In Conversation with Germany’s Cem Özdemir

March 3rd, 2011

Cem Özdemir, Co-Chair of The Green Party/Die Grünen (Germany) is the first party leader in Germany to come from an immigrant background. The son of Turkish “guest workers”, he has become the de facto expert on immigration and integration issues for his party.

In January 2011, Maytree President Ratna Omidvar spoke with Cem Özdemir about life as a politician in Germany.

Ratna Omidvar: Let’s start at the beginning. Where were you born?

Cem Özdemir: I was born in the city Bad Urach in the south west of Germany in the state of Baden-Württemberg.

RO: Are your political perspectives influenced by your migrant background? Or do you feel fully German?

Cem Özdemir: Both. It’s not a contradiction! When I started to become active in politics, I was politicized like other people in my age group mainly through the environmental movement. I just felt like anybody else committed to saving the planet and fighting for peace.

But there were two important things that affected my future political activities. One occurred during my school years, when we had an exchange program with the UK and we traveled through Belgium by train. Although I grew up in Germany and speak the local language I needed a travel visa since I had a Turkish passport. [Until that moment] I wasn’t aware of this. So I had to leave the train. The border police gave me a travel visa, so at the very last second I boarded the ship to the UK for the exchange program. That was the first time in my life that I realized that although I speak the language, that whatever I do, in the end, the passport matters. Citizenship certainly matters.

When I became active in politics I was focused on environmental questions. However, people were always more interested in talking to me about immigration issues, about integration problems with Turkey. I was asked by people even in my own party about Turkey even though I didn’t know a lot about Turkey. Even now that I am party leader, responsible for every topic in the political arena, I still get a lot of requests by journalists in Germany on integration.

RO: What was the political landscape like back then for someone with a migrant background?

Cem Özdemir: I grew up with Helmut Kohl as chancellor. And a very interesting moment in my life was when I first entered parliament in 1994. Speaking in parliament, I was 2-3 metres away from Helmut Kohl and he had to listen to me. Try to imagine my parents, growing up as guest workers, working class people, and here is their son appearing on TV, standing so close to all these figures from history books.

I don’t think that I was treated differently because of my Turkish background at the beginning [of my political career], but over the years I have been constantly reminded of my ethnic roots. When I ran in the Stuttgart local elections, that was the first time in my life that I was confronted with hate mail because of my ethnic origin. I speak [German] like other politicians, I know the local problems like the others. I am active like the others –so what’s the difference? Does it really matter that my parents come from another country?

RO: So let’s talk about changing demographics: Germany has the highest percentage of “foreign born” in Europe today, language we don’t use in Canada.

Cem Özdemir: Even that is progress! There was a time that we called them ‘guest workers’ or ‘foreigners.’ So we are slowly moving in the right direction.

RO: Germany has had a national integration plan since 2005 and describes itself as a country that wants immigrants. What is the best thing that Germany had done on this issue? And what is the most important thing for Germany still to do?

Cem Özdemir: Obviously, one of the turning points was when Germany recognized birth rights [to citizenship] in 2000 when the Green Party first came to power. That was a challenging situation for Germany. [Politically], it’s unfortunate that we couldn’t go as far as we wanted as we lost the state election and had to make difficult compromises. Today, this means that 100,000 children are born every year to “foreign parents’, but only half of them get birth rights [to citizenship]. Why? Because you need to have 8 years of legal status in Germany to be eligible. So the children of refugees and asylum seekers’ are excluded; people who have lived less than 8 years in Germany are excluded. So Germany is still producing ‘foreign babies’ which is absurd. I mean if you are born in this country, you should be a citizen by birth. So I believe this is one of the tasks we still have to deal with. If we come into power again, I would like to extend citizenship rights and increase the number of those who can apply for citizenship.

Another crucial question that still needs to be addressed in German politics is whether it is good news or bad news when the number of citizenship applications goes down. It should be our goal that foreigners become citizens. Unfortunately, the current government still thinks it is good to introduce hurdles that make it less attractive to become a citizen. I don’t say that we should give citizenship in the market square to everyone. Of course, we need conditions. People have to speak the language. People have to stick to the constitution. There is no doubt about that. But why make it less attractive to become citizens? It is easier to talk citizen-to-citizen then to talk citizen-to-foreigner. But there is no consensus about that yet in German politics.

But there is also good news. I believe it was crucial that the current government, which is led by Christian Democrats under the former Minister of Interior, Mr. Schäuble, has stated [on record] that Islam is part of this country. Schäuble held a conference with Muslim organizations to discuss the relationship between state and religion. In Germany, there exist [traditional] agreements between the two Christian churches and the state. So he stated that we should do something similar with the Muslims. This is something to applaud – although I might disagree with some details. It was also good that Madame Chancellor [Merkel] invited immigrant organizations to the chancellorship to discuss immigrant integration policies. I believe these are steps forward. I know it’s not easy for conservatives to do these kinds of steps.

RO: If I were an immigrant wanting to come to Germany, what advice would you give me? Which city should I go to?”

Cem Özdemir: [Laughter] I have to say Stuttgart, of course. I ran for office in Stuttgart. But I also believe Stuttgart is a good case because it of its economic success. Without economic success, the kinds of things you can do as a politician are limited. [To be a ‘city of migraton’] you need a welcoming community, and welcoming city leadership: the two parts belong to each other. That is what we have in Stuttgart. Although the city is led by Christian Democrats, when it comes to these integration policy areas, we cheer them.

There is a long tradition in the city of Stuttgart, independent of party politics, of working together in this area because we believe it is crucial. [Historically], what helped was that we had international companies in Stuttgart. These international companies cannot afford to have racism. They cannot afford to have people working for the company and having difficulties with each other. The business has to function and can only function within a culture accepting of diversity. So I believe the economic era also helped policy-makers deal with these issues.

RO: Describe a city where immigrants are integrated and part of society.

Cem Özdemir: The  city of my wife! Buenos Aires, where she was born.  Let me give you a reason for that. I have always admired how you have Armenians and Turks living side by side in the same country; you have Arabs and Jews, living in the same country, in the same city. There is one thing that unites them. Whatever the problems back there in the country of the forefathers, here we are all newcomers … a new life has started. So let’s try to build a better world and leave behind all the difficulties that we had in our suitcases when we arrived. I believe there is much to learn from the experience of countries of immigration – how they dealt with these difficulties without having people attacking each other. This is something to cheer, to learn from and how to build a new identity. Looking at Buenos Aires and similar cities, we can learn from how to create a new identity, an umbrella that everyone can share. Therefore I believe cities are crucial.

RO: Migrant communities are now becoming mainstream communities. What can they do to change what appears to be a German fear of migration?

Cem Özdemir: One thing I believe is crucial: stop talking about diasporas. You are part of the country, it is your country and when you discuss its problems, start with ‘we’, not ‘us and them’. That’s crucial. If you describe something, describe it as a German, as a European, as a Berliner, but don’t describe it as somebody who is not part of the larger community. Of course, you can have your sub-identity, there is nothing wrong with that. But we also need an umbrella identity and the umbrella identity for me is being a republican, being a German, being a European – that’s what unites us. And then of course, I have my Turkish roots, but that’s the 2nd part of it. The first part should be what unites us. In this matter, it is not only the majority community, but also the minority communities themselves who need to work and challenge themselves.

Let me give you an example about what I try to promote. There are so many stereotypes of Islam. When you go out into the street and ask any German what are the first five points that come to your mind when you talk about Islam – it would be terrorism, it would be forced marriage… and all the kinds of things we see in the news. I don’t say these things do not exist, unfortunately they exist. But that is not the whole reality.

So try to do something paradoxical, surprise people. For example, there was a local Muslim community in the state of Bavaria who put solar panels on top of the mosque and invited me over for the opening session. Our response was to say, listen, not only Christians but everyone should be concerned about the environment, about energy consumption. If what unites religions is to be responsible citizens, then part of being responsible is to save the planet. Everybody was so surprised because it’s not what you expect when you see a mosque. This is the kind of thing that we have to do. Don’t talk about what should happen, do it.

RO: You are speaking of the Marxloh mosque in Duisburg, which we describe in Canada as an example we can all learn from (See our Good Idea). So I’m with you, Germans need to talk more about what’s happening locally, about examples of city success.

Cem Özdemir: I was at the opening session. This mosque in the Marxloh district of Duisburg was never controversial. Why? Because the mayor supported it, the state did, the local community was involved in a very transparent process. The Muslim community did everything right. They brought the whole neighbourhood together to talk about their concerns. What is interesting is to see in Cologne, at the same time, another mosque project where everything went wrong.

However, if you look to the mosques themselves, the mosque in Duisburg-Marxloh is a very traditional one, a copy of a mosque in Turkey in the Byzantine basilica-style. There is no such thing as a traditional mosque! It is an invention! Whereas the mosque in Cologne is architecturally very modern, a very transparent building, using geothermic energy. But its construction was extremely controversial.

My point is if we live here in Germany, it is also important not to copy the old models of the countries of our forefathers. Why not build a mosque that is a combination of the cities in which we live, of the kind of architecture we find here, together with the cultural roots we bring with us. Muslims can build mosques that are modern mosques with modern architecture. So that would be my wish to Muslim communities.

RO: As a national political leader, you are a role model. And there are an increasing number others like you. Do they get a profile in the media?

Cem Özdemir: Yes, there are many success stories in this country – in sports, media, business, cinema – we have lots of cases. But there is a problem of perception within the majority community. The majority community thinks they know exactly what a real Turkish lady and a real Turkish man looks like. The real Turkish lady is uneducated, not successful, oppressed by her husband, by her brother, by her father or whoever, by the whole community. And the real Turkish man is a macho man, doesn’t love his wife, it’s a forced marriage, and so on.

Everybody else is an exception. Except, I happen to know a lot of those exceptions! Then, [that means] none of us is a ‘real’ Turk. We are all exceptions if you insist on describing the ‘real’ Turk in such negative terms. That’s not an attractive model to follow. Just imagine if the Turkish community, or any community, were to describe Germans with those kinds of stereotypes. You obviously can’t do that with every community group. That doesn’t help.

The more people you see that have “made it”, the more attractive it becomes for others to follow their path. This way when I get to the municipality and see people of colour, it shows me that it is also my municipality. I think that is crucial. We need a colour-blind society where people of all backgrounds are represented, all over the place. An inclusive society.

Excerpts from an interview between Cem Özdemir, Co-Chair, The Green Party/Die Grünen (Germany) and Ratna Omidvar, President, The Maytree Foundation, in Berlin, January 19, 2011.

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