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Necla Kelek has shaken up Germany with her unmitigated critique of its immigrant Turkish community. She writes of forced marriages, imported brides and widespread domestic violence. Accused of exaggeration and betraying her own, Kelek insists on her right to tell things as they are.


Happier without father

In an interview with Michaela Schlagenwerth, Necla Kelek defends her critical depiction of the Turkish community in Germany

Berliner Zeitung: Frau Kelek, you have been accused of distorting and sensationalising Turkish immigrants in your books. What do you say to that?

Necla Kelek. Photo © Lebeck, courtesy Kiepenheuer & Witsch Verlag.

Necla Kelek: I try to convey what I see every day in the immigrant community in Germany. What's happening there is a scandal, not the fact that someone is making it public. I don't deny that there is an open-minded Turkish middle class. But I'm interested in the losers, those who haven't made it. I've been accused of only talking about the exceptions. But you only have to look at the statistics to know that's not the case. The majority has not truly arrived here. Only a third of the Muslims born here even speak German. Every other mother who sends her kid to school here, is an imported bride.

You describe the swimming pool at Prinzen Strasse in Kreuzberg district in Berlin as being full of Turkish rowdies. But there are also bikini beauties there, and among them, pious Muslims who pray five times a day.

Pious Muslim women in bikinis? Who told you that?

The girls themselves.

Then they're leading double lives. Of course there are Turks who combine modernity and religion, who shape their own lives. But I believe that the majority has not achieved this. And I accuse those who have achieved it of taking no interest in this problem, of feeling no sense of social responsibility.

There's much talk of the fact that many Muslim girls are subject to very strict rules. Less attention is paid to their brothers who seem to be allowed to live quite freely. In your book "Die verlorenen Söhne" (The lost sons, more here), you paint a very different picture.

Yes, and there has to be more public discussion about what these children have to endure, how much violence they're exposed to, how much responsibility they have to bear, how lost they are. They have to take care of the honour of their sisters, their mothers, their step-sisters. A 21 year old who got a 10 year prison sentence for murder told me that he killed the man because he'd been harassing his sister. His father came to him one night, gave him a gun and said, "You know what you have to do." When I asked him, "Why didn't you think about your own life for a second?" he said, "What, should I have sent my father to do it?" He didn't understand the question. This is a nice, likeable person who was unable to take personal responsibility for his own action. His life doesn't belong to him but to his family. This was the case with all but one of the prisoners I talked to. They are extreme cases but they reflect the fatal structure that is constantly being reproduced in the Turkish immigrant community. These children are not allowed to learn independence, to develop responsibility for themselves. Even in prison, they're not capable of asking: did I do something wrong?

But at the same time, the family provides safety and security, a stable social network.

It's not social, it's the obligation of blood. If something is going wrong in a family, the neighbours look the other way. As I describe in my book, if a father pours hot oil on his son's hand to punish him for stealing, thus crippling him, the neighbours think, what a horrible father, how dreadful. But they don't report it, they won't even criticise the man in public. He is the father, it's his right.

Immigration researchers have accused you reusing interviews carried out for your dissertation, and of drawing conclusions wholly contrary to your original findings.

When I first evaluated my interviews with young Muslims from 1997 and spoke of neo-Nazi developments, my professor made it clear to me that I should never say that in public. There are critical tones in my dissertation but I adjusted my results in accordance with the institute's wishes. I didn't think that anything else would be possible. Of course I was unsure and allowed myself to be convinced, by Werner Schiffauer in particular, whose writings I was devouring. I still find much of it right.

You decided to take the confrontation course. Why?

I needed distance. The position of many immigration researchers is: don't encourage stereotypes, we don't want to condemn, we don't want to discriminate. They try to see things in a positive light in order not to stigmatise. The price paid is a tolerance of suffering. Forced marriage, violence, family structures that prevent children from becoming independent people; these are all accepted as par for the course.

When you were seen in a disco with a female cousin of yours, she was forced to marry in Turkey. Did you also feel threatened in your youth?

There's the story with my father. I refused to obey him at 17 and after that, he left us. In leaving, he gave me freedom. He knew he could no longer steer the family and instead of stepping down from his throne, adapting and learning to live with us, he went away and I never saw him again. When he went, my brother and I left the lights on all through the house, even in the bathroom, to celebrate the fact that our father was gone. How sad that a father has to leave for the children to be happy. That's what this is all about: the fathers have to change.

Is this the conflict that most youth can't handle? They want more freedom but in the end they give in because they don't want to lose their families?

Yes. I wouldn't have been able to live as I do, had the rest of the family not stuck together. My mother really supported my brother and me. I would never have been able to break with her. Where would I have found the strength, the self confidence? I hope very much that mothers take sides with their children, that they refuse to obey the father, that they make him understand that he is not the ruler but rather a member of the family.


The interview originally appeared in the Berliner Zeitung on March 25, 2006.

Michaela Schlagenwerth is a journalist with the Berliner Zeitung.

Translation: nb. - let's talk european