the Turkish community to Erdogan’s instructions to take to the streets. 

At a time when Erdogan’s Turkey is becoming increasingly antagonistic toward the West, the idea of a foreign leader commanding the loyalties of such a sizable number of people living in the West has raised alarm. So much so, in fact, that the Austrian foreign minister summoned the Turkish ambassador to explain how the AKP was able to organize street demonstrations in Vienna so quickly.
The majority of Germany and Austria’s Turkish community are socially conservative poor immigrants from rural central Anatolia, who tend to me more religious than people in Turkey’s large cities. That makes them a natural part of the support base for Erdogan’s Islamist AKP party.

It is this religious element which has made Austrian politicians particularly uncomfortable. Such large-scale religious demonstrations, by any religion, are a rare phenomenon in this part of Europe.

Of course, on the face of it, these are political rallies, not religious ones. But the groups that have organized them, both in Germany and Austria, have largely been religious groups. For instance, the Vienna demonstration was mobilized by Muslim civil society organizations with close connections to the AKP.

Peaceful demonstrations

There had been concern from police that yesterday’s demonstration in Cologne could see violent clashes between pro- and anti-Erdogan groups. In Germany, Erdogan’s opponents tend to be either educated Turks or ethnic Kurds.

But in the end the demonstrations transpired peacefully, and the organizers even helped to clean up after the event. There was almost no anti-Erdogan protest. Indeed, an observer looking at yesterday’s events from outside Germany might be puzzled as to why it would make anyone concerned. After all, they were peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations against an attempted military coup.

But in fact, the fact that there weren’t skirmishes is concerning for some. Cem Özdemir, the leader of the German Green Party who is of Turkish origin, has accused to rally organizers of intimidating into silence those Turks in Germany who oppose Erdogan. He warned of an "atmosphere of fear", telling German media that Erdogan "must not exert any influence in Berlin, Stuttgart, or Munich."

Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said over the weekend, "It is not right to bring Turkey's domestic political tensions here...and intimidate people who have other political convictions."

The enemy within?

The implication of all this concern is clear. Given the way things are going, it now seems highly likely that relations between Turkey and Europe are set to unravel. It is possible that they will unravel to a level of actual conflict, and it is plausible that this conflict could be an armed one.

In such a scenario, it is not hard to see why it would be concerning if Erdogan has a three-million strong base of support within Germany, one that he can apparently command to action in a matter of hours.

Paranoia about such "enemies within" has a tragic history in Europe. Germans themselves will be well aware of how the German minority in Russia was transferred to forced-labour internment camps during World War II (the grandparents of their most famous pop star, Helene Fischer, were in one of these Russian internment camps). Americans must contend with the shameful legacy of their internment of Japanese-Americans during that same war.

With hindsight, these internments seem absurd because we now know there was no real possibility of collaboration between these minorities and the belligerent countries (particularly since Volga Germans in Russia had no connection to the recently-established German nation-state).

But in the case of Erdogan’s support among the Turkish community in Europe, the argument starts to look less absurd. He has demonstrated in the past month that he can command a large amount of people in the Turkish Diaspora to demonstrate against the Turkish military. What if he commanded them to demonstrate against the German military?

The concern about the diaspora comes at the same time as wider concerns over Erdogan’s influence with European governments. 

As Europe reels from the migrant crisis, Turkey holds all the cards, able to turn the tap on and off for Syrian refugees flooding into Europe. The EU made a huge amount of concessions including millions in aid to convince Erdogan to stop the migrants crossing through Turkey into the EU. He has repeatedly threatened to renege on the deal in order to extract further concessions.

Germans suspected that this dependency on Erdogan was the reason for the German government to accept the Turkish President’s invocation of an obscure German law against defamation against foreign leaders to ban a German song making fun of him.

This is the context in which these demonstrations take place. The sight of thousands of Turks carrying giant pictures of Erdogan in Cologne and Vienna is alarming for many Germans and Austrians. As Erdogan’s purge continues, that alarm is bound to grow if the demonstrations continue.

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