Politics of Turkish European Belonging in the Era of “National Rebirth”

European welfare states witness both the challenges of Turks’ political inclusion and the rise of the populist radical right firmly warning against the threat of “Islamization.” Turks in Europe, perceived as Europe’s dominant Muslim group, create complex dilemmas for “native” Europeans as well as their “non-native” Turkish fellows. The latter recognize drastic changes in the way they are treated in their everyday life and are portrayed in the public sphere in the aftermath of 9/11. Despite growing anti-Muslim sentiments in Western European societies, mainstream political parties sometimes followed electoral incentives to foster the political incorporation of Turks (or broader “Muslims“), both catering to their electorate or even listing a Turkish/Muslim candidate.[1] At the same time, however, populist radical right parties seek to mainstream their nativist and anti-elitist messages.

Whether (or not) political parties in Germany and Turkey cater to the German-Turkish vote, and how the latter de- and realigns with those is a politic science question—hereas the changing quality of social relations inherent to communicative interaction between political parties and German-Turkish actors is a sociological question of boundary drawing, i.e. boundaries’ quality (closure/fission or bridging/fusion). At the juncture of both disciplines, we find the politics of European Turkish belonging. That is, strategic political parties in Germany and Turkey in search for maximizing their vote share that, doing so, draw on societies’ cultural repertoires of ethno-cultural boundaries, i.e. narratives of ‘us” and ‘them”. The question then is not merely which cultural repertoires do political parties address, but when do they refer to which cultural repertoires? The response to that question, as I argue, is determined by shifts in public opinion, issue salience, and political power in Germany and in Turkey.

Turks in Europe have predominantly been received within the framework of domestic integration measures. Yet, their belonging and political inclusion is affected by politics in Turkey, inasmuch as it is by politics in Europe and in the countries they live (many are even citizens) more precisely. Such an approach distances itself from the “Integrationsverweigerer“ discourse (“immigrants who refuse to integrate”) and instead juxtaposes the politics of Turkish belonging as a process determined by political actors and discourses in Germany, Turkey, and Europe. Another puzzle thus is: How do Turkish Europeans navigate their belonging amid domestic, Turkish, and EU-Turkey politics?

In June 2018, after a period of serious blame games between EU leaders and Turkish President Erdoğan, the Council of the European Union confirmed that Turkey’s EU accession talks have “effectively come to a standstill and no further chapters can be considered for opening or closing and no further work towards the modernization of the EU-Turkey Customs Union is foreseen.” Viewed as a severe backlash to EU-Turkey relations, this game-changing reaction did not come out of thin air, though. Ever since the EU-Turkey migration deal came onto the agenda in 2016, mutual expectations and subsequent disappointments have been expressed frankly. This case of fierce conflicts helps narrowing the puzzle down to a very specific time period and ask “How did Turkish Europeans navigate their belonging during EU-Turkey blame games?”


EU-Turkey migration deal as an ideal model to learn from

To understand the multiple dimensions in the politics of Turkish European belonging, it is useful to specify a critical period where boundaries of “European” and “Turkish” identity have been exposed to a litmus test. For the following three reasons, German-Turkish politics during the EU-Turkey migration deal talks mark an ideal case to learn about emergent boundaries from.

First, there are well-established Turkish political associations in Germany.[2] Following the signing of bilateral treaties in the 1960s, Turkish guest workers came to continental Western Europe. The main receiving countries were Germany, France, Austria, Sweden, and the Netherlands, which welcomed hundreds of thousands of Turkish guest workers in subsequent years. In order to rebuild its wrecked infrastructure and devastated industries, post-war Germany took in most of the Turkish guest workers in Europe, in both relative and absolute terms. As they had become “immigrants” instead of “guest workers,” Turks first formed significant associations to gain political recognition in Germany in the 1980s.

Second, the German far right has a tradition of wanting “Turks out!” (“Türken raus!”). The latter became a prominent extreme right slogan in the 1980s and 1990s after the German rock band Böhse Onkelz released a song with the same name in 1981. However, such tropes also circulated in the mainstream, for instance, former top-secret documents reporting talks between then Chancellor Helmut Kohl (CDU) and Margaret Thatcher reveal his ambitions to halve the size of Germany’s Turkish population because of alleged “cultural incompatibilities” (or “not being assimilable”)[3]. Indeed, his government introduced a return program in 1983, which contained financial incentives to encourage Turkish guest workers to return. Only about a 100,000 Turks took up this incentive as on the Turkish side pull factors were absent at that time. Since the military purge of September 12, 1980, the military governed crisis-ridden Turkey until November 6, 1983’s federal elections. In sum, this depicts both anti-Turkish tropes circulating among the wider German public and German immigration policy outcomes that have long been contingent on Turkish politics.

Third, we saw Merkel and Erdogan acting as protagonists in the EU-Turkey migration deal to reduce the number of refugees entering the EU via Turkish borders. This led to the impression that the EU-Turkey deal was somehow a German-Turkish one. Beginning in autumn 2016, EU-Turkey migration talks reverberated along with conflicts on the EU level over Turkey’s accession, visa liberalization for Turkish citizens, and concerns over the state of democracy in Turkey (i.e. press freedom, political rights, rule of law etc.). Later, in spring 2017, such issues turned German-Turkish after Merkel, portrayed as “defender of the liberal order” internationally,[4] took command of this deal with Turkey. It is not surprising that two major political scandals entered the arena—a Jan Böhmermann poem mocking Erdoğan and the Berlin Republic’s clear majority vote on recognizing the Armenian Genocide in April and June 2017, respectively. Already, in March 2017, signals emerged that predicted stormy times ahead. Germany largely hindered leaders of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, hereafter AKP) from organizing public campaigns in Germany before April’s constitutional referendum. Stripped of the chance to speak to German-Turks, Erdoğan accused Berlin (i.e. Merkel) of resorting to all but democratic “Nazi methods”[5] (though it seems worth noting that the Turkish minister of finance, Nihat Zeybekçi, managed to organize an event with 300 supporters at a hotel in Cologne on 5 March 2017[6]).


(Ethno-)Nationalist populist narratives in Germany and Turkey

Concrete challenges to Turkish European belonging seem to arise from (ethno-)nationalist populist discourses in Turkey and Germany, which established (Turkey) and challenging (Germany)  populist radical right parties seek to mainstream. Those parties narrate the prospect of festive national rebirth for “the native people” if, and only if, they follow their parties’ path against morally inferior elites and invading others. From that it becomes apparent that I follow an understanding of the populist radical right that conflates anti-elitist messages with (ethno-)nationalist discourses and narratives. Such an approach rather seeks to decipher when, in what (narrative) context and how political actors refer to an anti-elitist message in the name of ‘the nation’.[7]

Because there is a deep inscription of the foreign invasion narrative into Turkish political culture, the AKP, as an “established” [8] and authoritarian[9] populist radical right party, is likely to mobilize Turks on the rhetoric of national rebirth in response to the foreign threat potential embedded in the Turkish political repertoire. Manifested in Turkish political culture, the so-called Sèvres Syndrome roots in a perennial understanding of the 1920s Treaty of Sèvres as a deceitful Western attempt at foreign invasion. Yet, the other side of this “suspicion” coin tells a pro-European story; for instance, Germany has for decades been esteemed as a loyal ally and an old friend. Progressive forces have pushed for political and cultural rapprochement between Turkey and the EU/Germany. In fact,  the AKP also party started its journey with a pro-European stance, proclaiming the goal of “Turkish conservative democracy en route to reconcile Islam and Europe.”

The Berlin Republic, instead, faces a populist radical right challenger party since the Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, hereafter AfD) was founded in the 2013 pre-election period. After the 2015 summer of migration and Merkel’s introduction of a “German welcome culture,” this party developed into a serious contender that rallies on a nativist, anti-Muslim, and populist ticket, and pushes for instilling those tropes into the heart of German political debate.[10] With that ticket, the AfD ranked third and thus entered the Reichstag after German 2017 federal elections.

The rise of the populist radical right AfD party came to a time when cultural outweighed economic concerns by a large margin – since autumn 2015, “migration, integration, and asylum” has marked Germany’s prime concerns.[11] The persistence of increased cultural concerns indicates that established German parties’ messages have failed to soothe public worries over both liberal-progressive inclusionists and restrictive-conservative exclusionists. Indeed, for three years now, leaders of both Union parties, Christian Social Union (CSU) and Christian Democratic Union (CDU), fight over the issue of border closure. Neither Horst Seehofer (CSU) nor Angela Merkel (CDU) compromised on any political regulation to deliver to the voters in the migration issue. Established governing parties appeared to be paralyzed, they blocked a possible compromise and moving on to further pressing social and economic issues. As such, unwillingness to compromise on the migration issue alleviated public support in the grand coalition and facilitated the AfD’s rise.[12] Aggravatingly emerging undesirable sexist incidents, such as New Year’s Eve 2015 in Cologne, where groups of Muslim refugee men raped women, gave further rise to worries about certain immigrant groups’ supposed “cultural backpacks,” namely a homogenized understanding of “Muslim culture” facilitating sexism and violence. Drawing on (neo-)racist repertoires of “Turkish culture,” which largely prevailed in the 1980s and ‘90s, Islam was identified as the one and only explanatory cultural factor for “incompatibility” with the European culture and values system.

Unsurprisingly, the AfD is very explicit about Islam not only being incompatible with “our culture,” but the growing number of Muslims actually posing “a great threat for our state, our society and our value order.”[13] This, the alleged threat from Islam, was also paramount on various AfD 2017 federal election campaign posters. Against the background of an evolving and mainstreaming narrative of moral and cultural decline, the AfD agitates for national rebirth through the liberation of “the people” from “liberal” rule, this being prevalent in the “illegal” opening of borders that facilitated more Muslims entering Europe and Germany during the so-called refugee crisis. Eventually, narrating a myth of national rebirth was welcomed by significant (disenchanted) parts of the mainstream electorate.


Discursive opportunity structures of politics Turkish European belonging

Turkish political associations in Germany are far from representing a homogeneous body. Instead, a certain socio-political cleavage along the lines of ethnic and civic concepts of belonging separates them. The former concept frames Turkish identity as something essential to be protected from ethnic mixture and, in the worst case, extinction. The latter proclaims mixture as desirable in case the right to cultural difference is guaranteed and protected from ethno-racial discrimination. Let us recall this paper’s puzzle: How do Turkish Europeans navigate their belonging amid domestic, Turkish, and EU-Turkey politics?

To begin with, polarized German-Turks unite when they feel discriminated against on the basis of their Turkish and/or Muslim identity. Most recently, the case of Mesut Özil mirrored the cohesive response to anti-Turkish racism.[14] Interestingly, even those not in support of Erdoğan expressed feelings of relief when he stands up for them and accuses German authorities of discounting racism against Turkish people in Germany. Kenan Kolat, nowadays a representative delegate of the Turkish social-democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) in Germany and federal chairman of the Turkish Community in Germany (Türkische Gemeinde in Deutschland, TGD) between 2005 and 2014, observes that, to his regret, it was Erdoğan who made German-Turks finally feel they were being heard and seen as equals in Germany during the EU-Turkey migration deal period.[15] Beyond the ethnic-civic cleavage, the story of Turkish President Erdoğan finally bringing “Europe” (symbolized in the person of Angela Merkel) down on her knees attracts substantial sections of German-Turks, as well as domestic voters.

When Turkish President Erdoğan was criticized for undermining fundamental democratic rights in Turkey (e.g. press freedom, persecution of oppositional politicians, rule of law) by German authorities, especially supporters of the ethnic concept align with Erdoğan’s populist nationalist narrative. Along the lines of Erdoğan’s fierce critics of German politics (anti-Turkish racism, German “Nazi methods,” etc.), they show intense reactions of distraction and detachment from German politics. They are mobilized by the demonizing story of Germany and Europe always being in search of devious strategies to suppress Turkey’s resurrection. Such stories facilitate mechanisms of ethnic boundary closure in Germany. Indeed, these German-Turks expressed disappointment at their German fellows’ supposed perennial anti-Turkishness, while the latter lamented the alleged unwillingness to integrate to Germany and Turks’ support of a “Sultan,” instead. With the AfD entering the stage, overtly banal reciprocal boundary closure even gathered momentum: Turks have an anti-democratic sultanate and Germans a Nazi culture[16].

While Turkey has prospered economically in the past 15 years,[17] narratives of Europeans fearing the rise of Turks have gained salience. The prospering economy structurally facilitated the sustaining of identity talk, which makes the AKP endorse its (ethno-)nationalist populist narrative in the domestic (‘parallel powers’ and ‘the deep state’) and foreign policy (‘Western’ or ‘Jewish’ powers) arena. Doing so, the AKP externalizes cultural identity issues to the foreign policy arena in cases where identity talk is entrenched in domestic politics. [18] And, given that the Turkish governing AKP party holds immense sway over agenda-setting power in Turkey, it is able to shift public attention to foreign policy whenever necessary. Such power option perpetuates the AKP narration that alleges “if you only listen to “the people,” Turkish conservative-religious voters left aside by secular “white” Kemalist political elites responsible for Turkey’s downturn, this nation will celebrate its festive rebirth. In such a discourse and political power arena, everyone critical of “the Turkish people’s” legitimacy risks being framed as hatching sinister plans against Turkish nationhood.

On the other hand, German-Turks who frame their belonging on a civic basis rarely tire of emphasizing “the other democratic 50 percent” in Turkey. In doing so, they aim to challenge both the over-simplified German view of Turkey as Erdoğan’s sultanate and the AKP’s romantic story of national rebirth. Instead, through framing worries over the state of democracy (press freedom, minority rights etc.) in Turkey and structural anti-Muslim (and anti-Turkish) racism in Germany, they seek to bridge ethno-cultural boundaries using a civic discourse. However, in the current situation, they lack influential political support in Germany and Turkey. One reason is certainly that these forces (still) suffer from identity talk prevailing. If we look at Turkey, the Republican People’s Party itself endorses a blatantly (ethno-)nationalist approach; for instance, whenever the AKP party follows a nationalistic agenda, the CHP claims it would have taken the same (nationalist) actions more quickly and/or more effectively if they had been in power. In Germany, while the Social Democrats show record lows in polls, they appear to be highly tentative in proclaiming responses to the “threat from Islam” to “the nation;” instead, their messages are perceived as flip-flopping between nationalistic and cosmopolitan notions of “Heimat.”.[19]

In sum, the period of the EU-Turkey migration talks indicates how downplayed economic and, in turn, enduringly prevalent cultural issue salience and shifts of political power and discourse in Germany and Turkey shape the politics of Turkish European belonging. Apparently, German-Turks are unified in their claim for socio-political recognition in Germany and Europe, while their making of belonging oscillates between a civic-based immersive bridging of cultural difference and an ethnically based divisive closure. Increases in anti-Western sentiments in Turkey, and the governing AKP party’s potential of the blaming German authorities for ill-treating Turkish immigrants whenever nationalist mobilization seems necessary, complicate adopting reconciling approaches to EU-Turkey relations and the accommodation of Turkish immigrants. Not only can German politics not push “immigrant integration” as a domestic policy area anymore, but with the mainstreaming of populist radical right discourses and narratives, it is increasingly asked to perform clear-cut bordering against the alleged anti-democratic sultanate of Erdoğan. German-Turkish making of belonging to Europe and Germany is obviously entrenched in this reciprocally supportive narrative of ethnic nationhood, which benefits the ethnic-based stream of German-Turks disproportionately.

How can established democratic parties in Germany, Turkey, and in the EU regain voters’ trust without blaming (inter-)national elites for socio-political grievances and without resorting to conceptions of nationhood based on blood especially in the era of international migration? Authoritarian populist (radical right) claims to know things from the outset blocks collective learning processes,[20]. As such, this synergy of authority and clarity isolates reflexive doubt which is constitutive to public debate and the accommodation of societal realities in liquid modern times. The future of democracy, its free and open debate culture is going to much depend on how established parties will manage to defend spaces of argumentation and doubt, and, yet, deliver plausible compromises to voters rather sooner than later. The former, tolerance towards argumentation and doubt in political debates, is likely to foster the consolidation of civic-based bridging stories of Turkish European belonging.


Özgür Özvatan is a PhD candidate at Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences (BGSS) and a research and teaching fellow at the Department of Social Sciences, Humboldt University of Berlin. Özgür also works as a research fellow at the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research (BIM) and the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR).

Photo: Turkish President Erdoğan | Flickr



[1] Rafaela M. Dancygier (2017). Dilemmas of Inclusion. Muslims in European Politics. Princeton University Press.

[2] Gökçe Yurdakul (2006). “Muslim Political Associations of Turks in Germany”. Council for European Studies, Columbia University.

[3] SPIEGEL ONLINE (01/08/2013). Britische Geheimprotokolle: Kohl wollte offenbar jeden zweiten Türken loswerden.
Online at: http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/kohl-wollte-jeden-zweiten-tuerken-in-deutschland-loswerden-a-914318.html (accessed 25 August 2018).

[4] The Washington Post (07/07/2018). Merkel and Macron defend a diminished vision of European values.
Online at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/merkel-and-macron-defend-a-diminished-vision-of-european-values/2018/07/06/f6469588-7f04-11e8-a63f-7b5d2aba7ac5_story.html?utm_term=.cb1309c4b267 (accessed 20 July 2018).

[5] Hürriyet (05/03/2017). Cumhurbaşkanı Erdoğan’dan Almanya’ya tepki: Uygulamalarınız Nazi uygulamalarından farklı değil.

Online at: http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/cumhurbaskani-erdogandan-almanyaya-tepki-uyg-40385424. (accessed 08 July 2017).

[6] ZEIT ONLINE (05/03/2017). Selfies und Jubel beim Auftritt des Wirtschaftsministers.

Online at: https://www.zeit.de/politik/2017-03/tuerkei-nihat-zeybekci-koeln-leverkusen-recep-tayyip-erdogan (accessed 05 July 2017).

[7] Bonikowski, Bart. 2017. Three Lessons of Contemporary Populism in Europe and the United States. The Brown Journal of World Affairs 23(1): 9-24.

[8] Zsolt Enyedi (2018). Understanding the rise of the populist establishment. EUROPP blog, European Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Online at: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2018/07/04/understanding-the-rise-of-the-populist-establishment/ (accessed 07 August 2018).

[9] Michael Zürn (2018). How the Taming of the Class Conflict Produced Authoritarian Poulism. Items, SSRC. Online at: https://items.ssrc.org/how-the-taming-of-the-class-conflict-produced-authoritarian-populism/ (accessed 09 October 2018).

[10] Özgür Özvatan and Bernhard Forchtner (2019). The Far-Right Alternative für Deutschland in Germany. Towards a happy ending? IN Alan Waring (ed.). The New Authoritarianism: A Risk Analysis of the European Alt-Right Phenomenon. ibidem Press.

[11] Forschungsgruppe Wahlen (2018). Politbarometer: Langzeitentwicklung “Wichtige Probleme in Deutschland”.

[12] Timo Lochocki (2018). The Rise of Populism in Western Europe: A Media Analysis on Failed Political Messaging. Springer, Switzerland.

[13] Alternative für Deutschland (2016). Manifesto for Germany. The Political Programme of the Alternative for Germany.

Online at: https://www.afd.de/wp-content/uploads/sites/111/2017/04/2017-04-12_afd-grundsatzprogramm-englisch_web.pdf (accessed 13 March 2018).

[14] ZEIT ONLINE (20/06/2018). Integration und Fußball:”Özil and Gündoğan müssen mehr leisten als Thomas Müller“.

Online at: https://www.zeit.de/sport/2018-06/integration-fussball-mesut-oezil-ilkay-guendogan-debatte-rassismus (accessed 25 June 2018).

This is not to say that there were no streams critical of Mesut Özil’s image with Turkish President Erdoğan, though. The German-Turkish-Kurdish football player Deniz Naki criticized Mesut Özil for not equally addressing the racism against ethnic minorities in Turkey. This was, however, an arguably valid claim but rather marginal if we account for the wider group of German-Turks.

[15] Personal interview with Mr. Kenan Kolat conducted at the CHP`s Berlin office, 3 July 2018.

[16] For possible effects on political competition in Germany and Turkey, see:
Özgür Özvatan (2017). “German-Turkish Tensions in a Collapsing Jamaica Coalition”. openDemocracy.

Online at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/zg-r-zvatan/german-turkish-tensions-in-collapsing-jamaica-coalition (accessed 18 February 2018).

[17] Financial Times (24/04/2018). Turkey’s corporate debt burden sparks jitters on economy: Concerns grow as sliding lira raises cost of servicing foreign currency loans.

Online at: https://www.ft.com/content/c9ad507c-4712-11e8-8ee8-cae73aab7ccb (accessed 5 May 2018).

[18] Lisel Hintz (2015). Take it outside! National identity contestation in the foreign policy arena. European Journal of International Relations.

[19] SPIEGEL Online (16/12/2017). SPD-Kurs gegen Rechtspopulismus: Gabriel regt Debatte über “Heimat“ und “Leitkultur“ an.

Online at: http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/spd-sigmar-gabriel-regt-debatte-ueber-heimat-und-leitkultur-an-a-1183536.html (accessed 15 August 2018).

[19] Bernhard Forchtner, Marcos Engelken-Jorge and Klaus Eder (forthcoming). Towards a Revised Theory of Collective Learning Processes: Argumentation, Narrative and the Making of the Social Bond. European Journal of Social Theory.



Published on October 18, 2018.


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