Finding Their Place

While many Turks struggle to integrate, a new generation is finally making strides

News | Katrin Wolf | December 2010 / January 2011

In a rage, the yellow press was seeing red: "Turkey provokes Austria" wrote the boulevard daily Österreich, and the free U-Bahn tabloid Heute headlined "Turkish Ambassador: His Tone Annoys Everybody!"

In an interview with the Austrian center-right daily Die Presse, Turkish Ambassador to Austria, Kadri Ecvet Tezcan claimed that the Austrians were only interested in other cultures when they were on holiday, and harshly criticized a lack of tolerance and willingness to live peacably with the immigrants:

"If you don’t want any foreigners, chase them out," the ambassador said. "You have to learn to live together with other people. I don’t get what Austria’s problem is."

He recommended that the heads of international organisations based in Vienna leave the country after the success of the far-right FPÖ (Freedom Party of Austria). High-ranking politicians, including Austria’s Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger, and numerous letters to the editor voiced anger about "the impertinences" and criticized the undiplomatic style and the comments that "insulted all Austrians."

The Turkish community seemed to endorse the comments. Kenan Güngör, head of the Vienna-based organisation "difference" and an expert for issues of integration and diversity, pointed to the harsh tone towards Turkish migrants in a Nov. 13 interview with Die Presse: 

"Multiply (the ambassador’s comments) by ten, and you get what is poured out on migrants every day," Güngör said. Turkish immigrants have often been targeted in election campaigns, especially but not only by the FPÖ.

Fears of the cultural other, of Muslims who want to impose their religion, together with their mosques and headscarves, on the Western world, becomes a common frame in the discussion here.

A report released in November entitled Turkish migrants in Austria: Numbers – Facts – Attitudes pointed to the difficulties of the Turkish community to integrate. Assembled from a variety of sources by the Austrian Integrationsfonds, a government supported organisation offering advice to immigrants and working to facilitate integration, it summarized some of the starkest realities: that 68 percent have no higher education, and that 70 percent still feel closer to the state they or their parents came from than to Austria.

However, the figures may be deceptive. Monika Potkanski, a researcher at the Integrationsfonds and author of the study, says that these developments have a number of causes. "It’s neither the migrants’ nor the Austrians’ fault, but there have been missed opportunities on both sides."

Indeed, in discussions of the conflicts of multiculturalism, the Turkish community is usually the first mentioned. Anti-Islamic politicians and parties, like Dutch politician Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV), or Heinz-Christian Strache’s Freedom Party FPÖ here, profit from this fear.

And Austria also has a special relationship to the Turks. Writing in the left-leaning weekly profil, Herbert Lackner described the Austrian attitude as indifferent.

"At best the Austrians don’t care about the Turks; but most of the time, they consider them a nuisance and very often view them as scary." Historically, these fears have to do with the two Turkish Sieges of Vienna in 1529 and 1683, and the national myth of Vienna as the defender of the occident. This was picked up on by the FPÖ and used in a comic strip circulated during the recent Viennese city council elections: Set at the time of the Turkish occupation, a little boy is told by a superhero resembling FPÖ party leader Strache to hit "Mustafa" with a slingshot. As a reward, the boy receives a very Viennese sausage. The Green Party filed a suit for provocation (Verhetzung).

Currently, there are 183,000 people from Turkey (either native-born or citizens) in Austria (source: Integrationsfonds), and almost half of them (73,000) in Vienna. This makes them the third largest group of foreigners in Austria after Germans and Serbs. On the whole, the mixed communities live together without major conflicts, but there are dissatisfactions on both sides, and Ambassador Tezcan was applauded by politicians of several stripes, including European parliamentarians from the ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party) and the SPÖ (Social Democratic Party of Austria), who regarded the comments as an important contribution to a long overdue debate on integration.

Part of the challenge is to define the goal more clearly. Primarily, it is crucial that migrants become a part of society, with the same rights and duties as everyone else, says Alev Korun, Member of the Austrian Nationalrat and the Green Party’s spokesperson on integration, migration and human rights. Ursula Schallaböck, Head of Communications of the Integrationsfonds, agrees: Generally, she says, migrants have to be able to get by in their daily lives, which includes language skills and participation in the job market.

However, many problems and failures have largely been ignored. One is the relatively low level of education among Turkish immigrants, and another the fact that their unemployment rate is at 14 percent, currently twice as high as among Austrians. Contrary to what some political voices suggest, these deficiencies have nothing to do with an inherent anti-intellectualism of Turks or with the religion of Islam, as Potkanski stresses. It has more to do with a particular rural subculture of Turks who came to Austria as guest workers, primarily unskilled labourers. With poor German language skills and the resulting inability of parents to help with homework, the children too fell behind. It is crucial that the resources are available, like spaces in kindergartens or affordable German courses, says Schallaböck. But the migrants too have to do their part:

"Both sides have a lot to do," she said, "and then we will be able to benefit from each other."

One interesting finding of the study was that young well-integrated Turks with good language-skills often feel more discriminated against than other groups, perhaps from a feeling of rejection in the country they grew up in. Personal experiences can be crucial,  Potkanski says. Others, however, reported feeling at home in Austria. Potkanski talks here about a "mixed" or a "double" identity, even when this generation knows their parents’ homeland only from holiday visits. While integration also demands a certain respect for the Austrian legal order and Western values, Schallaböck stresses, no one is asked to give up his own identity. This is a "generation in transition," says Korun, that is developing new forms of identity:

"It is possible to have Turkish roots and feel Austrian at the same time."  In the end, she urges for "a more nuanced discussion", and mentions the first steps to a better working integration: "People have to talk to each other, work together and discuss the issues, because so far, we have only lived in parallel worlds."

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    the vienna review December 2010 / January 2011