Madame (Muslim) Minister

Aygül Özkan: Ever heard of . . . Well, wait! In the first place, is it a he or a she? (No fair looking at the title. And don’t worry, I won’t ask you to try to pronounce the name; I can’t hear you from here anyway.)

Unless you live in Hamburg or in Lower Saxony, you probably don’t have a clue. Aygül Özkan is a she, 38 years old, of Turkish descent. And, as it turns out, she is the choice of Lower Saxony state president Christian Wulff (CDU) to be the Social and Integration Minister in his new cabinet. (She’s also rather pretty, check out the picture – but I’m not allowed to say that about Muslim women, is that right?)

Ah yes: as the profile in the FAZ by Frank Pergande is careful to explain, Ms. Özkan is Muslim, or at least nominally so, the daughter of parents who both emigrated to Germany in the 1960s from Turkey, of which the father has long run his own tailor-shop in the Hamburg suburb of Altona. As it turns out, the “C” in that “CDU” that describes the party of which both she and her boss Wulff are members stands for Christlich, or “Christian”; it’s the mainstream party of the conservative Right that is also in power (under a coalition arrangement) at the federal level in Berlin. It’s the party of Chancellor Merkel – indeed, the Bundeskanzlerin certainly knows who Aygül Özkan is, and a picture of them together has appeared in the press, including in Germany’s leading Turkish newspaper Hürriyet.

Ms. Özkan, whose civilian career was as a manager with TNT Post, will in fact be the very first Muslim German government minister. Still, although she got involved in politics only in 2004 when she joined the party, she has already held important posts in Hamburg, such as CDU economics spokeswoman and vice-chairwoman of the CDU organization there. (Yes, now she’s going into the Lower Saxony government, which is another state than Hamburg, but it seems that that’s easy to do; it’s just like a New York City politician moving on to take a place in the New York State governor’s cabinet – if New York City itself was a separate state.) And Turks, both within Germany and without, are naturally thrilled. They – those within Germany, I mean – have up to now had very little reason to vote CDU; there’s that Christlich in the party’s name, for one thing. But that might well change, not only due to Ms. Özkan’s impact but also the increased attractiveness of a conservative party to a constituency which, although mostly immigrants, has in most cases had decades of presence within the country and thus the opportunity to build up businesses and other such assets of their own.

CDU officials nationwide are also rather pleased with Ms. Özkan’s imminent elevation to state office – or they would be, except that she has expressed her intention of making sure crucifixes are removed from Lower Saxony state schools, which understandably has rubbed a lot of CDU people the wrong way. (Annoyingly, Pergande mentions this fact in his lead, but then no more – perhaps material on this controversy was edited out of the article’s text.) All that aside, what should be recalled here is that this is hardly the first elevation to high public office in Germany of someone with a spectacularly exotic ethnic background. There was also Philipp Rösler, who was in the Lower Saxony cabinet for a time as well as Minister for Economy (even though he belongs to the FDP party; it’s a CDU-FDP coalition in power there) before being named as Health Minister in the national cabinet put together by Merkel after her electoral victory last Fall. He came to Germany in 1973 as a Vietnamese orphan for adoption by German parents. Both he and Ms. Özkan can serve as examples to show that immigrant-family success stories are by no means any sort of American monopoly.

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