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Negotiating Modernity and Europeanness in the Germany-Turkey Transnational Social Field

In conversation with recent work on transnational social fields, this article explores how Germany and Turkey are linked through a “set of multiple, interlocking, networks of social relationships” . The article examines how the social field affects migrants returning from Germany to Turkey. Specifically, it describes how the transnational social field emerges through a concrete set of economic, political and cultural exchanges. It also illustrates that the social field is a space of imaginations of Germany and Turkey, reflecting and producing citizens’ uncertainties about the “Europeanness”. For German-Turkish return migrants, the transnational social field exacerbates conflicts with non-migrants and fosters anxieties about migrants’ “Germanization” and loss of “Turkishness.” Ultimately, this research shows that Turkish citizens remain deeply concerned about the meaning of modernity, Muslim citizenship in Germany, and Turkey’s current and future position in Europe.

Negotiating Modernity and Europeanness in the Germany-Turkey Transnational Social Field
Turkish people living in Europe pass to Turkey through Kapıkule border gate. AA / Cihan Demirci

This article demonstrates the significance of a transnational social field connecting Germany and Turkey for explaining German-Turkish return migrants’ experiences and for shedding light on broader concerns in Turkey regarding the country’s belonging in Europe. During two years of ethnographic research with German-Turkish return migrants, I found that return migrants often experience significant conflicts with family members and neighbors. Specifically, when return migrants signal transnational belonging, they spur debates in their communities about the potentially positive influences of “German” discipline and self-education and the perceived negative influences of “German” individualism and a feared loss of “Turkish” morality and religiosity. Although scholars have criticized stereotypic dichotomies between sociality-individualism and discipline-disorder when considering “the West” and “others,”1 I repeatedly encountered attribution to these stereotypes during conflicts between migrants and non-migrants. In this article, I show that migrants and non-migrants are mobilizing these stereotypes while they struggle over belonging in a transnational social field connecting Germany and Turkey.

Germany and Turkey are linked through a “set of multiple, interlocking, networks of social relationships,” including a myriad of economic, political and cultural ties.2 The social field is further a space of imaginations of relationships between Germany and Turkey, Europeans and Turks. Conflicts between German-Turks and non-migrants result because the transnational social field reflects and produces citizens’ uncertainties about the Europeanness and modernity of Turkey and worries about future Turkish-EU membership and European integration.3 Despite a widely reported turn away from Europe on the part of Turkey’s political leaders,4 this research suggests that Turkish citizens remain deeply concerned about Turkey’s current and future position in Europe. By understanding the role of the transnational social field, we may be able to develop policies that would encourage return migration and ease the transition to Turkey for the ever increasing numbers of returnees, as well as address citizens’ anxieties. 

Germany initially invited Turks to Germany as Gastarbeiter (guest workers) between 1961 and 1973 when the German government signed work recruitment treaties with foreign governments

In the following section I discuss German-Turkish migration and the parameters of my research into the phenomenon of return migration. Then, I characterize conflicts between migrants and non-migrants through ethnographic examples. In the discussion that follows, these conflicts are explained by describing the contours of the Germany-Turkey transnational social field. After this analysis, the article looks at the historical roots of Turkish striving for modernity and belonging in Europe and examines how anxieties about Turkish modernity circulate through the transnational social field. The conclusion considers policies that might ameliorate returnees’ struggles and Turkish citizens’ worries. 



German-Turkish Migration and Return

Germany initially invited Turks to Germany as Gastarbeiter (guest workers) between 1961 and 1973 when the German government signed work recruitment treaties with foreign governments.5 Today, there are nearly three million Turks in Germany.67 This number includes the original guest workers, who travelled to the country until 1973, migrants who travelled through familial networks or due to political oppression in Turkey during the 1980s and 1990s and transnational migrants seeking educational and business opportunities in Germany in recent years.8 Despite a stable community in Germany, there is now a net out-migration of approximately 4,000 migrants per year.9 Estimates indicate that there are approximately four million people in Turkey with a German migration background.10 Returnees include first-generation migrants, who retire in Turkey permanently and some who divide their time equally between Turkey and Germany as well as second- and third-generation ethnic migrants who travel to Turkey to pursue employment opportunities. Three quarters of returnees are between 25 and 50 years of age and one quarter are over 50.11 

This article is based 25 months of ethnographic research in three sites in northwestern Turkey: İlçe,12 a town of about 15,000; Tekirdağ, a small city with a population of about 100,000; and Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey, estimated to have a population of between 12-16 million. Formal interviews were conducted with 57 migrants. Additionally, over 100 community members, relatives, and neighbors of migrants were informally interviewed. Initially, contacts with German-Turks were made through personal friends and Turkish teachers. A broader network of migrants was accessed through their extended family members, neighbors, and friends. In Istanbul, returnees were also contacted through a Return Migrant’s Group (the Rückkehrer Stammtisch), the Goethe Institute, and a German-Turkish telemarketing center. The goal of this research was to explore inter-generational and community relationships, and therefore to focus on both first and second generation returnees and on almost equal numbers of men and women.13 All of those interviewed self-identified as ethnically Turkish (not Kurdish) and as having a Muslim background. The interviewees were free to choose either Turkish or German as the language of the interviews, but ultimately 90% of the interviews and conversations were conducted in Turkish. Initial interviews were conducted either in homes or in a public location of the interviewees’ choosing. The interview questions were prepared to elicit information from returnees’ about their experiences in Germany and Turkey, but interviews were open-ended and ranged widely across many topics. 

While carrying out this research, I also lived with four return migrant families and made observations of daily activities, weddings, circumcision ceremonies, funerals, güns (visiting days), sohbets (religious discussions), kermes (yard sales to benefit the poor), political party meetings, mosque services, and holiday celebrations. Observing interactions among family members and neighbors by living with families yielded the most revealing data regarding familial and community relationships. In addition to observations and interviews, I also watched film and television programs and conducted research on the Internet to understand more about returnees’ lives and how non-migrants perceive them. Finally, I followed news stories concerning German-Turks, return migrants, and Turkey’s relationships with Germany and Europe on the Hürriyet, Radikal, Milliyet, and NTVMSNBC websites. 

After a treaty signed between West-Germany and Turkey; Turkish guest workers arrived in Germany to meet the demand of cheap workforce in a booming post-war economy. Nermin Elbers in the photograph is one of the guest workers waiting in Sirkeci Railroad Terminal to leave to Germany in 1962. | AA



Difficulties at “Home”

During the course of research, migrants repeatedly told me of conflicts in their families and neighborhoods. First generation migrants and, in particular, women face more conflicts with family than second generation migrants, while both first and second generations (men and women) may face conflicts with neighbors. This article focuses on two stories that illustrate common conflicts. The first story revolves around Derya’s conflicts with her family, while the second recounts Meltem’s conflicts with her neighbors.14 Although Derya and Meltem differ significantly from one another in terms of age, class and lifestyle, the conflicts observed involve similar accusations of becoming “German-like,” individualistic, snobbish or of losing “Turkish” cultural values. After discussing Derya and Meltem’s experiences, the article examines their difficulties with reference to the transnational social field and citizens’ concerns about Turkey’s belonging in Europe.



Derya’s Return Home

Derya was born in 1956 near the small town of İlçe, one of 5 children from a large, poor family. She completed elementary school and began working at a factory in her teens. At age 17, in 1973, she married and travelled to Berlin with her husband, Ali. Working in Germany allowed her and her husband to purchase several houses and cars in Turkey. After 34 years in Germany, the couple returned to their native village in Turkey in 2007, but they still make frequent trips to Germany to visit friends and sometimes for medical visits. Like other first generation migrant women, Derya discussed pervasive conflicts surrounding family financial exchanges and care for the elderly. She stressed that she was generous with her wealth and continuously provided money for familial marriage and circumcision ceremonies, but family members neither appreciated her generosity nor helped her in any way. Therefore, when Derya returned permanently to Turkey, she did not feel that she needed to provide any help to relatives, and she adamantly refused to care for her 80-year old mother-in-law, Gamze. It is customary in many Turkish families for daughters-in-law to care for mothers-in-law in old age, and therefore Derya’s refusal can be perceived as a defiance of gender norms as well as a rejection of her extended family’s demands.15 

German-Turks are themselves critical players in forming the transnational social field as exemplified by the numerous and widespread media, artistic, and cultural representations of their lives

Derya’s refusal prompted a heated dispute between Derya and Ali’s relatives. “Ali’s family is very thankless (nankör), and it makes me really mad,” Derya related. “I don’t want to help them or even speak to them anymore. My mother-in-law can take care of herself.” Other first generation migrant women described similar conflicts and expressed similar sentiments. One returnee, Selin, explained, “We were sacrificed (kurban olduk)… You are working for the whole family in Germany. Relatives milked us like a cow.” Another returnee, Filiz, noted, “People are selfish. It is very painful. My mother was never a mother to me.” 

As a result of Derya’s refusal to care for her mother-in-law, many of her relatives stopped visiting and speaking with her. Other returnees described similar communication breakdowns. Selin, related, “Relationships with relatives are very bad, and we cut off all help to them. While in Germany, my husband and I always sent money and tried to help our relatives, but since we returned to Turkey, we do not give money to family members anymore. Relatives want money from us, but they do not understand how hard we had to work.” Derya’s family members expressed dismay with Derya’s actions. When I visited some of Ali’s family members in Derya’s absence, many discussed the conflict between Derya and the rest of Ali’s family. Ali’s maternal aunt, Ilknur, claimed, “Derya has psychological problems and needs help.” Many people suggested that part of Derya’s Turkish identity was lost when she “adjusted (alıştı) to Germany.” At a visit with some of Derya’s relatives in her absence, they gossiped that she got “used to spending time by herself.” Relatives implied that Derya cared more about herself and her own comfort than about her duty to family. Derya’s relatives drew extensively on stereotypic views of German individualism (bireysel) to explain her actions. 

For some migrants and non-migrants, the experience of interacting within a transnational social field results in what we could call a “transnational identity”

I repeatedly heard family members of German-Turks complaining that German-Turks evade their obligations to share wealth and care for sick and elderly relatives. For example, Serpil explained, “In Germany, people are cold and individualistic. Some German-Turks do not want to return to Turkey, because they do not want to give up their individualism. When they return, they only care about themselves.” Migrants were said to be irresponsible (sorumsuz) and German-ized (Almanlaşmak). Derya and other migrants, in fact, sometimes agreed that they had become accustomed to time alone, to leisure time, and to quiet moments with their husbands when they did not have to think of others’ needs. One evening, Derya explained, “Germany felt more comfortable than Turkey because there was no family, no relatives…. In thinking about the comfort of others, I cannot think of my own comfort.” Migrants like Derya escape the social control of extended families through migration and may gain a new freedom to pursue personal interests and manage their own time, which they do not wish to relinquish after returning to Turkey. 



Meltem’s Belonging at “Home”

In contrast to Derya, Meltem is a second-generation migrant and is financially struggling today. She was born in a small town along the Black Sea in 1970. Her parents divorced, and at age 4, her father took her to live with him and his new wife in a small town near Nuremburg, Germany. She returned to Turkey to meet her birth mother again at age 18 and began working as an executive secretary before marrying a truck driver. In the early 1990s, the couple moved to a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Istanbul where they are raising 5 children. Although Meltem returned to Turkey over 20 years ago, her relationships with her neighbors still seemed to be influenced by her being a return migrant. In particular, Meltem faced negative judgment and labeling as “German-ized” for her religious ideas and practices. 

Her experiences can be illustrated by describing an incident when Meltem discussed religious practices with her 20-year old son Recep, and several of his friends. On the religious holiday of Ramadan (Ramazan Bayramı) during a social visit, the boys expressed their doubt about the importance of a variety of Muslim religious practices, such as daily prayer. Meltem emphasized to Recep and his friends that it was important for them to educate themselves about Islam. After the boys left, Meltem told me, “I’m so proud that those boys felt comfortable coming to me and talking to me about religion.” She explained, “Educating children by talking to them is important. Some people may gossip about my talking to them, but it is more important to educate a child than to worry about gossip.” She believes that, “the teenagers probably had nowhere else to go for information about Islam. In Germany, self-education is important, but most Turks are ignorant about their own religion.” 

Meltem’s stereotypic descriptions of religious education and ignorance are not accurate portraits of Christians, Germans, Muslims or Turks. There is no standard measure of “religious education,” and Muslims and Turks are no more or less “educated” than members of any other religious or ethnic group. I do not know where or when Meltem first developed these ideas, though I suspect that her school years in Germany and observations of Christian religious education in school were significant. Regardless of how we evaluate the alarming stereotypes in Meltem’s claims, we must note that she does not necessarily want to place Christians in an intrinsically superior position to Muslims, but, rather, she wants Muslims to also educate themselves. She wants to position herself as a self-educated Muslim, who is able to act as a good parent and to educate other Muslims in her community. Meltem is advocating a religious practice that she labels “Christian”—self-education through reading—but not Christianity per se. In sum, Meltem displays what she thinks is Turkish, Muslim, and European comportment. 

Some neighbors saw Meltem’s open discussion on religious topics with her son as positive. But, other neighbors said that she had behaved improperly for a mother living with two teenage daughters. In fact, her daughters never greeted Recep’s friends or entered the room in which Meltem talked with them, but some neighbors perceived the fact that they were in the house while the boys were there as inappropriate. Meltem heard that her neighbor, Feriha, said to her aunt, “Meltem saw that type of thing in Germany, so she does not know that it is wrong.” In fact, Meltem told me that neighbors have often accused her of being “like a European or committing a günah (sin). Neighbors will say, ‘Oh, she does that because she’s an Almanyalı (German-er).’” Expressing dismay with her neighbors’ efforts at social control by use of gossip, Meltem told me, “Unfortunately, in Germany, you live for yourself. In Turkey, you live for society.” 

Return migrants often told me that they felt unhappy with neighborly social control in Turkey. For example, Emre explained, “In Germany, I went to the mosque as often I wanted to. Here, people are always checking and asking me about what I’m doing.” Akif related, “If I do or say anything, someone gossips about it. Someone is always watching if I drink a beer. If I do or don’t go to Friday prayer. Then, they say it’s because of being an Almancı. I was so much more free in Germany.” 

In sum, although the details of Derya and Meltem’s stories are unique, they are illustrative of typical conflicts observed between return migrants and their family and neighbors. What is common to both stories is the fact that returnees are said to be “German-ized” and unaware of right and wrong because of having lived in Germany. 



The Germany-Turkey Transnational Social Field

In order to make sense of the conflicts that returnees face, it is necessary to examine what I call the Germany-Turkey transnational social field. The term “transnational social field” is a recent one, arising out of scholarship on transnationalism in the 1990s.16  Scholars initially used the term “transnationalism” in many ways, but most uses failed to take into account the creation of an actual transnational space that includes broader economic and cultural connections and includes both migrants and non-migrants. This is better described by the concept of a “transnational social field,” which enables analysts to examine both migrants and non-migrants within the same frame of reference. Peggy Levitt and Nina Glick Schiller (2004) define a transnational social field as “a set of multiple, interlocking, networks of social relationships through which ideas, practices and resources are unequally exchanged, organized and transformed.”17 

German-Turks must establish belonging amidst the ideas, practices, networks and resources of the Germany-Turkey transnational social field. This social field holds great significance for them given their status as migrants between the two countries. But, social, cultural, economic, and political networks between Turkey and Germany are accessible to both migrants and non-migrants. Even Turks who do not migrate regularly between Turkey and Germany (and could not be called transnational migrants), may participate in the transnational social field by thinking about and interacting with people and ideas from Germany. Germany is widely understood as an important political and economic partner for Turkey, and Turks learn about Germany through news stories, websites, movies and television; through German political, cultural and economic institutions in Turkey; and through their interactions with return migrants. As Ruth Mandel (2008) writes, “Germany has entered into the consciousness of even nonmigrant Turks in Turkey. It has penetrated the modern-day folklore, popular songs, literature, television and film industries, sensationalizing media, and the daily and annual life cycles of many Turks” (233).18 

Discussions of political and economic events in Germany and the European Union are ubiquitous in Turkey. For example, recent German parliamentary elections and the on-going European financial crisis and Germany’s treatment of Greece were constant topics of daily conversation in Turkey.  Turks actively follow developments related to dual citizenship for Turkish citizens19 or violence against Turks in Germany.20 Turkish attendance at G20 meetings and leader’s visits with European politicians are widely publicized and discussed in Turkey. Turkey also shares European cultural space: Istanbul was a European Capital of Cultural in 2010, and many events were planned to highlight and celebrate the “Europeanness” of Istanbul. Many Turks can name Turkish soccer players who play for European teams, and German-Turkish players, such as Mesut Özil and Nuri Şahin, are especially well known. For many people in Turkey, their country is part of a transnational German and European political, economic, and cultural space. Turks also learn about the Germany-Turkey transnational social field by watching German language television stations, which broadcast reality shows, sitcoms and German news programs. There are many centers that teach and promote German language and culture in Turkey, and business people sometimes take German classes to enhance professional opportunities. Finally, Turkey is home to many German businesses producing products for sale both domestically and in Europe, such as Mercedes, Siemens, Bosch, and Lufthansa. 

The opposition between modernity and backwardness is often glossed as an opposition of stereotyped differences between Europeans (or Germans) and Turks in the fabric of the transnational social field

German-Turks are themselves critical players in forming the transnational social field as exemplified by the numerous and widespread media, artistic, and cultural representations of their lives. Unfortunately, German-Turks’ experiences and actions are often presented negatively in the social field. For example, popular German-Turkish musicians often sing about Turks’ difficulties in Germany.21 Over the past 40 years, a plethora of films about German-Turks have been shown in Turkey,22 but in most films, migrants are portrayed as unworldly villagers, who are easily cheated, and/or as people suffering without family, and even committing crimes like theft and murder. For example, in the film, Yellow Mercedes, (“Fikrimin İnce Gülü” Sarı Mercedes, Mercedes Mon Amour (1987) a first generation return migrant is portrayed by the famous actor Ilyas Salman as “backwards” and “uncultured,” sacrificing his cultural values in a fruitless quest for modernity. In the more recent film by the famous director Fatih Akin, The Edge of Heaven (2007), first and second generation returnees are portrayed as immersed in modern problems, such as prostitution, crime, and drugs. 

Finally, media reports about German-Turks are another important way in which the transnational social field is constructed. Favorable news stories about German-Turks are usually about their success as entrepreneurs and politicians in Germany. For example, Turkish media widely reported the election of Cemile Yusuf, a parliamentary representative for the CDU elected in September 2013.23 However, like films of German-Turks, news stories are often disturbingly negative depictions of migrants’ backwardness, ignorance, and lack of integration into Germany. For example, in the newspaper Radikal, Kerem Çalışkan cynically discussed the 50th anniversary celebrations in 2011. He argued that neither Turkish nor German politicians are discussing “the reality” of German-Turkish migration, which he believes is marred by poverty, inadequate education, and high unemployment.24 In January 2009, the newspaper Hürriyet reported that a new study showed Turks to be the “least integrated immigrant group in Germany.”25Commentators infrequently note the struggles that migrants face in Germany or the racial and anti-Muslim discrimination to which they are subjected.26 Consequently, many non-migrants conclude that returnees were either unable or unwilling to “fit-in” to Germany. 

For some migrants and non-migrants, the experience of interacting within a transnational social field results in what we could call a “transnational identity.” But, imagining, living within and interacting with networks that are part of a transnational social field do not presuppose a transnational identity. In fact, research on identity has shown that it is problematic to conceive of identity as an unchanging essence.27 Rather, diverse identities may be signaled in various contexts at various moments. What this research shows is how German-Turks signal and are labeled in relation to transnational identities at particular moments: At certain points, Derya discusses feeling more comfortable away from family in Turkey, while Meltem refers to her “German” self-education. Derya is labeled individualistic like “Germans,” while Meltem is labeled “Germanized.” Regardless of how we label migrants’ identities analytically, it is clear that conflicts emerge when return migrants signal certain types of transnational identities or when their actions are interpreted as signaling certain types of transnational identities. 

But, why should signaling transnational identifications result in such conflicts? To understand these conflicts, we must examine the “origin” of the Germany-Turkey transnational social field in Turkey’s historical, political and economic connections to Europe. 



Anxieties in European-Turkish Transnational Space

Turkey’s interaction with Europe extends back to Ottoman times. However, making Turkey “European” became an explicit project at the time of the founding of the Turkish Republic, when leaders aimed to synthesize Turkish nationalism with Western capitalism and what some authors refer to as “European modernity.”28 This was “a total project, embracing and internalizing all the cultural dimensions that made Europe modern” (Keydar 1997: 37).29 Turkey’s European Union membership bid is highly representative of its long quest for acceptance as a European country.30 Yet, accession negotiations are currently stalled. Additionally, popular support for joining Europe through EU membership has not remained stable in Turkey.31 Today, support of Turkey’s EU membership hovers at around 53%.32 Despite its leaders’ efforts, Turkey has faced numerous symbolic rejections from European countries regarding its potential EU membership. According to a recent survey, more than half of Europeans oppose Turkey’s EU membership (59%), while only about 30% are in favor of membership.33 Turkey’s perceived lack of acceptance in Europe, as indicated by Europeans’ skepticism about offering full EU membership to Turkey, has led to a deep sense of unease in Turkey about the country’s European belonging and identity.34 

Despite its leaders’ attempts, Turkey’s European modernity is not and never has been “obvious” for Turks.35 Leaders’ active quest for European modernity has resulted in anxiety for many Turks about what constitutes the “backward” and “traditional.” Scholars point to a symbolic binary in Turkey between modern-urban-European-Western and traditional-rural-peripheral-Oriental.36 The opposition between modernity and backwardness is often glossed as an opposition of stereotyped differences between Europeans (or Germans) and Turks in the fabric of the transnational social field. This means that whether or not they have experience in Germany, many Turkish citizens assert “Turkish family members are loving, caring, close and sacrificial,” while “Germans are individualistic” or “free from familial constraints.” While Turks are considered to be “disorderly, friendly, and hospitable,” Germans are said to be “orderly, rule-abiding, and cold.” These claims are not objective analytical truths about Germany or Turkey. Many of these stereotypes have long histories in Orientalist modes of interaction between Europe and the Middle East, Germany and Turkey, and Christianity and Islam.37 

For individual German-Turks, negotiating home and belonging is played out against this landscape of stereotypes when they return to Turkey. Given that most images of migrants in the transnational social field are negative, non-migrants are predisposed to react negatively towards migrants. Further, since German-Turks are significant figures in shaping the transnational social field and in fact are representatives of “Turks in Europe,” return migrants’ “Europeanness” comes to stand in for Turkey’s “Europeanness.” Images of Turks’ difficulties in Europe—images of their backwardness, lack of integration or of being easily swindled—parallel Turks’ own fears about maintaining and/or attaining Turkish and European modernities. 

For both migrants and non-migrants, essentializations about German-ness and Turkish-ness are a tactical way of asserting their belonging within the Germany-Turkey transnational social field. For example, within familial conflicts, migrants discuss their on-going familial belonging and continued participation in reciprocity, but are accused of “German individualism.” Migrant women confront particular difficulties in their families because, as several scholars have shown, women are intimately involved in nation-making processes and become a focus for concerns about ethnic identity and morality.38 Though 26% of women do work in today’s Turkey,39 German-Turkish women sometimes confront disapproval from relatives and neighbors for having worked in Germany, and this is likely to have a strong impact on their negotiations of family belonging. As an illustration, it is worth noting that Derya’s husband, Ali, was never subjected to the same labeling as having adjusted to Germany or as “crazy” like Derya. Although he was also shunned on the holidays, it was perceived as primarily Derya’s burden as a woman to care for Ali’s mother, and when she did not do so, she was the one who was labeled as “Germanized.” In sum, the transnational social field connecting Germany and Turkey influences how migrant financial exchanges and care for the elderly are interpreted. Migrants’ actions towards family are judged according to worries about Turkish and German identities and stereotypes about “German individuality.”

Several studies have shown that in recent years, leaders and Turkish citizens are starting to question the project of seeking “European modernity”

We can also understand second-generation migrants’ difficulties with neighbors with reference to ideas about Germany and Turkey in the transnational social field. For example, Meltem’s discussion of religious education is a way for her to display what she thinks is good Turkish, Muslim, and European comportment. But, Meltem must navigate what Brian Silverstein (2003) describes as Turks’ “anxieties about their country’s modern, European status.”40 As Turks negotiate their own ambivalent vision of their present and future in Europe, returnees like Meltem get castigated for their perceived loss of “Turkish-ness” and for their dangerous excess of European modernity. 




Ultimately, the transnational social field is a space where ideas about German and Turkish identities are produced, reproduced, and challenged. Return migrants both shape and are shaped by a field of stereotypes and images of migrants’ difficulties, and their “lack of modernity” or “excessive modernity.” While negotiating belonging, migrants use stereotypes to justify their current and past whereabouts. But, non-migrants are concerned about how German-Turks represent them in Europe and more importantly, they are concerned about Turkey’s project of seeking belonging in Europe. In this environment, the result is sometimes serious conflicts between migrants and non-migrants.

Since 2006, Turkey is experiencing more return migration from Germany than migration to Germany.41 Yet, for the most part, return migration has not been recognized as an important phenomenon warranting public debate or government policies in Turkey.42However, current Turkish government policies indicate that policy makers recognize the importance of German-Turks and are aware of the Germany-Turkey transnational social field. Through the Blue Card (Mavi Kart) system, the Ministry for Turks Abroad(Yurtdışı Türkler Başkanlığı), and the General Directorate of the Ministry of Labour for Services for Workers Abroad (Çalışma Bakanlığı Yurtdışı İşçi Hizmetleri Genel Müduürlüğü), the government is facilitating German-Turks’ movement within and engagement with Turkish society. While there are clear foreign policy benefits to maintaining an engaged diaspora population, it seems likely that Turkey would also benefit from increased return migration and from facilitating a smooth transition to Turkey for return migrants. Return migrants could help to stem Turkey’s declining birth rate, while contributing to the country’s expanding economy. But, return migrants face difficulties due to negative stereotypes and prejudices in Turkey. An informational campaign highlighting German-Turks’ successes in both countries, such as highlighting highly qualified returnees’ business enterprises, would ease their transitions into communities in Turkey and could encourage still more return migration. 

Second, this research indicates that Turkish citizens’ are concerned about Turkey’s belonging in Europe. Several studies have shown that in recent years, leaders and Turkish citizens are starting to question the project of seeking “European modernity.” In the face of numerous European rejections of Turkey in EU accession negotiations, Turks are beginning to wonder if they actually want to become “European” and are turning instead to the Middle East for transnational connections or are looking with nostalgia on their Ottoman legacy. By seeking to position Turkey in a neo-Ottoman transnational space as opposed to a Turkish-European transnational space, it seems that the current government is addressing citizens’ anxieties about Turkey’s relationship with Europe (whether this is the intended policy outcome or not). Fostering positive relationships with Europe and consolidating democracy in the country43 could also reduce citizens’ concerns about whether or not their country is “modern” and “European” enough. 




  1. See: Lila Abu Lughod, “Writing against Culture,” Richard G. Fox. (ed.), Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present, (Santa Fe, New Mexico: School of American Research Press, 1991), p. 137-162. David Lipset, “Modernity without romance? Masculinity and desire in courtship stories told by young Papua New Guinean men,” American Ethnologist, 31 (2004), p. 205-224.
  2. Peggy Levitt and Nina Glick Schiller, “Conceptualizing Simultaneity: A Transnational Social Field Perspective on Society,” The International Migration Review 38, 3 (2004), p. 1009.
  3. See: Esra Özyürek, “Convert Alert: German Muslims and Turkish Christians as Threats to Security in the New Europe,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 51, No. 1 (2009), p. 91-116. Brian Silverstein, “Islam and Modernity in Turkey: Power, Tradition and Historicity in the European Provinces of the Muslim World,” Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 76, No. 3 (2003), p. 517. Paul Kubiçek, “Turkish Accession to the European Union. Challenges and Opportunities,” World Affairs, Vol. 168, No. 2 (2005), pp. 67-78. Bülent Küçük, “Borders of Europe: Fantasies of identity in the enlargement debate on Turkey,” New Perspectives on Turkey, Vol. 41 (2009), p. 89-115.
  4. For example, see: David Poort, “Turks cool to EU membership,” Aljazeera, (September 16, 2010), retrieved July 26, 2012 from News, “US Defense Secretary Gates Blames EU for Turkey ‘drift,’” BBC News, (June 9, 2010), retrieved July 25, 2012 from Accessed July 26, 2012; BBC News, “US Defense Secretary Gates Blames EU for Turkey ‘drift,’” BBC News, 9 June 2010, Accessed July 25, 2012.
  5. For comprehensive accounts of German-Turkish migration, see: Ahmet Akgünduz, Labour Migration from Turkey to Western Europe, 1960-1974. A Multidisciplinary Analysis (Hampshire: Ashgate, 2008); Ruth Mandel, Cosmopolitan Anxieties: Turkish Challenges to Citizenship and Belonging in Germany (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); Barbara Pusch and Julia Splitt, “Binding the Almancı to the “Homeland”— Notes from Turkey,” Perceptions, Vol. 18, No. 3 (2013), p. 129-166; Nermin Abadan-Unat, Bitmeyen Göç (İstanbul: İstanbul Bilgi Üniversitesi Yayınları, 2002); Ahmet İçduygu, “50 Years After the Labour Recruitment Agreement with Germany: The Consequences of Emigration for Turkey,” Perceptions, Vol. 17, No. 2 (2012), p. 11-36
  6. The exact figure is 2,998,000. Migrationsbericht 2012, Migrationsbericht des Bundesamtes für Migration und Flüchtlinge im Auftrag der Bundesregierung, 2014, p. 189. 
  7. I prefer the term “German-Turk” to “Turkish-German” and Turkish words, such as “Almanyalı,” “Alamancı,” or “Almancı” (German-like, German-ish), which many people find derogatory (Mandel 2008: 57) because “German-Turk” is currently the term most commonly used by analysts (Mandel 2008: 181). (Ruth Mandel, Cosmopolitan Anxieties: Turkish Challenges to Citizenship and Belonging in Germany. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008)). If you directly ask German-Turks about their identity, few will claim to be “German.” Most migrants claim that their national and ethnic background is “Turkish” and define their belonging in terms of their family, class, educational or employment background, their relationships to particular religious groups or ideas, and their heritage in a particular region of Turkey.  
  8. Barbara Pusch and Julia Splitt, “Binding the Almancı to the “Homeland”—Notes from Turkey,” Perceptions, Vol. 18, No. 3 (2013), p. 129-166.
  9. Migrationsbericht 2012, Migrationsbericht des Bundesamtes für Migration und Flüchtlinge im Auftrag der Bundesregierung, 2014, p. 23.
  10. Pusch and Splitt, “Binding the Almancı to the “Homeland”—Notes from Turkey,” p. 129-166.
  11. Helen Baykara-Krumme and Bernard Nauck, “Familienmigration und neue Migrationsformen. Die Mehrgenerationenstudie LindUp,” Aytac Eryilmaz and Cordula Lissner (eds.), Geteilte Heimat-50 Jahre Migration aus der Turkei, (Essen: Klartext, 2011), p. 136-146.
  12. “İlçe” (a Turkish word that literally means “township” or “district”) is a pseudonym that I have chosen to use in order to maintain the confidentiality of the people with whom I conducted research. 
  13. I formally interviewed 33 women and 24 men. 
  14. All personal names used in this article are pseudonyms.
  15. See for example: Jenny White, Money Makes us Relatives: Women’s Labor in Urban Turkey, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994). 
  16. See: Linda Basch, Nina Glick Schiller and Cristina Szanton Blanc, Nations Unbound: Transnational Projects, Postcolonial Predicaments and Deterritorialized Nation-States (Langhorne, Penn: Gordon and Breach, 1994); Thomas Faist, “The Border Crossing Expansion of Social Space: Concepts, Questions and Topics,” Thomas Faist and Eyup Ozveren (eds.), Transnational Social Spaces: Agents, Networks and Institutions (Hants: Ashgate, 2004). Nina Glick Schiller, Linda Basch and C. Blanc-Szanton, “From immigrant to transmigrant: theorizing transnational migration,” Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 68 (1995), p. 48-64; Peggy Levitt, Transnational Villagers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).
  17. p. 1009
  18. Ruth Mandel, Cosmopolitan Anxieties: Turkish Challenges to Citizenship and Belonging in Germany, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).
  19. For example, “Milenyum kuşağına çifte vatandaşlık.” Milliyet. 28 November 2013. Accessed February 27, 2014. 
  20. For example, “Neo-Nazi duruşmasında Türk basınına ambargo.” Milliyet. 27 Mart 2013. Accessed February 27, 2014. 
  21. Well-known German-Turkish musicians include Ismail YK, Tarkan, Yurtseven Kardeşler, Ünlü, Ahmet (ah canım, vah canım), Raga Oktay, Rafet El Roman, Aylın Aslım, Güler Duman, Cankan, and the rap bands Islamic Force and Cartel. 
  22. Films about German-Turkish migrant experiences include: Gurbet Kuşları (1964), Almanya Acı Vatan (1979), Gurbetçi Şaban (1985), Alamancının karısı (1987), “Fikrimin İnce Gülü” Sarı Mercedes, Mercedes Mon Amour (1987), Polizei (1988), Mein Vater, der Gastarbeiter (1994), Yurtdışı Turnesi (1999), Im Juli (2000), Gegen die Wand (Against the Wall) (2004), Almanya Rüyası (2005), Kebap Connection (2005), Auf der anderen Seite (The Edge of Heaven) (2007), Based Down South (2010), Die Fremde (2010), Almanya’ya Hoşgeldiniz (2011) and Berlin Kaplanı (2012). 
  23. See for example, “Almanya’da 10 Türk asıllı mecliste.” Ntvmsnbc. 23 September 2013. Accessed online February 27, 2014. 
  24. Kerem Çalışkan, “Başarısız göç öyküsü.” Radikal. September 21, 2011.
    Radikal.aspx?aType=RadikalDetayV3&ArticleID=1063955&Date=21.09.2011&CategoryID=132. Accessed April 9, 2012.
  25. “Turks least integrated immigrant group in Germany,” Hürriyet Daily News, (January 26, 2009), retrieved April 17, 2012 from This is the English version. For the Turkish language article about this study, see “Almanya’ya entegrasyonda en başarısız Türkler,” Hürriyet, (January 26, 2009), retrieved April 21, 2012 from The notion of scales of integration is troubling because it portrays the host society as a welcoming place to all immigrants
  26. Jochen Blaschke and Sanela Sabanovic, “Multi-level Discrimination of Muslim Women in Germany,” Multi-Level Discrimination of Muslim Women in Europe, Jochen Blaschke (ed). (2nd revised edition), (Berlin: Edition Parabolis, 2004). Katherine Pratt Ewing, Stolen Honor: Stigmatizing Muslim Men in Berlin, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008). Joel S. Fetzer and Christopher Soper, Muslims and the State in Britain, France and Germany. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). 
  27. cf. Brubaker, Rogers, Ethnicity without Groups, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).
  28. Nazım Irem, “Undercurrents of European Modernity and the Foundations of Modern Turkish Conservatism: Bergsonism in Retrospect,” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 40, No. 4 (July 2004), p. 79-112.
  29. I discuss the Turkish state’s founder’s views of modernity and European-ness, not my own views, here. Scholars have pointed out that analysts should not presume the existence of a unified Europe or a single European essence (see for example Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.))
  30. Turkey was officially recognized as a candidate country on December 10th 1999 at the Helsinki summit of the European Council, and since 1999, Turkish leaders have instituted many democratic changes.
  31. Ali Çarkoğlu, “Societal perceptions of Turkey’s EU membership: causes and consequences of support for EU membership,” Turkey and European Integration: Accession prospects and issues. Mehmet Uğur and Nergis Canefe (eds.), (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 23.
  32. German Marshall Fund. 2014. Transatlantic Trends 2014. This document can be found at: Accessed March 4, 2015
  33. Eurobarometer 74 Public Opinion in the European Union, Brussels: European Commission, 2011. This document can be found at: Accessed April 17, 2012. 
  34. Nergis Canefe and Mehmet Uğur, “Turkey and European integration: introduction,” Mehmet Uğur and Nergis Canefe (eds.), Turkey and European integration: accession prospects and issues (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 7; Esra Özyürek, “Convert Alert: German Muslims and Turkish Christians as Threats to Security in the New Europe,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 51, No. 1 (2009), p. 91-116; Brian Silverstein, “Islam and Modernity in Turkey: Power, Tradition and Historicity in the European Provinces of the Muslim World,” Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 76, No. 3 (2003), p. 511
  35. Brian Silverstein, “Islam and Modernity in Turkey: Power, Tradition and Historicity in the European Provinces of the Muslim World,” Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 76, No. 3 (2003), p. 510
  36. “The efforts of the Turkish state to modernize have included negative depictions of the village, its inhabitants, and the backwardness of “traditional” practices” (Ewing 2008: 45). Katherine Pratt Ewing, Stolen Honor: Stigmatizing Muslim Men in Berlin (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008); See also: Banu Helvacıoğlu, ““Allahu Ekber,” We are Turks: Yearning for a Different Homecoming at the Periphery of Europe,” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 3 (1996), p. 506; E. Fuat Keyman, “On the Relation Between Global Modernity and Nationalism: The Crisis of Hegemony and the Rise of (Islamic) Identity in Turkey,” New Perspectives on Turkey, Vol. 13 (1995), p. 95
  37. See for example, Katherine Pratt Ewing, Stolen Honor: Stigmatizing Muslim Men in Berlin, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), Chapter 1. When we look at how return migrants and non-migrants discuss German-ness and Turkish-ness, their essentializations should not be taken as analytic “proof” of cultural or ethnic traits or ethical virtues. To engage with these stereotypes, I take inspiration from Michael Herzfeld (2005) who argues that, “It is not necessary to endorse stereotypes in order to study them with a measure of pained self-recognition; and doing so may be a better assurance of good faith than all the antiracist declarations in the world” (Michael Herzfeld, Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation State, Routledge, 2005: 201). 
  38. See, for example: Susan Gal and Gail Kligman, The Politics of Gender after Socialism. (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000). Nira Yuval-Davis, Gender and Nation, (London: Sage, 1997). 
  39. OECD 2011. This figure from the OECD library and can be accessed here: http://www.oecd-ilibrary.
  40. Silverstein, “Islam and Modernity in Turkey: Power, Tradition and Historicity in the European Provinces of the Muslim World,” p. 511
  41. For exact figures of migration to Germany and return to Turkey since the 1960s, see: Barbara Pusch and Julia Splitt, “Binding the Almancı to the “Homeland”—Notes from Turkey,” p. 129-166.
  42. Barbara Pusch and Julia Splitt, “Binding the Almancı to the “Homeland”—Notes from Turkey,” 
    p. 129-166.
  43. For more information on Turkish democracy, see: E. Fuat Keyman, “Globalization, Modernity and Democracy: In Search of a Viable Domestic Policy for a Sustainable Turkish Foreign Policy,” New Perspectives on Turkey, Vol. 40 (2009), p. 7-27.

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