Turkish Germany

Erdogan’s Stronghold in the Industrial Ruhr Area

Türkischer Sportminister Akif Cagatay Kilic in Köln
Source: Reuters

The door to the tearoom opens in the Fatih Mosque in the Katernberg district of Essen. Some 20 pairs of eyes look up. One pair belongs to the Koran teacher, a 70-year-old matron who is sitting with her pupils around a brown table. All of them are wearing headscarves. And they’re all happy that a majority voted in favor of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the referendum.

“He keeps his eye on the welfare of Turkey; he’s improving democracy there,” says a 12-year-old, translating for her grandmother, who has accompanied her granddaughter but scarcely speaks German. After the Koran lesson, the girls repeat in friendly voices: “We all know that Erdogan does only good: Our parents voted for him.”

After their midday prayer, worshippers gather in front of the mosque. A former miner with a thick mustache is willing to speak after some initial reluctance.

“I’m for Erdogan,” he says in broken German. “The West has governed us ever since the end of the World War I. Erdogan is changing that.”

If he still had his Turkish passport, he would have voted “Yes.” He is just as unwilling to reveal his name as is the muscled laborer who settles down onto a blue plastic chair next to him. He voted for the reform and hopes the the Turkish president will introduce the death penalty. “Whoever rapes children deserves to die,” he says.

“Turks who live in Germany are more conservative and homogeneously structured than their compatriots in Turkey.”

Yunus Ulusoy, Researcher at the Center for Turkish Studies and Integration Research

At another location in Essen full of Turkish supermarkets and snack stands, the manager of a Turkish restaurant gathers his courage to speak. He, too, wishes to remain anonymous  to avoid upsetting and possibly losing any customers. The third generation of his family, he explains, lives in Germany; his children celebrate Easter as well as Eid al-Fitr, the feast that marks the end of fasting after Ramadan. He approves of expanding presidential powers. “Erdogan has put a stop to corruption,” the restaurant manager says. He isn’t afraid of an autocratic Turkey: “If the police put journalists in prison, they’re probably terrorists,” he says.

The Koran class, former miner and restaurant manager are typical of the Turks at the center of discussion throughout Germany. They have been living in a constitutional state for years, yet support the phaseout of one on the Bosporus. Although not nearly all the Turkish people in Germany eligible to vote participated in the referendum, the results are clear: 63.1 percent want to give the president more power and 75.25 percent of the votes cast in Essen were for him, more than anywhere else in Germany.

Yunus Ulusoy, responsible for investigating demographic change, migration and labor-market consequences at the Center for Turkish Studies and Integration Research in Essen, offers a reason for their support. “Turks who live in Germany are more conservative and homogeneously structured than their compatriots in Turkey,” he says, noting that the first generation of immigrants, who arrived in Germany in the 1960s, came primarily from rural regions: “They’re simple, religious people.”

keupstrasse-archiv dpa
Turkish businesses in Cologne. Source: dpa

The coal and steel industry in the Ruhr region was particularly attractive to Turks from central Anatolia or from the Black Sea coast. Today, these regions are strongholds of Mr. Erdogan’s Islamic-conservative AKP party. Since values are preserved for generations in the diaspora, many continue to identify themselves with the politician who likewise came from modest circumstances.

“He embodies the strong, male leader who is now giving a dressing-down to the West, where many Turks feel like outsiders,” says Mr. Ulusoy, who radiates self-confidence, uses simple language and conveys a “we-feeling.” He points to the significant economic upswing under Erdogan’s leadership. “Many Turks, including myself, had to support their relatives for decades; that’s no longer necessary,” Mr. Ulusoy adds.

This memory is shared by the men back at the mosque who move more chairs close together out. They boast how all households in their home villages now have televisions and clean drinking water, all thanks to Mr. Erdogan.

They don’t want to hear that Turkey is currently in an economic crisis. People like Green co-party chairman Cem Özdemir, the highest profile German Turk in German politics, whips up a fury in other German Turks.  They see him as one of many agents of Mr. Erdogan’s opponent Fethullah Gülen, who they believe to be everywhere, including Germany.

The general opinion among this group is that whoever calls Mr. Erdogan a dictator should take a look at Iran or Syria. But Mehmet E. sees things differently. The owner of an Essen-based travel agency specializes in Turkey vacations, he says he’s “shocked” about the outcome and the opinions of his compatriots. He has had to deal with sinking revenues since 2016. “Some are afraid of attacks; others stay away to punish Erdogan,” he says. Lying on his desk are brochures: “Bodrum for Every Taste” is one of them.

Political scientist Burak Çopur from Duisburg-Essen University says politicians bear part of the responsibility; they have long neglected to promote integration. He warns of a “highly explosive mixture,” urging Germans to oppose propaganda from Ankara through more support of education in democracy. And there is need for a “genuine welcoming culture.” He points to traditional immigration countries like the United States, New Zealand and Australia as an alternative; Turks, he claims, are far more integrated there.


Anna Gauto writes for Handelsblatt and other publications in the Holzbrinck Publishing Group. To contact the author: redaktion@vhb.de

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