'We are scapegoating' Mesut Özil, says Berlin integration chief

Berlin Commissioner for Integration and Migration Andreas Germershausen told DW that the German soccer star leaving the national team due to 'racism and disrespect' points to a frightening trend in German society.

Deutsche Welle: What are your thoughts on Mesut Özil's three-part statement announcing his retirement from German national soccer? 

It was touching. Most impressive to me was the sentence: When you're successful, you're seen as a German. When you're not successful, you're seen as an immigrant. So apparently it's not so secure to belong to us, the Germans. I think that is the question that Mr. Özil is posing to us and that I think we need to react to.

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01:43 mins.
DW News | 23.07.2018

Germans react to Özil’s departure

DW: What is a good way to react?

The example is the soccer team itself. Looking back to 2010 and 2014, the German soccer team presented a Germany of diversity. It was very clear that Mesut Özil, İlkay Gündoğan or Miroslav Klose... belonged to us. That was Germany, and they were fighting together and they were winning together. Chancellor Angela Merkel was proudly presenting herself with Özil. The issue is, now that the team is not successful, we're observing two things: The understanding that this diversity is kind of breaking up, and, more so, we are scapegoating an immigrant. We are interpreting a person, a very good soccer player, who was a German in 2014 with a Turkish background, and now we are scapegoating him for the failure of the team. And that is most problematic. What we need to do is reinvent the understanding of 2014: That Germany is winning because of diversity.

Read more: Racism is socially acceptable in Germany, says lawyer in neo-Nazi trial

DW: What changed between 2014 and 2018?

There used to be a lot of racism in German soccer, and I was frightened by how quickly the aggressive, racist attitudes among fans, even politicans, were revived in 2018, and we again had this more racist understanding of soccer. Whereas in 2010 and 2014, the German Football Association (DFB) had seen itself as standing for diversity — and even for same-sex relations. So there was a kind of a modernization of the DFB. Now, it's not only the [World Cup] failure. It's a question of whether the DFB stands firmly behind a positive attitude, which is necessary because you have this populist, even racist, attitude among fans and even politicians. 

DW: Do you see a connection between this renewed uptick in racism and the arrival of Reinhard Grindel as DFB president?

Yes, it definitely plays a role. He had a negative approach to multiculturalism... as a more conservative politician, but I don't usually like to identify people for eternity with prior negative approaches. So I actually thought he would take up a more positive approach in the DFB, maybe following up what Theo Zwanziger had introduced. I gave him a chance and now he has, in my view, done a poor job, and he needs to improve.

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05:02 mins.
DW News | 23.07.2018

Özil quits: DW's Kres Harrington and Jaafar Abdul-Karim

DW: Should he step down?

It's not my place to say that. If he continues, he should really reinterpret his activities over the last two months.

DW: Is the problem with racism contained to the DFB, or is this a wider issue in society?

It's a social problem in general. I also saw this at [World Cup] public viewings. The negative reactions by fans were very strong against Özil and [Ilkay] Gündoğan. So this is not just a question of the DFB, but the whole discourse around the Erdogan picture was a very negative discourse against Mr. Özil and Mr. Gündoğan. The negative feelings were actually what was so frightening. In 2010 and 2014, Mr. Özil was one of the prime examples of successful integration, and it frightens me how quickly such a fundamental thing has eroded. And this is a problem we also need to address as participation and integration politicians and administration.

DW: What concrete role do you play to that end?

It's two main things: One, offering opportunities for participation in all fields. So we work towards employing more immigrants in public bodies. Also education, improving education that transfers to job perspectives, including for those who've come here recently [i.e. as] refugees. The administration is also changing. On the [Berlin] senate level, there's agreement on the need to develop a more positive approach to immigrants. We've been fairly successful in the last few years in that regard. 

The other thing is offering areas of participation to immigrants themselves. We're not designing policies for them, but designing policies together with them — asking them for their consultation, what they're in need of. In practice, many things have improved and changed for the better. In reality, the situation is better than what we've been discussing due to debates around Mr. Özil.

DW: ...who, by the way, isn't an immigrant who needs to be integrated. He was born in Germany.

As I said, our institutions need to change. We need to understand the value of integration and participation. A person like Mr. Özil, we still call him an immigrant despite the fact that he was born here. But our policies also include those of the second generation because many of them still have difficulties. So they are also the target group we are addressing when improving education, professional training and transfer to the labor market.

Mesut Özil: His career in pictures

Wunderkind

Özil joined the youth system of Bundesliga team Schalke in his hometown of Gelsenkirchen in 2005. His success on the international stage came early, winning the U21 European championship with Germany in 2009.

Mesut Özil: His career in pictures

Bremen and beyond

Özil's club career has not disappointed those who once described him as "the next big thing." After a falling out with Schalke over salary, Özil moved to Werder Bremen in 2008. His performances for Germany in 2010's World Cup gained the attention of Europe's best clubs. He moved to Real Madrid in 2010 and later moved to English team Arsenal for a (then) club record €50 million ($58.7 million).

Mesut Özil: His career in pictures

Paragon of integration

In 2010, Özil won the Bambi — Germany's top media prize — for being a shining example of German integration. A third-generation German, he has always expressed pride in his Turkish roots, while emphasizing that his life has been devoted to Germany. An observant Muslim, he posted pictures of himself making the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in 2016.

Mesut Özil: His career in pictures

King of Hearts

Seen here meeting Chancellor Angela Merkel after defeating Turkey in 2012, the attacking midfielder has attracted legions of loyal fans for his quiet, unassuming personality and philanthropy. He would later be applauded for donating his 2014 World Cup winnings to Brazilian children in need of life-saving surgery and for meeting with Syrian refugee children in Jordan.

Mesut Özil: His career in pictures

World Champion

Özil started in all seven games of Germany's sucessful World Cup run in Brazil in 2014. Known as "Löw's playmaker," the midfielder has a close relationship with German national coach Joachim Löw. He ended the tournament leading in passes completed in the final third and was behind only Argentine superstar Lionel Messi in chances created.

Mesut Özil: His career in pictures

Erdogan controversy

Özil has met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan several times, most recently in May 2018, leading to a photo opportunity that many resoundingly condemned — from the political left for his apparent support of an authoritarian leader, and from the right for a perceived lack of loyalty to Germany.

Mesut Özil: His career in pictures

End of an era

Germany crashed out in the group stage of the 2018 World Cup in Russia — the national team's worst performance in decades. The president of the DFB, Reinhard Grindel, attempted to deflect criticism from himself by blaming Özil's Erodgan meeting for distracting the team. Grindel's reaction drew intense criticism from German politicians and soccer fans.

Mesut Özil: His career in pictures

'I am German when we win but an immigrant when we lose'

In an eviscerating statement on Twitter, Özil resigned from international play in July 2018, aged 29. "I will no longer stand for being a scapegoat for his incompentence," the footballer said of Grindel. Accusing the DFB president of racism, he thanked Löw and others in the German team for their support. In total, he played 92 matches for Germany, scored 23 goals, and registered 40 assists.

DW: Özil spoke about having 'two hearts' — one for Germany and one for Turkey. Is this possible in Germany?

You have this whole debate about who belongs to us. I think we should be more relaxed, especially towards those who have lived here in Germany for generations now, like those coming from Turkey since the 1960s. They have been here for generations. They are part of Germany, and we should be more relaxed with dual citizenship in regard to them.

But I should state this: I am very much for acquiring German citizenship, and we run campaigns in favor of acquiring German citizenship.

Read more: Turkish guest workers transformed German society

DW: That would mean forcing a non-EU citizen to give up his or her original citizenship.

For full participation you should be a German citizen. Then you have the right to vote... If you're living in Germany, I would ask for most of those who have been here longer than 10 years to acquire German citizenship.

DW: So if you were German chancellor, you would allow dual citizenship for everyone?

We should loosen the regulations. We should be more relaxed — not for everyone, but for those who have lived here for a certain period of time.

DW: Then they could keep their first citizenship?

That would be my position.

DW: But, in reality, that's not possible right now. So what do you tell foreigners who want to become Germans, but have to give up their home citizenship?

Well, ok. Then you should acquire German citizenship. I would be in favor of that.

DW: Even without dual citizenship?

Right.

DW: What grade, with 1 being "excellent" and "6" being "terrible," would you give Germany's efforts to embrace diversity?

Despite the negative developments over the last two or three years in political discourse, I would give a much better grade than, for example, around the year 2000. Over the last 20 years, German society has opened up quite fundamentally... Five years back, I would have given a 2, but now I would reduce it to 3.

Andreas Germershausen is the Commissioner of the Berlin Senate for Integration and Migration. He has held the position since 2015.