BERLIN (Reuters) - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s push to expand his powers in an April 16 referendum is causing deep divisions in Germany’s already fractured three million-strong Turkish community, splitting families and turning friends into enemies.
Emotions are running especially high after German authorities banned several planned rallies by Turkish ministers, citing public security concerns. Erdogan has branded such bans “fascist”, infuriating the German government.
“My father is pro-Erdogan. When he turns on the television, I have to leave the room,” one 22-year old German man of Turkish descent told Reuters in Berlin, where he is completing a year of voluntary work before starting his university studies.
Many of his friends’ families have also been split by the looming referendum, said the man, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals from ardent pro-Erdogan supporters or a ban on visiting Turkey.
Just down the street in Berlin’s multicultural Kreuzberg district, bright red signs proclaiming “Hayir” - ‘No’ in Turkish - and “No to dictatorship in Turkey” have been ripped from a fence and now lie on the pavement.
Others are shocked by the efforts of German, Dutch and other authorities to prevent Turkish politicians rallying support on European soil for the referendum.
“It’s completely right-wing and radical how the Turks are being treated here,” said Ergun Gumusalev, another Turkish man, told Reuters in Cologne. “I‘m actually opposed to Erdogan, but how can this be? Where are we living? We’ve been here for 50, 60 years, exploited like pigs ... and here’s the thanks we get.”
Many Turks came to Germany as ”Gastarbeiter’ (guest workers) in the 1960s and 1970s and contributed to the country’s postwar “economic miracle”.
But the latest conflict has reignited debate about the integration of Turks in German society, and Chancellor Angela Merkel and other politicians are anxious not to import internal Turkish conflicts into Germany.
Ismail Kupeli, a political science professor at Ruhr-Bochum University, said he expected about 60 percent of the 1.4 million Turks in Germany who are eligible to vote in the referendum to back Erdogan, roughly the same percentage that backed the Turkish leader in the last presidential vote.
“Erdogan is trying to shore up support for the referendum here because polls show a narrow majority is against the measure in Turkey,” Kupeli told Reuters.
“People are being told, ‘Either you’re for the president or you’re terrorists ... Either you’re for a strong Turkey under Erdogan or a weak Turkey that is under the thumb of the West.'”
Ahmet Daskin, project manager with the Foundation for Dialogue and Education, said his members had recently seen a big increase in hate messages on social media. The foundation is close to Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based cleric accused by Erdogan of orchestrating last summer’s failed coup in Turkey.
“It’s much worse than it was a few months ago,” Daskin said.
The group’s leader, Ercan Karakoyun, is currently on a book tour across Germany, but his appearances must be coordinated with local police since he has received over two dozen death threats since the coup, Daskin said.
“Every time Erdogan ratchets up his rhetoric, the threats and harassment increase over here,” he added.
A ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on Tuesday that said companies in the European Union may bar staff from wearing Islamic headscarves or other visible religious symbols could further exacerbate tensions in the Turkish community.
“I think it’s discriminatory and unnecessary because my headscarf doesn’t limit my ability to work at all,” Beyda Kokluce, a Turkish woman in Cologne, told Reuters.
“It will only make the situation worse,” said a second woman, Gokalp Cerci. “Every person is free to decide what he wears at work, and setting up general bans for people won’t accomplish anything.”
Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal, Reuters TV; Editing by Gareth Jones