Football has been an arena often plagued by racism and nationalism; these attitudes sometimes border on bigotry, jingoism or just plain fascism. This situation did not just start during the last few months with the Mesut Özil events. In fact, it could well be that the Özil case marks a nadir in racism, xenophobia and fascist attitudes in football. At least, I certainly hope so.
Many European teams have long been plagued by racist comments from coaches, fans and players. Bananas being thrown onto the pitch to taunt players of African descent, shouts of "Monkey, Monkey" from the stands, reports that players refer to opponent players of North African descent as terrorists... such nastiness has been going on for years.
When Zinedine Zidane led the French to victory in 1998, his face blazed from the Arc de Triomphe. He was the ultimate French hero. The French reveled in their new identity of a "Black, Blanc, Beur" (Black, White, Arab) generation. But the euphoria did not last long. In 2016, Karim Benzema accused the French coach Didier Deschamps of excluding him from the European Cup team for racist motives. Eric Cantona was the first to express the idea that both Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa had not been included due to their North African ancestry. The upset soon died down, and the French team was a happy inclusive place for the World Cup.
But when Noah Trevor declared that the French victory in the World Cup was also a victory for Africa, he was lambasted by the French ambassador.
The French Ambassador Gerard Araud wrote a letter to Noah stating that "France does not refer to its citizens based on their race, religion or origin. To us, there is no hyphenated identity."
Reading the letter out loud on "The Today Show," Noah defended what he had said, claiming that his intention was not to "exclude them from their Frenchness, but I'm rather using it to include them in my Africanness.
"I'm saying I see you, my French brother of African descent..."
And herein lies that problem. Like Özil, the French players are not just German or French. They have a layered identity. It is possible to be German and Turkish. It is possible to be French and Algerian.
Yet Özil has been accused by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) of being "a typical example of the failed integration of far too many immigrants from the Turkish-Muslim culture."
The AfD seems to have mixed up the term integration and assimilation. An integrated person keeps their identity of origin and adds their new identity, integrating the two; hence the word "integration." An integrated person does not jettison their former identity to take on a new identity.
Yet the French ambassador took Trevor Noah to task for congratulating the French team on being integrated, for representing more than one identity. For the ambassador the team is French, and that is the end of the matter. For Araud there is no secondary identity, there is no integration.
German supporters at a game in the World Cup 2018 hold a sign saying "Özil Gündo€an go and play for Erdo€an."
Forcing an individual to deny their heritage does not help foster diversity or integration. It forces people to choose between identities. Such an attitude is what drives many poor, unemployed, undereducated individuals from different cultural backgrounds into extremism.
France and Germany are not alone in this. Switzerland took Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri - Swiss players of Albanian-Kosovar descent - to task for being "not Swiss enough" because they celebrated goals with "pro-Albania gestures." There are many other players from many other European countries who make similar complaints. Many other European countries have had similar complaints made by players with dual identities.
Afua Hirsch, a columnist for The Guardian, sums up this phenomenon very well:
"This prejudice is hard-baked into terminology across Europe. Visible minorities ....are labeled 'immigrants' or, if they're born here, 'second generation immigrants.' Yet 'indigenous' is a nonsensical term for a nation formed by millennia of immigration. Meanwhile, Brits abroad are seen as 'expatriates.'"
"....It's part of a belief that somehow Britain [or other European countries] did us a favor by letting us come to this country, with our brown faces and strange faiths and all, for which we should be uniquely grateful. The problem is, European countries didn't 'let' their migrants in; they needed people to rebuild their countries, offering in return low wages and poor living conditions. The descendants of those workers are still processing the racism, prejudice and disadvantage that resulted. But the one thing no one can take away is what we decide about who we are."
As Özil himself said, "I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose." Özil is a third-generation Turkish-German. He has been capped 92 times and has been voted the German player of the year five times. Yet because he took a photograph with the Turkish president, he is seen as being "not German enough." Özil was hounded by racist remarks until he finally resigned from the German team. His love and devotion to Germany, a country to which he had felt he belonged, has been severely damaged.
Özil is a German citizen. He is not a Turkish citizen. The German state did not let him be a citizen of both countries, he had to choose. And he chose Germany. But this does not mean that the country can force him to deny his Turkish background, his Turkish culture.
The expectation that an individual has only one identity, unsullied by any other identity is racist, xenophobic and bordering on fascist. Most commentators are not in favor of such an approach. Yet they make a typical mistake of those coming from the land of "The White Man's Burden."
Yes, they say, Özil was unfairly treated and exposed to racist, xenophobic remarks. This is not right. This is not what we stand for.
However, they are quick to point out, all this came about not because Özil comes from a Turkish background, but rather because he met the Turkish president. That is, Özil created the problem. They go on to say that everyone knows that the Turkish president is a despot, an authoritarian, a man who locks up his opponents, who stifles press freedoms and denies human rights.
Just look at the same article from Aufra Hirsch: She describes President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as "a hardliner widely condemned for human rights abuses." Yet there is absolutely no evidence, no court case, no reliable information that Erdoğan has every abused human rights in any way. To the contrary, the government headed up by Erdoğan has allowed over 3 million Syrian refugees into Turkey, giving them free education and health care. His government has bent over backward to ensure that these same refugees do not cross the border, ensuring that Europeans can remain safe against their needs and their poverty.
Hirsch is not alone. Look at Alexander Bonengel, a sports reporter (not a political commentator) for Sky in Germany. When asked why so many people were offended in Germany by the photograph of Özil, Bonengel replied that the "majority of Germany is offended because Erdoğan is a despot and autocrat... the main reason for irritation is the fact that (Özil) was photographed with a person who suppresses people, puts his opponents in jail and denies press freedom."
Turkey has undergone numerous terrorist attacks and a failed coup over the past years. There is no desire by the government to stifle the press. There are a number of media outlets that are opposed to the current government and who publish with impunity. The journalists who are awaiting trial or who have been convicted are there on charges of supporting terrorism, or on charges of carrying out terrorist activities. The politicians who are awaiting trial in Turkey are a few members of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP); they are awaiting trial on accusations of inciting terrorist activities. Anyone who attends the funerals of suicide bombers and who encourages others to do so must answer for their actions.
Erdoğan has not had anyone arrested. This is an Orientalist assumption that there is no due process in Turkey. Yet, on the contrary, if a person is suspected of aiding and abetting terrorists in Turkey they are investigated and if sufficient evidence is uncovered, they will be arrested, like anywhere else in the world. They are then put on trial and either convicted or released. Anyone following what is going on in Turkey will be aware that this is exactly what has been happening. The fact that there are three active terrorist groups, one of which tried to infiltrate the entire political and governmental infrastructure of the country means that the numbers are larger than normal.
Well, you might ask, but surely Erdoğan is still a despot or at least an authoritarian, isn't he?
Such a question only reveals the Orientalist attitude of the person asking it. President Erdoğan won the presidential election - a fair election observed freely by international bodies - with 51.79 percent of the vote. And with an 87 percent turnout. In the first round. Against five other candidates. I'm sure there are many Western politicians who are envious of such a performance. And if you add to this that Erdoğan has won every election he has entered since 1996 and those same Western politicians will start tearing out their hair.
Accusing Özil of meeting with a despot, a dictator, with a person who does not respect human rights is as racist and xenophobic as accusing him of not being German enough. Such an attitude is Orientalist; that is, it is a claim that a Turkish leader can only be this successful if he has abused the system, if he has abused people, if he is undemocratic. After all, he's Turkish, isn't he? And everyone knows that these Turks, Arabs, Africans, etc. don't really do democracy, right?
It is great that so many people stood up and defended Özil against the racist remarks he received. It is horrific that these same people still hold an attitude that Turkey can only have a corrupt and despotic system simply because it is Turkey.