Back Necla Kelek - Next 
Necla Kelek
Necla Kelek

Necla Kelek was born in Istanbul in 1957 and emigrated to Germany with her family in 1968. She studied sociology in Hamburg and wrote her PhD on religious attitudes among young Turks living in Germany.

The publication of Kelek's book "The Foreign Bride" (Die Fremde Braut in German) in early 2005 was one of the turning points in the recent German debate on Turks and Islam. According to her publishing house  some 200,000 copies of the book were sold. "The Foreign Bride" turned Kelek into a media star, a regular guest on talk shows, and a sought-after columnist. Two other books followed: "The Lost Sons" (2006) and "Bittersweet Homeland" (2008).

At the centre of Kelek's argument is the claim that the wide-spread practice of forced and arranged marriages has turned tens of thousands of Anatolian women, coming to Germany to marry German-Turkish men, into modern-day slaves. They are repressed by their husbands and receive insufficient support from a largely indifferent German society. To bring the outrage of modern-day female slavery to an end requires a rigorous critique of what Kelek calls "Turko-Islamic culture", a culture which has remained largely unchanged for centuries.


Necla_Kelek   Kelek  
Die fremde BrautDie verlorenen SöhneBittersüße Heimat

Islam and Slavery

Kelek's books mix autobiography, social analysis and polemical commentary on Islam and Turkish culture. Kelek describes the treatment of women in her own family as a drama set against the colourful canvas of Islamic cultural practices since the time of Mohammed:

"This is a true story. It is about love and slavery, honour and respect, Turkish mocha [a strong black coffee] and sold brides. It is the story of my family, which came from Anatolia via Istanbul to Germany, and it is the story of my path to freedom."

Kelek's "true family story" of love and slavery begins in the mountains of the Caucasus, where her Circassian great-grandfather Ali married the love of his life and took her to Anatolia when he fled his homeland. Her story ends 160 pages later in Hamburg, where Kelek finds freedom escaping the constraints of her own family.

Ali the great-grandfather, we learn, was a slave trader: his merchandise and the source of his wealth were beautiful Caucasian women sold to the court of the Sultan. Kelek paints the Muslim world as a civilisation of slave tradershounding Christians and turning the Mediterranean into a "sea of fear" (p.47). We learn that in 1627 Muslim pirates kidnapped 400 Icelanders; that up to 1.2 million white Christian slaves were sold in the slave markets in North Africa between 1530 and 1780; that in the early 19th century Muslim parents from the Caucasus sold their children in the markets of Istanbul (which is a surprising claim given that Islam does not allow Muslims to be slaves) .

In a few opening pages Kelek discusses murderous intrigues in Ottoman harems, the story of 1001 nights (which is, of course, set in medieval Arabia) and tales of demented Sultans chossing the spouses for their children. On this rollercoaster through an exotic landscape no cliché is missing, from abundant references to the "exceptional beauty" of Circassian women to the tales of the sultan's wives' murderous intrigues. Telling the history of slavery in past centuries Kelek explains –  using the present tense - that "children are considered the property of their parents in Islam, they have no rights and are not supposed to haveany  will of their own" (p. 49).

All these titillating stories only serve as an introductionto an analysis of German Turks in the early 21st century:

"Whoever wants to understand why young Turkish-Muslim men and women allow themselves, even today, to be married off by their families, in particular by their mothers, and do not even try to influence these decisions, needs to understand the cultural and historical background of these structures. Marriage is understood differently here {among Muslims} than it is among Christians. The position of women is understood differently. Even terms such as honour, shame, respect and sin mean different things to people from this cultural background (Kulturkreis)."

Kelek argues that arranged marriages, forced marriages and the enslavement of women are all part of a "Muslim civilisation" that is fundamentally different from "Christian civilisation". She sees a direct link between North African slave markets and today's "slave holder mentality of mothers-in-law and the slave mentality of children in Turkish-Muslim families." This analysis leads her to a damning conclusion:

"There has been no change in all this since the Middle Ages. In fact, the truth is even more bitter:  growing Islamisation can be observed among immigrants in Germany, old traditions and customs, which one thought would have been left behind by the reforms of Ataturk and modernity, are being applied again. Tradition eats modernity."

Necla Kelek's family

We learn a lot in "The Foreign Bride" about Kelek's family: the story of three generations of women (her grandmother Azize, her mother Leman, and herself), as well as that of Kelek and her siblings, takes up much of the book. But what are we really being told?

We learn that Azize, the grandmother, is a beautiful 17-year-old, blue-eyed, blond girl when she is kidnapped by her future husband. Her story is immediately followed by a description of Ataturk's reforms in the young Turkish Republic. Kelek quotes Ataturk approvingly: "Islam, the absurd religion of an immoral beduin, is a decaying corpse that poisons our lives." The chapter ends with a lament: that even today, despite Ataturk's reforms, life throughout rural Turkey is governed by "religious authorities and the traditional Sharia law of Islam."

We next learn that Azize's oldest daughter, Leman, was sold to her future husband, Kelek's father, for a bride price of "500 Turkish lira and two oxen." We are told that from the very first night spent together Leman hated her husband Duran, who beat her that night. Leman and Duran left Central Anatolia to go to Istanbul. From there they went to Germany.

We also learn that Kelek, growing up in Germany, was forbidden by her father to attend gym and swimming classes when she turned 13. Kelek the teenager began to hate her father for having brought her to Germany. She describes how her father sent her older brother back to Turkey to do his military service at age 18. Her brother later asked her parents to find him a bride, "any bride", and then ended up unhappily married. Her sister also agreed to marry at the age of 22, again unhappily. And Necla Kelek herself ended up in a stormy and violent argument with her fatherwho soon thereafter abandoned the family and returned to Turkey, never to see his daughter again. Kelek was 18 at the time. Soon afterwards, Kelek left home to study in another city – and went on to marry one of her German teachers.

Hers is certainly an interesting story of social change and migration. However, the way it is told – and the conclusions the reader is led to draw – raise many questions. The first concerns Kelek's suggestion that "The Foreign Bride" is a story of emancipation, of a personal "march to freedom", and of overcoming religious obstacles.

In fact, Kelek tells us, her family was not religious at all. Her mother never wore a headscarf in her life. Her father was a passionate supporter of  Ataturk's reforms: "My parents have never been very religious Muslims, and in Istanbul their life-style became even more Westernized." (p.81) Kelek describes the Istanbul of her youth as a city "free from mullahs, as we called the fundamentalists, and there were hardly any mosques." Her favourite uncle, who lived in Ankara, was a passionate Kemalist. Most of Kelek's views about Islam as a backward religion would have been shared by her close relatives and by a large part of the Turkish establishment.

Kelek's own history also contradicts the argument that there is no cultural change within "Turko-Islamic culture". In her own nuclear family four out of five marriages ended in divorce! Her parents divorced. Her oldest brother divorced. Her older sister divorced. Kelek herself, having married a German, ends up divorced, as well. Only her younger brother – with whose wedding the book opens – appears still happily married by its end. One thing is clear: the way the Keleks live their lives – and the choices they have - is dramatically different from the world of Azize, Kelek's grandmother, in conservative Anatolia!

The problem with Islam

Kelek also made a name for herself on account of her very critical views of Islam: she discusses the nature of Islam in her books, articles and public lectures. These views express attitudes common among hard-line Kemalists in Turkey who regard any expression of religion as a symptom of backwardness.

The problem with Islam, says Kelek, stems from its very origins:

"It is my growing suspicion that much that makes Islam resistant to the demands of modernity has its roots and origins in the life of its founder."

(Necla Kelek, "Die fremde Braut", p. 164)

Kelek's description of Islam's influence on marital relations is a case in point: a Muslim bride (gelin in Turkish), she writes:

"cannot expect any love from her husband. Love is reserved for the mother and for God, love between a husband and a wife is not envisaged."

Marriage in Islam, she argues, is always "a form of slavery." Discussing the life of the Prophet Mohammed, Kelek notes that "under Mohammed the wife became a prisoner of her husband." In her second book she declares that "in Muslim culture boys grow up without love."

Kelek also compares Islam unfavourably to Christianity. In her second book ("The Lost Sons") Kelek argues that while Islam calls for the faithful to destroy their enemies, Christianity asks its followers to love them. Christianity, claims Kelek, has a joyful message. Islam, on the other hand, is often barbaric: one example is its insistance on male circumcision,which – Kelek suggests – should be forbidden by law in Germany as a human rights violation (p. 121). She also writes:

"The Koran does not know anything about an open struggle between good and evil, which each individual needs to resolve using moral values and social norms. A practicing Muslim knows with certainy that he is saved only by submitting to all the commandments of God" (p. 271).

For Kelek the problem is thus with Islam itsef, not individual Muslims. As Kelek told ESI in an interview:

"An individual Muslim can be integrated into German society. Islam cannot. This is not possible because of Sharia."

(Necla Kelek, ESI interview, 30 November 2006)

Gelins and criminals

According to Kelek, given the nefarious influence of Islamic values on most Turkish migrants, it is not surprising that their integration into German society has turned into a massive failure. It is the fate of women – in her book Kelek tells the stories of six of them, Zeynep, Fadime, Emine, Asuma, Shaziye, and one unnamed – which best illustrates this failure:

"The typical import bride (import-gelin) is usually just 18 years old, comes from a village and has in four or six years barely learned how to read and write. She gets married off by her parents to a man she doesn't know, but who is probably related, of Turkish origin, and living in Germany. After marriage she comes to a German city into a Turkish family. She lives exclusively in that family, does not have contact with people outside the Turkish community. Soon she will give birth to one, two, three children … She will live in Germany, but she will never arrive there." (p. 183/184).

According to Kelek, this is the fate of thousands of import brides coming to Germany every year.

Kelek makes another controversial claim in her chapter on "The Tragedy of Arranged Marriage", arguing that "there is no significant difference for me between an arranged and a forced marriage." (p. 235).

According to UN resolutions and the view of the German government, forced marriages are a serious human rights abuse; those responsible should be punished with prison sentences. But Kelek argues that all forced marriages and arranged marriages should be banned. She acknowledges that this is an extreme view, noting that even the NGO "Terre de Femmes", which works to help victims of domestic violence, defines arranged marriages as "based on a voluntary agreement" (p.236). To criminalise arranged marriages, she concedes, would mean criminalizing half of the currently married Turks living in Germany (p. 231). Kelek is able to perceive a change of values among the young generation of Turks in Germany, however: "All teenagers whom I had asked had the wish to choose their partner themselves." (p. 251)

Kelek, the EU and Turkey

"I am against all forced marriages, whether for young people or for states. For me the 'Turkish bride' is not yet of marriageable age [for the EU]." This quote is from Kelek's most recent book "Bittersweet Homeland", published in October 2008. The book looks at Turkey, while covering a large number of different issues: Ottoman history, current politics, excursions to Istanbul and Diyarbakir as well as reflections on Kelek's family.

In a chapter entitled "The Infantile Society" Kelek concludes:

"It does not matter whether one is for or against Turkish EU accession. It should be sufficient to decide that this wedding must be delayed, to the benefit of both sides." (p. 286).

In a 2006 article Kelek called Turkey a "country without progress." In fact, she seems always to refer to Turkey in her books as a country sliding backwards in all areas. There is the Istanbul of her youth, "stolen" from her through rural migration, which brought "ignorant brides from the villages, covering the metropolis with a veil." (p. 105/106). And there is the AKP government of Recep T. Erdogan, setting out to "Islamicize the country." (Necla Kelek, lecture at University Duisburg-Essen, 16 November 2006).

Kelek's impact - and her contradictions

The success of Kelek's books and the public debates she has triggered led 60 German social scientists in February 2006 to publish an open letter  accusing her of working "unscientifically" and using her personal story to feed prejudices against Islam "in order to score a hit on the book market." In public relations terms this was a coup for Kelek: she was able to respond in an open letter of her own, arguing that German migration researchers had been irresponsible for decades:

"Left and liberal 'multiculties' have done a huge disservice to integration with their folkloristic view of foreigners. Under the banner of tolerance they have defended the 'peculiarities' of the Turkish-Muslim community in Germany. Thus they often fostered the self-isolation of immigrants."

(Necla Kelek, "Die fremde Braut", p. 261)

Many other German intellectuals, including veteran German feminist writer Alice Schwarzer,  came to Kelek's defence viewing the letter of the 60 as a form of bullying..

At the same time, the open letter did raise a question which Kelek has not yet clearly addressed: why did her views on the situation of Muslim migrants in Germany change so drastically between 2002 and 2005?

After all, in her early research (PhD) on young German Turks and Islam "Islam im Alltag" ("Islam in Everyday Life", 2002) Kelek presents findings – based  on extensive interviews with young immigrants undertaken between 1997 and 1999 – that stand in stark contrast to what she propagated later on. Kelek discovers and describes numerous important changes in  values among migrant youth:

"Modernisation processes inevitably accompany, and result from, changes in individuals, social structure and culture."

(Necla Kelek, "Islam im Alltag", p. 36)

Kelek shows her familiarity with the work of other experts, such as the anthropologist Werner Schiffauer, whose empirical study Die Bauern von Subay (The Peasants in Subay, 1987) also investigates the changes in religious values (p. 65 ff). She even criticises Wilhelm Heitmeyer, Professor at the University of Bielefeld, for stoking fears of Islamic fundamentalism (p. 78). Her own conclusion, based on a large number of interviews, could not be clearer:

"There is no evidence that Islam and modernity are not compatible" (cit. p. 189)"


"Tradition should not be seen as an antithesis to modernity, but as a blueprint for individual reinterpretations with regard to changing living conditions."

(Necla Kelek, "Islam im Alltag", pp. 34, 36)

Suggested readings

  • Frankfurter Allgmeine Zeitung, Necla Kelek: "Wulffs Republik der Gläubigen" (22 October 2010)
  • Die Welt, "Nicht Sarrazin, sondern die Diskussion spaltet das Land" (Interview with Necla Kelek und Monika Maron) (2 September 2010)
  • Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Necla Kelek: Ein Befreiungsschlag (30 August 2010)
  • Necla Kelek, Mr Buruma's stereotypes,, 5 February 2007. Necla Kelek responds to Ian Buruma as part of a debate on multiculturalism and the integration of Muslims in Europe:

    "Whether it is headscarves or gender-specific separation of public space, political Islam is trying to establish an apartheid of the sexes in free European societies."

  • Lale Akgun and Necla Kelek, interview on Spiegel Online, "We Really Have Nothing to Celebrate", 12 July 2007: Kelek and Akgun speak about their diverging views on the successes and problems within Germany's Turkish community. Kelek: "The Turkish associations don't do anything to promote integration in Germany."
  • Michaela Schlagenwerth, Happier without father, Berliner Zeitung, 10 April 2006, interview with Necla Kelek. Kelek defends her criticism of the Turkish community in Germany:

    "What is happening there – that is the scandal, and not the fact that someone is making it public. I don't deny that there is an open-minded Turkish middle class. But I'm interested in the losers, those who haven't made it."

  • Necla Kelek, Heirat ist keine Frage (Marriage is not a question), Zwangsverheiratung in Deutschland (forced marriage in Germany, Schriftenreihe des Bundesministeriums fur Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jugend, Band 1, 2007 (German only)

Necla Kelek has written four books (all only available in German):

November 2010

 Back Necla Kelek - Next