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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.

A Marginal Sociologist’s Take on America (And the World) III: Thanksgiving and Extreme Capitalism

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Another Thanksgiving has come and passed. I took part in the football, food, and festivities (courtesy of some fellow graduate students who graciously hosted me in their home). During the night the conversation got sociological, as it so often does when alcohol and academics meet. I voiced an opinion that stores should be closed on Thanksgiving so that we, as Americans, can just enjoy one day free of needless consumption. The idea was rejected by a fellow student who argued that if people want to work on a holiday they should be able to, so as to make money to feed their families. While this is a valid argument, I countered that it is a paid day off (and if it is not a paid holiday in any workplace, it needs to immediately become one) and that I’m sure many workers would—if asked—prefer to stay at home rather than deal with the mobs of consumers.

My argument is not so much economic or personal, rather it is principled. As a country, nations have holidays to commemorate events. I recognize that the history of Thanksgiving itself might have its own dark undertones—take Slate’s humorous article (which is worth a full read) covering the holiday as if it happened in another country using the language of U.S. media:

The annual holiday, known as Thanksgiving, celebrates a mythologized moment of peace between America’s early foreign settlers and its native groups—a day that by Americans’ own admission preceded a near genocide of those groups. Despite its murky origins, the holiday remains a rare institution celebrated almost universally in this ethnically diverse society.

But I also recognize that the “event” in question can also be philosophical: taking one day out of the calendar to reflect on what you have (or have experienced) that makes you thankful can be useful. Thanksgiving could, in theory, be an introspective and cathartic holiday, prepping one for the New Year and its inevitable resolutions. Instead, Thanksgiving is (or maybe, was), a prelude to the mayhem of America’s unofficial holiday “Black Friday”. For a long time, stores would resist opening until 6:00 am on the Friday. Since the early 2000s, however, opening times have crept earlier and earlier (extreme capitalism anyone?) from 5:00am to 4:00am to 12:00am to, now, 6:00pm on actual Thanksgiving day. Its not that I don’t like material goods—I have a collection of football shirts—it is more that the connection between “national holiday” and “consumption” is troubling.

The website blackfridaydeathcount gives a running count of Black Friday deaths and injuries since 2006 and the casualty report is reminiscent of a small scale “third-world” insurgency: 9 dead and 102 injured over ten years. This year was no different, with shootings from sea to shining sea in Nevada, New Jersey, and Tennessee that left two dead and two injured. This doesn’t include those involved in a mass brawl at a California mall. Of course, it is the bottom line that matters and “Adobe Digital Index reported Friday that online shoppers had spent roughly $1.15 billion and were on track to spend close to $2 billion on Thanksgiving alone, an increase of 14 percent over last year, according to CNBC. The National Retail Federation expects holiday sales to increase 3.6 percent, to $655.8 billion, through November and December”. The deaths and violence are a small price to pay for sales increases.

Even though the economy might be helped by Black Friday, I can’t help but be repulsed at the violence and mayhem unleashed by consumers on the day after—and even day of—what is supposed to be an introspective holiday. Unfortunately, it is the same process I have seen in Turkey where national holidays have been slowly eroded so as to reduce people to the simple roles of “producer” and “consumer”, an argument I have made earlier. The scariest part is, Thanksgiving isn’t the only holiday under attack.

The “progressive” city of Bloomington, Indiana, recently renamed two long standing U.S. State and Federal Holidays. Columbus Day, celebrating the arrival of explorer Christopher Columbus to the Americas in 1492, was renamed “Fall Holiday” while Good Friday—a Christian holiday that marks Jesus Christ’s crucifixion—was renamed “Spring Holiday”. The renaming of a religious holiday is a fairly radical step, and one that is a part of the ongoing tend of global homogenization. Its part of the same trend of attacks on nationalism that spawned American Football player Colin Kaepernick’s protests, whose follower Mike Evans was recently criticized by an American sports anchor.

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Sage Steele Again Tells It Like It Is. There Should be a Small Amount of Decorum in Social Protest So as Not To Cloud The Issue. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.breitbart.com/sports/2016/11/15/friendly-fire-espn-analyst-rips-mike-evans-trump-anthem-protest/

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Mr. Evans Cuts a Lonely Figure During His Veteran’s Day Protest. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.breitbart.com/sports/2016/11/15/friendly-fire-espn-analyst-rips-mike-evans-trump-anthem-protest/

 

It is part of the same trend where students at Brown University tore down American flags ahead of Veteran’s Day (another holiday under attack) amid similar denigrations of the flag at American University. Last year, even at my own university, I argued with a student who threw an American flag on the floor in a classroom. As I picked it up off the floor, he told me that the flag “symbolized racism and oppression”, among other things. Obviously no country’s history is clean, but such essentialist generalizing of—and disrespect for—the flag is worrisome in a world that is (ironically) becoming more and more fragmented in the face of creeping homogenization. As a citizen of two countries I can see that nationalism has its positives and negatives, yet others don’t seem to see it that way.

The effect of this kind of rudderless society might, unfortunately, be dangerous. A story from the BBC, detailing a young British man who left to fight with ISIS/ISIL/DAESH in Syria, is indicative of the crisis in Western Society. Twenty-year old Rasheed Salah Benyahia left Birmingham for Syria to fight for the so-called Islamic State. BBC explains how ISIS’ recruiting works:

Through a simple them-and-us narrative. Stand with me, we shall be strong. That rhetoric, wrapped up in religious quotes stripped of their time and original meaning, was doing the rounds online. Young people, inevitably curious and not hearing the answers they wanted at home, were looking for solutions. Some became obsessed with the hyper-violence that the IS social media machine began pumping out to the internet.

The key part of this is that “young people” were “not hearing the answers they wanted at home [and] were looking for solutions”. In a West obsessed with extreme capitalism—to the point where people fight over shopping and where national holidays and national flags are continually disrespected and denigrated—people look for other sources of identity. The world is a dangerous and alienating place at times, and if individual and collective identities are completely erased it will lead to a search for identity elsewhere. The violent jihadists of ISIS/ISIS/DAESH are currently capitalizing on this dangerous trend in the West; the fact that the majority of their recruits know nothing of Islam shows that it isn’t necessarily an “Islam vs. the West” fight. Rather, it is just a magnet for those who feel marginalized by a global society that can offer no alternative to global homogenization in the name of corporate interests.

If we want to stop the spread of jihadist elements like these—and other opponents of “Western civilization”—we must realize that we need not live in a completely homogenous world. Fidel Castro, the revolutionary communist and former leader of Cuba, just died on 26 November 2016, aged 90. He had traded his military fatigues for an Adidas tracksuit, and if that isn’t a sign of capitalism overcoming communism, I don’t know what is.

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From Military Fatigues . . . Image Courtesy Of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2634816/King-Castro-How-Fidel-lived-life-luxury-Cuba-complete-luxury-island-turtle-farm.html

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. . . And Cigars . . . Image Courtesy Of: http://www.unfinishedman.com/cohiba-cigars-a-legend-thanks-to-fidel-castro/

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. . . To An Adidas Tracksuit? Image Courtesy Of: http://www.repubblica.it/esteri/2016/04/20/news/per_fidel_castro_un_discorso_d_addio_presto_avro_90_anni_arriva_il_turno_di_tutti_-138010349/

 

And this interview with young Cubans, who support an opening with the United States, also tells part of the story. They say that they welcome investment but also “don’t want a lot of McDonald’s and Starbucks”. That’s the point that we need to realize. The world does not have to be one homogenous consumerist blob, characterized by McDonald’s and Wal-Mart and Starbucks and who knows what else. The world would be better off if countries could pursue their own interests, free from international meddling, and develop their own indigenous forms of capitalism. That would be the true globalism. Sadly, the recent attacks on national identity and perversion of national holidays in both the United States and Turkey tell me that we are still a long way off from that kind of world.