‘Honor Killings’ Show Culture Clash in Berlin

Times Staff Writer

Frost covers the roses, and the scrawled eulogies are tattered near the sidewalk where Hatun Surucu was gunned down. The attackers appeared on a cold night more than a month ago. Three shots were fired and the young Turkish woman crumpled in the blurred glare of a streetlight.

The accused assailants fled to a place that Surucu knew well: the home where she was raised. Her killers, police say, were her brothers.

A 23-year-old single mother seeking to escape tradition and religious constraints, Surucu was the sixth Muslim woman to have died in the German capital since October in suspected “honor killings,” slayings arranged by families who believe that their reputations have been stained.

Such crimes are rarely mentioned in Germany’s newspapers.


But Surucu’s public slaying has instigated fresh debates on politics, immigration, human rights and a rigorous Islam adopted by a minority of Muslims confronted with poverty, discrimination and liberal European attitudes. The case is a portrait of contradictions -- much like Surucu, whose memorial pictures show her either wearing the hijab, the head scarf of her Eastern heritage, or with the uncovered hair of her Western aspirations.

“Hatun couldn’t bring her two worlds together,” said Marko Katovcic, a classmate in an electrical apprentice program. “There is too much contradiction between these worlds. We knew she had problems, but she didn’t talk about private things.”

Surucu’s violent fate is a verse in the larger epic of European immigration. The continent’s Muslim population has nearly doubled to about 14 million over the last decade. Many Muslim immigrants seek immediate assimilation. Others practice their religion and traditions while embracing their adopted countries. A small but growing proportion turns to more radical religious precepts that have unsettled the continent since Sept. 11, 2001, and last year’s Madrid train bombings.

Surucu crossed all strands of these immigrant classes, but it was only after her death that her predicament touched German society.


On websites and television shows and in speeches and proclamations, Surucu, who lived with her 5-year-old son in a worn-down complex of pre-World War II apartment buildings, has become a symbol for causes ranging from women’s rights to conservative Christianity.

“Something like this happens, and suddenly all Turks in Germany get recognized through Hatun,” said Eren Unsal, a representative of the Turkish Assn. in Berlin and Brandenburg. “This is not fair or accurate.”

A lithe woman who wore big earrings and shoulder-length hair, Surucu was the daughter of Turkish-Kurdish immigrants from the Anatolian plains of southeastern Turkey, part of a stream of guest workers who began arriving in the 1960s. She grew up amid the basement mosques and kebab stands in this city’s multicultural Kruez- berg district.

Friends say her father, Kerim, a cook, adhered to the strict traditions of his native land. She was 16 when her parents arranged for her to marry her cousin and move to Istanbul, Turkey.


It didn’t last. She returned to Germany around 2000 with her son, Can. She distanced herself from her family and complained to police that one of her five brothers had threatened her.

She moved into her own apartment and enrolled in an electrician apprentice program. She went to discos. She drank alcohol. She stopped wearing the hijab. She observed some tenets of her faith, such as not eating pork. Friends say she believed that Europe held a place for modern Muslim women.

Her opportunities were limited. Despite their decades-long history in Germany, the majority of the nation’s 2.5 million Turks exist in a parallel society that has only recently shown signs of integration. Turkish artists, writers and film directors, along with a growing number of businesspeople and a scattering of politicians, are making inroads. But the children of immigrants, such as Surucu, face daunting statistics: 45% of the Turks in Berlin are unemployed, and 30% drop out of high school.

“Hatun was independent and believed she could make it,” said Iris Bock, who runs a bakery across the street from Surucu’s apartment in the western Tempelhof district. “But she made a mistake, and she cut the ties to her family. She was direct and said what she felt.”


Unsal of the Turkish association tried to explain the implications of that estrangement.

“Respect is the motive behind honor killing. The honor of the family and the honor of the brothers are fixed upon how the sister’s perceived,” he said. “I don’t want to defend these brothers, but they were raised in a system to uphold the honor of the family at any price. Hatun married and left a husband and returned home to live alone.

“What’s worse, she didn’t want anything to do with her biological family. They couldn’t figure this out. She just didn’t want to be controlled anymore.”

According to police, about 9 p.m. on Feb. 7, Surucu’s brothers Mutlu, 25; Alpaslan, 24; and Ayhan, 18, shot her on Oberland Street about two blocks from her apartment. Police were led to the men after one of their girlfriends made comments about the alleged plot. The brothers have pleaded not guilty to charges of murder. Their father told a Turkish newspaper that he did not sanction an honor killing.


“They are all my children,” said Surucu’s mother, Hanim, standing at the family’s front door wearing an ankle-length green-and-blue print dress and matching hijab. “My sons didn’t do this. They went to work and then were taken away in handcuffs.”

Surucu’s slaying followed the suspected honor killings of five other Berlin women since the fall. They include a woman who was stabbed in front of her children and another who drowned in her bathtub.

Human rights organizations and Muslim activists estimate that there have been 45 honor killings and thousands of arranged or forced marriages in Germany since 1996.

These cases have further complicated this country’s troubled, and sometimes misguided, efforts at integration.


Conservative legislators in some states want to ban teachers from wearing the hijab in public schools, and new laws make deportation of radical mullahs and extremists easier. Conservative German groups and right-wing websites say Surucu’s slaying is another indication the Muslim immigrant community ignores Western values and is growing increasingly volatile.

“Along with Hatun Surucu, so has the dream of multiculturalism died,” states the website run by the far-right Republikaner political party. “The death of this young woman must convince the last multi-culti romantic that the dream of a peaceful coexistence of different cultures and religions is over. Islam is and stays incompatible with the values of our constitution.”

Muslim political and religious organizations decried Surucu’s death and have called for examinations of cultural relations and religious attitudes.

But Germans were stunned when the media reported that some Turkish boys in a neighborhood school said they sympathized with Surucu’s suspected killers. One of them said Surucu “had only herself to blame.” Another said: “She deserved what she got -- the whore lived like a German.”


Seyran Ates, a Berlin-based lawyer and women’s rights activist, said Germany’s efforts to spread social equality and its “oversensitivity” toward minorities had allowed a conservative radicalism to flourish in some Muslim neighborhoods. Since the Holocaust, German governments have been careful not to single out religious or ethnic groups, an approach some critics say spawned an atmosphere that aided several Sept. 11 hijackers who had studied in Hamburg before leaving for the U.S.

“This false dream of tolerance and Germany’s fear of being called racist are helping fundamentalists,” Ates said. “Honor killings are a cancer brought here from the East. But now this cancer is receiving nourishment because this fake tolerance has created parallel societies.... Radicalism is increasing, especially among the young. This ‘lost generation’ is returning to its roots because they feel they have no chance of a job and that they’ve been put into a box since Sept. 11.”

Some Muslim activists say they are surprised at the attention that Surucu’s case has raised.

“The interesting thing now is that talk of honor killings is getting on the evening news,” Unsal said. “The negative effect is that it fits into the agenda of Christian conservatives who believe Germany should only be a Christian country. I’m sure Hatun’s murder will be used in many political campaigns. The positive side is that we’re finally becoming sensitive to protecting the rights of Muslim women.”


The candles were cold at the ragged memorial near the bus stop where Surucu died. Passersby stopped and read notes tacked on cellophane and roses left in the dirt. One note read: “What’s wrong with a world where we judge others in the name of God?”

Around the corner and down an icy sidewalk, Surucu’s apartment has been sealed by police. Her neighbors don’t answer their doors; they have spoken enough.

But still there are contradictions, those unresolved questions left by a young woman tugged by two worlds. Surucu was buried in German soil with her face pointed toward Mecca. She had shunned Islamic veils for blue jeans and body piercings, yet a picture taken at her funeral that appeared in a national newspaper showed men with beards praying over her coffin.

The German courts will decide who will raise her son.