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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 Lowen notes that “Anti-smoking leaflets prepared by the Ministry of Health were suddenly withdrawn because they contained the word “hayir” – “no” – in red capital letters.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/

Sports and Politics in the United States and “Sir Charles” vs. “King James”: Spat Between Former NBA Star Charles Barkley and Current NBA Star Lebron James Is Representative of Some of the Issues in Current American Society

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Since the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States sports and politics in the USA have become more and more intertwined; it is symptomatic of a nation divided by ideology, one where people are supporting their political positions as they would a sports team: unwaveringly and unquestioningly. ESPN, the leader in American sports media, has taken to using one of their websites to spread political messages (from one side only, it should be noted) while ESPN writer and vice president Roxanne Brown was solicited by CNN to provide her opinion on President Donald Trump’s inauguration:

 

No day in our nation feels more patriotic than Inauguration Day — the Marine Marching Band, the past presidents, politicians and power brokers braving the cold to flock to our nation’s capital. But it was hard not to look at the sea of white faces in the crowd, gathered for President Donald J. Trump’s swearing-in, and not see represented a shockingly different America than we saw on this same day eight years ago when President Barack Obama was sworn in. In fact, this was the whitest inauguration I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.

 

Apparently, judging by the last sentence, she was unaware that most African-Americans boycotted Mr. Trump’s inauguration. This absurdity aside, of course, it is notable that a sports reporter should be given such a space in mainstream American media. It shows just how sports has become a space of contention within the cultural civil war that the United States is experiencing.

 

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ESPN Now Sells Politics With a Side Of Sports. Image Courtesy of: http://www.breitbart.com/sports/2017/01/21/espn-offers-social-media-sites-platform-leftist-activists-womens-march/

 

ESPN, for so many years a channel devoted to sports programming alone, has recently completed a turn to the field of culture. The new SC6 (the 6pm/18:00EST) edition of ESPN’s flagship highlights program Sportscenter will debut on 6 February 2017. Senior vice president of Sportscenter and news Rob King had this to say about the show in an interview:

 

This show will be unique because it is an opportunity to look in on a conversation among close friends, colleagues and the people who they bring into their orbit by virtue of the topics they choose and the interests they have. Since we launched the midnight show with Scott Van Pelt, it’s been really clear that SportsCenter can be distinguished when it’s built around unique personalities and unique conceits, especially those ideas, personalities and conceits that work for specific audiences.

 

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The Anchors of ESPN’s Newest Show. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.espnfrontrow.com/2017/01/expectations-excitement-permeate-kings-view-sc6-michael-jemele/

 

The focus on “conversation”, “unique personalities”, and “unique conceits” [Author’s Note: An odd choice of words] suggests a larger role for the personal element than the traditional sports program would present. Sports reporter Andrew Bucholtz adds that

 

there seems to be less and less interest in straight news and highlights, and both ESPN and Fox are adapting to that. Fox went with the drastic move of killing the news-and-highlights version of Fox Sports Live and turning it into more of a comedy-focused late night show, while ESPN has focused instead on making highly identifiable and individual versions of SportsCenter, from Scott Van Pelt’s show to SportsCenter A.M. and more […]

 

Most importantly, Bucholz notes the change that this program represents; for him it “is interesting because in some ways it seems to be trying to walk the line between a debate show and the traditional SportsCenter. Smith and Hill certainly have backgrounds in opinion programming too (in addition to their journalism and reporting backgrounds, which King also notes)”. The fact that sports programming in the USA is moving to a “late-night show” or “debate show” format means that the personal opinions of hosts will come more to the fore, replacing the traditional format of the sports show which presents the “facts” in the form of highlights. Inevitably, this will allow for more discussion regarding the field of culture; it would be naïve to think that ESPN—a large part of the American “culture industry”—would refrain from putting politics into their new show as well. This type of format allows ESPN to seem apolitical while being just the opposte. French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu explains how this works in his book “On Television:

 

Pushed by competition for marketshare, television networks have greater and greater recourse to the tried and true formulas of tabloid journalism, with emphasis (when not the entire newscast) devoted to human interest stories or sports. No matter what has happened in the world on a given day, more and more often the evening news begins with French soccer scores or another sporting event, interrupting the regular news […] the focus is on those things which are apt to arouse curiosity but which require no analysis, especially in the political sphere […] human interest stories create a political vacuum. They depoliticize and reduce what goes on in the world to the level of anecdote or scandal.

(Bourdieu, 1998: 44-56)

 

Here we can see that ESPN may be attempting to use an ostensibly apolitical program so as to insidiously—and indirectly—send political messages in a way that a traditional news program would not be able to. After all, a sports program is—usually—just a highlights program, presenting “facts”. SC6 strives to be much more, and it is important that we—as consumers of the culture industry in modern industrial society—are aware of what is actually happening.

My favorite American football team, the New England Patriots, has not been immune from this newly emphasized connection between sports and politics. (State) media’s New York Times profiled the close relationship between President Donald Trump and Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady, calling it an “uncomfortable love affair”. To further drive home the message, The Huffington Post published an article by Professor David Dennis Jr., who made one of the more ridiculous claims I have ever read (or heard): “Tom Brady’s Politics Are More Un-American Than Colin Kaepernick’s Have Ever Been”. I have written before about Mr. Kaepernick’s protest against the American national anthem (which cost the NFL millions of dollars because—shocker here—the NFL has many fans who actually like the United States). Professor David Dennis Jr.’s piece—due to its sheer absurdity—deserves a little bit of air time here. First the New England star Tom Brady is quoted in his own words regarding President Donald Trump:

 

“I have called him, yes, in the past. Sometimes he calls me. Sometimes I call,” Brady said. “But, again, that’s been someone I’ve known. I always try to keep it in context because for 16 years you know someone before maybe he was in the position that he was in. He’s been very supportive of me for a long time. It’s just a friendship. I have a lot of friends. I call a lot of people.”

 

Here, Tom Brady’s words seem pretty normal. Like say, something someone would say about their friend. And, since the United States is a free country, it would seem normal that one is allowed to choose who their friends are. Apparently, Professor Dennis Jr. doesn’t agree, adding a gratuitous racial comment by invoking “white privilege” in his commentary:

 

Brady was confused as to why his relationship with the president was even a relevant topic of discussion.

“Why does everybody make such a big deal? I don’t understand it.”

Brady’s obliviousness reeks of white privilege and dismissiveness; a #MAGA trait if there ever was one. But what’s most troubling is the way Brady’s Trump endorsement has been treated compared to Kaepernick’s political statements.

 

Professor Dennis Jr. then drops his bombshell claim:

 

Brady’s Trump endorsement, however, has been largely ignored when, in fact, supporting Donald Trump as President of The United States is far more threatening to America than taking a knee during the National Anthem.

 

I have no idea why merely voicing support for a candidate who was supported by almost half of the country could be “threatening” or even comparable to insulting all those who believe in American nationalism, but such is the absurd climate in the United States currently.

 

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A Picture of What State Media’s New York Times dubbed “the uncomfortable love affair”. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/01/magazine/the-uncomfortable-love-affair-between-donald-trump-and-the-new-england-patriots.html

 

At least former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka offered some choice words defending Mr. Brady telling the country to “grow up” and adding “Dammit. I thought this country was a country of choice!” On a separate show he called journalists “assholes” and criticized former President Barack Obama for “showing no leadership at all”. I can agree with Mr. Ditka’s last claim, seeing as how the United States—under President Obama—dropped on average a staggering 72 bombs a day in 2016 on foreign countries, leading to the odd situation where Mr. Trump is called a racist while Mr. Obama’s imperialism goes ignored.

 

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The Indomitable Mike Ditka, Sweater et al. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.pbtalent.com/blog/speaker/mike-ditka

 

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Sorry, I just Couldn’t Resist. Image Courtesy of a Friend Via Social Media.

 

Mr. Ditka’s point, regarding the need for Americans to “grow up” is one that is directly relevant to the spat between basketball analyst Charles Barkley and basketball star Lebron James. A longtime NBA analyst and former player, Mr. Barkley criticized Mr. James for his comments regarding his team’s front office when he asked for another player to help his team win the championship (they won last year while—somehow—managing a loss of forty million USD). Barkley said Mr. James’ comments were:

 

Inappropriate. Whiny. All of the above. The Cleveland Cavaliers, they have given him everything he wanted. They have the highest payroll in NBA history. He wanted J.R. Smith last summer, they paid him. He wanted [Iman] Shumpert last summer. They brought in Kyle Korver. He’s the best player in the world. Does he want all of the good players? He don’t want to compete? He is an amazing player. They’re the defending champs.

 

Mr. James responded with personal attacks on Mr. Barkley, calling him “a hater” and asking the rhetorical question “what makes what he says credible? Because he’s on TV?” Mr. James here seemed to forget that his open endorsement of U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and insult directed at those who voted for Mr. Trump (Mr. James called them “goofy” even though the majority of voters in Mr. James’ state voted for Donald Trump) were only made credible because he is on TV himself! Mr. James’ diatribe, however, continued (for video, please see nba.com):

 

I’m not going to let him disrespect my legacy like that. I’m not the one who threw somebody through a window. I never spit on a kid. I never had unpaid debt in Las Vegas. I never said, ‘I’m not a role model.’ I never showed up to All-Star Weekend on Sunday because I was in Vegas all weekend partying.

All I’ve done for my entire career is represent the NBA the right way. Fourteen years,      never got in trouble. Respected the game. Print that.

 

Later Mr. Barkley laughed it off, saying “I was laughing, clearly he did some homework … he Googled me and found some things … He was young when I was playing, so I appreciate that, but I’m not upset about it. … My criticism was fair, and I’m good with that … Some of the stuff he said about me is correct — doesn’t make the message I said about him incorrect. Some of them are intimidated about LeBron, [but] I’m not intimidated at all.”

A day later Mr. Barkley added that “It’s a different generation. If we don’t say everything positive about them all the time, we’re a hater. But I’ve gotten more support than I saw coming. To be honest with you, it’s been great. Especially the guys in the media who are like, ‘Thank you. I can’t say it because I need to talk to him.’ ” Here Mr. Barkley touches on a very important point, one that makes this odd exchange indicative of the current state of culture in the United States.

Lebron James really is of “a different generation”. It is one that, for starters, clearly has no respect for those that came before them. If it weren’t for players like Charles Barkley making the NBA popular in the 1990s, it is probable that Lebron James wouldn’t be the star he currently is. It is the same kind of lack of perspective that allowed Colin Kaepernick to take a shot at the United States…even though the sport he is paid to play is mainly played in the United States. Secondly, Lebron James’ generation is one that also has no self-respect. It is a generation that is all about “Me, Me, Me” and never “We, We, We”. It must always be praise and compliments; criticism cannot be accepted. Unfortunately, the current culture in the United States has become a culture of being “offended”, where comments one doesn’t like are deemed to be “offensive”. It is the same culture that does not accept the outcome of a presidential election because…the candidate they wanted did not win. Its an odd state of affairs, but the spat between Mr. Barkley and Mr. James goes some way to explaining how deeply engrained the cult of the individual has become in American society. If the country—and its culture—is to move forward we must at least attempt to move outside of our own personal selves and try to understand other perspectives. Otherwise, we are doomed to living in a fragmented and rudderless society where criticism—and therefore debate (whether about sports or politics)—is impossible.

 

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Sir Charles, Pictured With the Classic Phoenix Suns Jersey. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.casino.org/news/charles-barkley-says-lost-millions-gambling-dozens-occasions

 

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King James Looking a Bit Perturbed. Image Courtesy Of: http://ftw.usatoday.com/2016/03/lebron-james-could-leave-cleveland-says-stephen-a-smith

American Media Uses Sports to Send a Political Message in President Barack Obama’s Farewell: A Photo Essay

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The media has a unique power to shape our perceptions of the world, and even our perceptions of our own selves (Kellner, 2015). That’s why it shouldn’t come as a surprise that American sports media giant ESPN should use the occasion of the World Series Champion Chicago Cubs’ visit to the White House to send political messages. The baseball team’s trip to the White House on 16 January 2017 was, as ESPN noted, the final official event of Barack Obama’s presidency.

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Another Day, Another Jersey For Mr. Obama. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/18488717/president-obama-celebrates-world-series-champion-chicago-cubs

 

In a way, it is fitting that the holder of the world’s most powerful job should end his tenure by presiding over an event dedicated to sports since it shows the continual importance of sport to modern society. In President Obama’s words (the full event can be seen here): “Sports has changed attitudes and culture in ways that seem subtle but ultimately made us think differently about ourselves and who we are. … Sports has a way of changing hearts in a way politics or business doesn’t”. Perhaps that is true, and President Obama showed how much he believed it to be true when he visited Cuba in the midst of a historic rapprochement. But if we take Mr. Obama’s words in another direction—and note that sport is itself a business and rarely separate from politics—then I am left wondering…can sport, if connected to both business and politics, truly change hearts in the manner that Mr. Obama believes?

From ESPN’s perspective, judging by their reporting on this event, sport is clearly seen as a tool in order to send a political message and is—therefore—not independent of either business or politics; in this respect the United States is no different from Turkey. Even Mr. Obama saw a chance to use the event to his benefit, astutely opening the event with the multilayered line “they said this day would never come”, which could refer either to the Cubs’ long-awaited championship, his presidency, or its imminent end.  His triple entendre, so to speak, is a tribute to Mr. Obama’s oratory skills that have enabled him to become a revered–even “saint” like–figure in America and the world, even if I believe history will view his presidency in a less than favorable light. Since I am a fan of jerseys, however, I will present you with a selection of Mr. Obama’s collection since it is pretty substantial. Mr. Obama’s collection just goes to show that sports and politics (as well as business) are rarely independent of one another, even if the outgoing President believes that they can be separate.

 

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November 2013: The NHL Champion Chicago Blackhawks Visit the White House. From USA Today: “the Chicago Blackhawks visited the White House for the traditional meeting with the president. As is customary, the team gave President Obama a customized jersey — this time, a road sweater with Obama’s name and the number 13, representing the year of the Blackhawks Stanley Cup victory. Image and Quote Courtesy Of: http://ftw.usatoday.com/2013/11/blackhawks-jersey-obama

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A Little Bonus Coverage Of Sports And Politics In The US Media Here. The USA Today Noted That The Chicago Blackhawks Presented Mr. Obama With Three-Year Old Jersey (One Above). In Response, They Posted The Above Picture With the Caption: “At least it’s not as bad as the time the 1972 Miami Dolphins completely misspelled the president’s name.” Of Course, The 1972 Miami Dolphins Were Not Misspelling Mr. Obama’s Name, They Were Celebrating Their Undefeated 1972 Season; The Comment Represents A Small Shaming Of The Team For Not Presenting An “Obama” Jersey. Critical Readings Of The Media Are Necessary. Image and Quote Courtesy Of: http://ftw.usatoday.com/2013/11/blackhawks-jersey-obama

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April 2013: The University of Alabama (American) Football Team Visit the White House. From USA Today: “The University of Alabama Crimson Tide, college football champions for the third time in four years, presented the president with one more jersey — as well as a helmet and football — during a White House ceremony Monday, adding to an ever-expanding list of presidential gifts.” Image and Quote Courtesy Of: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2013/04/15/obama-alabama-jersey-gifts-national-archives/2084645/

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April 2015. NFL Champion New England Patriots Visit The White House. Note The Political Tensions Inherent In This Comment By Mr. Obama: “‘I usually tell a bunch of jokes at these events, but with the Patriots in town, I was worried that 11 out of 12 of them would fall flat,’ Obama quipped, referencing the Deflategate saga.” The main protagonist of the “deflategate” controversy was New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady, a Prominent Republican Who Did Not Attend This Ceremony. Image And Quote Courtesy Of: https://www.bostonglobe.com/sports/2015/04/23/patriots-minus-tom-brady-set-for-white-house-visit/ozlYSf3PvGBiSPdsRF9lvJ/story.html

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Bonus! Just Because Its an Amusing Picture. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bostonherald.com/sports/patriots_nfl/the_blitz/2015/04/obama_jokes_about_deflategate_as_white_house_salutes_patriots

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May 2016. College Basketball Champions Villanova University Visit the White House. Mr. Obama Doesn’t Seem Too Pleased; Perhaps He Prefers Un-Framed Jerseys. From rollcall.com: Barack Obama showed his love of college basketball one last time as president by welcoming this year’s NCAA champion Villanova Wildcats to the White House.” Image and Quote Courtesy Of: http://www.rollcall.com/news/hoh/villanova-basketball-fan-ncaa-obama-president
470461508.jpgApril 2015. Mr. President Doesn’t Look Too Pleased, Perhaps Because It Means He Will Need a Bigger Closet. College Basketball Champions Ohio State University Visit the White House. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.gettyimages.com/event/obama-welcomes-national-champion-ohio-state-university-buckeyes-to-white-house-549283835?#president-barack-obama-receives-a-team-jersey-as-he-hosts-the-ohio-picture-id470461360

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August 2010. The NFL Champion New Orleans Saints Visit The White House. Post Hurricane Katrina, President Obama Sends a Political Message. From CBS News: “’I’m a Bears fan, I’m not going to lie, but this was a big win for the country – not just New Orleans’ the president said. He noted that after Hurricane Katrina the Saints had to play an entire season on the road because their home stadium, the Superdome, was ruined in the storm”. Image And Quote Courtesy Of: http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2010/08/09/obama-welcomes-saints-to-white-house/

Lebron-Heat-Obama-jersey-and-autographed-ball-e1359494230358.jpgJanuary 2013. The NBA Champion Miami Heat Visit the White House and Mr. Obama Is More Enthused Alongside Lebron James. Image Courtesy Of: http://thatsenuff.com/2013/01/29/mama-i-made-it-heat-visit-the-white-house/

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February 2016. NBA Champion Golden State Warriors Visit the White House. Interestingly, Mr. Obama Managed a Near Carbon Copy of His January 2013 Smile. Image Courtesy Of: http://abc7news.com/sports/warriors-honored-by-obama-at-the-white-house/1186562/

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October 2015. The FIFA Women’s World Cup Winning US Women’s National Soccer Team Visits the White House. Note the Amazing Design Of the Numbering, Hats Off To Nike. From npr.org: “This team taught all of America’s children that ‘playing like a girl’ means you’re a badass,” he [Mr. Obama] said. Image and Quote Courtesy Of: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/10/27/452260571/obama-to-u-s-womens-soccer-team-playing-like-a-girl-means-youre-a-badass

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For Those Interested in Mr. Obama’s Connection to Football, Please Check Out Sports Illustrated’s Article. It Includes This Amazing Image From 2009, when Brazilian President Lula Presented the American President With a Brazil Jersey. Judging By Mr. Obama’s Reaction, It Just Isn’t The Same as Receiving an American Jersey. Image courtesy of: http://www.si.com/planet-futbol/photo/2017/01/19/president-barack-obama-soccer-mls-usmnt-uswnt-world-cup

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One Final Bonus Comes From a Russian News Site. Russia-insider.com Managed To Dig Up This Piece. It Shows the Odd Connection Between Sports, Militarism, Nationalism, and Politics In the United States. Note Russia-insider’s Caption “A Big Fan Of Himself”. Image Courtesy Of: http://russia-insider.com/en/politics/obama-rails-against-putin-many-others-un-speech/ri10016

The Failure of Turkish Diplomacy Through Sports: The Interesting Case of Muhammad Ali

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Despite knowing nothing about boxing (since I am a football fan), even I know that Muhammad Ali was “The Greatest”. Evidently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also knows that and he somehow attempted to turn the late Boxer’s funeral into his own personal propaganda show. Fortunately—most importantly for the sake of the late great boxer—Mr. Erdogan’s move failed. This attempt by the Turkish politician to use sports as a diplomatic tool is, however, not unprecedented and its utter failure is reminiscent of past moves by his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to mix sports and politics in the international realm. Just like the foreign policy of the party Mr. Erdogan founded, however, these moves have tended to make more enemies than friends—spelling disaster not only for Turkish foreign policy but the country’s international reputation as a whole.

After Muhammad Ali’s death on 3 June 2016, the Turkish president expressed his plan to attend the two-day funeral services on 9 and 10 June. Turkish columnist Rahmi Turan immediately wrote a column in the opposition daily Sozcu about how Mr. Erdogan’s ill-timed visit to the United States—coming just days after yet another deadly bombing hit Istanbul on 7 June—actually had historic precedence. While it did indeed seem strange at first that a leader should leave his country in the midst of such instability, a deeper look shows that the tenuous connection between Muhammed Ali and Turkey goes back exactly forty years to 1976. When Ali visited Istanbul in 1976 it was then assistant to the Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, who has been called “the father of Turkish Islamism”, that greeted the legendary boxer at the Istanbul airport. The Boxer’s visit was turned into a political stunt to further the interests of Turkish political Islam. Forty years on, history is repeating itself.

Mr. Erdogan wanted to use Muhammad Ali’s funeral in a cynical attempt to push his own image. He said Ali stood up for those who were oppressed, praising his stance against the Vietnam war…ignoring the fact that—as many Turkish Twitter users pointed out—anyone who refuses to take part in Erdogan’s war against Turkish Kurds risks being branded a traitor. He spent money that came out of taxpayers’ pockets to visit the United States, taking his wife, children, and son-in-law with him, as well as the head of the ministry of religious affairs. Some saw this as a glorified family vacation. Perhaps it was—but it didn’t have a happy ending. Al-Monitor noted how Mr. Erdogan’s visit “scored no points”: He was not allowed to make a speech, he was not allowed to place a cloth from the Kaaba on the casket, he was unable to deliver his gifts to Mr. Ali’s family, and the head of the Turkish ministry of religious affairs was not allowed to make a speech. Mr. Erdogan was not featured in any pictures during the proceedings, and decided to leave a day early. Opposition media suspected that the abrupt departure came because Mr. Erdogan learned that Rabbi Michael Lerner would speak out against Turkey’s treatment of its Kurdish minority; Mr. Erdogan himself explained that staying was “unnecessary” because the ceremony would have “no religious aspect”. In the end the burial went on despite Mr. Erdogan’s absence and it was his fans—15,000 of them to be exact—who made up the majority of the crowd that sent “The Greatest” off.

Thankfully the world’s most famous boxer was sent off by his fans in a way befitting of the People’s Champion, despite the designs of one particular foreign head of state. Unfortunately, Mr. Erdogan’s actions were not befitting of the country he represents and this is yet another example of a politician who has let power go to his head. To attempt to use another person’s funeral for political gains is despicable and is certainly not in the spirit of Muhammad Ali or the religion of Islam; one can safely say that Mr. Erdogan lost by decision here after Ali’s final knockout.

May Muhammad Ali Rest In Peace, my condolences go out to his family, friends, and fans.

Sports and Society: Religious and Ethnic Identities Come to the Fore in Turkish Stadiums

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In the past couple of weeks Turkish stadiums have become the venue of choice for the airing of political views. The tensions of the final weeks of the football season have only served to heighten tensions already existing in both sport and society. What is most interesting, however, that in the past weeks two groups within Turkish society—seemingly at odds with one another—have both been targeted in stadiums: Kurds and secular Turks. In the context of the stadium it is possible to see that these groups may have more in common than outside observers may initially believe.

On 17 April 2016, Altay, from Western Turkey’s liberal port city of Izmir that sees itself as representing the progressive idealism of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, faced Erzurum Büyükşehir Belediyespor in eastern Turkey in a third tier soccer match. After the first half, which ended 1-1, the Altay team claims that their players were attacked on the way to the locker rooms; allegedly one man brandished a knife. Before the match, fans in Erzurum chanted “Gavur Izmir”, or “Infidel Izmir” the (not-so-flattering) nickname of Turkey’s most cosmopolitan city, the old Smyrna. One Altay administrator claimed they feared for their lives. A local newspaper from Erzurum responded to these claims, noting all of the heroic acts that Erzurumians have done over the course of Turkish history including taking Greek soldiers hostage after the Greek invasion of Izmir. The local paper, Yeni Akit, also claims that the Izmir team’s fans called those in Erzurum “terrorists” and demanded an apology from Turkish football pundits who disparaged the city for the “infidel” chants. We may never know what truly happened in the stadium but it points to an important ideological division within Turkey that is not insignificant, one that I will return to in a moment.

One week later, on 24 April, 2016, MKE Ankaragücü faced the Kurdish side Amedspor in the Turkish capital in another third tier soccer match. After Amedspor scored to go up 2-1 in the 85th minute, some of the Kurdish team’s executives celebrated, prompting a vicious attack by Ankaragücü’s executives that was caught on video. In the end injuries ranged from broken noses to concussions and several people–including the chairman of the Ankara team—were taken in for questioning by police. The Ankaragücü team, in their second response to the violence, note that when their team played in Diyarbakir their fans were stoned and had to witness the whistling down of the Turkish national anthem; they further note that the Amedspor executives broke an unspoken rule. Celebrating like a fan in the executive seats is unacceptable.

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Image Courtesy of: http://www.aljazeera.com.tr/haber/amedspor-yoneticilerine-saldiri-kamerada

While we will never know the full details of either of these incidents because we can only hear versions of the events from either side, it shows that the divisions within society are being replicated—and amplified—in the stadium.

On Tuesday, 26 April 2016, the issue of religion again came to the fore as Turkey’s Speaker of Parliament, Ismail Kahraman, said Turkey needed a religious constitution. This provoked small scale protests from many who fear the country’s long-standing secularism is under threat. The response, once again, came from the stands. On 30 April, 2016, Besiktas fans in the brand new Vodafone Arena chanted “Turkey is secular and will remain secular” during their match with Kayserispor, while fans of Fenerbahçe echoed the same sentiments during their match that weekend.

As one local commentator noted, this kind of tension—often culminating in violence—has been present in Turkish football for the past thirty-five years. Just in the last month there have been incidents at major matches in Karabük and Trabzon, where a fan assaulted the referee. Smaller matches have also been affected; Police had to fire warning shots to disperse fans at an amateur match.

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In Karabuk. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.ntv.com.tr/galeri/spor/karabukte-saha-karisti,_E7O2BsgHk-PTv6L-r6EQg/w9WVT_8XlUKmpWg6YKDHkA?_sgm_campaign=scn_b80478c001c4e000&_sgm_source=d8ce4efc-201b-4f1e-8f4e-fe8bfabe8442&_sgm_action=click

What is different in the present, however, is that there is also violence—as we saw in Erzurum and Ankara—that is not just wanton aggression precipitated by fan anger at referees or at one another. Instead, we see violence with political undertones, based instead on religious and ethnic identities. More importantly, we see that two of the groups that have become victims of this violence—those perceived to be secular and those who are Kurdish—have for many years been on opposite sides of the Turkish political world; the divide between western and eastern Turkey manifested itself with secular Turks from “modern” western Turkey disdaining Kurds from “backward” eastern Turkey. The current marginalization of both groups within Turkish society, however, also offers a unique opportunity for them to come together in ways that were not possible in the past.

Journalists Attacked After Turkey’s 3-1 Victory over Kazakhstan: What It Means

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Often sports can provide an interesting lens through which to view societies. The aftermath of Turkey’s 3-1 victory over Kazakhstan in Sunday’s Euro 2016 Qualifier provides a very good example of this phenomenon. While the game was supposed to be an awakening for a Turkish side that has had a shaky start to the qualifying campaign, it instead became a showcase for many of the issues affecting Turkish society in general and Turkish sports in particular.

Before the game Turkey’s first choice goalkeeper and Fenerbahce stalwart Volkan Demirel (Not Suleyman Demirel) was subjected to verbal abuse from the home fans (In Turkish). The match was played at Galatasaray’s Turk Telekom Arena and evidently some fans forgot that this was not the Istanbul derby. Sadly, the profanity got the best the goalkeeper and he refused to play. In fact, he opted to leave the stadium entirely.

While the fans were unquestionably wrong to abuse a player suiting up for the national team—club rivalries should be forgotten in such cases—I personally think that Volkan should have shown a little more professionalism in this instance. After all, he is on the field and they are in the stands. Instead of responding to the crude jeers he should just do what he does best—playing hard and stopping shots. But on this night it was too much for him.

His deputy Volkan Babacan suited up instead and the victory came. But after the game it was an ugly scene, a scene that truly shows the darker side of today’s Turkey. A group of journalists trying to get access to Volkan Demirel and take video of him leaving the stadium were attacked by private security guards inside the stadium.

Video of the incident is here:

Police intervention came too late and many journalists were savagely beaten. Following the attacks the Turkish Sports Writers Association (TSYD) made a strongly worded statement calling for justice; afterwards five of the private security guards were detained and taken in for questioning by prosecutors.

Attacking journalists—especially at a sporting event—is unforgivable, but for a moment let’s look at Turkey’s press freedom rankings in general. They don’t make for good reading. Most recently Al-Jazeera wrote a piece one month ago noting that according to “Turkish media watchdog Bianet media freedom is at its lowest point in decades”. One year ago the US based Committee to Protect Journalists noted that Turkey is the world’s leader in jailing journalists—211 to be exact, ahead of such bastions of journalistic freedom Iran and China. Others rounding out the top ten (or bottom ten) of this list were Eritrea, Vietnam, Syria, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Uzbekistan. Not exactly honeymoon destinations, although both Egypt and Uzbekistan are undoubtedly beautiful in their own ways.

Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkey 154th out of 180 countries, their summary is below:

Despite its regional aspirations, Turkey (154th) registered no improvement and continues to be one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists. The Gezi Park revolt highlighted the repressive methods used by the security forces, the increase in self-censorship and the dangers of the prime minister’s populist discourse. In view of the upcoming elections and the unpredictability of the peace process with the Kurdish separatists, 2014 is likely to be a decisive year for the future of civil liberties in Turkey.

Turkey’s ranking of 154th—one step below Iraq and one step above Gambia—is abhorrent for a country whose leader always sings the praises of democracy. In fact, in 2002—when the current ruling Ak Party came to power—the country was ranked 99th. That spot now belongs to Turkey’s long time geopolitical rival Greece.

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Image Courtesy Of: http://rsf.org/index2014/data/carte2014_en.png

But Turkey’s precipitous drop in worldwide rankings in the years since 2002 is not confined to journalistic freedom alone. According to the most recent FIFA World Rankings Turkey is ranked 46th—tied with Serbia (a country with their own sporting problems) and just below Israel (a country with their own political problems). In September 2002 Turkey was ranked 7th in the world—a spot now occupied by France.

What has become clear in the aftermath of a dark Sunday night is that Turkey has declined in several societal aspects in the past twelve years. What the future holds is an open question…