Integration in practice and in theory

2 June 2015

He never actually intended to go to university. After graduating from high school, Necati Benli preferred to join the Hesse State Police. However, in a roundabout way, this brought him eventually to Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). The president of police, Benli's superior, needed someone with specialist insight into Islam and its practices and wanted to use theory in order to underpin police procedure. And so he made Benli an unusual proposal.

On the table is a plate of homemade cookies that Necati Benli's colleague has brought with him. "You ought to try one of these, they're really special," explains the policeman whose family roots are Moroccan, pointing to a fig in a pastry case. "And these here, these are vanilla crescents," he grins, "Vanilla crescents with an immigrant background." He then turns to go, leaving the office to his Turkish colleague. "You can stay if you like," Benli stops him. "You won't disturb us." The other officer waves the offer aside and smiles: "No, no..." They shake hands and he's gone. Benli can now concentrate fully on the interview.

Born in Wiesbaden and holding a Turkish passport, Necati Benli is now the State Migration Officer of the Hesse State Police – at the same time, he is a doctoral candidate in Cultural Anthropology at the Department of Film, Theater, and Empirical Cultural Studies of Mainz University. When asked about the subject of his dissertation, the 37-year-old hesitates briefly. "Actually, I’m still in the process of idea generation", he says. "There were smirks all round in the colloquium for doctoral candidates when I told what my working title was. You are familiar with the concept of the police being the mirror of society?" It was this idea that Benli decided to explore and elaborate on.

A reflection of society

"The police force as a reflection of society in times of demographic transformation" – this is the topic he has decided to work on as it is relevant to him personally both as a police officer and as an academic. "The demographic transformation I mean is not the aging of the population," he stresses. "What I am talking about is the increasing ethnic pluralization of society." Germany will face large-scale social changes in this respect in the coming 15 years.

And change is the theme that has characterized Benli's life to date. In 1968, his father came as an immigrant to Germany from Central Anatolia. He first worked in the steel industry and was then employed by the German railways. His wife came over to join him in 1971. The couple has four children. Necati and his twin brother are the two youngest of the four and they obtained their university entrance qualification at the high school in Idstein. "We were the first Turkish kids there, quite a rarity in the 1990s. We grew up in that environment. I think that was really to our advantage."

There was one thing that Benli was sure about when he graduated: "I did not want to go to university." The Hesse State Police was then looking to recruit personnel with an immigrant background. "The police reacted to the changes occurring in society much earlier than many other sectors." For his entrance test, Benli had to demonstrate his knowledge of Turkish. "That was one of the conditions of employment."

Professional practice and academic theory

By 2004, he was working for the State Office of Criminal Investigations in Wiesbaden as a member of the team dealing with politically motivated crime. "The president of police at that time, Peter Raisch, came up with an innovative idea." Insight into Islam and everything connected with it was in demand, particularly after the events of 9/11. "We could have commissioned an external consultant in matters of Islam, but Raisch was of the opinion that we should create a post that could liaise between the poles of police practice and academic theory."

So the president of police suggested to Benli, who six years earlier had decided to join the police rather than to go to university, that he should begin an academic course of study. "I asked him to give me time to think about it." Benli took a look at the universities in Frankfurt and Mainz. In the 2004 winter semester, he enrolled at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. "My subjects were Islamic Studies, Islamic Philology, and Political Science." At first he considered himself to be a police officer who was just studying in his spare time. "But then things began to change. Soon I felt like a student who would drop into the police station on occasion."

"Pidgin Turkish" is Benli's description of the Turkish he spoke at home. "It was at the age of 27 at university that I rediscovered the Turkish language. I thought: great, I'm finally learning the grammar and will find out why I say things the way I do. I also discovered that Turkish has vowel harmony rules. We change vowel sounds to make the language flow more smoothly."

A question of milieu

Benli obtained his degree in 2010 and police work again became his principal occupation. As State Migration Officer, he is currently responsible for coordinating the work of the 18 migration officers who work for the Hesse police force. But the academic side of things is still of major interest to him and he hopes to bring both together in his dissertation with the working title "The police force as a reflection of society in times of demographic transformation."

At the moment he is struggling – not with the subject itself, but with actually putting his thoughts down on paper. "Perhaps I'm just too personally involved. Perhaps I'm more of an expert who somebody writing a dissertation on this subject would consult." The topic is of concern to him on many levels. His academic insight and personal experience make him to see things in a more discriminating light.

In Benli's opinion great strides have already been made towards achieving integration in Germany. "We have university graduates and politicians emerging from the ranks of those once called 'guest workers'." And yet it is still the case that all too many of those with an immigrant background find themselves on the margin of society. "Only one in three of the majority society in Germany live in socially disadvantaged situations. It is 60 percent for those with an immigrant background."

Unfortunately, socially disadvantaged environments provide a hot bed for unacceptable behavior, particularly among young people. And this in turn has given rise to a general belief that Turkish youngsters commit more offenses than their German peers, an assumption that is completely misplaced. It is the milieu that is the determining factor, not the ethnic background.

The experience of police routine

"Take someone with qualifications, say a physician of Turkish origin. He has far more in common with his German colleagues than with some Turkish delinquent who goes around spraying graffiti. And that young man will feel he has little in common with the physician. His adherence will be to his milieu and to other youngsters who produce graffiti, irrespective of their background."

Police officers who routinely work in deprived areas often come to see Turks as those who will more frequently tend to offend. "While there is some truth in this, it's not the whole story. We need to take the experiences of our officers seriously but also make it clear to them that milieus are not alone formed by origin, ethnicity, or religion."

It is attitudes like these that can obscure the real problem. Benli gives an example: "After 9/11, the word 'Muslim' began to be widely used in the Western world." This became a blanket term that was freely applied to Turks, Syrians, or Iraqis – without any reference at all to their actual religious beliefs. "The Muslim" became the bugbear who haunted minds and dominated scare headlines in newspapers, similar in the way "the Russian" was seen as the font of all evil during the Cold War era.

It's the little things that count

"The perception that something is foreign is then subjected to a value judgement. Ambitious parents are quite happy to let their children learn English in kindergarten, for example. But substitute 'Turkish' for 'English' and they are all up in arms. When the conservative Christian Social Union party (CSU) in Bavaria proposed that families with an immigrant background should be discouraged from communicating with one another in their own languages, I wanted to ask: 'But it would be alright if they talked to each other in French or English, would it?'"

Benli is passionate about these topics – both in terms of theory and practice, the big picture and the small details. "When you work in a profession that comes into contact with cultural diversity you find that it has an effect on you." The police officer tells us about his day-to-day work. "You develop strategies to help you communicate. And often it's the little things that count. For example, I try to learn at least five or six words in various languages. Even this has quite an effect. People realize that I am interested in their culture and that I want to show my respect for them."

Benli indicates another of those little details – the cookies on the table. "The culinary factor: now that's an aspect that is massively underrated," he claims. "We have a saying in Turkey: 'Let's eat sweet and talk sweet'." And that, it seems, is exactly what the fig treats and vanilla crescents with immigration background have managed to do for us in this instance.