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The Subtext of a Turkish Footballer Responding To China’s Treatment of Turkic Uyghur Minority

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On June 29, 2015 little known Turkish footballer Alparslan Ozturk made the headlines for his political stance. The footballer, who left the Turkish Super League side Kasimpasaspor at the end of last season, had been linked to two Chinese clubs. According to his Facebook post (shown below), when he asked that ten percent of his yearly earnings be given to Uyghur Turks living in East Turkestan (an autonomous region in China’s Western province of Xinjiang) the Chinese clubs in question decided not to follow through with the transfer. Mr. Ozturk claims that he didn’t make this announcement for publicity or to attract interest from other clubs:

“Müslüman soydaşlarımızı, müslüman kardeşlerimizi canlı canlı soyan bir millette, ülkede benim nefes almam uygun değildir. Böyle düşündüm, böyle karar verdim. Her gün televizyonlarda ve gazetelerde görüyoruz. Oruç tuttuğu için Uygur Türkleri katlediliyor”

“It isn’t right for me to breath in a country, among a people, that steal from our Muslim brothers. I thought like this and made this decision. We see it every day on the television and in the newspapers. Uyghur Turks are being murdered because they [participate in the Ramadan] fast”.

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Images Courtesy Of: http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/spor/futbol/29409023.asp?scenario_id=ilgiliHaber&action=click&label=HaberDetay5&widget_id=6406183321960270

While Mr. Ozturk’s decision may of course be his own personal preference, it is hard to separate the footballer from the politics in this case. The Turkish government has followed an internationalist foreign policy based on Islam in order to increase its influence in Africa and Central Asia, and Mr. Ozturk is well aware that making such comments ingratiates him with fellow Muslims who are football fans. Indeed the Hurriyet news story cited above was shared on Facebook 1.9 billion times. In order to understand how this story grew we must take a look at Turkish reporting of recent events in eastern China.

 

CNN explains that China’s far Western Xinjiang province “was contested among Mongols and Turkic groups before coming under Chinese rule in the 18th century. It has grown more prized since, as the region is rich in oil and minerals.” Incoming migration of Han Chinese has made the native Turkic Uyghurs a minority and, recently, the officially Atheist government of communist China has put restrictions on Uyghurs practicing Islam. The issue came to a head on most recently on June 23, 2015. Radio Free Asia—based in the United States—reported that as many as 28 people were killed at a police checkpoint in southwestern Xinjiang’s Kashgar city. A car sped through the checkpoint and when police came out to chase the car it backed up, breaking the leg of one traffic policeman. Two men then came out of the car and stabbed two other traffic policeman to death. When backup police officers came to the scene three other people had arrived in a motorcycle and attacked the checkpoint with explosives, killing three other policeman, before police opened fire and killed fifteen alleged terrorists. In the end reports vary on the number of dead, ranging from 18 to 30. Yahoo news and the New York Times corroborated the Radio Free Asia report, with the Times noting the religious divide:

“Uighurs, an ethnic Turkic group that makes up more than 40 percent of Xinjiang’s 22 million people, have been struggling to maintain their identity there and practice their religion, Islam, amid increasing controls from Beijing. Some Uighurs want to break away from China and form an independent East Turkestan, and some of them engage in sporadic, deadly attacks against the authorities.”

Radio Free Asia, in a June 29, 2015 story, also noted that the attackers came from a religious family”.

Interestingly, in stark contrast to the Western reports of the incident, Turkish media has underlined the religious divide to a large degree. In Turkish Daily Vatan’s report of the incident they reported that Muslims were not being allowed to carry out the Ramadan fast, one of the five pillars of Islam, and that the restriction caused the violence. I have provided my own translation below Vatan’s article:

 

“Geçtiğimiz yıl Ramazan ayında Doğu Türkistanlı Müslümanlara orucu yasaklayan Çin, yasağına bu yıl da devam ediyor. Çin’in yasağa uymayan Uygurlara operasyon başlattığı ifade edilirken, şu ana kadar 18 Uygur Türk’ünün Çin polisi tarafından öldürüldüğü belirtildi.

Doğu Türkistan’daki baskıcı politikalarıyla gündeme gelen Çin, Müslümanlara namaz ve oruç da dahil İslam’a dair herşeyi yasakladı. Yasağa uymayan Müslümanlara operasyon düzenleyen Çin polisinin en az 18 kişiyi katlettiği belirtildi.

Reuters’ın Radio Free Asia’ya dayandırarak servis ettiği haberinde, Çin’in işgal altında tuttuğu Doğu Türkistan’ın Kaşgar şehrinde polisin en az 18 Uygur Türkünü katlettiği belirtildi. Çin polisi, Uygurlardan oluşan bir grubun polise bıçak ve patlayıcılarla polise saldırdığını idida etti ve en az üç polisin öldüğünü duyurdu. Yapılan açıklamada polisin saldırı düzenleyen Uygurlara karşılık vererek en az 15 kişiyi öldürdüğü belirtildi.”

“China, who forbade East Turkistan’s Muslims to fast last Ramadan, is continuing the restriction this year. While an operation was made against Uyghurs not adhering to the restriction, 18 Uyghur Turks have been killed by Chinese Police up to now.

China, who has been recognized for its restrictive policies in East Turkestan, has forbidden Muslims to have anything to do with Islam including prayers and fasting. Chinese police arranged an operation against Muslims not adhering to the prohibition and have murdered at least 18 people.

Reuters citing Radio Free Asia reported that police murdered at least 18 Uygur Turks in the city of Kashgar in Chinese occupied East Turkestan. Chinese police claimed that a group of Uyghurs attacked police with knives and explosives and reported that at least three police were killed. A statement explained that in responding to the attack arranged by Uyghurs at least fifteen people were killed by police.”

 

News outlets in Turkey continue to stoke the fires of Turkish nationalism by linking the situation in China to Islamic/Turkish brotherhood and Today’s Zaman, known to be close to Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, ran a story detailing academics and actors calling for an independent East Turkestan. The Sabah daily, which is close to the government, also ran a story reporting on a delegation from the leftist pro Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) visiting China at the invitation of the Chinese communist party. Along with a blood splattered image of the East Turkestan flag Sabah ran the headline “An HDP delegation is going to China despite the East Turkestan torture”. Such a headline discredits the HDP—who dealt a blow to the AKP by winning 13% of the vote during June’s elections—by playing into Turkish nationalist fears of its identity as a party advocating Kurdish separatism.

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.sabah.com.tr/gundem/2015/06/29/dogu-turkistan-iskencesine-ragmen-hdp-heyeti-cine-gidiyor

Interestingly the leftist news site sol.org responded to the mainstream media reporting of events in East Turkestan by exposing the East Turkestan propaganda proliferating on social media sites in a June 29, 2015 story. Sol.org notes that many pictures posted on social media sites and news sites purportedly reporting violence inflicted on Uyghur Turks by the Chinese government are really old file photos from as far back as the 1980s. They even note that one story, reporting on a beer festival in Shandong, was reported in Turkey with the headline “They forced Muslims to drink alcohol”. Of course every news site has its own propaganda to push; sol.org also claims that the leaders of East Turkestan live in America and are close to Al-Qaeda, part of an American “plan” to destabilize China by using its restive Turkic Muslim minority.

The thing that should be kept in mind is that no news story is free from political bias, even seemingly innocent ones about a footballer choosing to not play in China. When such biases get dangerous, however, is when an ethno-nationalist and religious agenda starts being pushed by media outlets in order to galvanize support for the government in a “rally around the flag” manner.

 

Turkish Football Federation Elections: Gaziantepspor Vote to Re-Elect Yildirim Demiroren But Might Lose Their Youth Team Facilities To The Government

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On June 25, 2015 Yıldırım Demirören was re-elected as president of the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) with 214 of 219 votes; 5 votes were invalid. Mr. Demirören’s tenure started in 2013 in the wake of the match-fixing scandal that Turkish football has yet to recover from and he was able to stave off the challenge of former TFF president Haluk Ulusoy who, in announcing his candidacy, criticized the federation for the controversial Passolig system. Mr. Demirören himself is a controversial figure and his time as Beşiktaş president was marked by extravagant spending—in his eight years at Beşiktaş 84 players and 8 managers were signed—that left the team swimming in debt; as an example Spanish coach Vincente Del Bosque’s tenure at Beşiktaş lasted just 233 days but he and his assistants left with a severance package worth 7,961,767 Euros after interest. Still, despite his perceived shortcomings and known rapport with President Erdoğan, Mr. Demirören was re-elected by an overwhelming majority.

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Mr. Erdogan (L) and Mr. Demiroren (R). Image Courtesy Of: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/futbol/306765/TFF_Baskanligi_secimlerine_Erdogan_damga_vurdu.html

Some commentators, including the daily Cumhuriyet, noted that President Erdoğan’s influence on the federation showed through. To be honest most of the article is pure speculation, such as the point about current Beşiktaş President Fikret Orman who—despite protesting Mr. Demirören earlier in the season due to the financial mess he left Beşiktaş in—gave his support to the current TFF president anyway during the elections. One of the few concrete points made is that former Ankaragücü president Ahmet Gökçek (who compounded the club’s debts from 15 million Turkish Liras to 95 million Turkish Liras), son of Ankara’s outspoken AKP mayor Melih Gökçek, will appear in Mr. Demirören’s administration.

 

What is interesting about this election, however, is the division between football clubs and—seemingly—the inability of the clubs to stand up to either the Football Federation or the government (if it is indeed influencing the federation). On June 10, 2015 the Külüpler Birliği (“Union of Clubs”)—a foundation consisting of all the teams in the Turkish Super League—met and 14 of the 18 top flight teams voiced their support for Mr. Demirören; 4 clubs including Trabzonspor, Gençlerbirliği, Kasimpaşaspor, and Osmanlispor abstained. Gençlerbirliği have always preferred to be independent, with their chairman Ilhan Cavcav having formed the foundation, and with a mainly leftist fan group (Sol Cephe) their abstention wasn’t surprising. On the other hand Kasimpaşaspor and Osmanlispor are teams known to be close to the ruling party (one is from the president’s neighborhood and plays in a stadium named after Mr. Erdoğan, the other was formed out of a team run by the Ankara municipality, Ankara Büyükşehir Belediyespor), so their abstentions were surprising. Trabzonspor’s abstention was also a surprise since their president, Ibrahim Hacıosmanoğlu, is very close to the ruling AKP. Indeed, after it became clear that Mr. Hacıosmanoğlu ended up supporting Mr. Demirören, local media in Trabzon was up in arms calling it “shameful”. 5 members of the Trabzonspor board resigned in the wake of the elections, and former club vice president Sebahattin Çakıroğlu took to Twitter to say “If I don’t spit in your face Haciosmanoğlu I have no honor”. These are harsh words in Turkey, and the division created by the election within Trabzonspor is indeed shocking.

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Choice Words For Mr. Haciosmanoglu From Mr. Cakiroglu. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/futbol/306765/TFF_Baskanligi_secimlerine_Erdogan_damga_vurdu.html

But what about the teams that supported Mr. Demirören? Despite the ongoing enmity between the government and Beşiktaş’s Carşı fan group Beşiktaş stood behind the current TFF president. Gaziantepspor, from the southeast, are another team that supported Mr. Demirören despite recent developments that warrant a mention. TÜRGEV, Türkiye Gençlik ve Eğitime Hizmet Vakfı or Turkish Youth and Educational Service Foundation, are a foundation known for its closeness to President Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan, who is one of the foundation’s directors. In the wake of the December 17 corruption scandal it became clear that many officials in TÜRGEV, including the president’s own son, were involved in a scheme to buy government land for low prices. The government describes the foundation as a charity.

Now TÜRGEV has set its eyes on land belonging to the Gaziantepspor football club. A 90 thousand square meter plot of land that was rented to the Gaziantepspor football club for 49 years in the late 1990s by the Gaziantep Municipality as grounds for the club’s youth team system is being claimed by TÜRGEV. According to reports a smaller plot of land will be given to the club in return, but even that land is not slated to be for the team’s private use. Apparently the land was promised to TÜRGEV by Fatma Şahin, the only female member of Prime Minister Erdoğan’s cabinet from 2011-2013 and AKP mayor of Gaziantep since the 2014 local elections.

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Gaziantepspor’s Youth Team Facilities. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.zaman.com.tr/spor_gaziantepspor-tesisleri-turgeve-mi-verilecek_2300695.html

Of course Gaziantepspor have yet to say anything in order to not ruffle the feathers of the AKP, so perhaps their silence also explains why they pledged their support to Mr. Demirören in the TFF elections. Celal Doğan, Gaziantepspor’s president from 1993-2006 and Gaziantep mayor from 1989-2003, was a member of the CHP for ten years before being elected as an MP from the leftist Pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in 2015, spoke out about the attempted land seizure:

“Gaziantepspor’un elinden alınmak istenen bu tesis için Antepliler neden ses çıkarmıyor, anlamak mümkün değil? Burası Bilal Erdoğan’a çok mu lazım? Altyapıda yetişecek çocuklar için bu tesis daha önemli değil mi? TÜRGEV’in milyar doları var, bu yere ne ihtiyacı var? Bu kadar hırs niye? Sanırım seçimden önce verilmiş. Trene bakar gibi bakıyoruz. Verenler utansın”

“It isn’t possible to understand why people from [Gazi]Antep are staying quiet regarding this facility that is wanted to be taken from Gaziantepspor. Is this space so necessary for Bilal Erdoğan? Isn’t this facility more important for the kids who will grow up in [Gaziantepspor’s] youth system? TURGEV has millions of dollars, why do they need this space? Why is there this aggressive desire? I think it was given before the elections. We’re watching this as if watching a train. Those that gave [the facility away] should be ashamed.” 

Indeed Mr. Doğan can only watch the proceedings as if watching a train (wreck), and the analogy is fitting. Under the AKP the Turkish government has followed an aggressive policy of securing valuable land in and around city centers and sell it for a profit to various developers. This is the same trend that sparked the Gezi Park protests in 2013 and forced Beşiktaş to re-build their stadium at their own expense (land in central Istanbul is, for obvious reasons, very valuable). This is also the same trend that has sparked various urban renewal projects throughout Turkey, gentrifying neighborhoods and pushing less affluent citizens into mass government built housing outside the cities. With the precedent clear it is unlikely that Gaziantepspor will be able to keep this land since, under the current system, the government has been very successful in getting the land it wants regardless of opposition.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Helps Facilitate Antalyaspor Move for Samuel Eto’o

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Antalyaspor have been making waves recently at a time when football news is awash with transfer rumors; few are true, many are false. But the newly promoted side from Turkey’s Mediterranean coast has apparently signed Cameroonian great Samuel Eto’o. After going through a health check up he has returned to France to visit his ill father and will complete the transfer on July 7. What is interesting about the transfer is not that the 34 year-old striker will be playing in Turkey, rather it is the government’s hand in the transfer.

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3139054/Samuel-Eto-o-verge-signing-newly-promoted-Turkish-Antalyaspor-journeyman-prepares-move.html

Eto’o is a big name in world football (and even politics, as his work to raise awareness of Boko Haram terrorism has been recognized) and his arrival in Turkey will certainly boost supporter interest in a league that has been plagued by low attendances following the implementation of the Passolig system. In order to facilitate the transfer Antalyaspor announced that Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu assigned a private plane to carry Antalyaspor’s officials to Milan in order to complete the transfer. The news was met with disgust from many in Turkey, angry that tax-payer money—and possibly a government plane—was used for private matters. After the rage Mr. Cavusoglu made an announcement stating that the term “assign” was a misunderstanding and that the plane was “by no means a state plane”. Mr. Cavusoglu explained that as a representative of Antalya Province he is devoted to helping the team and that he just gave the names of various companies specializing in chartering planes.

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A Copy of the Antalyaspor Press Statement. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/futbol/304037/AKP_doneminde_bu_da_oldu__Devlet_ucagi_ile_transfer_rezaleti.html

Whatever the reality is it is worrying that a government official would be so deeply involved in the matters of a football team. But such support is known to pay off—when elections roll around fans remember which politicians supported their teams, and in a country like Turkey, where football holds an important place in the social and cultural mind, the fans are a large part of the constituency that cannot be ignored by a populist government reeling from its setback in the recent elections.

Bandirmaspor: One Small Football Team Does Its Best to Bridge Turkey’s Political Divide

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Bandirmaspor are a little known Turkish side languishing in the Spor Toto Second Division, the third tier of Turkish football. The club hails from a small district of 143,000 in the north-western province of Balikesir. Most people know the town for its seaport, a hub for travellers taking ferries across the Sea of Marmara to Istanbul. In sporting terms the club haven’t seen much success, having never appeared in the top tier of the country’s football structure. Their biggest claim to fame is that in the 1965-1966 season the team became the first “district” team—one not hailing from a provincial center—to play in Turkey’s professional football league. Today, they may have achieved another first: Bringing together members of Turkey’s three largest political parties.

The club has debts of 5,200,000 Turkish Liras (about 1,902,000 USD) and was on the brink of going into receivership before the club voted in a new board made up of an unlikely coalition. The leaders of the district organizations of Turkey’s three major political parties—the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Republican People’s Party (CHP), and Nationalist Action Party (MHP)—put forth the names of politicians and businessmen in the district in order to find a new board of directors. The club’s honorary President Dursun Mirza, the district’s Mayor from the CHP who won 45.8% of the vote in 2014, explained:

“Yeni yönetim listesinde siyasetçi var ama siyaset olmayacak. Dayanışmayı kurduk, güzel bir yönetim oluştu. Belediye olarak, devamlı bu takımın arkasında olacağız. Hepimiz Bandırma partisi için bir araya geldik. Tüm partilerin ilçe başkanlarına, olumlu yaklaşımlarından dolayı teşekkür ederim.”

“There are politicians in the new administration but there won’t be any politics. We established solidarity and a good administration has been formed. As a municipality we will continually be behind this team. We all came together for the Bandirma party. I thank the leadership of all the district’s [political] party’s for their positive approach.”

In the board of directors of the Bandirmaspor football team we have a microcosm of the Turkish political scene as it stands in June of 2015. With the aforementioned three parties at loggerheads over forming a coalition government following the elections, their representatives have been able to come together in one small district to run the local football team. Running a country is obviously more difficult than running a football team, but such small attempts at mutual understanding during such divisive times are worth celebrating all the same.

Below I have compiled a list of the new board of directors at Bandirmaspor. After each name is their political affiliation as I could best ascertain from various news sources. Some are businessmen and therefore do not have any published political affiliations as far as I could find. This list is by no means one hundred percent correct; it is just my attempt to make things as clear as possible with a little bit of research. I apologize in advance to my readers and to the individuals listed below for any errors.

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Bandirmaspor. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/spor/futbol/29320289.asp

Honorary President: Dursun Mirza (CHP): Municipal Mayor

President: Erhan Elmastaş (CHP): Accountant and Municipal Council Member

Board:

Former President: Mehmet Kılkışlı (AKP): Head of Bandirma Chamber of Commerce and Former AKP Municipal Council Candidate 

Ozan Onur (CHP): Municipal Council Member

Murat Ercili: Businessman

Yakup Ataş (AKP): Municipal Council Member  

Adnan Tuksal (MHP)

Ahmet Edin (AKP)

Bahadır Çolak: Businessman

Tolga Tosun (CHP): Municipal Council Member

Hüseyin Baş: Businessman

Göksel Karlahan (AKP): Municipal Council Member.

Ozan Tüm (CHP): Municipal Council Member 

Mülkü İnci (MHP) 

Gökhan Yankol (CHP): Municipal Council Member

Mehmet Özbek (MHP)

Orhan Demir: Unfortunately I could find no information on this individual.

The Varying Roles of Turkish Airlines: From Football to Foreign Policy

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A few weeks ago I boarded an early summer Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul to Izmir and, like weary travellers all over the world, slumped into my seat. My first task was to explore the seat-back pocket in front of me. Not currently in need of any Davidoff or Hermes products I eschewed the in-flight shopping magazine and dug into the airline magazine Skylife instead. Alongside the usual articles about cities to visit (Mardin, Brugges, and Sochi, in this case) and interesting foods I stumbled upon one piece focusing on football. Curious, I dug in. It was an interview with Besiktas’s prolific Sengalese striker Demba Ba. The short interview had just twelve questions, mainly standard ones focusing on the player’s past exploits and favorite players—the (now) standard Messi or Ronaldo question, for instance. None of this was remotely surprising. What was surprising, however, was the focus on Islam and religiosity. A quarter of the interview—three questions—focused on the player’s religious views, two of which have no relation to football whatsoever. I have provided these three questions below for reference purposes courtesy of Skylife; the bold sections are the questions put forth by the interviewer:

Though you’re born in France, you’re deeply attached to the Senegalese culture and Islam. Did this play any part in your decision to come to Turkey?

I try to be a good Muslim; this definitely had an effect but it wasn’t the only reason. The fact that Turkey was mostly a Muslim country was very important and it enabled me to live easily.

Recently, you’ve made a donation for a mosque in Senegal, Koussanar, where your mother was born. What do you think about the mosques in Istanbul? Which one impresses you the most?

Istanbul is home to many beautiful mosques. My favorite is the Mimar Sinan Mosque in Ataşehir. It’s rather new but has a very impressive design. My favorite among the historical ones is the Blue Mosque.

What do you think about Islamophobia? It has been a fast-spreading phenomenon in recent years.

Islam is a 1,400-year-old religion and can’t be besmirched by foul mouthing. If there’s such a widespread feeling towards Islam, we should look ourselves in the mirror and try to find the reasons why. We have to try to promote Islam in a better way.

 

Obviously, these questions seemed out of place to me and stuck out due to the shear number of them. The interviewer goes from asking about penalty shots and how it felt to leave Chelsea to…discussing Islamophobia? It is a strange melding of sports and ideology. But, then again, not so strange given the fact that this is Turkish Airlines. In its quest to become a major global airline Turkish Airlines has paid great attention to the world’s game. They have become the official sponsors of, among others, FC Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, and the UEFA Champions League. They are also official shirt sponsors of French club Olympique Marseille and in the past they also sponsored Manchester United FC.

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Turkish Airlines also profit from Marseille’s celebrations. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.sportbuzzbusiness.fr/turkish-airlines-om-2014-2015-sponsoring-dos.html

Turkish Airlines planes often sport livery advertising the clubs they sponsor:

during the departer to the UEFA Champions League Final in London at airport Dortmund on May 24, 2013 in Dortmund, Germany.

during the departer to the UEFA Champions League Final in London at airport Dortmund on May 24, 2013 in Dortmund, Germany.

Borussia Dortmund. Image Courtesy Of: http://edition.cnn.com/2013/08/19/business/airlines-football-aeroflot-manchester-united/

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Manchester United FC. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?t=798106&page=2

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FC Barcelona. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.airliners.de/turkish-airlines-will-in-die-bundesliga/20751

In any given issue of Skylife it is also easy to find a picture of either (or if you’re lucky, both) Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu or President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the context of inaugurating new projects; in this case the new Ordu-Giresun Airport. The magazine’s online version of a similar story omitted their photos this month but a picture of the in-print version of the same article is provided below for comparison’s sake. In fact, Skylife sometimes reads like a piece of government propaganda—and this is the category that the aforementioned article falls under, at least for me. To explain we have to look deeper into what Turkish Airlines as a business entity means to Turkey.

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Online. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.skylife.com/en/2015-06/the-first-airport-on-land-fill-in-turkey-and-europe

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In Print. Author’s own Photo.

 

Two years ago Turkey analyst Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy mentioned Turkish airlines in an article he wrote about the contradictions inherent in Turkey’s economic growth and simultaneous rising political conservatism. He said that Turkish Airlines is:

“[A] publicly owned company whose ascent exemplifies the new and economically rising Turkey. The airline flies to more than 200 destinations from its hub in Istanbul, up from about 75 in 2002. It twice has been voted Europe’s best airline….Today, [their flights] are full of Europeans flying to Istanbul for connections across Turkey and Eurasia. But even as Turkey’s supercharged economy propels the airline forward, parochial conservatism is pulling it in another direction. The company recently announced that it will ban alcohol from most of its domestic flights. If Turkish Airlines aspires to be a global brand, it needs to stop acting like the Muslim airline for a Muslim country.”

That was in March of 2013. Since then the alcohol ban has been enforced, but that isn’t the only prohibition. The Airline made headlines again two months after that in May of 2013 when it banned flight attendants from wearing red lipstick. This was after the company had already banned flight attendants from sporting dyed red hairstyles, bleached platinum blonde hairstyles, and silver make-up. Later, in December 2014, a Turkish Airlines flight attendant was fired for “sexy” photos and videos that surfaced of her that were taken while she was off the job. The president of the airline’s labor union said that it was “totally down to Turkish Airlines management’s desire to shape the company to fit its own political and ideological stance” since Turkey was becoming “more conservative and more religious”. It is these motives also led to an attempt to change the cabin crew’s outfits earlier in 2013 which, thankfully, never came to fruition (I say that as someone with a modicum of fashion sense, and many designers agree. The outfits in question are below).

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1974. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/25/world/europe/new-uniforms-for-turkish-airlines-create-uproar.html?_r=0

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In 2013 it was back to the….(Ottoman) Past? Images Courtesy Of: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/25/world/europe/new-uniforms-for-turkish-airlines-create-uproar.html?_r=0 AND http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/new-turkish-airlines-uniforms-raise-eyebrows.aspx?pageID=238&nID=40810&NewsCatID=341

 

It is clear that Turkish Airlines, despite being partially privatized, still receives massive amounts of government support—a third airport is being built in Istanbul just so that the national carrier can continue its unprecedented growth as one of the world’s top airlines. What separates Turkish Airlines from the other airlines on the list, however, is the work it does for the government in the shadows.

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Turkish Airline’s Unprecedented Growth from 2003-2013. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.economist.com/news/business/21649509-advance-emirates-etihad-and-qatar-latterly-joined-turkish-airlines-looks-set

 

Back in November of 2011 the victims of a Mogadishu suicide bombing were flown from the Somali capital to Ankara on a Turkish Airlines plane in order to receive treatment. It was part of the beginning of what the BBC termed an “unlikely love affair” between the two countries. For Turkey’s ruling AKP party it seemed to have grabbed the low hanging fruit; reaching out to an impoverished Muslim country forgotten by the west allowed Turkey to step into an unoccupied vacuum and gain influence in the horn of Africa—a strategic geopolitical location.

The move hasn’t made Somalia a top tourist destination yet, however, and many Somalis used the opening Turkey provided to travel to Europe on fake passports, something that Turkish officials were either unaware of or turned a blind eye to. After all, before Turkish Airlines, no major airlines flew to Somalia; they had a monopoly.

In May of 2014 the problems with Turkey’s vision of Muslim solidarity hit hard when a Turkish Airlines security official was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in Mogadishu. This followed a July 2013 attack by al-Qaeda linked al-Shabaab militants on the Turkish embassy in Mogadishu that left several special-forces police injured. Pro-government writers in Turkey claimed that it was Western powers backing al-Shabaab out of jealousy for Turkey’s new role in Somalia that led to the attack. In January of 2015 Turkish nationals were again targeted in Mogadishu days before President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was set to visit.

All the violence suggests that Turkey’s attempts to woo Somalia haven’t been accepted by all parts of Somalian society, despite the best of support from Turkey’s national airline. Still, four years on, this partnership is continuing in the name of “muslim solidarity”. Jason Mosely, from the think tank Chatham House, explains that “Turkey’s efforts in Somalia are much different than the Western approach in the country. It has much more legitimacy and popularity…Turkey has the support of the grassroots of Somalia. They have appreciation because Turkish involvement is only business, no counter-terrorism or anything else.”

Meanwhile just across the horn of Africa, in the sands of another impoverished and country forgotten by the West, Turkish Airlines is serving their country. The place this time? Yemen. On February 10 2013 Yemen and Turkey mutually lifted the entry visa requirement for their citizens travelling between the two countries. With the conflict in Syria raging, it was certainly interesting timing. Before that, in October of 2012, Turkish Airlines started flying four flights a week direct from Istanbul to the cities of Aden and Sana’a—hardly high volume international tourists destinations. Even without Business Insider explicitly stating the connection, it wasn’t hard to connect the dots. It seems that Turkey’s national flag carrier was transporting young Jihadis from Yemen to Turkey, where they made the trip overland to fight in Syria against the Assad regime that Turkey had—and still is—taking a hard line against. These flights were stopped in April 2015 following unrest in Yemen, but it all amounts to too little too late. The damage has already been done.

Turkey’s main geopolitical rival in the region, Iran, also focused on Turkish Airlines and through the Fars News Agency published stories claiming that weapons were being delivered to Yemen under the guise of humanitarian aid and that Taliban fighters were being transported from Pakistan to Turkey’s border with Syria. Although Fars News is known for its sensationalism, these stories did not come out of a vacuum. In February of 2015 some Arab commentators also noted that the reverse has started happening, with Turkey transporting Sunni fighters from Syria to Yemen in order to fight Iranian-backed Shiites:

“Media in Yemen recently reported that Turkey is using this process to repeat the scenario that played out in Syria, when it helped in bringing extremist Sunnis to fight Bashar al-Assad. Now Ankara is trying to do so under the pretext of trade and tourism exchanges in Yemen. Abdullah al-Shami, a senior politician in Yemen, said that Turkey is trying to take advantage of the current political vacuum in southern Yemen to help terrorist organizations operating in its territory.”

The veracity of such claims is, of course, debatable. In the world of Middle Eastern politics events are rarely clear, and the competing interests of those involved mean that reporting is often biased. What is clear—at least for me—is that Turkish Airlines is actively serving the interests of the Turkish government above and beyond its role as a partially privately owned business. Even in an airline magazine’s harmless interview with a football player the subtext is clear: The image of Turkey that is to be presented to the outside world is that of a conservative Muslim country that also likes its football. Unfortunately for the Turkish Airlines security official that lost his life in Somalia al-Shabaab’s terrorists did not accept that image…

Qatar’s Mercenaries Bring a Whole New Meaning to “International” Football: Qatar Home Shirt 2014-2015

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Qatar has become somewhat of a target ever since securing the right to host the 2022 Word Cup and the bull’s-eye on the team—and country’s—collective backs has only grown larger since the FIFA scandal exploded at the end of May. A friend of mine recently gave me a Qatari national team shirt as a gift so I thought it would be prudent to present my thoughts on the Arab nation’s footballing practices along with the shirt.

The shirt itself is a standard Nike design, similar to the Turkish and American national team shirts. The only unique feature of this shirt is the Qatari flag on the inside of the collar and the badge; the Arabic script makes an otherwise basic shirt visually interesting as well as reminding the viewer of the 1994 Adidas World Cup Ball. I wonder if Nike paid attention to that?

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.soccer.com/channels/worldcup-ball-collection/

Regardless, Nike tries to outfit the best in world football and Qatar are seen by many as a rising star—even if the football played on the pitch often leaves much to be desired. In a recent friendly in Crewe, England—one under-reported by world media—Qatar played to a draw with Northern Ireland in front of a little over 3,000 fans, enduring many jeers in the process. Personally, I understand the jeers but not for the traditional reasons. For me the issue is that Qatar’s football federation has pursued a policy of “employing”, for lack of a better word, mercenaries; half of the team were neither born nor raised in Qatar. Most of the players are of African origin, born in either Africa or France, yet they represent Qatar in international football. To understand what this means it is helpful to look at the bigger picture, where politics inevitably comes into play.

Qatar has been harboring ambitions to be a regional power in the Middle East for a long time, looking to capitalize on the regional fissures exposed by the Arab Spring. One route by which Qatar has tried to gain influence is through sport, specifically football, which Professor James Dorsey has written about extensively. Ever since the colonial days of the last century Africa has been a place empire builders have looked to exploit as a resource-rich periphery; then the search was for raw materials to support industry, now the search is for impoverished youths with athletic ability that have become the commodity in what some have termed “the new slave trade”. Qatar has mirrored the Europeans and, through a sports academy called Aspire, the country has been gobbling up young African talent. The “brawn drain” is not just limited to football and the rich Gulf state has also bought Africans to represent them in international track and field competitions.

What is worrisome is that Qatar’s search for mercenaries goes outside of the sporting realm: it extends to the political realm as well. The large labor force Qatar has imported from South Asia in order to support the country’s industrialization—and World Cup related construction projects—have been called mercenaries, although “mercenary” seems to be a kind word; they could be more accurately termed construction fodder as their high rates of death and injury are consistently ignored by the state. Although the Qatari business magazine cited above claims that “Qatar’s expatriates don’t carry swords; but hammers and briefcases.” the truth is that they also carry guns. It is estimated that Qatar has provided over 3 billion USD to rebels in Syria and, as one rebel officer in Syria interviewed by the Financial Times says, “Qatar has a lot of money and buys everything with money, and it can put its fingerprints on it.”

It should be noted that lately Qatar’s mercenary schemes have backfired with the FIFA scandal threatening the Qatari World Cup—the worker’s high death rates provide a convenient humanitarian excuse for its cancellation—and with the Syrian conflict becoming intractable despite Qatar’s unwavering support of the opposition. We can only hope that in footballing terms Qatar’s mockery of international football fails as well. Of course the subject of what “nationality” truly means in a footballing sense is tricky (in fact some pundits hate international football) and ESPN’s Gab Marcotti wrote a thought provoking piece about it in the context of dual nationals. But Aldo Simoncini, the goalkeeper for San Marino (one of European football’s minnows and a country that has no real hope of scoring a goal—let alone winning—every time they step on the pitch) offers a healthy interpretation. The man who has conceded over 120 goals while representing his country was asked in an interesting interview how it feels to play with no real hope of victory or even a respectable outcome. His reply? “Nobody pays us to play: We do it patriotically and Europe understands this.”

For me Mr. Simoncini’s spirit is the spirit of international football. It is a privilege—not a right—to represent one’s country in any form, and knowing that is what provides strong results in football and in life. There are some things money can’t buy; its something that Qatar is learning the hard way both on and off the pitch.

Half Built Stadiums and Promises Left Unkept: Turkey’s Political Landscape Seen Through Stadiums

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On 10 June 2015 Turkey’s Cumhurriyet newspaper ran an interesting story focusing on one of the “wreckages” to emerge from the ruling AK Party’s 13 year old rule: Half built soccer stadiums. In 2010 the then Minister for Youth and Sports, Suat Kilic, oversaw the beginning of a rapid stadium-building project “950 Sport Investments” (950 Spor Yatirimi) for the AKP government. This program has been continued by his successor Akif Cagatay Kilic (no relation), and there are currently twenty-six new stadium projects in twenty four different cities at various stages of development. So far only one of those stadiums, Mersin Arena in the Mediterranean city of Mersin, has been completed and brought into use but it was plagued by a grass problem that left Superleague side Mersin Idman Yurdu without a stadium for over a month and a half. And it hasn’t been smooth sailing for the other projects either.

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Malatya’s New Stadium? Image Courtesy of: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/spor/295569/Enkazin_buyugu_spor_insaatlarinda.html

The stadiums were supposed to be finished in time for the elections that just passed; instead work on many is stalled as fifty-six of the construction firms involved (15 of which work directly with the Ministry of Youth and Sports) have either gone under or been unable to complete the projects due to a lack of funds. The owner of one of the construction companies in question committed suicide last year over debts he was unable to pay. Some of the stadiums where construction has stalled are in the eastern cities of Bingol, Batman, Hatay, and Malatya. The article’s author Arif Kizilyalin notes that the fact that so many of these stalled projects are located in eastern Turkey is not a coincidence. With the AKP recognizing that they could lose votes in the southeast (which they did) they wanted to win over young voters by promising stadiums and new sports infrastructure. In order to make it happen before the elections the government directed construction firms to work fast, promising extra payments after the elections. With money also needed to fund the campaign, however, extra money for the construction projects dried up. Now there are many half-built stadiums in cities that, frankly, have no need for them anyway!

Seventeen of the stadiums are being built for teams currently outside of the nation’s top flight. For instance Samsunspor, who recently missed out on a spot in next year’s Superleague by losing the second division play off final, will play in the second division next year at a new stadium, a 33,919 capacity UEFA approved ground with seven restaurants and shopping mall included. Hardly the kind of stadium one would think a second division side needs while Turkey’s oldest top flight team, Besiktas, are still without a stadium.

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Samsun’s New Stadium. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.sondakika.com/haber/haber-samsun-stadyumu-yeni-sezona-hazir-7280985/

 

The Besiktas club had hoped that their new Vodafone Arena in central Istanbul would be ready to open on September 15 2015, but the Istanbul Metropolitian Municipality has decided to stop the construction. The reason given for the stoppage is that the stadium’s roof is over the stipulated height limit of 34 meters, but the team claims that the final height will be 32.70 meters, more than a meter less. Given that Besiktas’s fan group, Carsi, have been targeted by the government this latest development does not come as too much of a shock. In fact back in October of 2014 the sports daily Fanatik ran a story asking “What country’s team is Besiktas?”. The article points out that while so many stadiums are being built in the country, Besiktas’s is the only stadium being built without government money. To add insult to injury the team was forced to play in the Ataturk Olympic Stadium, which takes about two hours to get to from Besiktas district on public transportation, and pay 100,000 Liras per game for the privilege. It should be noted that the figure was increased from 50,000 for last season. For comparison’s sake, Galatasaray were allowed to play at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium for free while their new stadium was being built. Maybe this is because Besiktas didn’t give the land from their old stadium to the government, as Galatasaray did, and—with the stadium’s view of the Bosphorus making it prime real estate—are now paying the price for it (literally out of their own pocket).

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Current State. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/spor/futbol/29169739.asp

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The Proposed Plan. Image Courtesy of: http://stadiumdb.com/designs/tur/bjk_inonu_stadi

 

The fact that even the building of stadiums has become a political issue in Turkey shows the results of the AKP’s uncontested 13 year rule. By making even the smallest issue—from a football team’s stadium to the residency of the President to a park—political, the governing party has created an “Us Vs. Them” siege mentality in order to win votes. But votes are all that could ever be hoped to be won from such a strategy, certainly not real democracy or–evidently–new stadiums.

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