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Reading Erdogan In The Heart Of Germany's Turkish Community

In Berlin's Kreuzberg district, home to many people of Turkish descent, opinions about Recep Tayyip Erdogan and last week's failed coup that tried to oust him range from shock to skepticism.

Kebab shop in Berlin's Kreuzberg district
Kebab shop in Berlin's Kreuzberg district
Tobias Heimbach

BERLIN — The TV in the Turkish Café was tuned to CNN Türk, which was broadcasting continuous images that caused the world to collectively hold its breath on the night of the failed coup in Turkey. The images of tanks on the bridge spanning the Bosphorus; soldiers in front of the Turkish Parliament in Ankara; angry supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gathered in public squares all around the country.

"Thank goodness it's over," sighed Yaman Isa, a man in his mid 50s, as he stirred his tea. Isa has been living in Germany for 35 years but still has many relatives in Turkey. "I was shocked to the core when I heard of the attempted coup."

Surprise continues to be the predominant feeling among people of Turkish origin in Germany. But people here in the mostly Turkish district of Kreuzberg, in Berlin, also have varying opinions about the coup attempt.

When asked about the events, residents quickly launch into animated discussions. "The coup seems like a well-planned theater production to me," says Fatma Sönmez, a woman in her mid 30s.

Sönmez is sitting in a Turkish restaurant, having just carefully applied make-up — she does not wear a head scarf. "They gave up so quickly," she adds. "It couldn't possibly have been real."

She doesn't doubt that Erdogan will seize the moment and attempt to expand his powers. The Turkish Supreme Court already issued arrest warrants for thousands of judges and soldiers who are supposedly linked to Fethullah Gülen, a preacher and Erdogan's arch enemy.

A waiter joined the discussion, saying the whole thing seems pretty obvious to him. "All of this was organized by Gülen," he says. That is the official version as issued by Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, the AKP, and which many people in Kreuzberg believe to be true. But Gülen, who lives in exile in the United States, has denied any involvement.

Mixed reactions

A few hundred meters down the road from the restaurant is the club house of the Berlin section of the Federation of Democratic Idealist Turkish Associations. The Association is closely linked to Turkey's Nationalist Movement Party, the MHP. Pictures of the head of the party, Devlet Bahçeli, and the founder of the Turkish State, Kemal Atatürk, adorn the walls, along with the flags of both Turkey and Germany.

The chairman of the Association was also watching Turkish news. He openly admits to being a supporter of the extreme-right "Grey Wolves," a militant arm of the MHP. He disapproves of Erdogan and doesn't believe that this was a real coup attempt.

"This wasn't a real coup," he says. "I experienced two attempted coups myself. I was a small child in 1960, but I can remember the coup attempt of 1980 very well. Compared to that this was positively ridiculous." Like many others, he believes that this was an orchestrated, staged production.

The chairman was, nevertheless, worried about his relatives. He pulls his mobile phone out of his trouser pocket and plays a video someone supposedly sent him from Ankara. The video shows people running across a six-lane motorway. Around them are light trails left by bullets being shot in the dark from a large caliber automatic weapon. It's not clear if people were hit by any of the bullets.

Many Germans of Turkish descent, however, appear to support the president, as evidenced by the crowd of some 3,000 people that gathered, on the night of the coup, outside the Turkish embassy in Berlin. Yaman Isa, the man in the café, praises Erdogan for the impact his policies have had on the Turkish economy.

Now what?

The big question now is what happens next in Turkey. A cook at a fast-food stand voices what seems to be the opinion of many. "I am glad that it has quieted down again. If the coup had been successful, more and more people would have died." Like many, he hopes for a quick return to the status quo.

But a shop owner is of a different opinion. "The attempted coup will only strengthen Erdogan," he says. "It plays right into his hands because now he'll be able to annihilate his opponents and reshape the state to his liking. And he will definitely "cleanse" the military now." One of man's customers nods in agreement.

The two men have little love for the Turkish leader and, judging by the expressions on their faces, aren't optimistic about the future. "Erdogan is going to make sure now that that no one poses a threat to him," the shop owner predicts. "No one will try to overthrow Erdogan for as long as he lives."

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