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Crowd Trouble Mars UEFA Europa League Clash Between Besiktas and Olympique Lyon: What the Media Won’t Say About the Events

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European football’s second tier competition, the Europa League, is often derided for being less exciting than its more illustrious big brother, the UEFA Champions League. This week, the Europa League defied the preconceptions by providing a lot of unexpected excitement, albeit for the wrong reasons. The April 13 2017 quarterfinal match between Turkish side Besiktas JK and French side Olympique Lyon started 45 minutes late because of crowd violence, pitting fans of the two teams against one another and prompting a pitch invasion before the match.

While the unprecedented level of violence is alarming—and not to mention extremely disappointing—it also raises many questions. Why did this kind of violence happen at this particular match, and at this particular time? Who is to blame for it; Turkish supporters or French supporters? I hope to answer these questions by putting forth two theories. Likely, the truth is somewhere in between, but it is a lot more of an interpretation than much of what I have seen provided in main-stream media outlets.

As would be expected after an event like this, both sides blamed one another. The Turkish news media (especially the pro-government daily Sabah) blames the French police and supporters. Their articles carry headlines like “French Hooligans Attack Besiktas Fans!” and “French Police Attack Besiktas Fans”. In the mean time, Lyon’s president Jean-Michel Aulas claims that it is Besiktas fans who are to blame. Mr. Aulas hyperbolically said “We can always say that the match organiser has to face these issues but either we make stadiums that make it possible to do family football or we build blockhouses with barbed wire. It is not football that you love”. In the end, UEFA found that no one was innocent in this ugly situation and charged both teams.

Unfortunately, much of the foreign media took the blame game to the next level by strongly accusing the Turkish fans. In this regard British daily/tabloid The Sun was the most egregious, and their piece of photo-journalism, written by Gary Stonehouse, is a poor and misguided attempt at journalism; the pictures don’t even match the captions!

 

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The Young Girl in the Turkish Flag Hat Is Portrayed as “Launching a Terrifying Attack” By the Sun. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.thesun.co.uk/sport/football/3328924/europa-league-clash-between-lyon-and-besiktas-delayed-as-thousands-of-fans-pile-onto-pitch-following-violence-in-stands/

 

The caption here reads “The travelling Besiktas supporters launched a terrifying attack on the home end”, yet in the picture we clearly see a group of masked men clad in black—with one wielding a metal rod—attacking a group of Besiktas supporters including a young girl with a Turkish flag hat! Unless this terrified young girl is a hardened football hooligan, I am unsure how Mr. Stonehouse could characterize this scene as one of Turkish supporters attacking innocent French supporters. The Sun’s piece is also keen on pointing out how scared “the children” were (one caption reads “A small child snapped along with thousands of Lyon fans fleeing onto the pitch in terror”) yet conspicuously ignores the plight of the terrified young Turkish girl.

 

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The Sun Is Cleary Concerned About The Well-Being of “The Children”…As Long As They Aren’t Turkish, Apparently. Images Courtesy Of: https://www.thesun.co.uk/sport/football/3328924/europa-league-clash-between-lyon-and-besiktas-delayed-as-thousands-of-fans-pile-onto-pitch-following-violence-in-stands/

 

Unfortunately, this is a prime example of a biased—and perhaps xenophobic—press. Even the image with the caption “Besiktas fans launched fireworks and missiles into the home end” is misleading, one can figure it out just by looking at the image. Clearly it is the masked hooligans, again clad in black, from the French side that are attacking the Besiktas fans (on the left) who are seen running in the opposite direction. Unfortunately The Sun seem to have lost their ethical sense and chose to run a biased story rather than do their job—provide unbiased journalism.

 

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Clearly It Is the Masked Men In Black (From the Lyon Side) Who Are Attacking The Turkish Fans (In White and Red, Mainly); It Is As If the Captions Describe a Different Event. Images Courtesy Of: https://www.thesun.co.uk/sport/football/3328924/europa-league-clash-between-lyon-and-besiktas-delayed-as-thousands-of-fans-pile-onto-pitch-following-violence-in-stands/

 

Given this example of poor journalism, it is clear that a better explanation for what happened is necessary. While there was violence both inside and outside the stadium, it appears that there is no way to establish blame at this point. This is why I will put forth two theories; it is likely that the truth lies somewhere in between:

  • The violence pregame was planned as a way to stoke the fires of Turkish nationalism before the critical referendum on Sunday 16 April 2017 in Turkey.
  • The violence during the game was a planned attack by ultra-nationalist and far-right French hooligans as a response to the pre-game fighting and is indicative of rising Islamophobia in Europe.

In terms of the first theory, we must first understand that the fighting before the match makes little sense. Besiktas—in this Europea League Campaign alone—faced teams from two countries with which Turkey has (geo)political tensions. Two rounds ago Besiktas faced Israeli side Hapoel Beer-Sheba, and the most interesting thing to happen was that some of Besiktas’ board members laid a wreath at a bust commemorating Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. One round ago Besiktas faced Greek side Olympiakos Piraeus (who got into a Twitter spate with Osmanlispor, the Turkish side they faced earlier in the competition) and the matches were played without visiting fans. Given that both of these matches carried political tension but went off without a hitch, the situation in Lyon raises questions.

Lyon President Jean-Michel Aulas said that shops were damaged before the match, and The Sun (in a different piece) reported that “Fans were snapped angrily clashing with armoured police, most wearing black signalling the club’s Ultras – and some waving the Turkish flag and letting off smoke bombs”. Here it should be noted that Besiktas’ “Ultras”—known as Carsi—do not look like the gentleman below who is pictured attacking stewards.

 

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The Above Image–of Men In Black Tracksuits Attacking Stewards–Does Not Fit Carsi At All; They Look More Like Hired Thugs. Images Courtesy Of: https://www.thesun.co.uk/sport/football/3328782/besiktas-fans-clash-with-french-police-in-violent-scenes-in-lyon/

 

In fact, Carsi gained notoriety for protesting against the government in 2013 and have a reputation for their liberal stance on social issues; they are not a group known for wanton violence. The key issue seems to be that, as the Lyon president noted, many fans entered the Turkish section without tickets. Sports Illustrated reported that “Lyon’s director of security, Annie Saladin, said about 50 Turkish fans forced their way inside the stadium and were responsible for the trouble”. Again, this is not something that Carsi are known for doing; having attended a Besiktas away match in London I can attest to the fact that the Carsi fans I met were largely rule-abiding decent human beings. So what happened in Lyon?

Given the history of framing Carsi (the pitch invasion at a 2013 Besiktas-Galatasaray derby comes to mind) by blaming them for crowd violence in order to discredit the group after they participated in anti-government protests, it is possible that this event is a similar framing. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has lofty goals for Turkey—reiterated in an editorial for the daily Sabah on 15 April 2017 where he speaks of plans for as far off dates as 2053 and 2071–and he cannot afford to lose in Sunday 16 April’s nation-wide referendum which would give him executive power. Given this obsession, it is not unlikely to believe that he took a page out of Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s playbook: stoke the fires of nationalism through soccer hooliganism. In this past summer’s European championships, Russian fans clashed with British fans while Putin mocked the violence. Later, it became clear that the Russian “hooligans” had ties to the Kremlin.

Regarding the case in Lyon, it is possible that either Erdogan sent fans from the Turkish community living in Europe to cause trouble or members of the European Turkish community went of their own accord to cause trouble. In either case, the troublemakers knew that the response from police would solidify the “Us vs. Them” narrative that Mr. Erdogan feeds on: the narrative that Turkey is a Muslim nation bullied by Europe and that—in order to stand up to this injustice—Turkey must be strong and, therefore, allow Mr. Erdogan to have complete power to “strengthen” the country. Even Mr. Erdogan’s response to the Lyon events carries an unprovoked denial: “The match is happening in France, there is no Erdogan there. If the French [fans] went onto the field that is dangerous. I suppose there have been some changes there too lately […]”. Why would Mr. Erdogan voluntarily tie himself to this event, as he does in the first sentence, if he wasn’t involved?

The second theory is that the French fans came looking for a fight. The rush with which Lyon’s president—and much of the European media—moved to blame Turkish fans for the violence suggests a tacit acknowledgement that the French fans held some culpability. The images provided above also tell an important part of the story. Scenes of French fans clad in black and attacking children with metal rods—or screaming, shirtless, on the pitch—do not give the impression of an innocent group. Quite the contrary, they look like members of a paramilitary group.

 

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The Section of Lyon Fans “Reacting To their Turkish Attackers” Don’t Look So Innocent To Me. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.thesun.co.uk/sport/football/3328924/europa-league-clash-between-lyon-and-besiktas-delayed-as-thousands-of-fans-pile-onto-pitch-following-violence-in-stands/

 

Given the recent incident involving the bombing of German side Borussia Dortmund’s team bus (initially blamed on Islamic terrorists) and the rising tide of terrorism in Western Europe, it is quite possible that some of the French fans came ready to fight the Besiktas fans because they represented Turkey, a Muslim country. In short, Lyon’s fans may have been expressing the kind of Islamophobia that has been on the rise in Europe recently; they are not innocent.

Unfortunately, much of the Western media has ignored the guilt of Lyon’s fans. Besiktas’ main fan group, Carsi, has sent out a series of tweets detailing the atrocities committed by Lyon’s fans. It is also important to note that on 11 April 2017 Carsi Tweeted a warning to visiting fans, telling them to not travel in small groups, wear team colors, or respond to any agitations; Carsi was aware of the possibility that there could be trouble in Lyon which leads me to believe that they would not go out looking for trouble.

 

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Carsi Sends a Message To Traveling Fans Urging Them To Not Respond to Provocation From Home Fans In Lyon. Image Courtesy Of: https://twitter.com/forzabesiktas?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor

 

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Carsi’s Twitter Feed Points Out the Errors In the Western Media Narrative. Image Courtesy Of: https://twitter.com/forzabesiktas?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor

 

Once again, I do not believe that Besiktas’ “Ultras” themselves–the “real” ones–had anything to do with the horrible scenes we saw unfold in Lyon. Rather, it seems as if the match was used in order to further different narratives concerning Turkey and its relationship with Europe. I don’t know which is sadder: that football is being tarnished to further political goals, or that Western media cannot separate fact from fiction? On the other hand, what is important to recognize is that this was certainly not the work of real football fans; it is instead a classic example of what happens when politics gets mixed up with football.  Given that matches in the Turkish league have been postponed this weekend due to Sunday’s referendum, we are likely to see politics mix further with Turkish football in the coming weeks.

 

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As The Banner Shows, Many Of the Besiktas “Fans” Came From Europe, In this Case Berlin. It is Likely that the Majority Were Not Part of Carsi’s Core Support From Istanbul. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/sportsnews/article-4410138/Lyon-Besiktas-fans-fight-pitch.html

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For Those Who Think The French Fans Are All Innocent, This Is A Picture That Speaks A Thousand Words. Thanks To The Daily Mail For Correcting The Sun‘s Egregious Error In Reporting. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/sportsnews/article-4410138/Lyon-Besiktas-fans-fight-pitch.html

Terrorists Target Borussia Dortmund And Football Fans Respond Admirably: Preserving the “Local” in the Face of the “Global”

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On 11 April 2017 the team bus carrying German football club Borussia Dortmund to their Champions League tie with French side AS Monaco came under attack. Thankfully, the team escaped generally unscathed (the notable exception being Marc Bartra who required surgery), but—as the Telegraph notes—this was a serious attack:

 

Islamist terrorists came within a hair’s breadth of massacring one of Europe’s top football teams when they detonated three bombs close to a team bus, German authorities have revealed. The three devices which exploded next to Borussia Dortmund’s coach were studded with metal shrapnel and pins, one of which pierced a window and embedded itself in a head rest.         The blast, which injured a player and a policeman, had a radius of more than 100 yards and federal prosecutors said it was lucky the toll was not more severe.

 

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Some Damage to the Team Bus (Top) and Police Officers Stand Watch Outside Dortmund’s Stadium (Bottom). Images Courtesy Of: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/04/12/borussia-dortmund-bus-bombing-police-probe-islamist-letter-referring/

 

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Borussia Dortmund’s Team Bus Guarded by Police (Top) and a Close-Up Shows the Extent of the Damage (Bottom). Image Courtesy Of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/sportsnews/article-4402644/Borussia-Dortmund-team-bus-hit-explosion.html

 

The Daily Mail and the Financial Times also cite an Islamist motive for the attack. According to a spokeswoman for Germany’s federal prosecutor’s office: “We found several letters of responsibility. It appears that a possible Islamist motive is indeed possible. Among other things they demand the withdrawal of [German] tornado fighter jets from Syria and, I quote, ‘the closure of Ramstein airbase’ [Author’s Note: Where drone operations against targets in the Middle East are controlled from].” Despite statements like this, authorities still point out that it is not certain that this was an Islamist attack and on 14 April 2017 the BBC reported that there is “significant doubt” that the attack was the work of Islamists.

What makes this case strange is that German fans do not have a reputation for this kind of brutality (directed at teams). The fact that this attack came before a Champions League match—and not a domestic match—makes it even more unlikely that this attack was perpetrated by a rival fan group. An Islamist motive is certainly possible (and I have written about Islamist attacks on football targets previously) but it is also possible that—in an interesting twist—this attack may have meant to misdirect security forces by tricking them into thinking it was an Islamist attack. Either way, security services the world over would do well to recognize that football—given its immense popularity—is a prime target for terrorism of all stripes.

 

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Dortmund and Monaco Fans Side By Side. Images Courtesy Of: http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-39576904

 

Despite the confusion, it is not all doom and gloom. Fans of Borussia Dortmund kindly opened up their homes to visiting fans from Monaco with the hashtag #bedforawayfans. The BBC did a nice piece on how Dortmund fans hosted their French visitors in a kind display of solidarity in the face of senseless violence. I can only hope that Dortmund fans would have shown the same consideration had their opponent on the day been from a non-Western European country, like Turkey, where the fans of Turkish side Besiktas Tweeted their condolences to Borussia Dortmund by acknowledging that terrorism like this affects everyone equally, whether in Western Europe or elsewhere. In the Middle East there was support for Dortmund as well, as Iraqi sides Al Zawra’a and Naft al-Wasat showed solidarity before their match on 14 April 2017.

 

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Besiktas Shows Their Support to Borussia Dortmund. Image Courtesy Of: https://twitter.com/forzabesiktas

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Iraqi Football Sends a Message in German and Arabic. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-4412072/Dortmund-attack-condemned-ahead-Iraqi-game.html

 

While football sometimes divides people, it is important to note that football can also serve as a way to unite people from different backgrounds. Whether it is by responding to terrorism or to rising ticket prices and the trend towards industrial football, fans can use their power to send messages that transcend national boundaries without succumbing to a homogenized “global” culture. Football fans show that local cultures can still be emphasized even when taking part in global processes like sport.

Politics Clashes with Sports in the United States Uncovering the Far Reach of Corporate Greed: The Perspective of a Marginal Sociologist

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These days it seems as if the culture wars are seeping into all walks of society. Previously I wrote about how political developments have affected sports in Turkey; now I am writing about how political developments are affecting sports in the United States. In the United States we are seeing how the entrance of politics into the world of sports (and wider culture) may be morphing into a fascistic movement without offering any real solutions. That sport is involved should come as no surprise; it represents—after all—a major part of culture in the United States and the world.

The biggest provider of televised sports in the United States, ESPN, has turned much of their sports programming into political programming, the fact that North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” is being debated on a sports program is (in my most humble of opinions) doing a disservice to all those who pay for ESPN in order to watch…sports (these policies have actually caused ESPN to lose money). While it is of course admirable that important societal issues are discussed on different platforms, it makes me (as a marginal sociologist) wonder whether or not we—as a society—are not muddying the waters. Could it be that sports are serving as a vehicle, by corporate interests, to intimidate people into making decisions? If this is indeed the case, what is the difference between sports organizations (like the NCAA and NBA) and the mafia man in the back alley threatening to break your knees with a baseball bat unless you do what you’re told? It’s a fine line, and one that I feel deserves some discussion.

The NCAA—the governing body of university sports in the United States—warned the state of North Carolina about HB2, which The Charlotte Observer says is “North Carolina’s newest law [that] solidifies [the] state’s role in defining discrimination”. One of the main points of the law is that “Transgender people who have not taken surgical and legal steps to change the gender noted on their birth certificates have no legal right under state law to use public restrooms of the gender with which they identify. Cities and counties no longer can establish a different standard”. Taken at face value, this is not very discriminatory; if one has not “taken surgical and legal steps” to change their gender, they cannot enter the bathroom of their choice. This keeps people from arbitrarily claiming that they can enter whichever bathroom they would like. Obviously the solution to the bathroom conundrum in the United States is complicated, but it is important that we realize that not everything is inherently discriminatory; somethings are merely the best attempt we can make to appease all facets of society, both “progressive” and “conservative” instead of one or the other. While, according to the Charlotte Observer “the national headquarters of the ACLU describes North Carolina’s HB2 as the ‘most extreme anti-LGBT measure in the country’”, they also use language that presents the situation as a zero-sum game, where those on one side of the debate are diametrically opposed to those on the other. CNN supports this kind of rhetoric, claiming that proponents of HB2 are subscribing to 3 myths:

 

1) Sexual predators will take advantage of public accommodations laws and policies covering transgender people to attack women and children in bathrooms; 2) Being transgender is not a valid condition. Transgender people are mentally ill and should not be afforded the same legal protections or healthcare guarantees as gay and lesbian Americans; 3) Children are too young to know if they are transgender, and supporting a child who identifies as transgender is child abuse.

 

Personally, I do not believe that any of these myths are true. However, I also recognize that some people might not be ok with the idea of people of another gender being in their bathrooms. As much as we need to respect transgender rights, we must also respect the rights of those who have differing opinions which might not be based on bigotry. If the United States is to be a free country, then people are allowed to have their opinions on an issue; they cannot be forced into accepting things they are not comfortable with accepting. Some states (as the map below shows) agree with allowing transgender people into the bathroom of their choice, while others do not. Isn’t the essence of democracy allowing people a choice? Notably, the sports world is seems to not agree with these basic democratic principles, which is worrisome.

 

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/07/health/transgender-bathroom-law-facts-myths/index.html

 

On 23 March 2017 the NCAA, the governing body for Collegiate athletics in the United States, “issued a straightforward warning to the state of North Carolina on Thursday, the one-year anniversary of the controversial House Bill 2: Revise or repeal the law in the coming weeks, or don’t host any NCAA events between now and 2022” . In 2017 the NCAA moved games from Greensboro, North Carolina to Greenville, South Carolina because of the North Carolina law, while the National Basketball Association (NBA) moved the 2017 All-Star game from Charlotte, North Carolina to New Orleans, Louisiana. This prompted the “North Carolina Sports Association [to send a letter] to the state’s House of Representatives and General Assembly in February warning that the economic impact of the bill could reach $250 million as the state continues to miss out on major sporting events”. In the face of this social (and economic) pressure the North Carolina Legislature decided to repeal the bill; but the power of sports wasn’t lost on some lawmakers: State Representative Carl Ford said “”If we could have props in here, I would take a basketball covered in money and roll it down the middle aisle there, because that’s what this is about, money and basketball”.

 

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Amidst the Controversy, Only Fans Lose…Regardless Of Their Gender. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.si.com/college-basketball/2017/03/14/north-carolina-ncaa-tournament-games-hb2

 

Of course few people were happy with the decision on either side of the debate, while the HB2 issue is—according to CNN—“estimated to have cost the state millions of dollars through the loss of jobs, businesses and consumer spending, though by one measure, the losses only amount to about 0.1% of the state’s total GDP”. Here we see the results of polarizing rhetoric. Essentially North Carolina was blackmailed into repealing a law in order to not lose money. To an impartial observer, this seems dangerously fascistic. While champions of LGBT rights may celebrate this decision because it benefits them today, but what about the perils of allowing democracy to be subverted by financial concerns? What keeps members of the LGBT community from being discriminated against down the road if we allow the financial concerns to subvert the democratic process? And what about the state income that was lost when the NCAA and NBA decided to boycott North Carolina? Were people—transgender and cisgender—not both affected when jobs were taken away? Economic hardship—especially to the tune of 3.76 Billion USD lost—does not discriminate based on gender or anything else.

It is interesting that the sports world was quick to bully North Carolina lawmakers on this issue while—in the face of other social issues—the sports world has not been nearly as quick to respond. Recently, a passenger was forcibly deplaned from a United Airlines flight because it was overbooked. While the event has caused much controversy, the CEO of United Airlines, Oscar Munoz, gave conflicting responses while refusing to step down. At first Mr. Munoz seemed to argue that the customer was in the wrong for being (justifiably) upset, before backtracking and offering a half-hearted apology.

Notably, no one from the sports world has responded to this heinous act of corporate violence with a threat of boycott (despite the fact that most sports teams in the U.S. use air travel to cover the great distances of the United States). Even (state) media in the United States, the Washington Post, discouraged any potential boycott in an 11 April, 2017 article entitled “Want to boycott United? Good luck with that”. Here the author, Christopher Ingraham, notes that “thanks in part to a rash of airline mergers and consolidations in recent years, major airports are increasingly becoming one- or two-carrier affairs. Today, United commands over 50 percent of the market share in some places where it served fewer than five percent of air travelers ten years ago”. Essentially, because of the slow monopolization of air-travel by corporations like United Airlines, the author believes that normal citizens have little ability to resist the disgusting behavior of United Airlines.

What are we to take away from these two issues? Is it that corporations—due to their financial might—can do whatever they want to paying customers because individuals cannot respond? And is it that state governments cannot respond to voters’ concerns because they will be bullied by business interests? In both cases the corporate side, the one with the money, is effectively over-riding public opinion.

Or is it that people in the United States only take a stand when it is a small group—in the North Carolina case transgender people—are affected? Is a general affront on humanity—like the United Airlines debacle—not enough to make people take a stand? Apparently, it isn’t. As days have gone by, the issue has become racialized: New Republic writer Clio Chang’s piece “Why it Matters That the United Dragging Victim Is Asian” is a notable example of this discourse; and it contains the statement: “…for Asian-Americans who watched this video, the victim’s race is an important part of this story. To treat it as an inconsequential factor seems, at best, an oversight—at worst, it’s an erasure”. I would argue the opposite. To racialize the issue makes it an “Asian” problem when it is not an Asian problem. It is a human problem. Everyone in the world faces an unequal fight against corporate greed and extreme capitalism; to racialize the issue only serves to divide rather than unite.

 

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Somehow, a Human Issue Becomes a Racial Issue. Image Courtesy Of: https://fortunedotcom.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/asian-american-protest-police-brutality-united-airlines.jpg?w=720

 

Needless to say, both of the aforementioned trends, where corporate interests over-ride voter concerns and where human issues become racialized issues, are worrisome trends that people—regardless of their sex, gender, race, class, sexual orientation, religion, or any other sociological variable you can think of—need to think about.

Football and Geopolitics: The Media Impetus for the U.S. Strike on Syria, What It Might Mean for The World, and Why Media Literacy is Important

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Author’s Note: This Was First Posted on 7 April 2017 But The Text Was Not Visible. I am Re-posting, with some new stories and analysis included. The main point here is to take a post-modern approach in the tradition of French Sociologist Michel Foucault; we must be cognizant of the fact that there is no one single “Truth” with a capital “T”; in order to make sense of mainstream media we must strengthen our media literacy.  

 

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The Bleak State Of Syrian Pitches During the Civil War. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/syria_football_on_the_frontline

 

On 22 March the BBC came out with an eye-opening look at football in Syria during the ongoing six-year civil war. The article opens with the claim that “since the uprising began in 2011, there has been little positivity spoken in connection with the country, but then there is the remarkable story of Syria’s national football team. The relationship that exists between this national team and its people depicts the power of sport on a personal, cultural and political level”. Given this excerpt, one would be forgiven for believing that the BBC was publishing a humanistic piece. The reality—as is the case with most modern news media—is something less than humanist; after all the media (given its relationship to capital) is not wholly independent. Unfortunately, the authors Richard Conway and David Lockwood cannot resist bringing the political—in this case from a biased perspective—into their piece:

 

A month before the victory against China, Syria drew against former World Cup semi-finalists South Korea. These results mean gradually, the footballing world is starting to pay attention to Syria for sporting reasons. But this is not entirely a good news story.

There is no ignoring the control that president Bashar Assad’s regime tries to exert over its citizens and, once again, sport is no different. The relative success of the team is both a passing panacea and a propaganda opportunity, the former for the people and the latter for the president. To present a thriving football culture to the world fits in entirely with the agenda of normalisation, of having quelled the rebellion, of stabilisation and control. However, as we discovered, the reality is far from that.

 

The emphasis here is less on the football team and more on the ills of the Assad government, which sends a political message in the guise of a humanist piece of sports journalism. While the journalists claim that “the rapid return of football to these areas shows the government’s desire to use the game to display life as returning to normal and of the war as being won. What could be more normal than going to a football match? But like the normality, this ‘growth’ of the game is an illusion;”, it seems that both fans and footballers might have a different opinion.

The authors cite one un-named fan as saying “It is very important to keep hope and to stay optimistic. Live our life in normal way, in sport, in everything. The kids need to live a normal life, what’s happening is not their fault, they need to watch sport, go to their schools, go to public parks, they have to”. The “hope” that this fan speaks of is certainly essential, and increased violence in the country will not serve him/her —or the children—in the long term. Footballer Mohammad al-Khalaf says “we are angry because the families are separated by the war. All the Syrians’ families are separated, that’s why we have so much anger. But what shall we do?

We have to accept our destiny and adapt to it. We didn’t want this to happen but it wasn’t in our hands, they are trying to destroy the people. We hope that it will end and in God’s will we will be able to return to our country as soon as possible”. Again, the footballer’s description of the situation can be read in many ways; it is a lament for the destruction of his country without taking a particular stance on the issues. His next statement that is quoted is more nationalist: “sport has nothing to do with politics. We have to move forward and sport has a message and we should relay this message. If the Syrian team plays with any other country, for sure and from the bottom of my heart I will back it and support it”. The focus here is not on a particular government or political group, rather it is about the Syrian nation, the Syrian people—perhaps not even the state at all! The article even notes that assistant coach Tarek Jabban said he coaches for the love of his country, despite making just $100 (£80) a month. The team’s star defender, Omar al Midani, might put it best when he says “The football was much better before the war. We were happy, the only thing we cared about was football and school. Now the only thing we care about is to have our country back like it used to be”. This statement—more than that of any other person cited in the BBC piece, shows that there are at least some Syrian footballers who recognize the importance of the state; whether they are nationalist or not is immaterial, what matters is that they have a respect for the state independent of its leader—insofar as it provides law and order. The fact that Mr. Assad has managed to stay in power throughout this bloody six-year civil war implies some sort of support, thus these sentiments should not be surprising.

The article cites Brigadier General Mowaffak Joumaa who (unsurprisingly, given his role as a soldier) gives the nationalist explanation that “the Syrian government is defending our people and [is] keep[ing] Syria united, this country in land and people”, yet the authors of the article conspicuously eschew any statements remotely sympathetic to the regime (as an impartial media outlet would be expected to do). Instead, they write that Syrian President Bashar al Assad:

 

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Sports Is Used In Syria To Support Mr. Assad’s Regime In Its Darkest Days. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/syria_football_on_the_frontline

has led a war against opposition forces within his country for more than six years […and] that there’s nothing funny about him [al Assad] to those trapped within the country’s borders or living under his authoritarian rule. Many here will not talk of him openly. Most will not even dare speak his name when asked about their feelings towards him. The reach and menace of the regime runs deep in the Syrian psyche. What started as peaceful demonstrations, all part of a popular uprising across the region in 2011 known as the Arab Spring, quickly degenerated into a vicious and bloody war.

 

Again, the BBC’s piece is perpetuating the image of Assad as a killer and “menace” so as to (perhaps indirectly) influence Western policy (or readers’ support of the latter) vis-à-vis Syria, while also downplaying the fact that there are fans and players who just want things back to where they were. Unfortunately, because of a refusal to even acknowledge an alternative “truth”, the BBC’s work can be viewed as a form of intellectual imperialism. It is one characterized by media narratives and tropes that are repeated enough to become pseudo-facts.

Unfortunately, intellectual imperialism—even in the world of sports journalism—has its consequences. Less than two weeks after this piece was published with the passage “The Syrian government also stands accused of war crimes against its own people for numerous egregious breaches of human rights such as using banned chemical weapons and bombing water supplies” [my emphasis], the Syrian regime was reported to have used chemical weapons on its own people during an attack on Idlib province on Tuesday 4 April 2017. On Thursday 6 April 2017, doctors in Turkey confirmed that chemical weapons had been used in an attack that killed at least 72 people. Despite the reports, the fact remains that the Syrian state could stand to gain nothing from conducting such an attack at this stage; much of the world had grown to see that Assad was far less of a menace than ISIS/ISIL/DAESH and even the footballers and fans cited by the BBC had expressed their desires for a return to normalcy.

Without resorting to conspiracy theories, it is still important to keep an open mind and the words of one “expert” are useful to explain why this “attack” is so suspect. The Los Angeles Times’ Matt Pearce rightly points out that “there’s a mystery at the heart of an apparent chemical weapons attack in Syria this week: Syria’s government, suspected of carrying out the attack, was supposed to have gotten rid of all its chemical weapons in 2014”. Indeed, this is true (it even appears as a link beneath the Guardian’s story reporting this week’s attack). The “expert” cited by the LA Times is Markus Binder, a chemical weapons expert at the University of Maryland. According to the Times, he “still had basic questions about the attack that need to be confirmed, including exactly what chemicals were used and whether the Syrian government carried out the attack”. The LA Times points out that “the use of chemicals makes [no] immediate sense, given that the government has been using explosives that often kill civilians.” Mr Binder adds “Why now? It puzzles.’”. This alone should make any impartial observer pause for thought.

Now, given the United State’s attack on a Syrian airbase on 6-7 April 2017 in response to the purported use of chemical weapons (which Syria denies), we must think even harder: What is the motivation for this kind of aggression? There are three likely scenarios that come most immediately to mind:

  • The Megalomaniacal Theory; Mr. Trump Attacked Syria to further his own political agenda: This theory has three inter-related components:
    1. By attacking Russia’s ally Syria in such a conspicuous manner, Mr. Trump may have thought that he could put an end to the speculations that the Kremlin paved his way to the White House.
    2. This attack also serves to differentiate Mr. Trump from his predecessor—former president Barack Obama—during the first 100 days. By definitively acting on the alleged use of chemical weapons by Mr. Assad, Mr. Trump can show his ability to follow through when a “red line” is crossed (something Mr. Obama did not do). Similarly, if Syria did indeed use chemical weapons, it would show the failure of Mr. Obama in the realm of negotiation since he “agreed to a Russian deal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program” in the first place.
    3. Trump may have believed that the use of force would restore credibility for the United States in the international realm, which feeds into a third theory.
  • The America First Theory: Since Mr. Trump campaigned on an “America First” platform, he may have seen this as a simple way to assert American military strength at the outset of his presidency in order to send a message to other geopolitical rivals like Iran and North Korea. The fact that Mr. Trump’s administration has been keen to point out that “no people were targeted” and that Russia was notified before the attack (even the sections of the base where Russians were present were not targeted by the strike) shows that the administration saw the airbase as a fairly safe target, PR wise, for a “one-off” strike. The Trump Administration may see this kind of a one-off strike as allowing them to negotiate for a settlement from a “position of strength”; threats are much more credible after force has been used. This approach would also signal a perceived return of the United States to global prominence.

 

Likely, the explanation for the United States’ first open use of force in Syria is a combination of elements from these three theories. The fact that the two candidates who fought a bitter presidential campaign should agree on the issue of using force in Syria is eye-opening, as is the coincidental nature of timing. While former presidential candidate and current Florida senator Marco Rubio thinks the timing of Mr. Assad’s attacks is coincidental since it came in the wake of tacit American support for the Assad regime; I would go the other way (while wondering about Mr. Rubio’s thought process) and point out that the timing is coincidental since it comes at a time when Mr. Assad is re-gaining (at least some) lost legitimacy while Mr. Trump is losing legitimacy (judging by polls that had put him at 46 % approval rating). It was a perfect storm that may have forced the American President into a corner, acting on any information he had—whether real or fake.

The reality is that if the state has an agenda, too often the media supports that agenda. While we should all be cognizant of conspiratorial stories (like those claiming that the Daily Mail deleted a story in January 2013 about a false-flag attack in Syria involving chemical weapons) we also need to recognize (in the Foucauldian tradition) that there is no one, single, “Truth”; there is nothing to say that mainstream media is telling “the Truth” all the time. As a country that fought a civil war–and emerged from it better off (and without major meddling of foreign powers)–the United States should be the first to recognize that there is little “Truth” (with a capital “T”) when it comes to civil war. There are embedded messages in every news story we read. That even a humanist story about a nation’s football team can carry political undertones—in this case directed against the Assad regime in Syria—is worrisome, regardless of Mr. Assad’s record (he is not a saint after all; politics is a dark game and political leaders rarely are saints).

 

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No One Can Be a Saint When a Country Is This Divided. Readers Should Imagine What They Would Think If Their Own Country Was as Divided as Syria Is Now. Would They Be Happy With Foreign Intervention? Would They Support The Government? Would They Support the Rebels? Empathy is Important in Moments Like This, Since It Allows For a Humanist Approach to the Issues at Hand. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/syria_football_on_the_frontline

 

It means that—when used hand in hand with the policies of the state—the media can act as a shepherd of the masses; the media can condition public opinion before any action is taken by the state so as to mitigate the possible negative reactions to the state. Time will tell what the fallout of Mr. Trump’s actions will be in Syria and the wider Middle East; in the mean time the best we can do is be cognizant of the biases inherent in every kind of news story we read—whether about sport or politics—so as to increase our media literacy. Honing these skills will allow us to avoid being drawn in by “fake news”, while also allowing us to take a more critical view of mainstream media.

Football Emerges as a Key Battlefield in Turkey’s Culture Wars Ahead of April’s Referendum: The Role of Football in Shaping Public Opinion

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As the culture wars heat up in Turkey ahead of April’s referendum in which Turkey will vote on a switch to a Presidential system which would give current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (and his Justice and Development (AKP) Party) unprecedented power, the campaign has gotten odder and odder. Mr. Erdogan, in pushing for a “Yes” vote, has brought the campaign into a Kafkaesque (or Orwellian, depending on your literary sympathies) realm. The President has taken to attacking all enemies—real or imagined—in his attempt to play on “collective narcissim”, a concept I will return to later. This process has created more than a few absurdities (imagining enemies is, after all, not the easiest of endeavors), and it is not surprising that football has shown itself to be a key battlefield in which this process has unfolded.

The BBC reported on 24 February  2017 that Turkey was saying “No” to saying “No”. Mark Lowen’s piece shows how “The demonisation of the word “no” is reaching new, seemingly absurd levels”. While Erdogan’s government claims that “No” voters are “terrorists” siding with the coup plotters of 15 July 2016, their tactics for encouraging that line of thinking are getting odd. Lowen notes that “Anti-smoking leaflets prepared by the Ministry of Health were suddenly withdrawn because they contained the word “hayir” – “no” – in red capital letters. A government MP said “they could be misunderstood” and that even an Oscar nominated film—entitled “No”—was taken off the air by Digiturk, Turkey’s main cable provider that was recently bought by Qataris friendly to Mr. Erdogan. Lowen even notes how a common Islamic greeting has been attacked:

 

A common expression typically used by conservatives is “hayirli cuma”, wishing a blessed Friday. But as “hayir” also means no, some are now preferring “cuma mubarek”, an alternative blessing (with the same meaning).

 

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Tweets Showing the Change in Langue Being Used. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39064657

 

Examples like this reformulation of an Islamic greeting—to meet political ends—show that Mr. Erdogan is not truly the champion of Islam that he claims to be, but this is should not come to a surprise to anyone. His use of Islam as a political tool was uncovered most recently by German weekly Der Spiegal, which claims that the Turkish state is using Imams in German mosques to spy on Germany’s Turkish community; Germany’s largest Muslim organization (the Cologne-based Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs—DITIB) has become “an extended arm of the Turkish president, Erdogan” according to  Islam expert Susanne Schröter, working towards its ultimate goal: “to divide the Turkish community abroad between friends and foes of the regime”. This crude exploitation of religion shows how cynical and false the Turkish President’s religiosity is.

But Mr. Erdogan has often looked to portray himself as many other things he is not, including a man of the people and a staunch Turkish nationalist. One would be hard pressed to see Mr. Erdogan as a “man of the people” after watching a BBC interview with one of his main allies in the construction sector, Ali Agaoglu, who makes shocking comments by referring to women as “his property”, and boasting about kicking people out of their homes. It is the kind of interview that makes one cringe, a celebration of the uncouth nouveau-riche class that has been nurtured in Turkey, through corruption, during the AKP’s rule. In addition to not being a true champion of Islam or a man of the people, Mr. Erdogan is—as I will show below—also not a true nationalist; rather he is more of an opportunist who follows the political winds to further his own (and sometimes his allies’) economic and political gain(s).

Mr. Erdogan’s brand of faux-nationalism has been on full display during the referendum campaign.  He decided to suspend diplomatic ties with the Netherlands after the Dutch (not completely unjustifiably) took issue with Turkish campaigning among the immigrant Turkish community for a “Yes” vote. Erdogan further played the nationalist card when he said, on 23 March 2017, that “Turkey would review EU ties after the referendum”, and his insults to German Chancellor Angela Merkel have ruffled a few feathers in Germany even among the Turkish community. Apart from the fact that such actions show Mr. Erdogan’s belief that he will win, it is more important that such bellicose statements towards the EU play on a sense of nationalism that is destructive to Turkey. Any true Turkish nationalist—who has the best interests of their country in mind—would not be in the business of fomenting crises with Europe. Of course, any true nationalist also would not have gotten involved in the Syrian quagmire either; such events—where Mr. Erdogan acts with only his own—and not his country’s—best interests in mind only serve to prove his false nationalism.

Perhaps the most blatant example of this fake nationalism came on 24 March 2017 when an AKP banner reportedly appeared in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, a mainly Kurdish city, with the words “Every Yes [vote] is a Fatiha [Prayer] for Sheikh Said And His Friends”. For those who are unfamiliar with Turkish history, the Sheikh Said rebellion of 1925 was (in the words of Wikipedia) a “Kurdish rebellion aimed at reviving the Islamic caliphate”. It was, essentially, a rebellion against the formation of modern Turkey. By invoking Sheikh Said, Mr. Erdogan is both becoming an “ethnic entrepreneur” (by appealing to Kurdish sympathies in a crude—and reckless—manner) and risking the further fragmentation of his country. Clearly, these are not the actions of a true nationalist who loves his country, rather these actions represent the risky—yet at the same time, seemingly contradictory and calculated—actions of a man who is looking to cement his power at all costs. A recent Foreign Policy piece by Elliot Ackerman details how, in the run-up to the November 2015 snap elections, “Erdogan argued to the electorate that the stability provided by a strong AKP majority was the safest course for Turkey. He chose not to emphasize that his own policies had largely created this instability.” The same process is unfolding again—Erdogan is fomenting crises abroad (while crudely playing to Kurdish sentiment after re-igniting a war with them so as to profit politically) to give the impression that only he can provide stability. But in order to make the case for stability there must first be instability, which Erdogan has created with his own hands. Given the absurdity of the situation it is no wonder that football has not been immune.

 

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The Banner In Question. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/turkiye/706071/Seyh_Sait_ile__Evet__isteyen_AKP_ye_Burhan_Kuzu_nun_tweetini_hatirlattilar.html

 

On 24 March 2017 one of Turkey’s biggest sports dailies, Fotomac, distributed a 16-page flyer in support of a “Yes” vote in the April Referendum. That the flyer from the Turkish Foundation for Youth (in which Mr. Erdogan’s son Bilal holds a prominent position, no less) was distributed is not surprising; the paper is owned by the ATV-Sabah group, a pro-government media conglomerate that publishes the Daily Sabah—one of the state’s main propaganda arms aimed at English speakers (Just one example of their propaganda appears here (https://www.dailysabah.com/elections/2017/03/28/germany-bans-yes-rallies-but-continues-propaganda-for-no-at-full-speed ).

 

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The Flyer Distributed By One Of Turkey’s Most Popular Sports Dailies. Images Courtesy Of: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/futbol/706056/Yandas_spor_gazetesi__evet__eki_dagitiyor.html

 

Meanwhile a three-year referee from Sinop Province was relieved of his duties by the Turkish Football Federation for a posting on social media which supported a “No” vote. As the BBC also noted, saying “No” in the workplace is dangerous—Television newscaster Irfan Degirmenci from Kanal D was similarly relieved of his duties for saying “No” on social media while pointing out “those from pro-government channels are free to say ‘yes’ – and if I had tweeted that, I would be offered new positions with better money. But when I say that the constitutional change would create a one-man rule in Turkey, I’m fired’”. The referee, Ilker Sahin, pointed out a similar double standard when he said:

 

Yıldırım Demirören’in Türkiye Futbol Fedarasyonu Başkanı olarak kamuya açık bir şekilde “evet” açıklaması yapması suç değilken benim bireysel sosyal hesaplarımdan yaptığım açıklamalar mı yoksa “hayır” demem mi siyasi propaganda olarak karşıma çıktı. Eğer “evet” deseydim belki de ödüllendirilecektim. Ben fikirlerimin sonuna kadar arkasındayım hayır, hayır,hayır!

 Yildirim Demiroren, as President of the Turkish Football Federation, can say “yes” in a public forum [but] my comments on my individual social [media] accounts or the fact that I said “no” come back to me as political propaganda. Had I said “yes” maybe I would have been rewarded. I stand by my thoughts until the end; no, no, no!

 

The absurdity pointed out by Mr. Degirmenci and Mr. Sahin is part of the Orwellian nature of the situation surrounding the referendum, and Mr. Demiroren’s comments certainly deserve some discussion within this context.

On 20 March 2017 Turkey’s Kulupleri Birligi (Union of Clubs) held their second football summit in Istanbul. As commentator Bilgin Gokberk notes, it was less football and more a rally for a “Yes” vote funded by Qatari money. At the summit President Erdogan himself presented his view of the relationship between football and politics:

 

Siyasetin temelde futbol ile birçok ortak yönü olduğuna inanıyorum. Spor gibi siyasetin de özü rekabettir, yarıştır. Bu yarışın ilk aşaması sandıktan galip çıkmak için ikinci aşaması da sorumluluk üstlendikten sonra millete hizmet götürmek içindir. Tıpkı futbol gibi siyaset de takım oyunudur. Yani sağlam bir kadro gerektirir. Plansızca oynayan, taktiği ve stratejisi olmayan bir takımın kupayı kaldırma ihtimali nasıl yoksa milletine söyleyecek sözü olmayan siyasetçilerin, siyasi partilerin de başarı şansı yoktur.

Primarily, I believe that politics has many similarities with football. Like sport, the essence of politics is a competition, a race. The first stage of this race to win at the ballot box, the second stage of this race is to provide services to the people after assuming responsibility [of ruling]. Just like football politics is a team sport. You need a strong roster. Just like a team that has no game plan, no tactics, and no strategy cannot lift the cup, politicians and political parties who have nothing to say to the people have no chance for success.

 

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Turkey’s Power Struggle Plays Itself Out in Football Ahead of the Referendum. Mr. Erdogan (C) pictured with Mr. Demiroren (R) at the summit. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.milliyet.com.tr/futbolda-dev-zirve-halic-te—2416871-skorerhaber/

 

Mr. Erdogan’s comparisons here are pretty spot on. But as he continues in his speech the tone gets more defiant and autocratic; it begins to sound less like a sports event and more like a political rally:

 

Milletten korkan, gençlerden çekinen bir anlayışla Türkiye’nin geleceği inşa edilebilir mi? Aslında bunların siyasette jübile zamanı çoktan gelmiş ama hala direniyorlar. Onun için de çıktıkları tüm maçlarda yeniliyorlar. Daha önce 7 defa yenilmişlerdi. İnşallah 16 Nisan’da 8. defa yenilecekler. İnşallah bu defa mesajı alırlar.

Can we build Turkey’s future with an approach that is afraid of the people and holds back from the youth? Really, the came long ago for these people [likely referring to his opponents] to retire but they are still resisting. This is why they lose every match they play. They have lost 7 times before. İnşallah [God-Willing] on 16 April they will lose for an 8th time. İnşallah [God-Willing] they will get the message this time.

 

As if the passage above was not political enough, the aforementioned federation President Yildirm Demiroren was extremely outspoken in his views:

İnsanların aileleriyle geldiği bir tribün ortamı yaratacağız.  Sadece 1. sıradaki takımın değil, son sıradaki takımın da tribünlerinin dolduğu bir ortam hedefliyoruz. En büyük şansımız sizin gibi futbolu seven bir Cumhurbaşkanımızın olması. Sayın Cumhurbaşkanım, gücümüzü sizden ve devletten alarak 2024 Avrupa Futbol Şampiyonası’na aday olduk. Yeni Türkiye, bu şampiyonayı saygınlığıyla organizasyonu alacak güçtedir. Bu federasyonumuzun olduğu kadar, devletimizin, ekonomimizin gücüyle geldiğimiz noktadır. Bundan sonra da böyle devam edecek. Biz artık UEFA seçimlerinde söz sahibi ülke haline geldik. Bizim önerdiğimiz kişi UEFA Başkanı oldu. Nisan ayı seçimlerinde bir Türk arkadaşımız yönetim kuruluna seçilecek. Sizin dünyadaki gücünüzle bizim de gücümüz artıyor. Bir Türk olarak bundan gurur duyuyorum. Daha güçlü bir Türkiye için ‘evet’ diyen bir 17 Nisan sabahında uyanmak dileğiyle hepinizi selamlıyorum.

We will make a stadium atmosphere where people come with their families. We are aiming for an atmosphere were not only the first place team fills their stadium, but also the last place team. Our biggest opportunity is that we have a football-loving President like yourself. Honorable President, by getting our strength from you and the state we became a candidate to host the 2024 European Championship [EURO 2024 Football Championship]. The new Turkey has the strength to get this respected event. This is not only the point that our federation [FA] has reached, but also the point that our state and economy has reached. From now on it will continue like this. We have now become a country that has a say in UEFA elections. The person we recommended became the President of UEFA. As your strength in the world increases, so too does our strength. As a Turk I am proud of this. I greet you all with the wish of waking up on 17 April to a morning that has said “Yes” to a stronger Turkey.

 

Needless to say, Mr. Demiroren was not censored for these highly politicized comments; quite the contrary he was likely lauded. Needless to say Turkey’s chances—as they stand currently—to host EURO 2024 are slim; a “Yes” vote would likely erase the slim chance that currently exists. Still, it is clear that people are ready to believe anything. And one reason for that is that the people also love football.

On the night of 23-24 March 2017, it was reported that the sign of the Denizli Ataturk Stadium was removed ahead of a rally by Mr. Erdogan to promote the “Yes” cause. Ostensibly it was to allow Mr. Erdogan’s bus to enter the stadium, but social media users—who were the first to point out the removal of the signage—protested the removal, viewing it as a sign to erase any vestige of the founder of secular Turkey.

 

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The Sign Was Loaded Onto a Truck (Top) and Removed (Bottom) In The Middle Of The Night. Images Courtesy Of: http://www.cnnturk.com/turkiye/denizlideki-erdogan-hazirligi-tartisma-yaratti?page=1

 

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The Morning After. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.sozcu.com.tr/2017/gundem/erdogana-hazirlik-icin-denizli-ataturk-stadi-tabelasi-sokuldu-3-1752971/

 

In a (small) victory for people power—or perhaps it was a tacit recognition by Mr. Erdogan that his men had gone too far—the sign was restored to its proper place the next morning. Clearly, Mr. Erdogan has recognized the power of football in his country, and as recently as 28 March 2017, President Erdogan was spotted in Samsun Province rocking the chic scarf of the local football club, Samsunspor.

 

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A Nod To The Local Team Works Wonders In The Field Of Turkish Politics. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.ensonhaber.com/cumhurbaskani-erdogan-samsunda-2017-03-28.html

 

Meanwhile there was turmoil in the ranks of Galatasaray, one of Turkey’s major clubs, as the club voted on expelling members who are linked to Fethullah Gulen, the reclusive cleric who is blamed for masterminding the failed military coup of 15 July 2016. On 25 March 2017 it was announced that club members voted against expelling two former stars—embattled former AKP MP Hakan Sukur and Arif Erdem, who both led the team to a UEFA Cup Championship in 2000—in a vote. Mr. Sukur thanked the club for not expelling him while commentators slammed the club’s decision, arguing that Mr. Sukur did not recognize his fault in following Mr. Gulen’s destabilizing agenda. Galatasaray’s decision to stand up to the political pressure to expel their former stars on the grounds that they are football players, and not political figures, was not taken lightly. Minister of Sport Akif Cagatay Kilic criticized the team, saying “traitors to our country and our state have no business in our established sports clubs. The board’s voting is inexplicable to the families of our martyrs and veterans”.

 

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Mr. Sukur (Left) and Mr. Erdem (Right) in Better Days. Note The Media’s Choice To Show Them In Pink Jerseys. Image Courtesy Of: http://haber.sol.org.tr/toplum/hakan-sukur-ve-arif-erdem-ihrac-edildi-190487

 

Just one day later, on 26 March 2017, the team caved by expelling the former stars on the basis of their having not paid dues for the past six years. In response, Mr. Sukur posted a message on social media, signing off as “A citizen who loves their country and Galatasaray”. Likely, Mr. Sukur aligned himself to a shadowy organization without knowing its true motives and he—like so many in Turkey currently—has been gone from football hero to collateral damage. For Mr. Erdogan the non-payment of dues excuse was not enough; he criticized the team for not explicitly linking the players’ dismissal to their involvement with the exiled cleric and we—as football observers—may see some retribution from the government in the future that could affect the Galatasaray football club.

 

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Mr. Sukur Claims Nationalism Despite Having Joined The Shadowy Movement of Cleric Fethullah Gulen. Image Courtesy Of: http://haber.sol.org.tr/toplum/hakan-sukur-ve-arif-erdem-ihrac-edildi-190487

 

Such is the current state of affairs in Turkey: football has been politicized to a point where, arguably, the political headlines regarding the sport are more visible than the purely sporting ones. It is, again, characteristic of a political climate so absurd that politicians from opposite sides of the divide—the Islamist-oriented AKP and secular CHP —have been recorded making the symbol of the ultra-nationalist third party MHP in public! I believe that these kinds of absurdities are symptomatic of deep divides not only between—but also within—political parties. To understand what these divides might mean—and how football is used as a tool to influence public opinion—it is useful to refer to some recent poll results regarding the upcoming referendum.

The results from the Avrasya Kamuoyu Araştırmaları Merkezi (Eurasia Public Research Center), taken from a poll conducted between 18 and 22 March, 2017, allow us to make an educated guess towards what the divides within political parties will mean come voting day. We can clearly see that the “No” position, in red, is ahead among respondents belonging to all but the AKP. We can also see that the majority of people (86 percent) have already made the decision of how to vote more than three months ago.

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The Top Figure Shows Voting Intentions In the Upcoming Referendum Divided By Party. The Bottom Image Shows How Long Ago Respondents Made Up Their Minds. Images Courtesy Of: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/foto/foto_galeri/705998/2/Avrasya_Kamuoyu_Arastirmalari_Merkezi_referandum_anketini_acikladi.html

 

We can also see that, in the June 7 2015 election, just 32.3 percent of respondents voted for the ruling AKP. In the snap elections called for 1 November 2015, the amount of respondents who voted for the AKP increased to 41 percent. As I discussed earlier, this increase can be attributed to the nationalist fervor in the wake of the resumption of hostilities between the state and the Kurdish PKK. Yet, when people were asked which party they would vote for in a general election now, just 30.2 percent said the AKP. So what makes for this discrepancy? Do they have around 30 percent of the vote, or 40 percent of the vote? The answer can be found in two categories: the “Kararsizim” (“undecided”) category of 19.2 percent and “Oy Kullanmam” (I won’t vote) category of 16.2 percent. These two categories represent more than a third of the electorate when looking at party choice.

 

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How Respondents Voted In the 7 June 2015 General Election: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/foto/foto_galeri/705998/2/Avrasya_Kamuoyu_Arastirmalari_Merkezi_referandum_anketini_acikladi.html

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How Respondents Voted In The 1 November 2015 General Elections. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/foto/foto_galeri/705998/2/Avrasya_Kamuoyu_Arastirmalari_Merkezi_referandum_anketini_acikladi.html

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How Respondents Would Vote Today If There Was a General Election. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/foto/foto_galeri/705998/2/Avrasya_Kamuoyu_Arastirmalari_Merkezi_referandum_anketini_acikladi.html

 

It is important to note that the percent of respondents voting for the opposition CHP is at 20.3 percent, close to the way respondents voted in the two previous general elections (20.8 percent on June 7 and 21.1 percent on November 1); it is clear that the CHP voters are consistent. Respondents saying they would vote for the Kurdish HDP total 7 percent, which is around the number of respondents who said they voted for them in the June 7 election (10,8 percent) and November 1 election (8.8 percent); the HDP voters are also fairly consistent. The one discrepancy even close to the AKP numbers comes from the 5.7 percent of respondents that say they would vote for the nationalist MHP, since on June 7 13.4 percent reported voting for the MHP and 10.9 percent reported voting for the MHP on November 1. Given that CHP and HDP voting is fairly consistent, yet AKP and MHP voting is not, it is reasonable to conclude that much of the undecided and “I won’t vote” crowd come from either the AKP or the MHP.

This is important because, when asked specifically about how they would vote in the referendum, 40.63 percent said “No” and 32.54 percent said “Yes” leaving 12.07 percent undecided and 14.76 percent saying they wouldn’t vote. Without these two groups, and only counting decided voters, the “No” vote leads the “Yes” vote 55.53 percent to 44.47 percent. This means that 26.83 percent of people, or more than a quarter of voters, still have not made a decision in terms of the referendum specifically.

 

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How Will You Vote In The 16 April Referendum? “No” Votes are in red, “Yes” Votes Are In Light Green, Undecided Votes Are In Yellow, Those Who Say They Will Not Be Voting Are In Green. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/foto/foto_galeri/705998/2/Avrasya_Kamuoyu_Arastirmalari_Merkezi_referandum_anketini_acikladi.html

 

 

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The Same Table With Only The Answers Of Decided Voters Taken Into Account. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/foto/foto_galeri/705998/2/Avrasya_Kamuoyu_Arastirmalari_Merkezi_referandum_anketini_acikladi.html

 

When broken down by party, we see that 71.1 percent of AKP respondents say “Yes” while just 1.1 percent of CHP respondents, 33.2 percent of MHP respondents, and 3.1 percent of HDP respondents say “Yes”. On the other side side 84.5 percent of CHP respondents, 51.1 percent of MHP respondents, and 72.1 percent of HDP respondents say “No” while just 11.1 percent of AKP respondents say “No”. This shows not only how set the CHP and HDP voters are for the “No” vote, but also the split within the ranks of the AKP and MHP; more than half of MHP respondents say they will vote “No” while one in ten AKP respondents say they will vote “No”. Additionally, those who say they will not vote are highest among AKP (11 percent) and HDP (12.5 percent) respondents. Clearly, the battle is for these undecided voters. But how will they vote?

 

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Respondent’s Reports Of How They Will Vote In the 16 April 2017 Referendum Broken Down By Party. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/foto/foto_galeri/705998/2/Avrasya_Kamuoyu_Arastirmalari_Merkezi_referandum_anketini_acikladi.html

 

It is likely that many of the AKP voters and HDP voters who say they are undecided or that they will not vote are hiding “No” votes. The results of one of the questions asked by one question in the survey show why this might be the case. When respondents were asked if the diplomatic crisis between the Netherlands and Turkey was fomented to increase a “Yes” vote, the majority of respondents agreed regardless of their reported voting preference (53.3 percent of those who said they would be voting “Yes”, 97 percent of those who said they would be voting “No”, 79.8 percent of the “undecideds”, and 87 percent of those who said they would not vote). The fact that the percentage of “undecideds” and those who said they wouldn’t vote is so high—nearing the level observed among confirmed “No” voters—shows that most people are aware of the absurdity that is going on around them. They might be aware that many of the crises they witness are being created to push people towards a certain voting position.

 

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Do You Think the Crisis [With] Holland Was Created To Increase “Yes” Votes? Those Who Agree are on the Left, Those Who Disagree Are On The Right. From Top To Bottom: Yes Voters, No Voters, Undecided Voters, and Those Who Say They Will Not Vote. http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/foto/foto_galeri/705998/2/Avrasya_Kamuoyu_Arastirmalari_Merkezi_referandum_anketini_acikladi.html

 

It also means that those who claim to be undecided or who say that they won’t vote may really be hiding their true opinions due to what survey researchers call “social desirability bias”. This bias refers to the tendency of survey respondents to answer in ways that they deem to be socially desirable. What is socially desirable, of course, is context dependent. In the Brexit referendum this past summer, the “Remain” vote was socially desirable since “LEAVE” voters were characterized as xenophobic. Yet “Leave” won. In the 2016 presidential election in the United States, a “Clinton” vote was socially desirable since “Trump” supporters were characterized as racist, sexist, bigoted, and just about everything else. Yet Donald Trump won. In this case, the “Yes” vote is the socially desirable one since the AKP has been slowly solidifying its hegemony over the Turkish political and cultural scene, as evidenced by the politicization of Turkish soccer. The fact that Abdullah Gul, President Erdogan’s ally and one of the AKP’s founders, decided not to attend a pro “Yes” rally in his home city of Kayseri shows that there are rifts within the party. It also means that there might be some AKP voters who are thinking of voting “No” but are afraid to say it so as to not be outed; they may be hiding their true positions by saying they are “undecided”.

 

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Some Distance May Have Opened Up Between Mr. Gul (Foreground) and Mr. Erdogan (Background) In Recent Years. Does It Portend Instability within the AKP Going Forward? Image Courtesy Of: http://www.sozcu.com.tr/2017/gundem/erdogan-kayseriyi-gelmedi-ama-meydan-afisleriyle-donatildi-1770419/

 

Of course, this analysis has many caveats. First, it is based on the assumption that the Eurasia Public Research Center has conducted their survey responsibly and taken the appropriate measures to ensure a valid probability sample representative of larger Turkish society. Second, it is based on the assumption that voters will not be swayed by changes in the security situation (the fact that a bomb was exploded targeting policemen on the morning of 3 April in the southern city of Mersin makes me wary). Third, it is based on the assumption that the voting will be conducted—and the results tabulated—in a transparent manner. Fourth, it is based on the assumption that the electorate will come out and vote.

As journalist Can Dundar notes, the voters can still turn the tide. At this point, it is up to the voters to turn the tide of the “collective narcissim” that has been sweeping the world, characterized by a situation in which

 

any politician who ferments in their followers a grandiose belief in the in-group, combined with encouraging them to believe the in-group is being insulted or slighted by others, is arguably fostering collective narcissism and sowing the seeds for future conflict and hostility. One positive way to intervene might be to see if collective narcissists can be encouraged to channel their envy and sensitivity toward constructively helping their in-group rather than harming out-groups.

Mr. Erdogan’s decision to brand “No” voters as terrorists is an extreme version of this in-group/out-group divide. Yet the chance to “constructively help the in group” remains for all who believe in the in-group as one characterized by a democratic Turkey defined by civic—and not ethnic—nationalism. As Mr. Dundar notes,

 

Erdoğan has entered the campaign trail supported by the bureaucracy, media, academia, the military and the police. Anyone campaigning for no faces dismissal from their jobs and arrest. A thick cloud of fear has descended over the silent land. Yet the polls forecast an even split. The result will be determined by the 20% who are undecided at present […] They may be intimidated, they may be quiet, but those people who stood against Erdoğan are still there, and we need to give them our support.

 

There is no doubt that the undecided will define the election. As my analysis of the polls cited above shows, it is very possible that there is a social desirability bias among respondents that is obscuring the truth. After all, it is difficult to hold an independent position when so much of society—including, as I have shown, the football world—is playing a role in shaping public opinion. But that also means that people may be reluctant to reveal their true opinions, and that means that there is reason to believe that a “NO” vote is very possible in Turkey’s upcoming referendum.

 

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.mytripolog.com/2011/07/largest-most-detailed-map-and-flag-of-turkey/

Soccer and Nationalism in the United States: U.S. Soccer’s National Anthem Policy

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U.S. Soccer, the governing body of soccer (football) in the United States, finally contributed a sense of reason to the chaos—and the resultant divisions—that have been rampant in American society recently. On 4 March 2017 it was reported that U.S. Soccer announced that “All persons representing a federation national team shall stand respectfully during the playing of national anthems at any event in which the federation is represented”. Some media outlets, such as Rolling Stone, connected this decision to U.S. women’s national team star Megan Rapinoe’s decision to kneel before an international football game in solidarity with American footballer Colin Kaepernick’s protest against racial inequality in the United States (a subject I have written on before).

 

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Megan Rapinoe’s Decision to Kneel For the National Anthem Prompts a Policy Change. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.rollingstone.com/sports/us-soccer-makes-players-stand-for-national-anthem-w470611

 

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U.S. Soccer’s New Bylaws. Image Courtesy Of: https://twitter.com/stuholden/status/838109929802063872

 

Personally, I believe that the U.S. Soccer decision is timely in that it does two important things: 1) It restores a semblance of reason to a confused populace by re-enforcing the positive aspects of nationalism and 2) it sends a message to the entitled masses that it is a privilege and honor to represent one’s country in international competition. In regards to the first accomplishment, it is useful to quote from Anthony Smith’s Nationalism and Modernism (1998):

It is because we know that our interests, indeed our very identities and survival, are bound up with the nation, that we feel such devotion to the nation and are prepared to make such sacrifices for it when it is in danger […] The concept of the nation, then, is not only an abstraction and invention, as is so often claimed. It is also felt, and felt passionately, as something very real, a concrete community, in which we may find some assurance of our own identity and even, through our descendants, of our immortality.

(Smith, 1998: 140).

Smith’s quote is useful in this context insofar as it recognizes the importance of “the nation” in modern society beyond the post-modern interpretation of the nation as either “abstraction” or “invention”; for some it is indeed very real and should—therefore—afford a modicum of respect. In the era of late-stage (or “extreme”) capitalism, the nation is one of the few entities that can bring together the disparate members of modern society beneath one unified conception and U.S. Soccer’s move emphasizes the importance of national identity along these lines. Regardless of our nationality, we do not need to think of our nation as superior to other nations; rather we must only acknowledge that the nation—by providing a semblance of shared culture and experience—has a use in the modern age. Until we find a better way to organize our lives and provide vital services like education and law enforcement, there is no alternative to the nation-state. Therefore, it would be more logical to perfect the workings of the nation-state, rather than reject it wholesale.

As far as the second result of U.S. Soccer’s announcement, it is clear that this move sends a message to current and perspective players alike that playing for one’s nation is a privilege; the least one can do is stand up and honor this privilege. Standing might be seen as an inconvenience to some, but the very fact that they are playing for their country renders all comparisons to the protest of Mr. Kaepernick (who plays for a private entity, the San Francisco 49ers) baseless. Since the nation is (not yet anyway) a private company, there can be little comparison.

Some soccer celebrities in the United States came out in support of U.S. Soccer’s decision. The head coach of the US Men’s National Team Bruce Arena said  “I’m very supportive of that policy. I think players should stand for the national anthem. I think representing your country is one of the greatest honors a player or coach can have. That would be my expectations of the players as well”. Goalkeeper Tim Howard, famous for his heroics in the 2014 World Cup that earned the moniker “Department of Defense”, also came out in favor of the policy saying “I’m a firm believer that you should stand and respect the anthem and the flag, but that’s Tim Howard speaking. I don’t speak for anybody else. That’s what I believe.” Howard added “U.S. Soccer is an organization who are allowed to make rules. Listen, I think if you’re going to wear the shirt, if it’s OK to play for the U.S. then surely it’s OK to stand for its anthem as well. Yeah, I’m OK with it”. The fact that the Denver Post felt the need to underline Mr. Howard’s stance may have been because he is African-American; it is an unfortunate recognition of a flaw in modern society (and also Sociology) which seems to posit that all members of particular demographic groups should think the same thing. For me, such thought processes are inherently racist but that is just one reason (among many) that I am merely a marginal sociologist.

 

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The Department of Defense. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/302867143665717538/

 

The strongest supporter of U.S. Soccer’s policy was former star (and current pundit) Alexi Lalas who went so far as to suggest that players should also be made to sing the national anthem:

U.S. Soccer has the right to do this. The question is, is it the right thing to do, and I say 100 percent. It is a privilege, it is an honor, it is a choice to represent your country, and it comes with responsibilities and expectations. And I know nowadays sometimes the national anthem is viewed as background noise or as a reminder to some about the problems, the real problems, that we have as a country. But I look at is as a unique moment, when we come together, we honor and we celebrate being citizens of the greatest country in the world, and I think it is a tradition that should be preserved.

I have been in stadiums where I stood for the anthem and everybody has booed, where flags have been burned, where I have been called every name in the book. I have never served in the military, I have represented my country on the field, and I know that pales in comparison to the men and women in our armed forces that serve our country and some that paid that ultimate price.

So damn right I am going to stand, I’m going to put my hand over my heart and I’m going to sing. And I believe that all U.S. national team players should be required to do that. Just because we live in the land of the free doesn’t mean that we are free to do anything that we want. [Author’s Note: Emphasis added].

 

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Mr. Lalas’ Iconoclastic Look. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/302867143665717538/

 

While Mr. Lalas’ views may be seen as “extreme”, he raises an important point in his last sentence when he discusses the “freedom” of the purported “land of the free”. As nationalism scholar Anthony Smith notes, nations that consist of immigrant populations (like Canada, Australia, and the United States) encourage “a ‘plural’ conception of the nation, which accepts, and even celebrates, ethnic and cultural diversity within an overarching political, legal, and linguistic national identity” (Smith, 1998: 194; emphasis added). While celebrating ethnic and cultural diversity is certainly important—and indeed laudable—such a policy can only be done within overarching frameworks related to national identity. Without the glue of some sort of national identity—one that is civic and inclusive in nature—the raison d’etre of nations based on immigrant populations (like the United States) is threatened. It is important to recognize the difference (one that many Sociologists I have spoken to fail to make) between respecting cultural and ethnic plurality and rejecting an overarching national identity; these two need not be tied together. Collective nationalism and individual cultural identity need not be mutually exclusive, especially in a country like the United States where a civic model of nationalism is stressed.

Of course, these nuances were not recognized by many pundits who responded to U.S. Soccer’s new bylaws. George Quraishi of The Lowell Sun made the claim that U.S. Soccer was—somehow—siding against the Black Lives Matter movement: “What interests me about the unanimous decision by U.S. Soccer’s board of directors is that it verbalized a message that the soccer establishment has been sending to black Americans for decades: This sport is not for you”. The most shocking thing about Mr. Quraishi’s (I am sure well-meaning) comments here is that they only serve to exacerbate the divide between Black and White Americans. Could it be that, in requiring players to stand for the national anthem, U.S. Soccer was actually trying to bridge the gap between Americans? And could it be that articles like Mr. Quraishi’s are actually perpetuating divides between Americans, by reading into things that are not there (after all, the Black Lives Matter movement was not mentioned in U.S. Soccer’s announcement)? This is understandably a contested subject, but it is the responsibility of all Americans to face these kinds of hard questions if we are to build a functioning society going forward; a society built not on divisions and recriminations but unity and mutual empathy.

Unfortunately, other mainstream sports media outlets in the United States followed Mr. Quraishi’s line. Some pundits from Sports Illustrated claimed that the new policy was “almost un-American” and “pretty tone-deaf”, while ESPN (predictably) slammed the policy calling it both “anti-American” and “anti-soccer”. Chris Jones’ article is exemplary of the faults that so much of U.S. news media has succumbed to recently: it often serves to divide more than it unites. Take this passage as an example:

Maybe the powers that be thought that by making this little show, they could appeal to a previously untapped audience of self-appointed super patriots.

That same audience would have a new favorite player in USMNT defender Geoff Cameron, a vocal supporter of Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban. U.S. Soccer didn’t care to censure him for making that particular political statement, even though it put him at odds with several members of the team, including captain Michael Bradley.

(And no, Cameron shouldn’t have been punished. Freedom of expression does not mean “only expression I like.”)

Despite Mr. Jones’ disclaimer in the last line, he is still effectively calling out a player (Geoff Cameron) in public for expressing an opinion that disagrees with his own. This is absurd, and can be described as poor journalism at best. As public intellectuals (or perhaps, “intellectuals”) I hold journalists to higher standards than those that Mr. Jones met in his piece.

In order to tie this sports-based piece to politics, it is useful to quote a piece from a Breitbart article written by Dylan Gwinn, which quotes Mr. Jones’ piece in the first paragraph:

“More importantly, nobody can make a really solid, rational argument for why players must stand respectfully or otherwise, at least one that isn’t instantly invalidated by a photograph of Olympic medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos and their raised fists in 1968.”

 While no one would say our current day and age is without difficulty, it’s definitely not 1968 either. So that could be an argument couldn’t it? No early, post-segregation environment, no Vietnam War. Is poverty still an issue for millions of black people in America? Sure, but maybe it would be more instructive to go ask former President Obama why he focused on redistribution during his eight years in office?

 According to the Washington Times, under Obama the black labor force participation rate fell from 63.2% in 2009 to 61.2% in July of last year, in addition to black home ownership falling from 46.1% in 2009 to just 41.7% in July of last year.

Maybe addressing that, would be more productive than focusing on how awesome it is to kneel at a soccer game?

While I do not make claims for the truthfulness of The Washington Times or Breitbart, I do believe that it is important to actually address real issues, one of which is the poverty of Black Americans. By missing this point—and focusing so much on the criticism of smaller issues that could be beneficial in terms of creating a semblance of unity (like U.S. Soccer’s new policy)—journalists like Chris Jones only serve to pat themselves on the back in the short term while furthering division in the long term.

Judging by Tommie Smith’s words, I believe that both Mr. Smith and John Carlos had very different motivations for their protest in 1968. A piece from Time Magazine quotes Tommie Smith from an HBO documentary as saying: “We were just human beings who saw a need to bring attention to the inequality in our country. I don’t like the idea of people looking at it as negative. There was nothing but a raised fist in the air and a bowed head, acknowledging the American flag—not symbolizing a hatred for it”. [Author’s Note: Emphasis added]. Mr. Smith’s comments here are very important; they represent a desire for America to live up to its own ideals: liberty and justice for all. As African Americans during the Civil Rights Era Mr. Smith and Mr. Carlos had every right to protest as they did; they were striving for a more equal country with the acknowledgement that they were a part of that country. What we see more and more in the current United States is, however, a blatant disregard—even hatred for—the United States from its own citizenry. The search for equality and justice need not attack the country, since what we all strive for is a more inclusive and accepting country. I have, time and again, heard Sociologists lament the power of the state. While I too am wary of the over-regulatory power of the state (Seatbelt laws are but one example), I also recognize the need for some sort of organizing principle. Until a better form of organization supersedes the nation-state, I must side with Anthony D. Smith:

As for the predictions of a global culture, they fail to take into account the rootedness of cultures in time and place, and the ways in which identity depends on memory. A truly non-imperial ‘global culture’, timeless, placeless, technical and affectively neutral, must be memory-less and hence identity-less, or fall into a postmodern pastiche of existing national cultures and so disintegrate into its component parts. To date, we cannot discern a serious rival to the nation for the affections and loyalities of most human beings.

(Smith, 1998: 195; Emphasis added).

 

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Tommie Smith and John Carlos Show That Nationalism and Individualism Need Not Be Mutually Exclusive. Image Courtesy Of: http://time.com/3880999/black-power-salute-tommie-smith-and-john-carlos-at-the-1968-olympics/

As the Geopolitical Rivalry Between Turkey and Greece Reveals Itself in Football (again), How Does It Reflect Current Views Towards Nationalism and the Nation?

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After Osmanlispor’s European season came crashing to an end following a 0-3 loss at home to Greece’s Olympiakos, the story of the match has slowly revealed itself to be more than just football itself: It is a story that involves an age old geopolitical rivalry that is being re-interpreted in the context of a world-system that is in flux. Globalism or localism? Is the response to globalism chauvinist nationalism that pits countries against one another in a zero-sum game, or is it a more civilized form of nationalism that views countries as equal actors on a world stage? While this struggle has played out most prominently in Great Britain’s decision to leave the European Union during “Brexit” and the election of Donald Trump in the United States, it is a struggle that is far from over. Interestingly, the struggle even played itself out in a relatively insignificant Europa League tie between Turkish side Osmanlispor and Greek side Olympiakos FC.

Scholars of history will be familiar with the Greco-Turkish rivalry, a contentious relationship rooted in geopolitics since the time of the Ottoman Empire. Given the history, any matchup in European football between Greek and Turkish sides is bound to be a contentious affair. This year’s match was no exception since Osmanlispor itself is a team that represents the neo-Ottoman identity that the current Turkish government is building itself around.

“Osmanli” is Turkish for Ottoman; Osmanlispor FK can be loosely translated as “Ottomansport Football Club”. The team was originally Ankara Buyuksehir Belediyespor, the team of the Ankara municipality, and run by controversial Ankara Mayor Ibrahim Melih Gokcek before being re-named to “Osmanlispor”. While the history is complicated, the team is, clearly, the team of the government. Their “Ottoman” name is not just a coincidence; it is meant to re-enforce the neo-Ottoman visions of the ruling government in the field of sports. The team’s main fan group Akincilar even have a Twitter handle that is written in Arabic characters while the picture they Tweeted ahead of the Olympiakos match features players charging out of a sepia-toned mist; it is an image evocative of historic art depicting the Ottoman cavalry charging into battle.

 

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The picture Osmanlispor’s Fan Group Tweeted Ahead of the Olympiakos Match Features Players Charging Out of a Sepia-Toned Mist. Image Courtesy Of: https://twitter.com/OSMANLISPOR_FK

 

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The Image Tweeted By Osmanlispor’s Fans Is Thematically Similar to Artwork Depicting the Ottoman Cavalry (Sepahis) Charging into Battle Out of a Cloud Of Dust. Image Courtesy Of: https://postimg.cc/image/5pa34tsij/

 

This kind of neo-Ottomanism is loosely connected to increasing religiosity and Turkish nationalism as well. Ahmet Gokcek’s (the son of Ibrahim Melih Gokcek) tweets show this synthesis well. Using football as a base, he sends messages that combine notions of Turkish nationalism with Islamic rhetoric. The first Tweet came after the first leg draw with Olympiakos—“Elhamdulillah” means “Praise be to Allah” in Arabic. His other Tweets, centered around the matches of Turkish teams in European competition, combine similar religious messages with images of the Turkish flag and the badges of Turkish football clubs: One says “May the Lord not embarrass our teams in Europe”, with Mr. Gokcek’s signature beneath the words. The team’s coach, Mustafa Resit Akcay, himself said (before the second leg) that “we [Osmanlispor] will feel pressure because of our name and because of representing our country”. Here we clearly see a connection between the nation and the Ottoman past.

 

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Ahmet Gokcek Thanks Allah For Osmanlispor’s Draw. Image Courtesy Of: https://twitter.com/OSMANLISPOR_FK

 

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Ahmet Gokcek’s Tweets Show the Relationship Between Turkish Nationalism, Islamism, Neo-Ottomanism, and Football. The First Carries an Image of the Turkish Flag Resembling a Blood Stain (Connecting the Ideas of War and Nationalism); The Latter Tweet Carries the Caption “Our Prayers Are With You…” While the Quote in the Image Reads “May the Lord Not Embarrass Our Teams in Europe” in the Context of the Turkish Star and Crescent. Images Courtesy Of: https://twitter.com/ahmetgokcek?lang=en.

 

Perhaps the most interesting pre-game Tweet came before the first leg when Istanbul Basaksehirspor (another team essentially created by the ruling AKP government) wished Osmanlispor luck by saying “Good luck on your trip to Byzantine”. Clearly Basaksehirspor’s Tweeters are not very familiar with history since “Byzantium” was the Byzantine Empire’s name for…Istanbul, and the Byzantine Empire encompassed both Anatolia and Piraeus (where Olympiakos is from). In short, the Tweet can be seen as framing the match in terms of a historical rivalry between the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires that has carried over to the modern nation-states of Turkey and Greece.

 

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Image Courtesy Of: https://twitter.com/ibfk2014?lang=en

 

After Olympiakos’ victory some segments of the Turkish press were upset at an Olympiakos tweet which returned the favor. Olympiakos Tweeted—in English and Greek—a message that reads “A triumph for all Greeks! Greece who knows how to win!”. The image accompanying the tweet consists of Olympiakos’ badge and the Greek flag; it is a fusion of football and Greek nationalism—perhaps a deliberate fusion in direct response to Basaksehirspor’s Tweets (and Ahmet Gokcek’s Osmanlispor Tweets) which fuse Turkish nationalism and neo-Ottomanism.

It is clear that the pre-match and post-match Tweets from both sides reflect forms of chauvinistic nationalism. Yet, the Greek press (according to Turkish media) actually praised the Osmanlispor fans for a banner during  the match which read—in Greek, Turkish, and English—“Dear Neighbor Friendship Will Win” [Author’s Note: The Turkish, “Dostluk Kazansin Komsu” translates more accurately as “Dear Neighbor May Friendship Win”. For it to be “Friendship Will Win” it would have to have been phrased as “Dostluk Kazanir”].

 

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.milliyet.com.tr/komsu-bu-pankarti-begendi-osmanlispor-2402475-skorerhaber/

 

The banner itself reflects the disconnect between traditional nationalist representations of the nation and the present pressure for “globalism” in the face of globalization. While Osmanlispor’s fans tried to put out a public message of “fair play”, the team’s fans—after Olympiakos’ first goal—ended up throwing objects onto the field (a fact only reported in a few media outlets, such as this play-by-play account of the match).

 

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Please See Minute 54. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.karar.com/spor-haberleri/canli-anlatim-osmanlispor-olympiakos-kac-kac-baskentte-kritik-uefa-mucadelesi-anlik-anlatim-397490#

 

The message on the banner was just words; not only was it poorly translated but it was—given the fans’ later actions—also not heartfelt. On the other side, while the Greek press may have praised Osmanlispor’s message of friendship, ahead of the match they were busy claiming that the grass in Osmanlispor’s stadium was painted green to cover up the fact that it was dead. Again, the spirit of “fair play” is only alive in the discourse surrounding the banner in the stadium; everywhere else the discussion (from both sides) is quite antagonistic.

This tension between what nationalism should be—and how it should be expressed—in the current international climate is a fascinating one. Personally, I do not believe that the divide need be one between chauvinistic nationalism driven by the perceived superiority of one nation over others on the one hand and over-hyped messages of (often faked) “friendship” and “tolerance” on the other. Rather, it should be an acceptance that countries—like football teams—all exist in one inter-connected environment. This does not mean that one country (or football team) is intrinsically better than another (this is the kind of sentiment that encourages violent forms of nationalism and fandom—in some cases hooliganism) but it does recognize that each country has a right to put itself first. The answer to what nationalism “should” be in the context of a rapidly changing international environment is still open to debate, and it will be interesting to see how this process is reflected in the football world going forward.

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