Just like most of the world, Germany has had a fixed eye on the political developments in the Arab World. Embarrassing plagiarism controversies aside, the German media has been following the revolts with almost universal support for the protesters, regardless of political affiliation. This may not seem surprising; after all it’s hard to justify the support of an authoritarian leader. But such unanimous support is intriguing when one considers the often tumultuous relationship between Germans and Muslim, primarily Turkish, immigrants in Der Vater Land.
Though this tension is less publicized, and indeed less violent, than its equivalent in France, the 3.5 million Turks and 300,000 Arabs in Germany often have a hard time integrating into a very proud and relatively homogenous Germany society. The majority of these immigrants have come to Germany for economic reasons, as a result of the 1961 recruitment agreement or otherwise, and have maintained their own mini-societies, often times failing to learn German, and becoming the target of resentment for both social and economic reasons.
Enter Sami Khedira and Mesut Özil, young teammates on soccer powerhouse Real Madrid and key ingredients in Germany’s 2010 World Cup run to the semifinals. Khedira (23) is the German born son of a Tunisian father, while Özil (22) is a third generation Turkish-German who recites the Qur’an before every game. Together, they have arguably done more socially for the Muslim community in Germany than their actual accomplishments on the pitch will ever match.
However, the question needs to be asked whether or not their popularity is a sign of German society relinquishing some if its prejudices or if, to borrow from some commenters on Michael Jordan’s commercial success, it is a function of them being “[German] enough to be embraced”?
When Özil was presented with the “Integration Medal” this past summer for “successfully integrating into German society” following his stellar performance at the World Cup, it was hailed as a proud moment for Turk-German relations. Retired Turkish soccer players who had played in the Bundesliga came out in support of Özil saying, among other things, that when they had played they had been the target of “Turken Raus!” (Turks Out!) chants during their playing days. Though racism still exists in international soccer, FIFA’s “No To Racism” campaign indicating that it is still a problem, Özil and Khedira currently play for one of the biggest club teams in the world, are beneficiaries of massive contracts and ad campaigns, and star for one of the most storied and well-followed national sides in soccer history.
Though there is no mandate for athletes to act as political beings, the two have also remained starkly apolitical in their dealings with the media. The parallels between their story, and Michael Jordan’s in the US are shocking, and just as Bill Rhoden criticized Jordan of “not doing enough for the black community” in his controversial book, “Forty Million Dollar Slaves” some have accused the overwhelming praise of the two as overlooking the still very pressing tensions within the Muslim-German community. Turks are still resented and feared by factions within Germany, and while a third generation immigrant born in Gelsenkirchen scoring goals for the German national team may assuage those resentments for a while, they still remain.
One final parallel that can be drawn between this situation and that of the United States, is the treatment of Latin-American immigrants in America. Like the Turks and Arabs in Germany, large groups of Latin-Americans have come to the US for economic reasons and many have remained in their own homogenous communities speaking Spanish as their primary language. Where then is the Latin-American Community’s Michael Jordan? Is it Alex Rodriguez? A Dominican-American born in Brooklyn, playing for the New York Yankees, making millions of dollars and dating movie stars – sounds about right.
However, few among us would argue that the success of Alex Rodriguez marks a pivotal point in Hispanic-White relations in America. Likewise, Michael Jordan didn’t end racial problems in Black America. Why then are we so quick to assert that Özil and Khedira mark a turning point in Muslim integration in Germany? The two will continue to shine on the world stage, representing Germany and their respective communities along the way, but until Turks are fully welcomed into a society without the help of a soccer ball, racial-religious tensions will continue to affect immigrants in Europe’s largest economy.