Eternal Outsiders? Clashing Fronts and False Expectations

Photo: David Reali

“The Turks are happy, they don’t want anything from you (Austrians),” said Turkish Ambassador Kadri Ecvet Tezcan, in an interview with the Austrian daily Die Presse, Nov. 11. “They just don’t want to be treated like a virus.”

It was an explosive interview, and Tezcan’s accusations set off heated debate in Austria about relations with its sizable and growing Turkish community – estimated at about 1.6% of the total population, and about 12.5% of the foreign born. Reactions were as wide ranging as they were intense. “He is not an ambassador, but rather a nationalist,” said Josef Cap, Social Democratic majority leader in Parliament in the Austrian daily Die Presse. Turkish representatives either downplayed his frank assessment as “private opinion” or cheered it as a reflection of a new Turkish self-esteem toward an EU-member country.

In Austria, some felt apologies were in order: Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs Spindelegger requested an explanation and apology from the Turkish Foreign Minister. Interior Minister Maria Fekter, responsible for integration measures like language tests and training and who had been attacked by the Ambassador as “being in the wrong party” for her xenophobic views, commented that the Ambassador had problems talking with professional women on the same level, and referred to the Turk’s “dishonorable behavior”.  The Greens requested more efforts to support integration of minority populations.

The debate came to a head in a televised discussion on ORF2 in mid January, entitled “The Turks in Austria – Eternal Outsiders?”

The show was hosted by the recognizable and popular TV moderator Peter Resetarits and Münire Inam that discussed the issue in a big “Bürger Forum.”This consisted of 300 guests and politicians such as Minister Fekter, right-wing opposition leader H.C. Strache, Green Party Deputy Alev Korun, Social Democratic Parliamentarians Chairman Josef Cap, and Peter Westenthaler, a BZÖ Deputy party leader.

The debate was interesting, in part, because of a new format, which limits statements by politicians to one minute each while inviting statements, reactions, and questions from the audience. Not everyone was happy. “The new format hindered a real discussion,” complained the Die Presse; it encouraged sound bites and sloganeering. However, unlike the usual long-winded discussion rounds, here all points of view had their moments, and succeeded in turning up the heat on a lively discussion that night in the Odeon Theater in Vienna’s 2nd District. Maria Fekter praised her national plan for integration; Alev Korun requested more respect from both sides; BZÖ’s Westenthaler only wanted immigration from top professionals. And H.C. Strache? “Requirements are not what we want,” he said, in relation to headscarves debate. “Anyone who is not prepared to adjust to our way of doing things, doesn’t belong here.” Still, overall, he came across as vague, as if he didn’t know how to handle the format.

“Religious women will always wear a veil, you cannot change that,” a young Turkish women in the audience shouted out furiously, cutting off right-wing party leader Strache in mid sentence. The moderator was forced to intervene.

The two-hour broadcast included short video documentaries about the clashing fronts, and members of the public were invited to ask questions from the audience. Still, all this seemed to add up to a lively event, rather than a deep discussion.

“Many Turks are better integrated, better than some Austrians,” said BZÖ deputy Westenthaler, mentioning businessman Attila Dogudan and the football player Ümit Korkmaz. “Managers, leading workers, entrepreneurs” are all desirable immigrants. But a Turkish student in the audience challenged this, saying that would have to leave the country (Austria) after completing his studies, because he had no chance at a job here.

Clashing fronts of false expectations and prejudice are dominant on both sides. Racial profiling is a common tool used by many, foreign as also local people, for good or bad, nice or mean, liked or not.

“Austrians only see the bad sides of us Turks, not the good ones,” said one questioner. But the right-wing speakers claimed these assessments were founded on reality. “Forced marriages, honor-killings, the veil, these do not fit into Austrian society,” Strache insisted. “If Turks want to live here, they have to adapt to our values.”

Still, with all the differences, many felt the discussion was important. As Alev Korun said,  “The future begins now.”

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