Turkish soccer pitches tell the story of the country’s multiple sharpening fault lines that are exploding into political violence on the streets of Turkey’s major cities as the government fuels deep-seated political and ethnic tensions.
The warning signs were long visible on the pitch: increased militarism, ethnic tensions between Kurds and Turkish nationalists, and expressions of empathy with the Islamic State (IS), the jihadist group that controls chunks of Syria and Iraq and that alongside Kurds is believed to be responsible for some of the recent bombings in Istanbul, Ankara and south-eastern Turkey.
In the latest development, authorities on Sunday cancelled the derby between Istanbul arch rivals Galatasary SK and Fenerbahce SK and evacuated fans from Istanbul’s Turk Telekom Arena amid fears of yet another attack.
The cancellation followed a suicide attack by IS a day earlier in a popular Istanbul shopping district, the sixth in Turkey in the past year, in which five people died, and the revelation by Salah Abdesalam, the mastermind of the November 2015 attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead, that he had shied away from blowing himself up at the Stade de France during a friendly between France and Germany.
Simultaneously, Turkey’s national team moved its training sessions in preparation for matches against Sweden and Austrian from Istanbul to the Mediterranean Sea town of Antalya because of security concerns.
Turkish soccer players have meanwhile begun to give military salutes whenever they score in matches against Kurdish teams against the backdrop of the breakdown last summer of a ceasefire and resumed fighting between the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Kurdish youth in predominantly Kurdish cities in the south-east and the Turkish military, and the rise of US-backed Kurdish rebel groups in Syria.
Turkish nationalist fears that their country could end up dismembered are further fuelled by the assertion of Kurdish nationalist sentiment on the Syrian side of the Turkish border with Syria. The assertion was articulated in a demand for federalism after the Kurds were excluded at Turkey’s behest from talks in Geneva aimed at ending Syria’s five-year long, brutal civil war.
Increased projection of Kurdish nationalism was also reflected in stepped-up Turkish Kurdish use of soccer to showcase their demands for greater cultural and political autonomy. Various Kurdish clubs have in the last year changed their names from Turkish to Kurdish ones.
Turkey’s increasingly autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has done his bit to sharpen the country’s deepening political, ethnic and social fault lines. After having first negotiated with the PKK to resolve the decades-old conflict with the Kurds, Mr. Erdogan is now demanding that the group that has been proscribed by the United States and the European Union be dealt with in the same way that the international community is confronting IS.
Divisionary attitudes appear to run deep in Mr. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) Referring to Israeli tourists who were wounded in Sunday’s attack in Istanbul, Irem Aktas, a member of the AKP’s Istanbul branch tweeted: “May it be worse for Israeli citizens, if only they hadn’t been wounded but had all died.” To be fair, the party in response dismissed Ms. Aktas from her official position.
In another polarizing incident, Ankara’s publicly managed Sports and Exhibition Hall earlier this month hosted thousands of supporters of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a Pan-Islamist movement that advocates the restoration of the caliphate, who gathered to celebrate the 92nd anniversary of the demise of the Ottoman caliphate that was abolished in 1924 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire.
The gathering came days after Mr. Erdogan ordered the takeover of Zaman, Turkey’s foremost opposition newspaper, that was owned by self-exiled preacher Fethullalh Gulen, the president’s main Islamist rival.
The president’s wife, in remarks at about the same time that were certain to undermine Mr. Erdogan’s past major contribution to bridging the divide between secular and religious segments of Turkish society, described the Ottoman Empire’s harem as an “educational establishment that prepared women for life.”
Writing in The Guardian this month, prominent Turkish author Elif Safak warned that “the polarisation that skyrocketed after the 2013 riots – against the destruction of the Gezi park and the increasing authoritarianism of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic-conservative Justice and Development party (AKP) – has reached such a critical level that people do not feel as if they belong in the same society anymore.”
In another piece in the Financial Times Ms. Safak told the story of a man who sued his wife for insulting Mr. Erdogan. The 40-year-old truck driver recorded his wife on tape in order to use it as evidence in the courtroom. “I kept on warning her. Our president is a good person and did good things for Turkey,” the man said. His wife has since launched divorce proceedings.
“This is not an isolated story. A recent survey revealed that 76 per cent of Turkish people do not wish to be neighbours with someone who supports a different political party. Nor would they allow their children to be friends with the offspring of such people,” Ms Safak noted.
Turkish fans twice last year disrupted moments of silence for victims of the IS attacks in Paris and Ankara. The interruptions demonstrated the kind of intolerance bred by religiously-cloaked authoritarianism in countries like Turkey that fail to insure that all segments of society have a stake in the existing order.
The Turkish fans shouting of Allahu Akbar, God is Great, during moments of silence represented more than simple identification with the jihadist group or evidence of a substantial support base in Turkey. It signalled a shift in attitudes among some segments of Turkish society as a result of 12 years of rule by Mr. Erdogan that increasingly has been infused with notions of “us” and “them.”
In Turkey, “them” is more often than not Kurds, who account for up to 20 percent of the population, as well as the country’s secular elite and followers of Mr. Gulen who take issue with Mr. Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism. It is these groups that have borne the brunt of the carnage of political violence that is spiralling out of control.
Turkish-American soccer writer John Blasing recently featured a You Tube video on his blog in which fans of Istanbul club Besiktas JK clung to the hope that their country would not become another Middle Eastern nation on the verge of disintegration by chanting, “we will see good days my children, we will see sunny days,” a play on a line from a poem by prominent poet Nazim Hikmet. It is a hope that increasingly risks being drowned in a world in which the principle of live and let live is being replaced by the notion of us or them.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.