• Politics
  • What makes Turks tick? Ask a Muhtar!


What makes Turks tick? Ask a Muhtar!

What’s on Turkish Berliners’ minds when they enter the voting booth? Why did they vote so massively in favour of Erdoğan at last April’s referendum, and who will they support in this year’s elections? We visited four “wise men” in search of a clue.

Image for What makes Turks tick? Ask a Muhtar!

Ercan Yasaroğlu. Photo by German Palomeque

What’s on Turkish Berliners’ minds when they enter the voting booth? Why did they vote so massively in favour of Erdoğan at last April’s referendum, and who will they support in this year’s elections? Robert Rigney visited four “wise men” in search of a clue.

For many Germans, the Turkish community is veiled in mystery. They stick to themselves, occupying parallel worlds in ethnically distinct neighbourhoods, speaking their own indecipherable tongue, refusing to integrate. So goes the stereotype.

So when time came for last April’s Turkish referendum, Germans were shocked at the results. In all of the 13 consulates where voting took place, Turks voted a resounding “yes” on increasing the powers of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In Essen, 76 percent of voters supported the referendum; even in liberal Berlin, “yes” votes numbered 50 percent! The numbers took German pundits utterly by surprise.

Not Ercan (‘Erci’) Yasaroğlu, the Turkish owner of Café Kotti, long-time Kreuzberg resident and self described muhtar of Kottbusser Tor.

“I wasn’t surprised,” says Yasaroğlu. “These people have no participation in our democracy. Many can’t vote. And when the German media and German politicians came out in a push for the ‘no’ vote, forbidding Turkish politicians from speaking at rallies here, that only backfired and increased the support for Erdoğan.”

Muhtars are Turkish wise men (and, less frequently, women) with their ear to the ground. Part psychologist, part imam, part social worker and part mafia godfather, they represent a Turkish tradition harkening back to Anatolian village politics, which spread to Germany with the arrival of the first “guest workers” in the 1950s. Today, a network of “Kiez muhtars” conduct grassroots politics from café terraces and tea houses wherever Turks congregate in Berlin. They are regularly asked for advice, beseeched as mediators in domestic conflicts, sought as middle-men in dealings with bureaucratic offices, and even consulted by German politicians during election years.

Yasaroğlu is perhaps the most famous Berlin muhtar. From the terrace of Café Kotti, or his adjoining office in the neo-brutalist Neue Kreuzberger Zentrum, he fields curious journalists’ questions while extending a welcoming hand to refugees, diffusing anti-immigrant hysteria and talking with Green or SPD politicians, who value his street-savvy take on immigration, integration and the life of Berlin Turks.

 In fact, many have felt over the course of the eight years Yasaroğlu has owned Café Kotti (he has lived in Kotti for 35) that he’s been jeopardising his own business with his oft-rehearsed spiel, conducted for countless journalists, about Kotti’s notoriety as a criminal hotspot and “no-go” area. People say it’s scared away the tourists.

German politicians don’t care about us. Unless elections are looming. Then they come to Kotti and pose at the döner spit with the döner man… That’s what immigration represents to them: döner.

Yasaroğlu’s pessimism and alarmism extend to the elections: “Like many Turks here, I don’t feel like a citizen anymore. The ‘we’ feeling is gone.” He sweeps his graying hair to the side, lights a cigarette and launches into a diatribe about German politicians. “They don’t deal with Kreuzberg. No politicians go to the Kiez. They don’t care. Unless elections are looming. Then they come to Kotti and pose at the döner spit with the döner man … Merkel has done it. So has Hans Ströbele and Claudia Roth. That’s what immigration represents to them: döner.”

For Yasaroğlu it’s high time the politicians bring that ‘we’ feeling back. “The establishment should finally take political responsibility before inhuman things start to happen here. We need a domestic policy that protects us. And by ‘us’, I mean not just Turks and Arabs, but the 99 nationalities that make up Kreuzberg.” For now, Yasaroğlu says not to expect much political action from the Turkish community come September’s election. “The Turks vote mainly for the SPD and CDU. And, even if they’re disappointed with them, I don’t see any other party capturing much of the Turkish vote.”

But what about the increasing number of Turkish-German politicians running for office? Election posters around Kotti display the beaming faces of Canan Bayram (Greens) and Cansel Kiziltepe (SPD), but Yasaroğlu is unimpressed. He doesn’t feel represented by the likes of Green Party co-chair Cem Özdemir. “Politicians like him act as self-proclaimed representatives of Turkish voters, but have strayed so far from the grassroots concerns of most Turkish voters in Kreuzberg, Berlin and Germany, that they are seen as sellouts to the German political establishment – Turkish Uncle Toms. And Özdemir was very vocal about his anti-Erdoğan stance during the referendum campaign. That was not very popular…”

Hasan Topraklar, another self-appointed Turkish muhtar whose field of operation often overlaps with Yasaroğlu’s, agrees. “Because of Özdemir, the Greens lost a lot of votes amongst the Turks.” A social worker who lives in Kreuzkölln, Topraklar can often be seen on the terrace of Cafe Kotti or rubbing shoulders with the junkies of Kottbusser Tor. “I know them all. They all know me.” His clientele are mainly Turkish youths and former gang-bangers he has accompanied from the schools of Kreuzberg to the asphalt of Kotti. They have grown up facing anti-Turkish and anti-immigrant discrimination in school and the workplace; many drop out of school and can’t hold down jobs. Some have turned to drugs, either dealing or taking. “They come by and sit down with me. They ask questions: what should I do here, what should I do there? They trust me,” says Topraklar. An atheist, he regards Islam as dangerously intoxicating, “just like the heroin that is being sold here,” he says, looking around. At the upcoming elections, he’ll vote Die Linke but says that a majority of Turks vote for the SPD. But he agrees with Yasaroğlu that no political group will decisively capture the Turkish vote. “There is a group of conservative Turks who vote CDU. Their numbers, however, are very small. Merkel’s policies regarding Turkey are very much disliked around here.”

Nine U-bahn stations to the west, opposite KaDeWe in a neighborhood marked more by high-street consumerism than Turkish Kiezgefühl, Mustafa Tekoğlu offers the same analysis. The elderly muhtar sits out on the terrace of a Turkish cafe on Wittenbergplatz, his unofficial office during the summer months. Tekoğlu, who claims to field the queries from up to 100 people a day, says that ruling coalition parties have lost favour because of their anti-Turkey stance. “Turks have traditionally leaned toward the SPD, but this time they distrust the prospect of an SPD government because of the policies of the Foreign Minister regarding Turkey.” Parties like the Greens would have the potential to win votes, but Tekoğlu again points out Özdemir’s unpopularity. “Turks I know say Özdemir is not a real Turk; he’s an Armenian, they say,” says Tekoğlu. “And because of him the Greens will lose votes, despite the fact that there are many Green politicians here who have Turkish heritage.”

Tekoğlu came to Berlin during the Gastarbeiter wave of the 1960s, studied economics at TU and worked as a translator at Siemens, going between Turkish workers and German foremen. In his experience, Tekoğlu says, “It’s the Germans, not the Turks, who have failed to integrate. In all this time – and it’s been 50 years now – the Germans haven’t learned a single word in Turkish! But the Turks have learned. Look at me. I can talk. I don’t want to be impolite, but I can say to their faces, ‘You Germans, you haven’t integrated. We have integrated!’ Our children, our grandchildren, speak German perfectly. They even celebrate Christmas. But the Germans… none of them have ever celebrated Bayram!” Tekoğlu says he is awaiting “a big surprise” in the upcoming election: “Die Linke will come out the winner with regards to the Turkish community. But many others will protest by not casting their vote.” He stops for a short moment and adds, “Speaking of muhtars, I’ll tell you this: the greatest muhtar of them all is Tayyip Abi, brother Erdoğan”.

Image for What makes Turks tick? Ask a Muhtar!
Sultan Bariş: “Most of the Turkish people I know will not vote.” Photo by German Palomeque

Sultan Bariş couldn’t agree more. “If I still had a Turkish passport, I would vote for Erdoğan. I can totally empathise on why so many Turks in Germany like him. Erdoğan stands for religion, and there’s no one else standing up for religion now in Germany or in Turkey.” Bariş is one of the few female muhtars in Berlin. Her domain is that stretch of Wilmersdorf between Bayerischer Platz and the Blissestraße U-Bahn station. “When I walk down Berliner Straße, I think the whole street is mine,” she says. She helps people in her neighbourhood with jobs, apartments, work permits, private problems. She also arranges marriages, fixing local Turkish lonely hearts with partners from her home region, the part of south Turkey between Adana and Gaziantep. “I have contact with people. And when I have contact with people, I can help the people, and when I help people I am happy myself. Bariş means peace.”

Before Bariş moved to Berlin in 1989, she voted for the notorious Grey Wolves, the right-wing nationalist party. She claims not to care much about politics, but upon receiving German citizenship in the mid-1990s she has voted for the CDU in Spandau and the SPD in Wilmersdorf. Today, her analysis is as definite as all the others’. “Turks in Germany resent German politicians’ mixing in Turkey’s internal politics.”

In late August, Erdoğan decided to turn the tables by making an announcement urging his countrymen in Germany not to vote for CDU, SPD or the Greens, as they were “enemies of the Turks”.

“This was to be expected,” says Tekoğlu. “Erdoğan doesn’t see eye to eye with the German government. He wants to influence the elections to show his power. And so he wants German Turks to refrain from voting, out of protest.” According to Bariş, the plan is working. “Most of the Turkish people I know will not vote,” she concludes.

Berlin Turks by the numbers

Turks form the largest ethnic minority in Berlin, yet no one knows exactly how many live here. Official statistics count 176,730 Turkish citizens and Germans with a Turkish background, but this number doesn’t include many Kurds or Turks from neighbouring countries like Bulgaria and Greece. Unofficial estimates range between 250,000 to 400,000. Most hold Turkish passports. According to the Turkish government, 140,000 Turkish and German- Turkish citizens in Berlin were eligible to vote on last May’s Turkish referendum; 43 percent of them did so. Meanwhile, some 30 percent of Turks in Berlin would be eligible to vote in September’s German elections – Mustafa Tekoğlu puts the number at 100,000.