Cem Ozdemir is a member of one of Europe's narrowest minorities: A German of Turkish origin who holds public office. Turks, who account for 2.5% of the German population, are almost invisible in government. In fact, in 1994, Ozdemir, a member of the Green Party, became the first person of Turkish descent ever elected to Germany's 666-member lower house, the Bundestag.
Since then, Ozdemir has made himself one of Europe's most respected spokesmen on immigration policy. Following the electoral success of anti-immigrant populists like France's Jean-Marie Le Pen and the assassinated Pim Fortuyn of the Netherlands, that role has gained enormous importance. "There is a search for dialogue partners," says Ozdemir, who speaks excellent English. On one recent day, for example, Ozdemir met with a delegation from Harvard University, a group of Arab and Jewish journalists from Israel, and reporters from Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung and newsweekly Der Spiegel.
In a continent badly in need of conciliatory voices, Ozdemir stands for the idea that Europe's Muslims can successfully integrate without repudiating their roots. Born in southwest Germany in 1965 to Turkish "guest workers," which under German law made him a Turk, Ozdemir only became a German citizen in 1983. He joined the left-leaning Green Party in 1981 and, after six years in the state legislature of Baden-Württemberg, won a seat in the national legislature.
Ozdemir's autobiography and a tome he wrote on integration have made him a leading interpreter of the immigrant experience for mainstream Germany. He has also pleaded eloquently for measures to attack the social roots of crime, not just tougher criminal codes.
Turks and other foreigners remain frequent victims of right-wing violence, particularly in the depressed East, and few would describe Germany as an integrated, multicultural society. Ozdemir's own career could suffer if in this fall's elections the Green Party slips below the 5% threshold needed to take seats in the Bundestag, as some polls indicate it will. Still, Ozdemir has already given Germans proof that Turks can contribute to the nation's intellectual life--not just assemble Volkswagens.