Case of player of Turkish origin challenges German integration model

While some say the country should do more to integrate citizens with foreign roots, right-wing critics say the migrants are culturally unable to adapt to German society.
Sunday 29/07/2018
Dual-heritage. Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil attends a training session in Singapore, on July 25.              (Reuters)
Dual-heritage. Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil attends a training session in Singapore, on July 25. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - Half a century after the start of Turkish migration to Germany, the high-profile resignation of a football star of Turkish origin from the German national team amid accusations of racism is a devastating statement about the failure of German society to accept migrants as equals, critics said.

Mesut Ozil, 29, a midfielder born in Germany to Turkish parents, withdrew from the German squad on July 22 in response to becoming what he called a “scapegoat” for a poor performance of the team during the FIFA World Cup in Russia. He said racism was behind the way he was treated by the media and football officials in Germany. “I am German when we win but I am an immigrant when we lose,” Ozil wrote on Twitter.

Ozil’s charge goes to the heart of an integration debate in Germany, a country that has received millions of Turkish migrants since the mid-1960s and an influx of 1.6 million people from the Middle East and Africa in recent years.

While some say the country should do more to integrate citizens with foreign roots, right-wing critics say the migrants are culturally unable to adapt to German society and are changing the country in unwanted ways. A right-wing populist party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), entered parliament for the first time last year and members of the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel have moved to the right.

“Integration has lost,” said Ozan Ceyhun, a Turkish-German former member of the European Parliament for Germany’s Social Democrats and author of a book titled “Man wird nie Deutscher” (“You Never Become German).” Many Turks rooted for Germany during the World Cup because they were proud of what Ozil had achieved, Ceyhun said.

“Ozil was a great role model” for young Turks in Germany, Ceyhun said. “He was proof that you can achieve something and be accepted but now we see it’s not so easy after all.”

Ceyhun said integration efforts received a huge setback with Ozil’s withdrawal. “We have lost the role model,” he said.

Ozil faced a barrage of criticism in Germany for having his photograph taken with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in May. He and Ilkay Gundogan, a teammate also of Turkish descent who posed with Erdogan as well, were jeered by German fans in warm-up games before the World Cup. Germany, the World Cup champion in 2014, failed to advance out of the group stage, its earliest exit from the tournament in 80 years. Ozil was one of the scapegoats for the team’s unsuccessful title defence.

After speaking with Ozil, Erdogan said on July 24 the player had given much to the German team but had become a victim of a “racist attitude due to his religion, which is not acceptable.”

In his statement declaring his resignation, Ozil said he did not feel accepted in German society despite paying taxes there, making donations to German schools and being part of the team that won the World Cup four years ago.

“It is with a heavy heart and after much consideration that, because of recent events, I will no longer be playing for Germany at international level while I have this feeling of racism and disrespect,” he said.

Merkel insisted that her government would work for the successful integration of migrants. In a statement, Merkel said Ozil was a “great” player. “Germany is a country that is open to the world and the integration of people with a migration background is a key task of the federal government,” she said.

Others criticised Ozil. AfD leader Alice Weidel, said events showed that “wishful thinking about integration does not even work with football millionaires.”

Thomas Bareiss, a senior member of Merkel’s Union of Christian Democrats, said Ozil’s accusations of racism were “out of place.” The tabloid Bild said: “Ozil is revelling in the victim role that has nothing to do with reality.” Uli Hoeness, president of German football champion Bayern Munich, said Ozil did not deserve a place in the national team because his performance had been weak for years.

The heated exchanges reveal the wide gulf that Turks in Germany say divides them from the rest of the country. As the debate raged, members of the Turkish community in Germany once again said “they are strangers in their own country,” journalist Hasan Gokkaya wrote in the weekly Die Zeit.

Mustafa Yeneroglu, a Turkish lawmaker who grew up in Germany, said the feelings of estrangement expressed by Ozil were shared by millions of Turks in Germany. Ozil “spoke for his and my generation,” Yeneroglu said in written remarks in response to questions. He said Ozil had been treated like a “German citizen on probation despite 92 caps for the national team.”

Yeneroglu, a member of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, accused Ozil’s critics of trying to force migrants to accept a “one-sided image” of the Turkish president, a politician rejected by many in Germany as an autocrat. Turkish-German citizens unwilling to accept that image “are being shown the door,” Yeneroglu wrote. “Ozil has given them a voice. That is why he has become a legend” with his resignation statement.