German-Turkish University: where minds go, hearts may follow

Education is often touted as a panacea for social unrest, an aphorism now being put to the test with the launch of an international university that bridges the Turkish and German academies.

December 5, 2010

The German-Turkish University in Istanbul is the brainchild of Christian Wulff, the German president, and his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gül.

The institution was officially unveiled last month and President Wulff said it would provide a place for the two countries to work together to seek solutions to future problems and jointly provide an education for their citizens.

It would, he claimed, contribute to “Turkish-German friendship”.

His comment highlighted the cultural divisions separating the two countries, which have frequently led to social unrest in Germany.

The anti-immigration feeling that has spread across much of Western Europe in recent years has been felt particularly keenly in the country, where antipathy towards its large Turkish population is becoming increasingly aggressive.

Last month, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, admitted that her country’s attempts to build a multicultural society had “utterly failed”.

Against this backdrop, the new university aims to bind Germany and Turkey together economically and socially.

It is not the only attempt to improve inter-community relations through the German higher education system.

A pilot scheme at the University of Osnabrück, for example, is training imams to preach a form of Islam consistent with Germany’s democratic values and religious tolerance – and in the German language.

But the German-Turkish University is the largest and most ambitious exercise in cultural integration to date.

Its inaugural rector, Ziya Sanal, said there was “remarkable potential” to be tapped into among academics of Turkish origin abroad.

“These people are highly interested in being involved at the new university. Additionally, there is noticeable interest from German scientists willing to work by the Bosphorus at a high-quality university,” he said.

There are lessons for the German-Turkish University in the experiences of others.

The South Asian University, a similar project aimed at healing the long-term rift between Pakistan and India, struggled when it became a focal point for political tussles.

But after more than five years of planning, the university in New Delhi finally opened its doors to an inaugural tranche of postgraduate students earlier this year.

Rahul Choudaha, associate director of World Education Services, said success was possible despite slow progress.

“The bottom line is that the university is functional now and the process of knowledge and cultural exchange has started. The impact and outcome of these universities is incremental and becomes stronger with time,” he said.

“While cross-border cultural universities are no panacea for all the differences between countries, they serve as an important symbol of soft diplomacy and the consensus-building process.”

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