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Football Shirts and Nationalism

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As an avid collector of football shirts, the headline “How a soccer jersey sparked the latest Germany-Turkey spat” of a 15 May 2018 article by Siobhan O’Grady in The Washington Post immediately caught my eye. As a dual citizen of a Western country (the United States) and Turkey, I felt the tensions that the footballers in question—both Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan—must have been feeling themselves. Especially because I study the intersection of football and nationalism in Turkey, I know that this event is about much more than just football shirts and Turkey’s fraught relationship with Germany; in fact, this small event is indicative of both the failures of globalism, as well as the crisis of modern—and “Western”—liberalism.

On the surface, the decision by Manchester City’s German-Turkish footballer Ilkay Gundogan to present a jersey to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with the inscription “With great respect for my president” seems to be a minor issue. In years past it may have been but a footnote in the day’s news. Yet, in this age—when it seems as if most people are all too willing to be “offended”—something as innocuous as the gifting of a football shirt has become grounds for outrage. Indeed, as French Sociologist Michel Foucault said, “modern society is perverse”.

 

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From Left Mr. Gundogan, Mesut Ozil, Mr. Erdogan, and Cenk Tosun. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2018/05/15/how-a-soccer-jersey-sparked-the-latest-germany-turkey-spat/?utm_term=.c36280ce21f4

 

And it is this event which so clearly demonstrates just how perverse modern society has become. Should Mr. Gundogan have called Mr. Erdogan “my president” while playing for Germany’s national football team? The president of the German football association (DFB), Reinhard Grindel, did not seem to think so, and politicians from both the right (Beatrix von Storch of the Alternative for Germany Party) and left (Cem Ozdemir, a former leader of the Green Party and himself of Turkish descent) seemed to agree. As a representative of the German national football team, Mr. Gundogan would have done well to recognize that it is the German—and not Turkish—football system which built him into the world star that he is today; as such, he should have recognized that his president is German (and that his country) is Germany. Had Mr. Gundogan wanted to embrace his Turkish side wholeheartedly, he could have rejected Germany (and all of the privilege that comes with playing for one of the best national sides in world football) and chosen to play for Turkey, similar to Manchester United’s talismanic Ryan Giggs who rejected England in favor of his native Wales despite the corresponding lack of international prestige that went with choosing the Red Dragons. In Giggs’ words:

 

It still bugs me when people ask if I wished I’d played for England. It’s the question that’s bugged more than any other over the last 10 years. I’m Welsh, end of story. My parents are Welsh, my grandparents are Welsh. The mix-up came from the fact that I played for England schoolboys. That’s what confuses people. But I’d rather go through my career without qualifying for a major championship rather than play for a country in which I wasn’t born in or one that had nothing to do with my parents. That’s just stupid.

 

Had Mr. Gundogan been as straightforward as Mr. Giggs—and perhaps sacrificed fame and fortune for family ties—it is likely that there would have been very little backlash as a result of his actions.

Yet, in the globalized world, it is not so simple; indeed Mr. Gundogan—as discussed above—owes much of his sporting pedigree to the German system. During my childhood I myself often toyed with the question of which country I would represent in international football (thankfully, I was never a good enough footballer to actually have to make this decision) and I am aware that this is a difficult choice for anyone to make. Having not grown up in the (extreme) globalized age, however, I was able to make my own judgements and have been able to wholeheartedly embrace both of my nations. In the modern world, however, the push for “diversity” and “multi-culturalism” has attempted to create a meaningless mélange of cultures; far from making people “multi-cultural” or even “bi-cultural” it has instead made people confused, and Mr. Gundogan’s case is a perfect example of this confusion.

Judging by this case, Mr. Gundogan still identifies with his Turkish background. This may be due in no small part to the fact that—as the 15 May 2018 article notes— “many German Turks say they still face discrimination because of their ethnicity and religion”. Indeed, the German state might not have been as successful in assimilating its sizable Turkish immigrant population as it would like to believe. And this is the main point. There is nothing shameful in Mr. Gundogan’s inscription to the Turkish President itself, and it is not helpful to applaud—or disparage—Mr. Gundogan’s choice without being cognizant of the fact that many factors outside of his control likely went into his decision to call Mr. Erdogan “my president”. As an individual citizen, Mr. Gundogan has every right to express his admiration for any political figure that he desires. This is because footballers are not robots; they are human beings with very real human emotions. Despite the rationalizing tendencies of the modern world (in Weberian terms), emotion still plays a major role.

Many scholars of nationalism recognize the deep emotive bond created by national identities. And despite the emphasis on means-end rationality in our societies and the growing importance of capital interests in modern football, nationalism remains a major force in our world. There is no “global village”, despite what post-modern globalists may believe. If national bonds and cultural identities were as unimportant as the proponents of globalization claim, then it is likely that Germany might have been more successful in integrating its Turkish community. By the same token, it is also likely that the German FA would not have expressed their concerns with Mr. Gundogan’s actions in such overtly nationalist terms. For instance, the president of the DFB, Mr. Grindel, said that “football and the DFB stand for values that Mr. Erdogan does not sufficiently respect”. Similarly, the coach of the German national team, Joachim Low, said that “when you play for Germany you represent German values”. Were it not for Germany’s distaste for Mr. Erdogan, it is unlikely that the jersey would have been an issue; indeed, it is the two-faced nature of modern liberalism which has caused this event to become overblown: according to modern liberals, multiculturalism is good to a degree…but when it begins to threaten the nation’s values, it becomes a problem. Yet these are two irreconcilable positions.

Just as Edward Said noted that “orientalism” said more about the West than it did about the East, so too does this small event tell us more about Western “liberalism” in Germany than it does about Turkey and its supposed Eastern “despotism”. We see that the utopian visions of “multiculturalism” and “pluralism” in the West are—in reality—very difficult to achieve in practice. Despite the continuing attacks on nationalism throughout the world, the emotive connection that individuals feel towards their national identities, cultures, and values are shown both by Mr. Gundogan’s actions, as well as by the DFB’s response to those actions. By bringing in the concept of values, the DFB is making a judgement on Mr. Gundogan’s moral character which may be unwarranted; Mr. Gundogan could have been merely expressing his affinity for the Turkish nation rather than for a leader specifically. Yet this alternative interpretation is not provided by the main(lame)stream media which prefers to spread messages of division.

 

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Mr. Gundogan, Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place in the Midst of a Geopolitical Struggle. Image Courtesy of: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2018/05/15/how-a-soccer-jersey-sparked-the-latest-germany-turkey-spat/?utm_term=.c36280ce21f4

 

In short, ignoring the emotive aspects of national identity may be doing the world more harm than good by encouraging divisions and the creation of a dangerous double standard. The world would do well to recognize that, as scholars like Anthony D. Smith and Walker Connor have noted, nationalism will not be going away any time soon.

 

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Beitar Trump Jerusalem and the Absurdity of Modernity

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The “absurdity of modernity” that Michel Foucault refers to should be in the back of all of our minds as the presidency of Donald Trump unfolds; indeed, it is precisely why we should not be too surprised when new absurdities pop up. The latest absurdity is the decision by Jerusalem football club—and six-time Israeli champions—Beitar Jerusalem FC to change their name to “Beitar ‘Trump’ Jerusalem in celebration of the U.S. President’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, thereby recognizing the ancient city as the Israeli capital. An announcement on the club’s Facebook page reads:

For 70 years, Jerusalem has been awaiting international recognition, until President Donald Trump, in a courageous move, recognized Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel. President Trump has shown courage and true love of the Israeli people and their capital, and these days other countries are following his lead in giving Jerusalem its rightful status.

While this is certainly surprising—and more than a little absurd—the question remains, what does this mean in terms of the future?

 

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Certainly An Interesting Image. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.newsweek.com/beitar-jerusalem-israel-donald-trump-name-change-us-embassy-israel-benjamin-923645

 

As a state which exhibits the darkest side of ethnic nationalism and seems to reject an inclusive form of civic nationalism, Israel has often come under fire by critics. According to a 2017 U.N. report, Israel was classified as an “apartheid state”. Of course, defenders of Israel vehemently denied this characterization of the Jewish state. These contradictory descriptions of the Israeli state—and its actions—will, of course, constrain U.S. President Donald Trump going forward. Is he a “Friend of Zion”, as the banners around Jerusalem announce? Or does he believe in an “America First” policy, as he continually claims?

 

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A Friend Of Zion? But…shouldn’t’ the U.S. President be a friend of the American People First? Image Courtesy Of: http://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/israel/2018/may/lsquo-trump-is-a-friend-of-zion-rsquo

 

A short look at Edward Said’s seminal 1978 text Orientalism can offer a few explanations. As Said notes, “standing near the center of all European [and now the American imperium’s] politics in the East was the question of minorities, whose ‘interests’ the Powers, in each its own way, claimed to protect and represent” (Said 1978: 191). Given this background, then, it should not be surprising that American foreign policy is stuck in the Orientalist logic of old—support of minorities—in a classic divide and rule strategy. Indeed, we have seen the same in Iraq and Syria (with the Kurdish minority) and elsewhere to a lesser extent (Yemen, for instance). But just how long can this policy hold, specifically in Israel?

Indeed, given that so few countries (just nine, including the United States and Israel) voted against the UN resolution rejecting the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, it would seem that the United States is quickly becoming an international pariah (to use the classic terminology favored by news media).  Despite this, it seems that this process could open the door to a better future for both Israelis and Palestinians.

The first step would be to recognize that the status quo cannot—and will not—help anyone involved. Indeed, the Palestinian entity in Israel has been shrinking for years. Additionally, a few recent opinion polls (like this one, cited by the Jerusalem Post in 2017) seem to point to a plurality of Israeli Jews and Palestinians calling for a two-state solution. Indeed, the days of Apartheid style segregation—and settler colonialism—should be put behind us, since they do nothing for either the Israeli state or the Palestinian entity; rather, such an unstable situation puts both in a constant state of turmoil. Indeed, the fact that over fifty people have died in recent protests—following the embassy opening—attests to the degree of this instability.

 

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Whither Palestine? Image Courtesy Of: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/opinions/israel-settlements/?utm_term=.1c0637d70bd4

 

Of course, criticism of the status quo often results in accusations of “anti-Semitism”. Again, Said’s Orientalism is useful in explaining why such criticisms miss the mark. In a lengthy passage, Said explains the rationale behind his book:

 

The life of an Arab Palestinian in the West, particularly in America, is disheartening. There exists here an almost unanimous consensus that politically he does not exist, and when it is allowed that he does, it is either as a nuisance or as an Oriental. The web of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism, dehumanizing ideology holding in the Arab or the Muslim is very strong indeed, and it is this web which every Palestinian has come to feel as his uniquely punishing destiny. It has made matters worse for him to remark that no person academically involved with the Near East—no Orientalist, that is—has ever in the United States culturally and politically identified himself wholeheartedly with the Arabs; certainly there have been identifications on some level, but they have never taken an “acceptable” form as has liberal American identification with Zionism, and all too frequently they have been radically flawed by their association with discredited political and economic interests (oil-company and State Department Arabists, for example) or with religion” (Said 1978: 27).

 

In short, there is a major anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bias in American (and Western) presentations of the region and indeed the Israeli/Palestinian conflict more generally; this—in itself—constitutes a form of anti-Semitism given that Arabs (like Jews) are themselves a Semitic people (an argument put forth in Orientalism). And this is another reason why the current status quo—consisting of low level violent conflict between Israeli security forces and Palestinian terrorist groups, and de-facto segregation between Israel’s Arab and Muslim populations—cannot stand for long. Both Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs deserve to live with dignity and in peace. And it is clear that the current situation cannot offer this kind of peace.

Perhaps, by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the United States will finally be able to rid itself of the burden to defend Israel—a country the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut—and move forward domestically without becoming embroiled in Middle Eastern conflicts in the future. After all, it is Israel’s responsibility to both its Jewish and Arab citizens to ensure equality before the law; it is also Israel’s responsibility (like any sovereign nation) to enforce their own borders without encroaching on Palestinian lands. Now that the capital has been recognized (and one contentious issue taken off the table), there might be hope that both sides can move towards a reconciliation with both their Arab neighbors (and Arab citizens); there might also be hope that the United States can recede from its current position as an imperial overseer of Israel and tend to more urgent domestic matters.

Time will tell as to what road both Israel and the United States take in the Middle East, as well as if Beitar Jerusalem’s name change will hold. While Beitar’s move is not surprising—given their far-right fan base—it is my hope that the name change will commemorate the transition to a more peaceful, and less belligerent, Israel going forward. Regardless of the football team’s name change, lasting peace in the region is important and it is increasingly clear that the current status quo will not deliver that kind of peace.

 

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Beitar’s La Familia Ultra Group are Known For Their (Ethnic) Nationalist Identity. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.espn.com/soccer/beitar-jerusalem/story/3497455/beitar-jerusalem-announce-they-will-rename-club-after-trump