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When Racism in Sports is Bad – And When It’s Good

When Racism in Sports is Bad – And When It’s Good

German football star Mesut Özil’s decision to quit the national team due to “racism and disrespect” he faced over his Turkish roots has sparked controversy in Germany and united “official Turkey” to stand behind him against “German racism.

Turkish politicians from government and opposition benches heaped praise on Mr Özil and lashed out at those who have abused him. Mr Özil had been targeted for having his photograph taken with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In other words, for political reasons.  Racism is bad, whether on the pitch or elsewhere. In Turkey, however, racism is only “selectively bad.”

In 2009 a stadium full of football fans chanted: “Death to Israel,” because a Jewish player had scored a goal. A week after, a Turkish player, the Jew’s teammate, planted a Palestinian flag in the middle of the pitch, after which spectators chanted: “Down with Israel.” Any proceedings for mixing sports with politics? None.

On Oct. 13, 2015 three days after a twin suicide bomb attack in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, killed more than 100 Kurds and pro-Kurdish, leftist and secular Turks, the central Anatolian province of Konya, a hotbed of political Islam in Turkey, hosted a Euro 2016 football qualifier between Turkey and Iceland. Before the kick-off, both teams stood for a moment of silence to protest the bomb attack — a typical gesture to respect the victims. Sadly, the moment of silence was marred by whistles and jeers: apparently the football fans of Konya were protesting the victims, not their jihadist killers.

Anyone under the impression that the whole world stands in solidarity with the Paris attack had to think again when it came to Turkish fans. Hundreds of fans booed and chanted “Allahu Akbar” (“Allah is the greatest” in Arabic) during a moment of silence for the Paris attack victims before a Turkey-Greece soccer friendly. Once again, the Turks were exhibiting solidarity with the terrorists, not their “infidel” victims.

Also in 2015, on Nov. 21, the Turkish authorities had to deploy 1,500 policemen so that Turkish fans could not harm the visiting Israeli women’s national basketball team. One thousand five hundred police officers at a women’s basketball game! Despite that, Turkish fans threw objects at Israeli players as they were singing Israel’s national anthem. Fans also booed the Israeli players while others applauded the fans who threw the objects. Unsurprisingly, Turkish fans waved Palestinian flags. Israeli women basketball players were barred from leaving their hotel other than for training and the game.

Ahmet Örken is one of Turkey’s best-known professional cyclists and the multiple Turkish time trial champion. Last September he signed a two-year contract with Israel Cycling Academy. In the aftermath of the Turkish public outcry over U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, Mr Örken, under pressure, had to quit his Israeli team and join a homegrown Turkish team. “It was a difficult period in the last two weeks,” he said, referring to pressure on himself and his family for having signed up with an Israeli sports team.

In 2014, Deniz Naki, a German-born (like Mr Özil) Turkush striker for the then Super League team Gençlerbirliği, left his team after being repeatedly targeted over his Alevi-Kurdish origin. He had been accosted by three people on a side-street who threatened him to “go away” or suffer the consequences.

In 2016 the Turkish Football Association gave Mr Naki a 12-match ban for “ideological propaganda.”

In 2017 Mr Naki was attacked by fans of the opposing team during a game in Turkey. He was punched and put to the ground in moments as he was preparing to shoot a free kick.

Mr Naki left Turkey as his enemies wanted him to do. But his misfortunes followed him in his new home too. In January more than two bullets fired from a passing car hit Mr Naki’s car on a motorway in Germany.

Apparently we Turks hate racism on the pitch if the target is of Turkish origin – never mind if he had chosen to play for the German side, not the Turkish. He is Turkish. Other acts of racism? They never happen in Turkey.

About The Author

Burak Bekdil

Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based Turkish political columnist who wrote for Hurriyet Daily News [formerly Turkish Daily News] for 29 years. He has covered Turkey for the U.S. weekly Defense News since 1997. Previously, Bekdil worked as Ankara Bureau Chief for Dow Jones Newswires and CNBC-e television. He contributes to annual national defense sector reviews for anti-corruption institutions like Transparency International and Global Integrity. Bekdil is a fellow at the Middle East Forum and regularly writes for the Gatestone Institute and Middle East Quarterly. He also contributes to Perspectives, a journal of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Bar-Ilan University, Tel Aviv. James Cuno, art historian and President of the J. Paul Getty Trust, describes Bekdil as "a frequent critic of Prime Minister [now president] Recep Tayyip Erdogan." In 2001, a Heavy Crimes Court in Ankara sentenced Bekdil to a suspended, 20-month prison sentence for his column in which he satirized corruption in the judiciary. Bekdil's comments, quotes and articles have been published in international media outlets including the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, Associated Press, Bloomberg, Los Angeles Times, The Commentator, New York Times, Kathimerini, National Review Online, Algemeiner, NPR, Washington Times, Die Presse, Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post, Toronto Star, Financial Times, Al-Monitor, Le Figaro, ABC, El Pais, Stern, Al-Arabiya, Helsingin Sanomat, Racjonalista, Defence Greece, Moyen-Orient, Courier International, ISN Security Watch and Coloquio (of Congreso Judio Latinoamerico) and the Jewish Chronicle (London). (Born: Ankara, 1966; Undergraduate: Department of Economics, Middle East Technical University, Ankara; Post-graduate: Department of Economics, University of Surrey, United Kingdom)

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