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Germany's multiculturalism dilemma a cautionary tale for Canada

A Muslim woman wearing a headscarf walks past a Turkish religious organization called the "Turkish-Islamic Union Institute for Religion" in Berlin's immigrant-heavy district of Kreuzberg on Sept. 21, 2010.

Sean Gallup/Sean Gallup/Getty Images

To stroll through certain corners of Kreuzberg, the Turkish-immigrant enclave near the centre of Berlin, is to enter another world, one that is not fully German but does not really resemble modern Turkey either.

The Turks here, most of whom have been residents for almost half a century, are disconnected: Many adults don't speak much German; home ownership is rare; women cover their heads far more than they do in Turkey; and jobs tend to be within the neighbourhood, with few links to Berlin at large.

It was this community, and others like it in German cities, that Chancellor Angela Merkel was referring to on the weekend when she shocked the world with a speech stating that multiculturalism "has failed, utterly" and the approach in which divergent cultures and languages "are living side by side" should be abandoned. "Those who do not accept this," she said, "are in the wrong place here."

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Her words were read by many as a stark and politically motivated attack on immigrants and those of non-Christian religions in a country where such sentiments have a dark history.

But the experience of the 3.5 million Turks in Germany - by far the country's largest and most controversial immigrant group - suggests her rhetoric is less a rejection of integration and more an acknowledgment that the German state has failed, more than anywhere else in Europe, to allow integration to happen.

It offers a cautionary lesson to Canada, where Ottawa is studying the German-modelled idea of foreign workers being granted temporary permits, in which they are expected to return to their home countries after a few years. In Germany, that policy led to a 50-year cultural disaster.

Her words have a specific meaning in Germany. It is a country where few, either German or Turkish, have sought multiculturalism: The idea hasn't been proposed or advocated by a major German politician, and has been actively resisted by immigrant groups.

But the word is now used as a badge of failure, and one with political connotations in a country that was itself built awkwardly out of multiple cultures and religions - and once came close to wiping out one of its religious minorities.

Ms. Merkel is fighting for her political life against a more conservative branch of her Christian Democratic Union. The chance that she might lose her party leadership after March regional elections offers an explanation for her sudden shift to anti-immigrant rhetoric.

But behind it is a huge Turkish community that remains an embarrassment to Germans and Turks alike. The story begins in 1961 when, facing labour shortages, West Germany began taking in "guest workers" from Turkey.

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They were meant to return after two years, and most Turks at the time wanted to do so, but German employers lobbied to keep them, having paid for their training and needing workers in a thriving economy. So they were allowed to stay, but not to become citizens.

By 2002, when Turks had been living there for 41 years and numbered 2.5 million, no more than 470,000 had managed to become German citizens. The German-born children of the millions denied citizenship were stranded without cultural or linguistic ties to Turkey, often without the right to start businesses or go to university in Germany.

So, without incentive to become part of the German community, many didn't learn the language. According to one study, 80 per cent of Turkish parents can't participate in parent-teacher meetings because their German is inadequate.

And they became religious, far more than their original cultures: Fully 29 per cent of adult Turks in Germany are religiously observant, regular mosque-goers - a rate higher than that of Turks elsewhere in Europe and higher than in most parts of Turkey.

Most tragic has been marriage: At one point, 17 per cent of Turkish women in Germany said their marriages were forced and 49 per cent said they had been subjected to physical or sexual violence by their husbands - largely because the arranged marriage (increasingly rare in Turkey) became the only way around the immigration laws.

Turks from the same villages who move to other parts of Europe integrate more comfortably. Studies have found that poor Turks who go to Britain fall into career paths that lead to the middle class, while those in Germany remain trapped in a peripheral life.

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Indeed, Istanbul-based scholars visit Germany and find Turks there are "caught in a time warp:" In Turkey, head scarves on women have become increasingly less popular over the past decade, while in Berlin they're widely worn.

So for some Turks, Ms. Merkel's speech was welcomed: It was on one level an acknowledgment that booming Germany, in need of immigrants more than ever, will avoid repeating its mistakes of citizenship.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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