“I urge my brothers and sisters in Europe (…) to have five children, not three. Because you are Europe’s future.” It was with these words spoken in March 2017, that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed his desire to directly influence the Old Continent through the Turkish communities living there.
This was just the last of a series of statements made by the head of the Turkish government. Over the past ten years he has often expressed his ambition to influence the European democratic process, especially in Germany.
During a speech made in Düsseldorf in 2011, for example, he openly invited Turks living in Germany to keep Turkish as their mother tongue and resist integration into German society. He also advised them to study and pursue careers in Germany, outlining a plan that would encourage immigrants to request German citizenship. In the summer of 2016, however, he ordered video installations to be set up in German squares so he could address his own citizens who supported him following the failed coup d’état.
This tendency is not exclusive to Turkey, but also involves various other immigrant communities resident in Germany and directly linked to the governments of their countries of origin. The sensitivities and values of these governments differ greatly from those of the German Federal Republic, presenting German authorities with a very delicate challenge made particularly sensitive due to the migratory phenomenon of recent years.
Immigration; a delicate challenge
Germany hosts the highest number of asylum seekers in Europe. The federal government has organised the opening of hundreds of hospitality centres all over the country hosting recently arrived migrants and providing them with the means they need to remain there, such as accommodation, food, legal and psychological assistance and health care as well as an allowance, German language courses and job centre registration. Furthermore, other active policy services include professional training, apprenticeships and specialized jobs for migrants.
Within these hospitality structures, however, there is a total lack of training in regards to local values and questions of local identity. Integration is considered on a solely quantitative basis and the German government has often repeated that there is no one single integration strategy for the masses within a sole system of German values, but that integration processes are individual paths within a national democratic and peaceful context.
The inability to present the millions of new arrivals with an education in local values is contributing to changes in the German political scene. Migrants are being appealed to on behalf of political parties not endemic to the territory which have been occupying the void left by the German political left. In recent years, federal security forces have noted that Turkish movements affiliated to the president, associations linked to Gulf countries, Kurdish, Palestinian and Syrian activist groups as well as organisations guided respectively by Hezbollah and Iran and Salafite movements, are all active in this sense.
Millî Görüş, “Erdogan’s lobby” in Germany
The conception of this process of recruitment and involvement of migrants is attributable to Turkey. Turkish immigration in Germany is a decades-old phenomenon that, from its initial stages, saw the creation of Turkish-German citizen unions. The most powerful one in Germany is Millî Görüş (National Vision). It is a movement of Islamist inspiration originally founded in Turkey that has spread to various countries and is very active in determining the political, religious and value-based future of the Turkish diaspora, stating that it controls 514 mosques in Europe 323 of which are in Germany. It has 87,000 official members, 30,000 of which are in Germany where it is believed to have reached approximately 300,000 followers. Its doctrine is inspired by that of Necmetin Erbakan, an intellectual and former teacher of Erdoğan’s. It is perhaps due to the AKP’s rise to power in 2002 that Millî Görüş has become increasingly influential both in Turkey and in Germany, where it has been described as “Erdoğan’s lobby in Germany”.
Erbakan’s ideas merge Turkish nationalism with a sense of belonging to Sunni Islam, opposing themselves to Western values and economic theories whilst embracing a concept of “Islamic solidarity” and the idea that the entire world must unite as one great Islamic community. All this is thought to be achievable through an educational programme for the next generations that will teach a so-called “Turkish-Islamic synthesis.”
Millî Görüş has existed in Germany since 1976 and supports the integration of Muslims into German society but not their assimilation whilst also encouraging the rediscovery of an Islamic identity. Its first objective is to develop an educational system for the younger generations of the diaspora in Europe. It is for this reason that the movement is kept under observation by the Bundesverfassungsschutz (BVS), the German secret services, according to which its objective is the gradual introduction of Sharia Law into Germany. It is said to already be responsible for various cases of radicalisation and the creation of a “parallel society” as well as being a threat to “moderate Islam”. Security authorities say that there has never been evidence of an official link between Milli Gorus and the Turkish government, but that Erdoğan’s actions, positions and propaganda are de facto promoted in Germany by this association.
Hezbollah, Fatah and Hamas in Germany
A significant number of refugees have entered Germany since 2015 including Palestinians who were born and raised in Libyan and Syrian refugee camps, the children of those who fled Palestine beginning in 1947. These Palestinians, who have never had access to local nationalities, have abandoned their birthplaces to move to Germany where they are registered as Syrian, Lebanese or “ungeklärt” (“not clarified”) citizens. Although these people were effectively born and raised in Syria or Lebanon, their culture and ethnicity is Palestinian and they therefore have different sensitivities, especially as far as Israel is concerned.
This factor became evident in July 2016, when a large anti-Israeli protest was held in central Berlin to celebrate the day of Quds, opposing Zionism and Israel. On that occasion, hundreds of protesters took to the streets, among them many refugees waving Palestinian, Syrian and Hezbollah flags. According to a BVS report, there are various active cells affiliated to the Palestinian movements Hamas (300 units) and Fatah, as well as to Hezbollah (950 units). These cells had already been reported starting in 2012. Hezbollah cells are thought to be particularly active, working in Germany through the Al Irshad Association. Although Angela Merkel’s government had outlawed the armed branch of this organisation, its political wing is allowed to operate. The report also signals the existence of a group of Kurdish citizens called Turkish Hezbollah, composed of about 300 activists.
On the streets of Berlin or outside mosques it is quite common to come across the stalls of Salafite Muslims handing out sweets, toys and copies of the Koran to passers-by. With their long beards and wide robes, these people are just a minority among German Muslims, however, according to the BVS, it is also the “most dynamic movement” while Islamic radicalism “is the greatest threat to Germany.” According to Ismail Tipi, a CDU member of parliament of Turkish origin and an expert on integration, “there are over 120,000 Islamists in Germany, of which 45,000 are Salafites.”
German Salafite groups are very active in the field of propaganda, especially among asylum seekers. In an interview with the Rheinische Post the head of the BVS, Maassen, said, “Many asylum seekers have a Sunni religious background. In Germany there is a Salafite community that considers it to be a fertile breeding ground. We are observing that the Salafites visit the welcome centres, passing themselves off as volunteers and aid workers, intentionally trying to come into contact with refugees to invite them to their mosques and recruit them for them cause.”
The Salafites are established in the form of charity and cultural organisations in various parts of the Federal Republic while joining forces at a national level to promote shared projects. This was the case in the propaganda operation called Die Wahre Religion (“the true religion”) which distributed millions of copies of the Koran all over the country. After a series of almost 200 raids in November 2016 from mosques to offices and apartments, this organisation was outlawed and charged with proselytising for the Islamic State. The project “We love Muhammad” that rose from the ashes of “Die Wahre Religion” is still active today.
The most important leaders of the German Salafite movement received their religious education in Saudi Arabia. This applies, for example, to Pierre Vogel, a converted preacher whose mission consists primarily in spreading his vision of Islam among young Germans. Vogel received his religious training at the Islamic Institute for Foreigners at the Umm al-Qura University in Mecca. It is also in Saudi Arabia that Vogel regularly organises training visits for the education of young German imams.
An uncertain future
The current German political landscape now includes elements that, only a few years ago, were totally irrelevant. The emergence of new organisations is a primary challenge for Berlin in terms of both security and politics but, above all, in terms of the values that determine a national identity.
In order to avoid comparisons with its National Socialist past and its extreme exaltation of ‘Germanity’, today’s German managerial class is extremely attentive in its respect for and protection of migrants’ identity. Over the years, institutions have worked on the creation of a new shared identity founded on protection of human rights and mindfulness of Jewish sensitivities. The first point is primarily expressed in the country’s impressive hospitality mechanism, while the second is instead mainly expressed in political terms so much so that, in addressing the Knesset, Angela Merkel said that Israel’s defence is one of the German state’s raison d’etre. However, welcoming migrants and protecting Israel run the risk being two conflicting elements. Middle Eastern refugees have imported very different sensitivities, also because the training programmes organised for them are almost entirely based on teaching them the language and the competences needed to comply with the labour market’s requirements, without there being any reference to the founding myths of the German nation. While Germany does not use any forms of propaganda, this does instead exist among the many non-endemic organisations. The government’s greatest challenge is that of proving that integration can be based on essentially economic criteria (homes and jobs) through which people can be considered integrated in the Western system. The non-endemic organisations, in their heterogeneity, believe instead that people’s individual and collective identity cannot be separated from their religious and cultural roots. This is a challenge that could lead to a greater diffusion of Jewish sensitivity among the newly arrived, but also to a profound and radical change of identity and political objectives for Europe’s leading country.
Translated by Francesca Simmons