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Highest-Ranking Muslim German Official Says Terrorist Attacks Bolster Discrimination

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This week we've been hearing stories about Muslims in Western Europe and today our coverage moves to Germany. There are some 4 million Muslims there and even though many of them have called Germany home for decades, Muslims have rarely had a presence in the German government. But that is slowly changing. Fifteen months ago, Aydan Ozoguz became a minister of state and commissioner for migration, refugees and integration. She's the German-born daughter of Turkish guest workers. She's in the highest government post ever held in Germany by a Muslim. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson caught up with her in Hamburg and brings us this story.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Whenever there's a terror attack linked to Muslims, it's Aydan Ozoguz who is often in the hot seat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MODERATOR: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: This moderator on Germany's Phoenix TV asks the minister after the Paris attacks whether they will derail her efforts to increase German acceptance of immigrants.

AYDAN OZOGUZ: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: "It's not like we could never imagine bad things happening between different peoples," she says, "but the wedge this attack drives into our society is something I find hard to take." Ozoguz adds, "if we don't fight against this division, the terrorists win." Eliminating such divisions within her country's diversifying population is one of the 47-year-old minister's key goals.

OZOGUZ: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: So is ending discrimination against German-born children of immigrants who face hurdles in training programs and the job market because they look foreign or have foreign names, Ozoguz says. They also have a harder time making it into the higher-tiered secondary school from which students go to university, something the minister says she's experienced firsthand. She also spoke about the identity crisis foist upon German children with foreign roots.

OZOGUZ: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: "It was absurd, but the question I often got was do you feel you are more German or more Turkish? Later I think, how do you actually feel German? I felt like I was both, of course." But it wasn't until 1989 that Hamburg-born Ozoguz became a German citizen because at the time, the law forced children of immigrants from non-EU countries to decide by age 23 whether they wanted to hold a German passport or one from their parents' country. It's a law she says she's proud to have helped to change last year. But her influence has serious limits because her post doesn't come with an actual ministry, says Daniel Bax, who reports on migration policy for the Berlin-based daily Tageszeitung.

DANIEL BAX: So because she's in a weak position, she has to talk and be friends with all the ministers from the other parties. So it makes it a bit difficult. You cannot polarize on the one hand and have a sharp profile, and then on the other hand you can't get anything done because everybody's against you. So you try to compromise and to get things done in the behind-the-scenes. That's what she tries to do.

NELSON: That need to compromise has earned her criticism from some immigrant groups who are frustrated by the slow pace of improvements. She's also come under scrutiny because of her two brothers, who are religiously conservative and have praised Iran's government and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

OZOGUZ: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: The minister says, my brothers have made it clear they aren't Salafists, although we have completely different views. We also live differently, and I'd like to be judged by what I do. But Ozoguz adds it is important to keep the channel of communication open in her family and in German society. That's why she defended the decision of her party's top politician, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, to go to a controversial lecture in the eastern city of Dresden in late January that was attended by supporters of the anti-Islam PEGIDA movement. While Gabriel refused to meet with its leaders, he did talk with the supporters. Journalist Bax says having other high-profile politicians tackling the PEGIDA problem helps keep the minister from being a lone champion of integration.

BAX: The good thing about PEGIDA is that now it's very clear that you have a problem with racism in Germany and if there's an integration issue then it's with those people who don't want Germany to be diverse, to be multicultural or however you want to call it - who don't like migrants. So, that's the problem we have and we have to face that.

NELSON: The minister says Germany is happy to learn from other countries on how to deal with immigration and integration, but hasn't found the right model yet. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.