Germany's young Turks: vulnerable to extremists?

Concern grows after the arrest last week of a couple who allegedly plotted to plant a bomb on a US base.

As Germany continues its crackdown on Islamic extremists a year into the global war against terror, it is taking a closer look at its Turkish minority.

Opinions differ on how susceptible disaffected Turkish youth may be to the ideas driving Arab suicide bombers. But there are fears that a rising acceptance of Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey – and Muslim anger over a potential US attack on Iraq – could be spilling over into the community of some 3 million Turks in Germany.

The concern grew after the arrest of a young couple in Heidelberg last week. Osman Petmezci, a German citizen of Turkish background, and his fiancée, Astrid Eyzaguirre, who was born in Germany to an American father and a Turkish mother, were arrested on suspicion of planning to blow up a supermarket on the US Army base in Heidelberg. Police found 287 pounds of chemicals for making explosives, five pipe bombs and a picture of Osama bin Laden in their apartment.

A local politician said there is evidence that the couple "hated Americans and Jews," but authorities have found no evidence linking them to a wider terrorist network. The arrest marks the first time that a German Turk has been directly linked to a planned act of terrorism in Germany.

Guenter Beckstein, a Bavarian state official who could become interior minister after federal elections on Sept 22, is calling for toughening immigration laws to allow deportation of foreigners who are merely suspected of sympathizing with terrorism. One example he cited recently is the case of a Turkish man who wanted to name his son Osama Bin Laden. Cologne officials would not allow the family to register the name. Mr. Beckstein said the attempt shows that the man does not share values reflected in the German Constitution. "The residence [in Germany] of someone like that should be ended," Mr. Beckstein said.

In the weeks before the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, German police launched raids in Hamburg, where several of the alleged pilots had lived before the hijackings. On what turned out to be an erroneous tip, police on Wednesday searched a mosque suspected of being linked to a planned bombing. On Tuesday, police detained a German-Syrian owner of an import-export firm along with his wife and two sons. The four are suspected of belonging to a terrorist organization.

Since Sept 11, Germany has passed a package of laws giving police more powers to hunt down terrorists and ban militant groups.

Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, estimates that there are 59,100 foreigners who belong to 65 potentially extremist organizations. The largest single ethnic group in this statistic is 40,600 Turks, most of whom belong to Islamic groups. There are also Turkish nationalist organizations and left-wing extremist groups.

Two Turkish groups have come under increased scrutiny of German authorities. German Interior Minister Otto Schily banned the group called Caliph State, believed to have supported terrorism in Turkey and to have had superficial contacts with Al Qaeda. Led by Metin Kaplan, now jailed in Germany, the group once had as many as 4,000 members but is now believed to have 1,000.

Of greater concern to German authorities is the ethnic pride movement Milli Gorus, which roughly translates as National Vision, and had some 27,500 members in 2001, according to the annual domestic intelligence report. The organization has so much support among young Turks that it fills soccer stadiums for rallies. Their mission is to unite the traditionally splintered Islamic community.

Islam is the third largest religious denomination in Germany, but because it lacks a centralized structure like the Catholic and Protestant churches, it doesn't have the same rights and privileges as the Christian churches. Milli Gorus wants to be recognized as an Islamic church. Meanwhile, the Turkish government is pressing Germany to crack down on the organization, saying that it supports extremists in Turkey. But whether Milli Gorus poses a danger to Germany is disputed.

Wilhelm Heitmeyer, a social scientist at Bielefeld University, was sharply criticized several years ago when he published a book called "The Temptation of Fundamentalism." The book studied Turkish youth in Germany and concluded that a large number of young Turks who had trouble integrating into mainstream German society harbored sympathies for Islamic fundamentalism.

"At the time we did this study," he says, "such conclusions simply weren't acceptable. But there are few critics left today. Directly after the events of Sept 11 it was startling to see that many Turkish youths in the schools secretly approved; not all, but many."

But that evidence is anecdotal, Mr. Heitmeyer acknowledges, and there are still no empirical studies of the reaction of Turkish youth in Germany to Sept. 11.

Young Turks here often live between two worlds. They speak German and often feel a distant relationship to Turkey, land of their parents and grandparents. Their parents' generation came here in the 1960s and 1970s as so-called "guest workers" to fill jobs in German factories. Germany's political elite expected them to work, save money, and then go home. Until recently, little effort was made to integrate them.

Heitmeyer says integration is the way to avoid the kind of alienation that could make Turkish youth vulnerable to radicalization by extremists. "The greater the opportunities for these young people, the greater their identification with German society will be."

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