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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 6    Issue 11   01-15 December 2011

Professor A. R. Momin

50 Years of the Turkish Diaspora in Germany

Like many European nationss, Germany has also become an immigration country. Nearly 8 per cent of the country's population consists of foreigners or foreign-born citizens. In Stuttgart, capital of the state of Baden-Wurttemberg, almost 40% of the city's residents have a migration background, in the sense that at least one of the parents is of foreign descent. Approximately 40,000 to 50,000 residents of Stuttgart are Muslim, forming about 8% of the population. Berlin has a sizeable Muslim population, estimated at 220,000. The Muslim population of Munich is between 80,000 and 120,000, nearly 10% of the city's population. The residents of the western German town of Wiesbaden belong to nearly 25 nationalities. It is estimated that over the next few years, more than half of the residents of over 40 years of age in many large cities in the country will be immigrants or their descendants. Germany has some 2.3 million people between the ages of 15 and 25 from immigrant backgrounds, who constitute nearly a quarter of the population in this category.

Guest workers

The post-war period in Europe witnessed rapid economic growth, which necessitated additional labour. Faced with shortages of labour, many European countries began recruiting labour initially from the Mediterranean countries, Ireland and Finland and subsequently from Asian, African and Latin American countries. Britain, France and the Netherlands recruited cheap labour from their former colonies while Germany, Belgium, Sweden and Switzerland set up labour recruitment systems to recruit foreign workers on short-term contracts.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Germany was embarking on the reconstruction of its war-ravaged economy and needed extra hands to operate its machines and foundries, it entered into bilateral agreements with several countries, including Italy, Greece, Portugal, Morocco, Turkey, Tunisia and Yugoslavia, to recruit workers. On October 30, 1961, a labour recruitment agreement was signed between West Germany and Turkey. Following the agreement, thousands of Turks boarded special trains at Istanbul and Ankara and came to Munich, from where they were taken to various industrial zones to work in factories. They were put up in newly built dormitories near the factories where they worked. The agreement stipulated that the guest workers (gastarbeiter) would stay in the country for two years and would then return to Turkey. However, under pressure from German industries which were faced with a shortage of labour, their stay was extended. By the late 1970s and the early 1980s German industries began to decline, following which the government shut the door to new immigrants from Turkey. It also encouraged the migrant workers--often by offering financial incentives--to return to their native countries. By 1984 about 250,000 foreigners, mostly Turks, left Germany, but subsequently the return flow slowed down because Turkey had few jobs to offer to the returnees.

In the earlier decades of immigration, Germany followed what came to be known as the guest worker model. It was believed that the migrant workers would return to their native countries after the expiry of their work permits. But most of them had begun to feel at home in their adopted country and hence preferred to stay back. In the 1990s the government permitted family reunification, following which a large number of Turkish Muslims invited their families to join them.

Immigrants in Germany have made a significant contribution to the country's economy. They also contributed to tax revenues and the social security system. They relieved the shortage of skilled labour that plagued many industries in the country. In the late 1980s the steel and coal industries of the Ruhr slumped in the face of foreign competition. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the government withdrew subsidies to industries in West Berlin, following which more than 200,000 workers, most of them Turks, lost their jobs. Many of them started their own small businesses.

Turkish Muslims in Germany

The population of Muslims in Germany is estimated at around 4 million, the second-largest Muslim population in Europe after France. A study commissioned by Germany’s Interior Ministry has revealed that between 3.8 and 4.3 Muslims live in the country, making up around 5% of Germany’s population. There are an estimated 3.5 million Turks in Germany. Other Muslim groups include migrants from the Balkans, the Middle East, Iran and Afghanistan. The number of Muslims of Arab origin living in Germany is estimated at between 280,000 and 400,000. Turkish Muslims form the largest group of people of immigrant background and the largest ethnic group after Germans.

Germany (as well as other European countries) provides excellent prospects and opportunities for education and professional training, which play a key role in professional and career advancement. By and large, Muslims living in Germany enjoy substantial religious and cultural autonomy. They are free to practice and propagate their religion and to construct mosques and other places of prayer and worship. There are some 2,500 places of Islamic worship and about 140 conventional mosques with domes and minarets. Germany’s biggest mosque opened in the city of Duisburg in the Maxloh district on 26 October, 2008. The Duisburg mosque, which cost €7 million and can accommodate 3,500 worshippers, has a conference centre in the basement, which is open to all the people of the district of Maxloh, regardless of religious distinctions. The state of North Rhine-Westphalia has invested €3.2 million in the construction of the conference centre.

In most of the states in Germany, Muslim women have the freedom to wear the Islamic headscarf in school and at the university. (In contrast, France does not permit the wearing of the Islamic headscarf in educational institutions.) Muslim girls in Germany are exempt from coed gym and swimming classes in schools. Muslims living in Germany are allowed to slaughter animals according to their religious rituals and to have halal meat shops. Muslim associations in several states of Germany enjoy the status of religion-based communities, like churches and synagogues. In Hamburg, language teachers, even with Turkish nationality, are treated as civil servants. The cultural freedom available to Muslims living in Germany can be gauged from the fact that there are more than 40 Turkish-language TV stations and nearly 20 in Arabic. Some German companies, such as Ford in Cologne and Fraport in Frankfurt, provide separate spaces for prayers for Muslim employees and consideration is given to their dietary requirements in canteens. The substantial religious and cultural freedom enjoyed by Muslims in Germany has been made possible, conjointly, by the determined efforts of Muslims, the positive role of the Federal Constitutional Court, and wide-ranging efforts by the government.

Muslims in Germany have sought their legitimate rights within the constitutional framework. In response to petitions filed by Muslim organizations, Germany's Federal Constitutional Court decreed in 2002 that Muslims should be allowed to slaughter animals according to their religious rituals. Earlier, they had to import halal meat from Belgium, France, Britain and other European countries. Similarly, Muslim organizations have successfully secured exemption for Muslim girls from swimming lessons in schools if they are not sexually segregated.

In 2003 an interesting case relating to the wearing of headscarf by a teacher in the class room came up before the Constitutional Court. The plaintiff, a Muslim woman of Afghan descent named Fereshta Ludin, had lived in Germany from 1987 and had acquired German nationality in 1995. In 1998, she had completed her education to become a teacher in an elementary school in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg, but was refused commission because she was not willing to remove her headscarf in class. In her petition to the Constitutional Court she maintained that her wearing of the headscarf represented individual and religiously motivated conduct that was protected by the German constitution. The Constitutional Court gave the verdict in her favour, saying that the wearing of the headscarf by a civil servant in front of a class of students is constitutionally protected by the principle of freedom of religion. A Muslim employee in a supermarket in the northern German city of Kiel was sacked in March 2008 because he refused to stock shelves with bottles of alcohol, saying that his religion did not allow him to do so. He lodged an appeal with Germany’s Federal Labour Court, which upheld his contention in November 2011 and confirmed that employees had the freedom, guaranteed by the German constitution, to refuse to perform a specific task on religious grounds.

Principles and provisions of Islamic law relating to marriage, divorce and inheritance are taken into account by German courts while deciding cases involving Muslims. Family matters involving Jordanian couples living in Germany, for example, are decided according to Jordanian law, which are at least partially based on Islamic Shariah. Similarly, multiple wives in a polygamous marriage involving German Muslims of immigrant background, provided such type of marriage is permissible in the country of origin, have legal rights, alimony and social security benefits stemming from the husband’s occupation and a portion of his inheritance in the event of his death. A few years ago, a Cologne court forced an Iranian man living in Germany to pay his ex-wife 600 gold coins in bride price (mahr) upon divorce and cited the ruling applied in such cases in Iran. “We have long been practicing Islamic law,” says Hilman Kruger, a law professor at the University of Cologne. Mathias Rohe, a lawyer in Erlangen, says that the existence of parallel legal structures is an “expression of globalization” adding, “We apply Islamic law just as we do French law”.

In recent years the German government has taken several initiatives to address the legitimate concerns and grievances of Muslims and to facilitate their integration into mainstream society. A number of federally financed language and civics classes are being run across the country, which have benefited 250,000 immigrants. Several states provide special German language coaching to the children of immigrants so as to enable them to enter primary school without any hurdles. The state of Hesse started simple German language programmes, called Mama Lernt Deutsch (Mama Learns German), for the benefit of Muslim women from immigrant families. Classes are conducted during the day when the kids are in school and the mothers have some free time. The programmes have facilities for childcare for babies and toddlers. School principals and teachers report that the mothers enrolled in the programme meet with their children's teachers more often and participate in other school activities more actively and frequently. Teachers also report that children with mothers who attend the course are now doing much better in school. In addition to improving their communication skills, the programme has proved to be effective in facilitating the integration of immigrant families. The success and popularity of the programme have led to its adoption across the country as well as in Austria.

In March 2008, Germany’s interior minister said that schools in the country should offer a course on Islam, along with courses on Christianity and Judaism, as a required religion class in the future. He said an agreement to this effect had been reached with Muslim community leaders and the scheme would soon be implemented.

Turkish Muslims own more than 70,000 small and medium-sized business establishments, mostly snack parlours, across the country. One of the most popular fast food items in Germany (as well as in Austria) is the doner kebab, first introduced by Turkish immigrants in Berlin in the early 1970s. Doner kebab is a lamb dish cooked on a vertical pit, which is then sliced off and served with a salad consisting of chopped letuce, cabbage, onions, cucumber and tomatoes. There are nearly 15,500 doner kebab businesses across the country. The doner kebab business in Germany is worth about €2.5 billion annually. Every day, more than 400 tonnes of doner kebab meat is produced in Germany. In most German cities, doner kebabs are more popular than hamburgers and sausages.

As a consequence of the religious and cultural autonomy that is available to Muslims in Germany, they feel at home and are much more integrated in the wider society than in countries like France, Switzerland, Spain and Italy. Will Kymlicka, a leading Canadian political theorist, argues that ethnic groups deserve protection of their cultures since such protections further their integration into mainstream society. There seems to be positive correlation between the public recognition of the cultures and identities of minorities and the degree of social and cultural spaces available to them, and their integration into the wider society. A reassuring and enabling environment--free from xenophobia, mistrust and hostility--is likely to facilitate and strengthen their involvement and engagement with the wider society and to channel their capabilities, energies and resources in a socially productive direction. On the other hand, repressed identities are often the breeding ground of separatism, alienation and extremism.

The Immigration Controversy

The issue of immigration in Europe is surrounded by a great deal of controversy and contestation and is often coloured by racist and xenophobic sentiments. Far-right political parties often stoke popular fears and anxieties about immigrants who are accused of willing to work for lower wages and thereby causing unemployment among local residents, the stretching of welfare services, changes in the demographic composition of European societies, the fear of being swamped by immigrants, crime and ghettoization.

The rising public resentment and anger against immigration can be gauged from the popularity of a recently published book Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Does Away with Itself) by Thilo Sarrazin, a German economist who was until recently on the board of Germany’s Bundesbank. In his controversial book, which has sold more than a million copies since its publication in August 2010, Sarrazin says that German women are having far too few babies, while Muslims and other immigrant minorities are producing too many. The result, according to him, is that Germany’s population is shrinking and is getting dumber. Sarrazin has been thoroughly denounced by Germany’s political establishment, and Chancellor Angela Merkel accused him of “dividing society”. The Bundesbank has sacked him. However, Sarrazin’s book continues to remain on the best seller list. A study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in October 2010 found that more than 30 per cent people questioned agreed that Germany was “overrun by foreigners.”

The rhetoric and politics of immigration gloss over the fact that most European nations need migrants to maintain their workforce and to cater to the growing demands for additional labour. A UN study in 2006 pointed out that Europe would need 1.6 million migrants a year for the next 45 years to maintain its workforce at current levels to replenish ageing populations and falling birth rates. The over-65 population in the EU is anticipated to rise from 15.4% in 1995 to 22.4% by 2025. A working document published by the European Commission in November 2007 concluded that “Truly massive and increasing flows of young migrants would be required to offset current demographic changes”. According to an official EU study conducted by Eurostat, deaths will overtake births in Europe by 2015. The continent’s shrinking population, according to the report, is due to “persistently low fertility”. When deaths will overtake births in the next few years, migration will become the only source of population growth. The report says that immigration is necessary to ensure that health and welfare benefits would be available to the national population in the future. According to UN figures, Germany would need a staggering 188 million immigrants by 2050 to keep its current ratio of workers to pensioners. Germany’s Federal Statistical Office predicts that the country’s population would decline by 12 million by the year 2050. By that date, over 15 per cent of German citizens would over 80, and one-third of them would be senile. The Cologne Institute for Economic Research has estimated that the work force in Germany would shrink by 17 per cent by 2035, a drop of nearly 8 million people, and that the labour market in the country could face a shortage of 200,000 engineers, scientists and technicians by 2014. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development says that Germany is faced with a drastic labour shortage and that in just ten years the number of people leaving the labour market in the country would be nearly 75% higher than the number of new entrants. OECD says that increasing immigration—both from within and outside the European Union—might be the only option. According to Klaus Zimmermann, president of the influential German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin), Germany needs “net immigration of at least 500,000 more people each year to ensure the country’s economic strength. As of 2015, the German economy will lose around 250,000 workers, he said. The shortage of skilled labour in Germany cost the economy €15 billion in 2009, according to Rainer Brudele, Germany’s economy minister. The chamber of industry and commerce in Germany has stated that the country is short of 400,000 skilled workers and that the gap costs €25 billion a year, equivalent to 1% of growth annually. Industrialists have called upon the German government to remove bureaucratic hurdles which prevent more skilled workers from entering the country. Labour minister Ursula der Leyen, a member of Angela Merkel’s party, said, “For several years more people have been leaving the country than entering it. “Wherever it is possible, we should lower the entry hurdles for those who bring the country forward,” she added. The number of Turkish immigrants in Germany—the largest immigrant group in the country—in 2008 was as low as it had been in 1983 and the number of asylum applications from Turkey today is about a sixth of what it was in the 1990s. More Turks left Germany for Turkey in 2009 than came to live in Germany.

Problems and Challenges

Muslims living in Germany are faced with several problems and obstacles, including discrimination, racism and xenophobia, stigmatization, educational backwardness and a high rate of unemployment. There are indications that extremist and far-right groups and outfits in Germany, especially the neo-Nazis, are growing. Almost every week, there are reports of someone from an immigrant background being attacked by extremist hooligans. More than 140 people of immigrant background, mostly Turks, have been killed as a result of violence carried out by far-right groups since 1990. In 1992 a Turkish woman and two girls died in an arson attack. In 1993 five Turkish women were killed by extremist groups in Solingen. A series of ghastly murders—“doner killings”—took place between 2000 and 2006, leaving nine Turks dead and a Greek wounded. The trail of investigation led the German police in November 2011 to an underground neo-Nazi cell which used violent means to target small time Turkish businessmen—doner kebab vendors, grocers, owners of internet cafes.

Occasionally there are attacks on mosques and cemeteries by neo-Nazi and other extremist groups. A Turkish mosque in Essen was burned down by the neo-Nazis a few years ago. It is often difficult to get permission for the construction or expansion of mosques from the local authorities. Even when permission is obtained, landlords and neighbours often raise objections. Mosques are generally situated in the poorer and immigrant quarters of the city, in leftover or marginal locations such as defunct industrial sites or unused garages.

A glaring example of the opposition to the construction of mosques in Germany is provided by the controversy surrounding the proposed construction of a large mosque in Cologne. Cologne has nearly 30 mosques, but most of them are located in backyards or dilapidated factory buildings. The city has an estimated Muslim population of 120,000, most of them being of Turkish origin. The local authorities have given the permission for the construction of the mosque, which will cover an area of approximately 48,000 square feet with a capacity of 2000-4000 persons and will have twin minarets with a height of about 50 metres. The mosque is under construction. Interestingly, those who are in favour of the mosque include many Roman Catholic clergy. Cologne's St. Theodore Catholic Church has decided to raise funds for the mosque. It is equally interesting that the architect of the mosque is Paul Bohm, who specializes in building churches.

According to a 2010 study carried out by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a German think tank, more than a third of Germans think that the country is ‘in serious danger of being overrun by foreigners’. More than two-thirds of Turks in Germany see themselves as victims of discrimination and stigmatization. By and large, the German media portray a distorted image of Muslims. The police often act in a biased and high-handed manner in dealing with Muslims. The situation has worsened after 9/11. The distance between immigrants, including their second and third- generation descendants, and the native population in Germany is now increasing. It is reflected, for example, in the ghettoization of the immigrant population.

Turkish Muslims living in Germany lag far behind the native Germans in education and in the labour market. The unemployment rate among Turks is nearly twice as high as among ethnic Germans. Children of immigrants are much more likely to be in the lower division schools and leave school without a diploma. Although some 84% of all children from immigrant background go to kindergarten, most of them hardly stay for more than a year. A sixth of migration-background pupils drop out of school, compared with less than a tenth of native Germans. Forty-seven per cent of foreign-born people have less than secondary school education and fewer than 15% have a university degree. Four out of five Turks in Germany between the ages of 38 and 64 possess only a junior high school education. The problem is worsened due to the ignorance of large numbers of Turkish immigrants of German language. Though the second and third generation Muslims are better educated than their parents, they are far behind the ethnic Germans in education. Nearly 57% of young Turks lack professional qualifications. The immigrants account for 36% of the population at or near the poverty line and 29% of the unemployed. Although Germany, unlike France, has no ethnic ghettos, immigrants by and large lead isolated lives in parallel societies, without any real contact or interaction with the local population.

Muslims living in Germany are also beset with internal problems. A major problem relates to deeply-entrenched national, ethnic and sectarian divisions in Muslim communities. Young Muslim boys and girls studying together at the university are often attracted to each other and want to marry someone of their choice. But their parents insist that they should marry someone from the same national and ethnic background. The younger generation of Muslims born and raised in Germany would understandably like to marry a partner who would share their cultural background, language and interests. The attitude of parents often creates confusion in their minds.


Nearly two-thirds of Turkish Muslims living in Germany have retained their Turkish nationality. According to official figures, as of 2006, there were 3.3 million Muslims living in Germany, of whom 1 million were German citizens. The majority of Muslims living in Germany-mostly Turks--simultaneously inhabit two cultural worlds, their country of origin and their adopted homeland. A recent study commissioned by Germany’s Interior Ministry suggested that Muslims in the country are much more integrated than previously thought.

The renowned German Muslim scholar, Murad Hoffman, advises his fellow Muslims in Germany and in other European countries to uphold the Islamic identity, ignore their ethnic divisions and get integrated into the wider society. He says Muslims living in Western countries suffer from internal ethnic divisions. Some Muslims in Germany, for example, say that they pray in a Moroccan, Tunisian or Turkish mosque, instead of saying that they pray in a mosque.

The attitude of ethnic Germans towards Muslims is slowly changing for the better. The share of Germans who think too many foreigners live among them has shrunk from a large majority a quarter century ago to a narrow one now. This is a hopeful sign for the Muslim community and for the wider German society. To mark the 50th anniversary of the arrival of Turkish guest workers to Germany, a special train carried 35 of the first group of immigrants from Istanbul to Munich. The journey was marked by nostalgic memories of those days and brought tears to some of them.

In November 2011, Maria Bohmer, a government-appointed integration coordinator, had invited a group of young people comprising the second and third generation descendants of the first batch of Turkish guest workers to a gathering. The event was expected to share and exchange sentiments of joy and bonhomie, but four young men and one woman climbed on the stage and read out a statement, to the astonishment of those present, saying that ‘Nothing is good in Germany’. Since 2006 an increasing number of qualified Turks born and raised in Germany have been leaving the country and returning to the land of their parents and grandparents.

Over the past few years, Muslims living in Germany have founded several religious and cultural organizations. In Cologne, the Muslim Women's Training Centre (Begegnungs-und-Fortbildungszentrum Muslimischer Frauen) carries out a wide range of activities and programmes for Muslim women, including facilities for education, training and counselling. One of the important objectives of the organization is to foster an atmosphere of understanding, dialogue and accommodation between Muslims and the wider German society.

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