A Muslim in the Christian Democrat Party

Emine Demirbüken-Wegner, member of the executive board of the Christian Democrat Party in Berlin State, talks about her election to the party's national executive, the issue of a "dominant German culture," and integration.

Interview by Dagmar Trüschuch

Emine Demirbüken-Wegner was voted into the national executive of the Christian Democrat party (CDU) in December 2004 with 66.8% of the vote. As a German of Turkish origin and the longest-serving "commissioner for foreigners' interests" in Germany, she was the first immigrant member of the CDU executive.

She was born in Kilis, Turkey, in 1961 and came to Germany in 1969. She returned to Turkey for two years in 1977 to complete her schooling and then studied German and journalism at the Technical University in Berlin. From 1983 until 1988 she was a journalist for the Berlin public broadcaster Sender Freies Berlin.

Demirbüken-Wegner worked during the same period also as a social worker in a job training centre and in a workers' social service centre, and as a German teacher with two other social organisations. Since 1988, she's been commissioner for foreigners' affairs in the Berlin borough of Tempelhof/Schöneberg.

In 1992 she became a German citizen and in 1995 she joined the CDU. She campaigns for the integration of immigrants and against discrimination; she's the spokesperson of the Turkish Federation in Berlin and Brandenburg, and she's a member of the executive of the Association against Ethnic Discrimination in Germany.

Emine Demirbüken-Wegner is a believing Muslim, a member of a German political party and has been married for the last year to the Lutheran Christian Michael Wegner, also a member of the CDU and a member of a local council planning committee.

The couple want to raise their ten-month-old daughter Serafina in both religions. Emine Demirbüken spoke to ETHNOTRADE about her election to the CDU executive, the "dominant German culture" and integration.

You've been a member of the CDU executive since December 2004. What does this election mean to you?

Emine Demirbüken-Wegner: To start with, it's a great honour for me, and a sign of trust from my party at the federal level, that the way has been cleared for immigrants who are active in politics and have given evidence of some achievement. So my election is a good and important step towards a pluralist society.

You were voted in with 66.8% of the vote. Does that mean there's been a change of heart in the party in respect of the policy towards foreigners it's pursued so far?

Demirbüken-Wegner: A change of heart? I don't know what you mean.

So far the CDU hasn't been exactly well-known for the sensitivity of its policies towards foreigners.

Demirbüken-Wegner: I don't think the CDU has been able to do much about that. I've always been the one within the party who's been pointing to the need for good integration policies and for real concepts, but somehow it's been hard to get a hearing. In the opposition it's very difficult to get a hearing for issues. Over the last few years it's been much easier to point the finger at the CDU and call it anti-foreigner than to deal with the real issues in the party.

But what about the petition in the state of Hessen against dual citizenship—was that something which promoted integration?

Demirbüken-Wegner: I can point instead to ten other successful projects which promoted integration, but which didn't get a hearing. So the comparison doesn't work.

Why do you feel at home in the CDU, rather than in the Greens or the Social Democrats?

Demirbüken-Wegner: Because I didn't choose this party wearing Turkish-coloured spectacles. I have the self-confidence to see myself as someone who's been living in Germany, in Berlin, for years, and I get my identity from the city and its society. So the most important thing was that there were issues in which I could recognise my interests. For example, in family policy, or home affairs, or security. Of course there are always topics where one has a controversial position within the party, but that's normal in a democratic mass party. There are many voices, many different opinions, and that's essential in a pluralist and democratic mass party, otherwise it would stagnate.

Ms Demirbüken-Wegner, you are a Muslim. How do you reconcile the big C—the "Christian"—in the Christian Democratic Party with your religion?

Demirbüken-Wegner: They go together perfectly. Especially since Islam, Christianity and Judaism are all three religions which go back to Abraham. There's far more that unites them than divides them. That's not well enough known. I've been working in interreligious dialogue for many years, and I live that dialogue in my intercultural and interreligious marriage.

Are there or have there been problems or disputes in the party on account of your religion?

Demirbüken-Wegner: No. On the contrary: people are very interested to find out about my religion, and I've been invited many times to talk about Islam. We've had many very fruitful discussions. Such discussions are still continuing.

You support Turkish membership of the EU while the executive of the CDU is opposed. Is that a problem for you?

Demirbüken-Wegner: As I've said, in politics it can happen that you don't always have the same view on different issues, and this is one of those topics. We'll have to wait and see. Turkey has now been given a date for the start of negotiations. Now it's up to Turkey. It's got to put its reform process into effect over the next few years and apply the 350 laws which have been passed. I expect we'll have repeatedly to discuss how well it's doing in this development process. But my view is that Turkey has to be treated exactly like every other candidate country; in other words, Turkey should be a given a fair chance to develop itself.

And you think that there could be a change of view in the CDU over Turkish membership in the EU?

Demirbüken-Wegner: I'm not the only voice which is in favour of membership if Turkey fulfils the conditions. There are several other people in the party who are thinking along the same lines as I am. And of course we'll have in the future to take part in many conversations on this subject.

What do you understand by the term "Dominant German culture"?

Demirbüken-Wegner: This issue certainly has not been adequately discussed, either in the wider world or in our own circles. There's no debate over the dominant German culture. The term "dominant culture" was coined by Dr. Bassam Tibi (a Syrian philosopher and social scientist—ed.), who says he's never talked about a dominant German culture but rather about a dominant European culture. But if we're talking about a dominant German culture, and if we mean by that, that we should develop and hold to a common scale of values, that we should orientate ourselves to the system of values and laws of the country and that we should behave in accordance with the constitution and the basic law, and treat men and women equally—then I have no problem with it.

But the term "dominant German culture" is bandied about without being clearly defined.

Demirbüken-Wegner: The definition is in the direction I've indicated. Legal system, value system, constitution, basic law, men and women, German language, tolerance, pluralism, democracy. I've got nothing against any of these wonderful terms. On the contrary, they have to be secured in society even more firmly, now that we are a society which isn't homogenous any longer, but colourful and multi-layered, and because we have to work at becoming—as Angela Merkel (the CDU party leader—ed.) put it so well—a community with a shared destiny.

Integration, but with the maintenance of cultural characteristics: where are the limits on either side?

Demirbüken-Wegner: You can't define it statistically. If you are an immigrant in a society, as many people have become in Germany over the last 45 years, than I expect that you will learn the German language, that you will observe the constitution and accept the laws and the value system, as well as the equality of man and woman. When these rules are understood and accepted as a common system of values, then there's no reason why everyone can't nurture their own cultural values, whether in the field of religion or of language.

As far as I'm concerned, I'm perhaps someone who's integrated too much into this society. Nevertheless, it's still important for me that I speak Turkish, that I celebrate my holidays the same way I celebrate the Christian holidays, and that I hold on to some of the values I've brought with me from my different culture. You can't simply throw away a part of your identity which you've received from your parents. That way you throw a bit of yourself away. And that way you don't get successful integration, if you don't know any more what your own roots are.

In January a new immigration law came into effect. Is the new law in your view adequate, does it go too far or does it do too little to contribute towards integration?

Demirbüken-Wegner: It certainly isn't too much. It's a correct and important step in the right direction, but it's naturally not enough—for example on the issue of language classes. People who've had six hundred hours of German language classes are simply abandoned. There's nothing more for them, there's no further qualification—as there is, for example, in other countries with a tradition of immigration. So in that respect there's certainly an urgent need for improvement over the next few years.

A last question: people who come to Germany are called migrants. But this term does not apply to those in the second, third and fourth generation. Since the terms "foreigner" and "migrant" aren't accurate, to be politically correct the term "people with an immigrant background" has emerged. What do you describe yourself as?

Demirbüken-Wegner: The terms one uses are on the one hand very important. But much more important than the terms one uses is the feeling that you've arrived in this society. The feeling that you feel good in this atmosphere, and that you think of yourself as part of a "we" and an "us". And we still have to work at developing this atmosphere.

Otherwise it's clear to me: I'm a Berliner of Turkish origin and a Muslim. I have many characteristics which are united in me, and I see that as something positive, as a chance, and not as a threat. In the Turkish community we've been discussing for years what and who we are. Are we foreigners? Are we immigrants? Are we people of non-German origin? My brother was born here and he says simply, "I'm a Berliner. That's it!" That's the language of a younger generation, a much more self-confident language than that of the second generation to which I belong, and which has been holding internal discussions for years about who we think we are. In this respect, the third and the fourth generation are entirely different. And I don't want to force onto them this artificial discussion.

Ms. Demirbüken-Wegner, thank you for this interesting conversation.

Interview: Dagmar Trüpschuch

© Ethnotrade 2005

Translation from German: Michael Lawton

This article was previously published in Ethnotrade - the German intercultural business magazine.