A few days ago, MENA Research Center reported on the attempts by the German authorities to finally ban the Turkish movement of the “Grey Wolves”, which has been classified as right-wing extremist. At the same time, the article pointed out that politicians, not only in Germany, are always looking to get close to people and institutions that move in right-wing extremist circles.
Now a new case has become known that affects the head of the SPD in the most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia. According to some insiders, Marc Herter, chairman of the important SPD region of Western Westphalia, experienced networker and mayor of the city of Hamm, is even set to become prime minister in the state elections in four years. All the more astonishing is a faux pas that has now become known by the currently most important representative of the North Rhine-Westphalian SPD. The social democrat attended Aslan A.’s birthday party. A. was at least a few years ago a leading member of the Turkish group “Grey Wolves” and still openly sympathizes on social media with the right-wing extremist group observed by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, whose political parent organization MHP in Türkiye is a close ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP. In Germany, the association has around 300 cultural, sports, parent or business associations under harmless names.
The security authorities run the Ülkücü movement as a right-wing extremist Turkish association. According to a dossier by the German domestic secret service, Turkish and German right-wing extremism have a lot in common: racial thinking, exaggeration of their own ethnic group, disparagement of those who think differently, dream of a great empire that goes beyond existing borders. An ideological core element is anti-Semitism. According to the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the German Ülkücü local groups are controlled, among other things, by an umbrella organization based in Germany, which is directed from Türkiye by the ultra-nationalists of the MHP “according to the principle of command and obedience”. In addition to the wolf salute, a wolf’s head is also a sign of identification. As early as 2004, the North Rhine-Westphalian Office for the Protection of the Constitution warned that the “Grey Wolves” are contributing to the emergence of parallel societies and that their self-image necessarily means that they are an obstacle to integration. A response from the federal government to a parliamentary question shows that the Turkish right-wing extremists have recently made increased attempts to influence the formation of public opinion – for example by standing as candidates in the North Rhine-Westphalian local elections in 2020. The security authorities expect the movement to be around 12,000 followers in Germany alone. Individual functionaries of the DITIB mosque association, which is controlled from Türkiye, and even German Turks, who have long been considered to be optimally integrated, freely admit their closeness. Former German national soccer player Mesut Özil recently showed up on social media with one of the symbols of the “Grey Wolves”, which he appears to have had tattooed on his chest.
Aslan A. also makes no secret of his closeness to the “Grey Wolves”. Again and again A. posts photos of people showing the greeting of the Turkish right-wing extremists – the raised right hand shaped into a wolf’s head. Herter angrily rejects an alleged proximity to the right-wing extremists. “It is absurd to accuse me of being close to Turkish right-wing extremism. The story is far-fetched.” Anyone who knows him knows that he has spent his entire political life fighting right-wing extremism, racism and xenophobia, regardless of the origin of the respective nationalists. He was invited to Aslan A. for a banquet. “I’m a regular guest at Muslim communities.” In fact, Herter’s predecessor Thomas Hunsteger-Petermann from the conservative CDU also intensively sought contact with the Turkish community. Around eight percent of Hamm citizens have Turkish roots, and their votes can make the difference in council and mayoral elections.
“I cannot and do not want to regularly check everyone’s political views before contacting citizens.” Herter said nothing was known about A.’s political stance. He only knows A. as a “freelance journalist who reports on mosque celebrations”. A. also works for the Turkish-speaking, Erdogan-loyal, nationalist online newspaper “Öztürk”, translated: “True Turk”. When asked about this, Herter said that since he had met A. “only at public events” before June 28, he had no knowledge of it. That also means that the party visit was not a first contact. A few weeks before his birthday celebration, shortly before the parliamentary and presidential elections in Türkiye, A. had again visited the Ülkücü branch in another West German city. High-ranking visitors had apparently turned up there, largely unnoticed by the German authorities: the top candidate of the ultra-nationalist and right-wing populist voter alliance Ata İttifakı (Party of Victory), Sinan Oğan, gave an election campaign speech there. Oğan used to be with the MHP and founded his own party after losing a power struggle.
He tweeted during the election campaign: “Refugees are the greatest threat to our economy, culture, public order, internal and external security. Now is the time to send them home.” He later ended up in third place with almost three million votes and sided with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan before the runoff. In Türkiye, Oğan was called a kingmaker. He is now part of the government alliance. In the pictures from Germany published by the online medium Öztürk, Ogan also shows the wolf salute. The photos were taken by A. He posted a selfie with the top candidate on Facebook.
There is another reason why Herter wants to be completely unprepared in this predicament would have to navigate the mayor politically unscathed through the Turkish community. Because the German-Turkish multi-functionary Erkul has been chairman of the Hamm Integration Council for many years and knows all the relevant people – according to his own statements, he is even friends with Aslan A. In the summer of 2017, Erkul – at the time he was also spokesman for the Hamm DITIB communities – became deputy chairman of the SPD in the city. The local newspaper “Westfälischer Anzeiger” noted at the time that his poor election result reflected that after days of debate, parts of the party base had reservations about Erkul. “Because of the political situation in Türkiye and Erkul’s proximity to the DITIB, some comrades thought it was inappropriate to elect him to such a prominent position.”
SPD leader Herter still has full confidence in his party friend Erkul after the incident with Aslan A. “Mr. Erkul has been committed to a good coexistence of the people in Hamm for many years. I know him as a person with a clear stance against any form of right-wing activities, regardless of the origin of the person.”
However, this isn’t the first time Erkul has failed. In April 2017 – shortly before the state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia – he accompanied Herter, who was still a member of the state parliament for Hamm, and the then Mayor Hunsteger-Petermann to the anniversary celebration of a Turkish cultural association. Photos in the online newspaper “Öztürk” showed Erkul giving his holiday speech, and a flag with the club emblem of the Ülkücü umbrella organization “Türk Federasyon” hung on the wall. Herter states that the connection to the Ülkücü movement only became clear during the course of the celebrations. Subsequently, with reference to this, contact with this cultural association was discontinued.
According to radicalism experts, many cities in Europe have a fundamental problem with Turkish right-wing extremists and fanatical AKP supporters, and there are also many supporters of the “Grey Wolves”. Nevertheless, top politicians have been cuddling with the Turkish community for years without differentiating. Many intermediaries act as a bridgehead not only to DITIB and ensure voices from the Turkish community. That has nothing to do with naivety, but is political calculation. In the past, one might have thought that such invitations were based on a lack of knowledge on the part of politicians. But since there has been extensive information in the media about how dangerous Turkish right-wing extremists are, and since the Bundestag has clearly positioned itself, no politician can make any excuses, the firewall has to be in place here too.
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