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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.

Amedspor Upsets Bursaspor On The Field While Ethnic Tensions are Highlighted Through Football

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The Bursapor-Amedspor Turkish Cup match on 31 January, 2016 confirmed what many in Turkey feared. Amedspor’s surprising upset victory—1-2 to take them into the quarterfinal—was the biggest shock. What happened off the field, however, was sadly all too predictable.

While the away fans of Amedspor were not allowed into the stadium due to security concerns the match was still televised live on ATV, a channel known to be close to the ruling AKP government. During and after the match, fans took to Twitter to voice their displeasure with announcer Gökhan Telkenar. Among other things, he refused to refer to the Amedspor team by name. Instead, he called them “onlar”, or “them in Turkish”. Unfortunately, this kind of behavior by the employee of a national TV Channel only served to exacerbate the divide between Kurds and Turks that has recently been re-emphasized by the government, prompting some commentators to even speak of civil war.

As with most things in Turkish football, however, the entire situation was not without irony. An Tweet by Amedspor asked the rhetorical question “Bursa Takımında Türkiyeden sadece 2oyuncu var. Gerisi hepsi yabancı.

Bizde Türkiyenin her halkından oyuncu var.
Ama biz hainiz Bursa milli”/”On the Bursa team there are only two players from Turkey. Everyone else is foreign. On our team we have players from every group [of people] in Turkey. But we are the traitors and Bursa are national[ist]”. A cursory look at the line-up card confirms Amedspor’s assertions—at least as regards the starting XI. Bursaspor’s lineup boasted two Turks—Goalkeeper Mert Gunok and Forward Sercan Yildirim—while everyone else was non-Turkish: there was a Cameroonian, a Japanese, a Senegalese, an Australian, a Hungarian, a Slovak, and two Czechs. By contrast, third-tier Amedspor had a lineup of all Turkish nationals.

The founder of Amedspor’s fan group, Barikat, Bilal Akkalu had spoken before the match explaining the troubles his team faces during away matches. The home teams treat Amedspor as if they, in Mr. Akkalu’s words, “come from another country”. The divisive policies of the AKP government are swiftly manifesting themselves in Turkey’s most popular sport, football. Where the sport could once unite the country—such as during Galatasaray’s run to the 2000 UEFA Cup and Turkey’s international success during the 2002 World Cup and 2008 European Championships—the sport (with the aid of the government) is now becoming a forum for airing political differences predicated on ethnic lines. The process started during last year’s Turkish cup and, unfortunately, seems to be continuing. Let us hope that whichever team (and fans) Amedspor face in the quarterfinal round are more cognizant of the influence that football holds over the general populace. If sport can unite—rather than divide—let it be shown in the next round of matches. Otherwise, it will certainly be a difficult road ahead for both Amedspor and the Turkish nation.

Military Salutes in Turkish Football Reflect Wider Societal Malaise

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Turkish sportswriter Özgün Keleşoğlu wrote an interesting piece on t24.com.tr regarding the use of military salutes by Turkish footballers in games against Kurdish teams. The phenomenon has caused disturbances in games before, such as between Bergamaspor and Vanspor in 2014 and Karşıyaka and Kurtalanspor in 2015. This gesture, when employed as a goal celebration, has heightened tensions between Kurds and Turks on the football pitch to such a degree that teams in Western Turkey even complained to the Turkish Football Federation in September 2015.

In this instance, Mr. Keleşoğlu was referring to former Fenerbahçe and current Başaksehirspor striker Semih Şentürk’s salute following an equalizer against Amedspor in the Turkish cup on 28 January 2016. Amedspor are from the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir; having changed their name to reflect the Kurdish name of their city, they have become a standard bearer for Kurdish identity in Turkey, a fact that has achieved greater importance as Kurdish areas have come under fire from security forces recently.

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/semih-senturk-amedspora-golunu-atti-asker-selami-verdi-40046499

What stands out in Mr. Keleşoğlu’s piece is his criticism of the footballer’s—in this case Semih Şentürk’s—actions. For the writer the military salute is meant to show respect to those who have served their country with distinction (a fact that, according to Amedspor officials, would be lost on Mr. Şentürk. After the incident they tweeted that he did not complete his military service; he paid out of it). It is not to be used in order to insult or provoke a reaction. According to this definition, then, every footballer that has saluted in this manner during a match has done so with no knowledge of the salute’s true meaning. That is why Mr. Keleşoğlu urges Turkish football fans to not allow footballers to water down what it means to be a solider. In so doing, however, the author makes another important point. He describes footballers themselves as “nouveau-riche” and “disrespectful of their jobs”. To be honest, he is right. In the era of Industrial Football it has been easy come and easy go for many Turkish footballers. Once they see the money they seem to slacken off, and that is no model for any country’s sporting or civil life. I support Mr. Keleşoğlu for saying things that need to be said, since sport is often a reflection of the society it represents. I also echo his sentiments regarding the Turkish Cup match between Bursaspor and Amedspor scheduled for tomorrow. Bursaspor and Diyarbakirspor—the previous standard bearer for football in Turkey’s Kurdish regions—had a history of bad blood between them. Let us hope that, in the highly polarized climate that characterizes Turkey these days, no ugly incidents occur.