"I am absolutely in favour of Turkey's accession to the EU so that people can see that there are also 'other' Turks. Turkey offers a chance to peaceful co-existence of Orient and Occident. Islam is of course compatible with democracy. Other religions are similarly hostile to women, but have developed further. Islam, too, is capable of developing. Europe has to succeed in dealing with Turkey – this is a great opportunity."
(Seyran Ates, lecture at Humboldt University, Berlin, 29 January 2007)
In 2005 German writer Peter Schneider published an article in the New York Times under the title The New Berlin Wall. In his piece Schneider referred to three German authors of Turkish origin, "three rebellious Muslim musketeers." One of these was Seyran Ates, author of Große Reise ins Feuer (Great Journey into the Fire, 2003), a book about violence against women, a problem which she herself faced as a child.
Seyran Ates was born in Istanbul in 1963. Her personal story, told in the "Great Journey" is a gripping account of the trials of the first generation of Turkish migrants in Germany. Ates also writes about the costs of emancipation for the daughters of this generation, many of whom succeed against all odds.
The lessons Ates derives from her own experience have reshaped the German debate on the Turkish migrant community.
Ates first describes her life, her early childhood in an Istanbul gecekondu (an illegally constructed settlement). Beset by poverty, Ates' parents left for Germany, leaving their children with an uncle. In 1969, when she was six years old, Ates and her siblings joined their parents in Berlin. Ates was not allowed to leave the house alone, except to go to school. She was raised as a de facto "servant" for her father and her brothers, being groomed for marriage to another Turk. The young Ates was torn between two worlds: her home, where she was almost locked up, and her school.
"I had been locked up since the first day. I was not allowed to go outside to play, I might have gotten lost. The boys were allowed to go outside, as if they could not have gotten lost. My area of playing in front of our house was limited by the corner on the left and the shoemaker on the right. Until there one could watch me from out of the window, 50 meters on each side. My brothers had to make sure that I would not leave this area. When I dared a few times to go further, I was beaten up."
(Seyran Ates, "Grosse Reise ins Feuer", p. 51)
Ates stresses that Turkish migrants were often very afraid of German culture and of values that were different from traditional Turkish ones, especially at the time of the sexual revolution of the 1970s. As a result, they frequently opted to isolate themselves from the Germans among whom they lived.
"My parents saw a loss of values. They saw no love, no faithfulness, no faith. Hence, they closed themselves off. It is important to understand this, since it was the starting point for the development of parallel societies."
(Seyran Ates, lecture Humboldt University Berlin, 29 January 2007)
At the age of 17 Ates fled from home and started a new life. She studied law and joined the leftist scene in Berlin-Kreuzberg. But escaping domestic violence did not spare her from an even bigger tragedy. Ates barely survived a gun attack in 1984. Although the perpetrator has never been found, Ates suspects that it was the "Grey Wolves", a Turkish fascist movement, who tried to kill her because of her work with battered Turkish women. It was a pattern that reappeared later in her life, when repeated threats forced her to abandon her legal practice in August 2006 (she resumed it in September 2007).
For Ates the main problem of integration is mistrust, which exists on both sides. In an interview in March 2008 she stated, "It is a fact that the mutual distrust between the Turks who live in Germany and the majority society is big. There is no mutual trust, because one does not live together. Many of the Turks who live here see Germans as opponents." (Seyran Ates, interview, Spiegel Online, 13 March 2008)
"Many Germans, especially leftists, still believe that the dream of a multi-cultural society will some time become true automatically. But this is an error. 'Multikulti', as it has been lived so far, means organised irresponsibility."
(Seyran Ates, "Der Multikulti-Irrtum", p. 9)
Ates supports the idea of a "transcultural society" in a globalised world, where people move between different cultural environments and are exposed to different cultural influences. Thus new identities, "transcultural" identities are formed.
"We live in Germany in a multicultural society on the way to a transcultural society, in which the cultures do not just exist next to each other‚ but mix and let something new emerge. In my opinion this is a good thing. Diversity is richness."
(Seyran Ates, "Der Multikulti-Irrtum", p. 247)
For Ates this can never mean unconditional acceptance of other cultures and customs. She writes:
"Minority protection with respect to Islam and religious freedom can only be had at the cost of the equal rights for women, and ultimately only serves to perpetuate and reinforce obsolete, archaic, patriarchal structures … The situation of Muslim girls and women in Germany has been played down to an extreme."
How much tolerance is needed? Ates recommends that German schools not allow Muslim girls to stay away from sports and swimming lessons. She has also criticised German Green politicians and Turkish organisations in Germany for opposing the proposal that migrant children should speak only German in schools.
"Many of them are 'multikulti' fanatics who regard the minority as dumb and who try to patronise it. Turkish associations must take responsibility for the non-integrating majority of Turks and Kurds. I was lucky that I was the only non-German in my school in Wedding – this is why I have learned to speak such good German."
(Seyran Ates in Spiegel Online, 8 February 2006)
Seyran Ates participated at both the Integration Summit, initiated by the Merkel Government in 2006, and the German Islam Conference which started the same year. In a published conversation with German chancellor Angela Merkel and the writer Feridun Zaimoglu in the weekly Die Zeit, she spoke out in favour of Turkey's accession to the EU:
"With the accession to the EU it [unregulated immigration] would get better. More immigrants from other social levels would come, who are better at finding their way. And Turks who cannot identify with Germany, because it is difficult for some of them, could, however, identify with Europe."
In summer 2010 a film was made about her life and broadcast on the Franco-German channel Arte.
The sources that best help understand Seyran Ates are her three books, published in 2003 and 2007 but only available in German:
The German debate