Neo-Ottoman Berlin

Flyer protesting Turkey's invasion of Kurdish areas in northern Syria. Berlin, February 2018.

“God is great,” exclaimed the cab driver. “Erdogan is Allah’s messenger.”

To my Middle Eastern trained ears, it might as well have been Istanbul. But, as populists would have it, this was Berlin.

Neukölln, to be precise, cruising down the revolutionary Karl-Marx-Straße en route to the veterinarian with my Welsh Terrier.

“I’m not so sure about his democratic inclinations,” I responded. “Erdogan’s growing concentration of power in the executive is frightening.”

The week of Turkey’s 2017 constitutional referendum, which transformed the country into a presidential republic, everyone in Europe was on alert.

Especially Erdogan supporters in Germany’s 4.5 million-strong Turkish community. Campaigning for votes abroad, the president and his team had worked tirelessly to secure their favour.

“You are Israeli, like the Hamas captive?” the cabbie asked, looking at my last name on his phone. I nodded.

“Tayyip wants the same as Netanyahu,” he opined. “As long as we have strong rulers, we will both be safe from outsiders.”

The expression of fear in his statement was noteworthy. Erdogan made him feel more secure, even here, in the German capital. It was something I hadn’t given much credence before.

It was an informed comparison, at least from my point of view. A not so insignificant number of Diaspora Jews tend to feel similarly empowered by aggressive Israeli leadership.

“I agree with you that Bibi appeals to the security-minded. But I don’t like him, or Erdogan. They’re a step backwards,” I said.

“You’ve been here too long,” the driver replied. “The Germans hate us and want us to leave. What does that say about democracy? This is the most liberal country in Europe.”

His words felt heavy on my heart. I understood what he meant. “On the surface, its contradictory,” I told him. “Democracy doesn’t guarantee tolerance. But it can’t exist without it.”

If only we’d be able to have a different conversation. But, it made sense. Unlike American Jewish voters, most German Turks tend to vote for the far-right – when Turkish elections are concerned.

With 68.5% of Germany’s 1.2 million eligible Turkish voters in last week’s parliamentary election casting their ballot for Erdogan, former Green party chief Cem Özdemir said that Turks reject “liberal democratic values” just like Germany’s neofascist Alternative für Deutschland.

Anti-populist Turkish language flyer. German elections, September 2017.

Even though German Turks have historically voted for the Social Democrats, they can still vote for conservative Turkish parties like Erdogan’s AKP.

Blame it on the racism they experience in Germany, or chalk it up to a compartmentalised nationalism, in matters pertaining to the mother country. They still do it.

If foreign Jews had the same right to vote in Israeli elections, perhaps they’d vote the same. The spell of ancestral homelands can be heavy.

Dual citizenship can be complex, allowing for seemingly contradictory political commitments in different countries.

Unfortunately, such logic also tends to pave over ethnic differences in countries like Turkey, in which an estimated 40-45% of the population is of minority background, nearly 18% Kurdish.

“Who are the outsiders you speak of?” I asked the cab driver, knowing very well how he’d answer. “Syrian refugees? I hear you’re playing host to nearly 4 million.”

“No,” he replied. “The Syrians are fine. The Syrian Arabs, to be precise. It’s the Kurds that are the problem, in both countries. They are our Palestinians.”

The parallel, of course, is a loaded one, but the admission is rare, at least from the Turkish side, as support for the Palestinians is strong, particularly with Erdogan.

I took the opportunity to push the envelope.

“The Palestinians have a right to challenge us as a colonial settler state,” I replied, “as we took their land away from them. Do Kurds have the same right inside Turkey?”

My host grew flustered. “Turkey hasn’t been a colonial entity since the Ottoman Empire. It has no blood on its hands like you do.”

With the vet’s office only a few minutes away, relief from the deteriorating conversation was soon coming.

“God definitely is great that you have would some relief from that,” I responded. “Inshallah we’ll have the same opportunity someday as Turkey, too.”

I’m sure the cab driver knew I was being disingenuous.

However, I’m equally certain that, considering how parallel he knew our respective homelands’ politics to be, that he was nonetheless grateful for my courtesy.

Turkey’s new colonial problem: Northern Syria. Berlin, May 2018.

Photographs courtesy of the author. Published under a Creative Commons license.