In a country with more than 30,000 schools, the opening of three more should hardly be a cause for concern. But the announcement last month that the German government was formulating a legal framework for the opening of three Turkish schools in the country provoked a minor political firestorm and a lot of cultural soul-searching.
Far-right politicians, perhaps predictably, lamented the “Islamization of the German education system.” But mainstream politicians were also angry. “We don’t want Erdogan schools in Germany,” said Markus Blume, a member of Angela Merkel’s ruling center-right alliance. On the political left, Sevim Dagdelen, a socialist member of the Bundestag who, incidentally, also chairs the parliamentary German-Turkish group, said the schools would be “poisonous for integration and democracy.”
Most of the concerns were generally about Islam and more specifically about Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a hugely divisive figure in the country.
Next door in France, a similar debate took place last year after Erdogan expressed a desire to open Turkish schools in the country. Those plans appear to be on hold, but they provoked the same fears that such schools might promote a hardline version of Islam and that Erdogan specifically might use them to expand his influence.
Both concerns are overblown. There are good reasons to be concerned about the opening of Turkish schools in Germany, but all of them are about Germany itself.
Fears of “Islamist indoctrination” are excessive. There are many more mosques in Germany than Turkish-language schools and a Turkish umbrella organization runs at least 900 of them. The government is already looking at ways to regulate imams in these mosques, which will do more to standardize teaching than fretting over three schools.
Nor is the issue of Erdogan’s personal influence as serious as it may seem. All private schools are obliged to submit their curriculum for state approval, so Turkish schools are unlikely to become mouthpieces for the Turkish president.
The real concern ought to be what these schools might mean for Germany itself and, specifically, for the integration of Turkish minorities in Germany, which already has a complex relationship with its largest minority group. Surveys regularly show two apparently contradictory trends among the Turkish minority: an increased desire to integrate into German society and an increase in religiosity and sense of kinship with Turkey.
That relationship is further complicated by passports. Unlike most large European countries, Germany makes it difficult to hold dual nationality with a non-EU country, a rule that disproportionately affects the Turkish community. Until 2014, children of migrant parents who wanted to become German citizens had to give up their parents’ nationality, which caused complications in a community that still maintains strong business, social and personal ties to Turkey.
But politics matters too. As Germany’s largest Muslim minority, the post 9/11 era has weighed heavily on Turks. And in recent years, Erdogan has found it expedient to suggest Turks abroad suffer discrimination. He is, in effect, individualizing the idea that discrimination is the reason why Turkey has failed to win admittance to the European Union.
As relations between Germany and Turkey have deteriorated, particularly since the attempted coup of 2016, so have relations between Germans and the Turkish community inside Germany. The 2017 Turkish constitutional referendum was particularly difficult, as Erdogan encouraged supportive rallies in German cities, some of which were then cancelled by German authorities, damaging relations even further. Against that background, Turkish-language schools could easily store up problems for the future.
Private schooling is usually assumed to be expensive. In Germany, however, private schools are subsidized by the state and fees tend to be modest. Nine percent of pupils in Germany are in private education, usually chosen by their parents for reasons of religion or language. Since better integration is still problematic for Turks in Germany, it is not implausible to imagine how Turkish-language schools would rapidly become popular.
Schooling and integration are emotive topics. There is obviously a demand for Turkish-language education – a demand that the German state education system cannot meet. On the other hand, with Turkey’s rising power and influence, Turkish could be a useful language to learn for those outside the German Turkish community, too. But given the specifics of integration in Germany, it is wise to tread carefully. Turkish schools offering schooling solely in Turkish would inevitably foster cultural isolation. Linguistic ghettos can be just as damaging as geographical ghettos and surely the political priority now must be to discourage different communities from leading lives that run parallel to each other but rarely cross.
Now, as the legal framework is being debated, is the time to consider these issues. Now would be the right moment to stipulate a certain amount of German-language instruction, for example. Language makes people emotional, but any resident of a country who is not fluent in the language of that country is automatically at a major disadvantage. That is true whether their parents arrived from Warsaw or Ankara, or whether they are Syrians fleeing Assad’s war or Britons fleeing Brexit.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.