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Football and Geopolitics: The Media Impetus for the U.S. Strike on Syria, What It Might Mean for The World, and Why Media Literacy is Important

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AUTHOR’S UPDATE  (7.20.2017): A few more news stories have come out recently regarding this topic which are worth sharing. The first is a piece from The Nation which, while pointing out the inconsistencies surrounding the alleged chemical attacks in Syria, serves as an anti-Trump piece arguing that the current U.S. President deliberately fabricated the intelligence reports regarding the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The second is an article from Mother Jones. This piece is still anti-Trump, but it adds the important point that the Obama administration was also accused by journalist Seymour Hersh of fabricating chemical weapons stories in Syria (in fact, The New Yorker apparently declined to publish an article accusing Mr. Obama of fabricating chemical attacks in Syria). The point of this second “Author’s Note” is not, of course, to celebrate or denigrate either Mr. Trump or Mr. Obama. Rather, the point is to show why media literacy is still important. It is beyond politics since we should not question mainstream media in order to celebrate political figures we like or trash political figures we dislike; rather we should consistently question mainstream media narratives–especially if they don’t add up–regardless of our political persuasions. Otherwise we risk fueling the dangerous kinds of fragmentation we have seen recently in society.
Author’s Note: This Was First Posted on 7 April 2017 But The Text Was Not Visible. I am Re-posting, with some new stories and analysis included. The main point here is to take a post-modern approach in the tradition of French Sociologist Michel Foucault; we must be cognizant of the fact that there is no one single “Truth” with a capital “T”; in order to make sense of mainstream media we must strengthen our media literacy.  

 

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The Bleak State Of Syrian Pitches During the Civil War. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/syria_football_on_the_frontline

 

On 22 March the BBC came out with an eye-opening look at football in Syria during the ongoing six-year civil war. The article opens with the claim that “since the uprising began in 2011, there has been little positivity spoken in connection with the country, but then there is the remarkable story of Syria’s national football team. The relationship that exists between this national team and its people depicts the power of sport on a personal, cultural and political level”. Given this excerpt, one would be forgiven for believing that the BBC was publishing a humanistic piece. The reality—as is the case with most modern news media—is something less than humanist; after all the media (given its relationship to capital) is not wholly independent. Unfortunately, the authors Richard Conway and David Lockwood cannot resist bringing the political—in this case from a biased perspective—into their piece:

 

A month before the victory against China, Syria drew against former World Cup semi-finalists South Korea. These results mean gradually, the footballing world is starting to pay attention to Syria for sporting reasons. But this is not entirely a good news story.

There is no ignoring the control that president Bashar Assad’s regime tries to exert over its citizens and, once again, sport is no different. The relative success of the team is both a passing panacea and a propaganda opportunity, the former for the people and the latter for the president. To present a thriving football culture to the world fits in entirely with the agenda of normalisation, of having quelled the rebellion, of stabilisation and control. However, as we discovered, the reality is far from that.

 

The emphasis here is less on the football team and more on the ills of the Assad government, which sends a political message in the guise of a humanist piece of sports journalism. While the journalists claim that “the rapid return of football to these areas shows the government’s desire to use the game to display life as returning to normal and of the war as being won. What could be more normal than going to a football match? But like the normality, this ‘growth’ of the game is an illusion;”, it seems that both fans and footballers might have a different opinion.

The authors cite one un-named fan as saying “It is very important to keep hope and to stay optimistic. Live our life in normal way, in sport, in everything. The kids need to live a normal life, what’s happening is not their fault, they need to watch sport, go to their schools, go to public parks, they have to”. The “hope” that this fan speaks of is certainly essential, and increased violence in the country will not serve him/her —or the children—in the long term. Footballer Mohammad al-Khalaf says “we are angry because the families are separated by the war. All the Syrians’ families are separated, that’s why we have so much anger. But what shall we do?

We have to accept our destiny and adapt to it. We didn’t want this to happen but it wasn’t in our hands, they are trying to destroy the people. We hope that it will end and in God’s will we will be able to return to our country as soon as possible”. Again, the footballer’s description of the situation can be read in many ways; it is a lament for the destruction of his country without taking a particular stance on the issues. His next statement that is quoted is more nationalist: “sport has nothing to do with politics. We have to move forward and sport has a message and we should relay this message. If the Syrian team plays with any other country, for sure and from the bottom of my heart I will back it and support it”. The focus here is not on a particular government or political group, rather it is about the Syrian nation, the Syrian people—perhaps not even the state at all! The article even notes that assistant coach Tarek Jabban said he coaches for the love of his country, despite making just $100 (£80) a month. The team’s star defender, Omar al Midani, might put it best when he says “The football was much better before the war. We were happy, the only thing we cared about was football and school. Now the only thing we care about is to have our country back like it used to be”. This statement—more than that of any other person cited in the BBC piece, shows that there are at least some Syrian footballers who recognize the importance of the state; whether they are nationalist or not is immaterial, what matters is that they have a respect for the state independent of its leader—insofar as it provides law and order. The fact that Mr. Assad has managed to stay in power throughout this bloody six-year civil war implies some sort of support, thus these sentiments should not be surprising.

The article cites Brigadier General Mowaffak Joumaa who (unsurprisingly, given his role as a soldier) gives the nationalist explanation that “the Syrian government is defending our people and [is] keep[ing] Syria united, this country in land and people”, yet the authors of the article conspicuously eschew any statements remotely sympathetic to the regime (as an impartial media outlet would be expected to do). Instead, they write that Syrian President Bashar al Assad:

 

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Sports Is Used In Syria To Support Mr. Assad’s Regime In Its Darkest Days. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/syria_football_on_the_frontline

has led a war against opposition forces within his country for more than six years […and] that there’s nothing funny about him [al Assad] to those trapped within the country’s borders or living under his authoritarian rule. Many here will not talk of him openly. Most will not even dare speak his name when asked about their feelings towards him. The reach and menace of the regime runs deep in the Syrian psyche. What started as peaceful demonstrations, all part of a popular uprising across the region in 2011 known as the Arab Spring, quickly degenerated into a vicious and bloody war.

 

Again, the BBC’s piece is perpetuating the image of Assad as a killer and “menace” so as to (perhaps indirectly) influence Western policy (or readers’ support of the latter) vis-à-vis Syria, while also downplaying the fact that there are fans and players who just want things back to where they were. Unfortunately, because of a refusal to even acknowledge an alternative “truth”, the BBC’s work can be viewed as a form of intellectual imperialism. It is one characterized by media narratives and tropes that are repeated enough to become pseudo-facts.

Unfortunately, intellectual imperialism—even in the world of sports journalism—has its consequences. Less than two weeks after this piece was published with the passage “The Syrian government also stands accused of war crimes against its own people for numerous egregious breaches of human rights such as using banned chemical weapons and bombing water supplies” [my emphasis], the Syrian regime was reported to have used chemical weapons on its own people during an attack on Idlib province on Tuesday 4 April 2017. On Thursday 6 April 2017, doctors in Turkey confirmed that chemical weapons had been used in an attack that killed at least 72 people. Despite the reports, the fact remains that the Syrian state could stand to gain nothing from conducting such an attack at this stage; much of the world had grown to see that Assad was far less of a menace than ISIS/ISIL/DAESH and even the footballers and fans cited by the BBC had expressed their desires for a return to normalcy.

Without resorting to conspiracy theories, it is still important to keep an open mind and the words of one “expert” are useful to explain why this “attack” is so suspect. The Los Angeles Times’ Matt Pearce rightly points out that “there’s a mystery at the heart of an apparent chemical weapons attack in Syria this week: Syria’s government, suspected of carrying out the attack, was supposed to have gotten rid of all its chemical weapons in 2014”. Indeed, this is true (it even appears as a link beneath the Guardian’s story reporting this week’s attack). The “expert” cited by the LA Times is Markus Binder, a chemical weapons expert at the University of Maryland. According to the Times, he “still had basic questions about the attack that need to be confirmed, including exactly what chemicals were used and whether the Syrian government carried out the attack”. The LA Times points out that “the use of chemicals makes [no] immediate sense, given that the government has been using explosives that often kill civilians.” Mr Binder adds “Why now? It puzzles.’”. This alone should make any impartial observer pause for thought.

Now, given the United State’s attack on a Syrian airbase on 6-7 April 2017 in response to the purported use of chemical weapons (which Syria denies), we must think even harder: What is the motivation for this kind of aggression? There are three likely scenarios that come most immediately to mind:

  • The Megalomaniacal Theory; Mr. Trump Attacked Syria to further his own political agenda: This theory has three inter-related components:
    1. By attacking Russia’s ally Syria in such a conspicuous manner, Mr. Trump may have thought that he could put an end to the speculations that the Kremlin paved his way to the White House.
    2. This attack also serves to differentiate Mr. Trump from his predecessor—former president Barack Obama—during the first 100 days. By definitively acting on the alleged use of chemical weapons by Mr. Assad, Mr. Trump can show his ability to follow through when a “red line” is crossed (something Mr. Obama did not do). Similarly, if Syria did indeed use chemical weapons, it would show the failure of Mr. Obama in the realm of negotiation since he “agreed to a Russian deal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program” in the first place.
    3. Trump may have believed that the use of force would restore credibility for the United States in the international realm, which feeds into a third theory.
  • The America First Theory: Since Mr. Trump campaigned on an “America First” platform, he may have seen this as a simple way to assert American military strength at the outset of his presidency in order to send a message to other geopolitical rivals like Iran and North Korea. The fact that Mr. Trump’s administration has been keen to point out that “no people were targeted” and that Russia was notified before the attack (even the sections of the base where Russians were present were not targeted by the strike) shows that the administration saw the airbase as a fairly safe target, PR wise, for a “one-off” strike. The Trump Administration may see this kind of a one-off strike as allowing them to negotiate for a settlement from a “position of strength”; threats are much more credible after force has been used. This approach would also signal a perceived return of the United States to global prominence.

 

Likely, the explanation for the United States’ first open use of force in Syria is a combination of elements from these three theories. The fact that the two candidates who fought a bitter presidential campaign should agree on the issue of using force in Syria is eye-opening, as is the coincidental nature of timing. While former presidential candidate and current Florida senator Marco Rubio thinks the timing of Mr. Assad’s attacks is coincidental since it came in the wake of tacit American support for the Assad regime; I would go the other way (while wondering about Mr. Rubio’s thought process) and point out that the timing is coincidental since it comes at a time when Mr. Assad is re-gaining (at least some) lost legitimacy while Mr. Trump is losing legitimacy (judging by polls that had put him at 46 % approval rating). It was a perfect storm that may have forced the American President into a corner, acting on any information he had—whether real or fake.

The reality is that if the state has an agenda, too often the media supports that agenda. While we should all be cognizant of conspiratorial stories (like those claiming that the Daily Mail deleted a story in January 2013 about a false-flag attack in Syria involving chemical weapons) we also need to recognize (in the Foucauldian tradition) that there is no one, single, “Truth”; there is nothing to say that mainstream media is telling “the Truth” all the time. As a country that fought a civil war–and emerged from it better off (and without major meddling of foreign powers)–the United States should be the first to recognize that there is little “Truth” (with a capital “T”) when it comes to civil war. There are embedded messages in every news story we read. That even a humanist story about a nation’s football team can carry political undertones—in this case directed against the Assad regime in Syria—is worrisome, regardless of Mr. Assad’s record (he is not a saint after all; politics is a dark game and political leaders rarely are saints).

 

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No One Can Be a Saint When a Country Is This Divided. Readers Should Imagine What They Would Think If Their Own Country Was as Divided as Syria Is Now. Would They Be Happy With Foreign Intervention? Would They Support The Government? Would They Support the Rebels? Empathy is Important in Moments Like This, Since It Allows For a Humanist Approach to the Issues at Hand. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/syria_football_on_the_frontline

 

It means that—when used hand in hand with the policies of the state—the media can act as a shepherd of the masses; the media can condition public opinion before any action is taken by the state so as to mitigate the possible negative reactions to the state. Time will tell what the fallout of Mr. Trump’s actions will be in Syria and the wider Middle East; in the mean time the best we can do is be cognizant of the biases inherent in every kind of news story we read—whether about sport or politics—so as to increase our media literacy. Honing these skills will allow us to avoid being drawn in by “fake news”, while also allowing us to take a more critical view of mainstream media.

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Globalism Vs Nationalism In Turkey

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Yet another bomb was detonated in Turkey over the weekend, this time in the Central Anatolian city of Kayseri. A public bus was targeted by a car bomb, resulting in the death of 13 off-duty soldiers and 56 wounded. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group, for the bombings saying “The style and goals of the attacks clearly show the aim of the separatist terrorist organisation is to trip up Turkey, cut its strength and have it focus its energy and forces elsewhere. We know that these attacks we are being subjected to are not independent from the developments in our region, especially in Iraq and Syria”. Interestingly, the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) condemned the bombing in a statement that read, in part, “our call is towards ending the politics, tone and language that creates tension, polarization, hostility, chaos and conflict both in terms of internal and foreign affairs”.  Although the party has talked a good game, the fact that they are still close to the PKK has roiled many in Turkey; that they were swift to condemn the attack however suggests that they might realize that the recent shift in the PKK’s tactics will not be good for anyone.

 

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The HDP Talk a Good Game, But Can They Follow It Up With Concrete Actions? Image Courtesy Of: https://twitter.com/hdpdiplomacy/status/810059726667055104/photo/1

 

After the bus bombing protestors in Istanbul and Kayseri ransacked HDP offices in an alarming display of anger that—if left unchecked—could lead to the kind of violence motivated by ethnic difference that has been proven to lead to much worse.

 

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Ultra Nationalists Attack HDP Building in Kayseri. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.insanhaber.com/guncel/son-dakika-kayseri-de-hdp-binasina-saldiri-h81889.html

State media—which, as always, is suspect—reported a more refreshing story about nationwide anti-PKK protests, including many in mainly Kurdish areas such as Hakkari province and Diyarbakir province. The Anadolu Agency story reports that “Mehmet Akdeniz, the provincial head of Confederation of Public Servants Trade Unions (Memur-Sen) in Sirnak, said people from all walks of life including Turks, Kurds, and Arabs united for Turkey. ‘The PKK terrorist organization that wanted to smash this brotherhood attacked our people who were going to work and school, and the soldiers who were going on weekend leave’.” The Twitter feed for Kurds News posted pictures and videos of Kurds protesting the PKK, corroborating the Anadolu Agency story. If this is indeed true—that Turks, Kurds, and Arabs united for Turkey—then that is notable.

 

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Kurds Protest the PKK All Over Turkey. Images Courtesy Of: https://twitter.com/newskurds

 

As Mr. Erdogan pointed out, these attacks are not independent from what is happening in Syria, and one of the perpetrators of the 10 December 2016 Vodafone Arena bombing was revealed to have come from Syria.

The relationship between the violence in Syria and Turkey represents the tensions between nationalism and globalism that have ben revealed by both Brexit and Donald Trump’s election victory in the United States. The YPG, the Syrian offshoot of the PKK, have no ties to Turkey or Syria while the concurrent rise of ISIS/ISIL/DAESH in Syria and Iraq has shown the abject failure of Syrian and Iraqi nationalism, revealing the “imagined community” aspects of both countries’ nationalisms (which where only formed out of the remnants of French and British colonialism). Because the YPG similarly have no respect for national identity, they think nothing of committing brutal attacks on Turkish soil, attacks which only serve to alienate what little sympathy they may have at this point. The vast majority of Kurds and Turks have no qualms with one another on an interpersonal basis. However, if the PKK—perhaps in collusion with the YPG—continue their campaign of cowardly attacks on Turkish security forces and civilians alike, they will be further marginalized. The widespread support for security forces in the wake of the stadium bombing shows that the majority of Turks—regardless of ethnic background—are preferring unity to division. This is why the United States’—particularly during the Obama regime—continued support for the YPG in Syria has been such a bone of contention for Turkey. For all the talk of human rights that emanates from Washington, the bureaucrats and politicians seem blind to the fact that normal citizens—like myself—feel unsafe in the Istanbul subway because another bomb could go off at any moment. In Ankara, the climate is so tense that a “State of Emergency” has been declared at sporting events and fans will no longer be able to park their cars near stadiums or bring bags to games. Supporting groups who engage in this kind of violent terrorism that effects daily life should never be tolerated.

But the contradictions of “human rights” are evident for all to see, and the re-settlement of Syrian refugees is just one example of this. Current US President-elect Donald Trump has voiced his opposition to the further settlement of Syrian refugees in the past, saying  “We’ve admitted tens of thousands with no effective screening plan. We have no idea who we are letting in. You’ve seen what happened.” Many on the left in the United States dismiss Mr. Trump’s rhetoric as “Islamophobic” or “xenophobic”, but the problematic results of resettlement have been seen. After a 22-year-old Syrian refugee was arrested for groping a 13-year-old girl in Lowell, Massachusetts, “The city manager of Lowell told his local newspaper Tuesday [07/12/2016] that he was not even notified by the U.S. State Department or its resettlement contractor that Syrians were being delivered to his community.” This follows some of the secrecy surrounding Mr. Obama’s resettlement plan reported by WND:

 

The chairmen of the House and Senate judiciary committees are demanding the Obama administration provide details of a secret resettlement deal in which the U.S. has agreed to take up to 1,800 mostly Muslim asylum seekers who have been rejected by Australia as illegal aliens.

Congress only learned of the deal through media reports two weeks ago and, according to a letter sent to administration officials by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the deal is not only a matter of grave national security concern, but it could be illegal.

Notably, the only sites reporting on these kinds of things are Christian outlets like WND or Breitbart, which claims that the 110,000 migrants President Obama plans to bring to the United States will cost Americans 70.4 Billion USD over the next 75 years. State media—which is viewed as “legitimate” by many Americans—has remained conspicuously silent on these issues.

Perhaps that is because President Obama’s tenure has been—to put it nicely—characterized by many less than effective policies in the Middle East. Famous media personality Colonel Oliver North went so far as to call it “genocide”:

 

In the Middle East, the legacy of the Obama admin is genocide, a horrific refugee diaspora and a complete destabilization of the Middle East.

When Obama made his grand apology tour, utopian Arab spring speech in Cairo in June 2009, Syria had 23m people.

Today 12m people have been displaced; 400k+ Killed in Action; and 1.6m wounded.

Syrian civil war, Obama bug-out from Iraq, rise of ISIS, the IS invasion of Iraq, Al-Baghdadi’s “caliphate,” the overthrow of Gadhafi, global spread of radical Islam to 38 countries – all because of the Obama administrations weakness & failure to lead.

Even state media (The Washington Post) ran an editorial on 15 December 2016 critical of President Obama’s failures in the region:

The administration creatively pioneered a third option, which it pursued not only in Syria but also in Ukraine and elsewhere: Between action and inaction, it chose inconsequential action. There is the Obama doctrine! We backed moderate Syrian rebels, but not as seriously or as generously as the immoderate Syrian rebels were backed.

 

That state media in the United States should voice these kinds of opinions is notable, even if the editorial does not underline the fact that some of the Obama administrations actions did have consequences; opposition to President Assad would never have gotten this strong without American “action”. Now millions more have died in Syria than ever would have under a (relatively) stable Assad regime. But human rights told us that President Assad was a “bad man”, right? On the surface, yes. But beneath the surface there are real geopolitical ambitions that could only be achieved through a destabilization of the region and the regime.

The reason I bring this up is because, after being back in Istanbul for a week, I can feel a tension that didn’t exist in the past. A past before the Syrian war, a past before weekly bombings. And the fact that President Obama had a hand in creating this environment is something that—as both an American and a Turk—I find deeply disturbing. One way that the Syrian conflict has seeped into Turkish daily life is the presence of three million refugees. Mr. Trump thinks they would have a problem settling into American society; given that they have problems in Turkey—itself a Muslim country—adds some credence to his argument. Take this story from the Washington Post, about how Arabic signs are being taken down in Istanbul’s Fatih district which has become “Little Syria”.

 

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What Happened to Turkey’s Language Revolution? Arabic Dominates Storefronts in Istanbul. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/arabic-signs-face-removal-threat-in-istanbuls-little-syria/2016/11/25/ddc2cd10-b322-11e6-bc2d-19b3d759cfe7_story.html?utm_term=.5be3679a9154

 

While Turkey has opened its borders to Syrian refugees, allowing them access to education and even giving them business opportunities (much of the Arabic language signage mentioned in the story above is for restaurants), the hospitality seems to have been lost on some of the Syrian business owners. The Post reports that “Some Syrian residents are vowing to ignore the order, seeing it as an assault on their culture,” and a dual national Turkish-Syrian restauranteur predicts that attempts to remove the signage will be resisted by violence; Mehmet Basil Souccar said “You can be sure that if they enforce this order, there will be a very ugly picture in Aksaray”.

Mr. Souccar’s comments are—to me—disgustingly disrespectful. Turkey is not Syria. Refugees are guests, and as such they should do their best to adjust to their new surroundings. To threaten violence against the country that is hosting you is extremely disrespectful, to put it in as kind of terms as possible. If we want refugees to be tolerated in the era of globalism, we cannot afford to focus on ethnic difference to the extent that it renders assimilation impossible and creates an “us vs. them” mentality. But it is part of the struggle between globalism and nationalism that was unleashed in the post Cold War era and that is now coming to a head following the disastrous policies of the West in Syria.

The responses to this struggle are varied, but ignoring the enduring power of nationalism would be a mistake. The decision of the PKK to target the state in public settings—like a soccer stadium and public transportation—could prove to be a mistake. If Turks and Kurds can come together, recognizing their common destiny as citizens of one country and work together for a more equal society, then there may be a way out of the current vortex of violence that is hovering over the country. In order to do this, however, a less fascistic and more inclusive brand of civic—and not ethnic—conception of Turkish nationalism must be cultivated. The failures of globalism have shown that no government can force people to think in a certain way, that is up to the individual.

 

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Image Courtesy Of: https://mulpix.com/post/953431286256553315.html

The Varying Roles of Turkish Airlines: From Football to Foreign Policy

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A few weeks ago I boarded an early summer Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul to Izmir and, like weary travellers all over the world, slumped into my seat. My first task was to explore the seat-back pocket in front of me. Not currently in need of any Davidoff or Hermes products I eschewed the in-flight shopping magazine and dug into the airline magazine Skylife instead. Alongside the usual articles about cities to visit (Mardin, Brugges, and Sochi, in this case) and interesting foods I stumbled upon one piece focusing on football. Curious, I dug in. It was an interview with Besiktas’s prolific Sengalese striker Demba Ba. The short interview had just twelve questions, mainly standard ones focusing on the player’s past exploits and favorite players—the (now) standard Messi or Ronaldo question, for instance. None of this was remotely surprising. What was surprising, however, was the focus on Islam and religiosity. A quarter of the interview—three questions—focused on the player’s religious views, two of which have no relation to football whatsoever. I have provided these three questions below for reference purposes courtesy of Skylife; the bold sections are the questions put forth by the interviewer:

Though you’re born in France, you’re deeply attached to the Senegalese culture and Islam. Did this play any part in your decision to come to Turkey?

I try to be a good Muslim; this definitely had an effect but it wasn’t the only reason. The fact that Turkey was mostly a Muslim country was very important and it enabled me to live easily.

Recently, you’ve made a donation for a mosque in Senegal, Koussanar, where your mother was born. What do you think about the mosques in Istanbul? Which one impresses you the most?

Istanbul is home to many beautiful mosques. My favorite is the Mimar Sinan Mosque in Ataşehir. It’s rather new but has a very impressive design. My favorite among the historical ones is the Blue Mosque.

What do you think about Islamophobia? It has been a fast-spreading phenomenon in recent years.

Islam is a 1,400-year-old religion and can’t be besmirched by foul mouthing. If there’s such a widespread feeling towards Islam, we should look ourselves in the mirror and try to find the reasons why. We have to try to promote Islam in a better way.

 

Obviously, these questions seemed out of place to me and stuck out due to the shear number of them. The interviewer goes from asking about penalty shots and how it felt to leave Chelsea to…discussing Islamophobia? It is a strange melding of sports and ideology. But, then again, not so strange given the fact that this is Turkish Airlines. In its quest to become a major global airline Turkish Airlines has paid great attention to the world’s game. They have become the official sponsors of, among others, FC Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, and the UEFA Champions League. They are also official shirt sponsors of French club Olympique Marseille and in the past they also sponsored Manchester United FC.

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Turkish Airlines also profit from Marseille’s celebrations. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.sportbuzzbusiness.fr/turkish-airlines-om-2014-2015-sponsoring-dos.html

Turkish Airlines planes often sport livery advertising the clubs they sponsor:

during the departer to the UEFA Champions League Final in London at airport Dortmund on May 24, 2013 in Dortmund, Germany.

during the departer to the UEFA Champions League Final in London at airport Dortmund on May 24, 2013 in Dortmund, Germany.

Borussia Dortmund. Image Courtesy Of: http://edition.cnn.com/2013/08/19/business/airlines-football-aeroflot-manchester-united/

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Manchester United FC. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?t=798106&page=2

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FC Barcelona. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.airliners.de/turkish-airlines-will-in-die-bundesliga/20751

In any given issue of Skylife it is also easy to find a picture of either (or if you’re lucky, both) Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu or President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the context of inaugurating new projects; in this case the new Ordu-Giresun Airport. The magazine’s online version of a similar story omitted their photos this month but a picture of the in-print version of the same article is provided below for comparison’s sake. In fact, Skylife sometimes reads like a piece of government propaganda—and this is the category that the aforementioned article falls under, at least for me. To explain we have to look deeper into what Turkish Airlines as a business entity means to Turkey.

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Online. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.skylife.com/en/2015-06/the-first-airport-on-land-fill-in-turkey-and-europe

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In Print. Author’s own Photo.

 

Two years ago Turkey analyst Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy mentioned Turkish airlines in an article he wrote about the contradictions inherent in Turkey’s economic growth and simultaneous rising political conservatism. He said that Turkish Airlines is:

“[A] publicly owned company whose ascent exemplifies the new and economically rising Turkey. The airline flies to more than 200 destinations from its hub in Istanbul, up from about 75 in 2002. It twice has been voted Europe’s best airline….Today, [their flights] are full of Europeans flying to Istanbul for connections across Turkey and Eurasia. But even as Turkey’s supercharged economy propels the airline forward, parochial conservatism is pulling it in another direction. The company recently announced that it will ban alcohol from most of its domestic flights. If Turkish Airlines aspires to be a global brand, it needs to stop acting like the Muslim airline for a Muslim country.”

That was in March of 2013. Since then the alcohol ban has been enforced, but that isn’t the only prohibition. The Airline made headlines again two months after that in May of 2013 when it banned flight attendants from wearing red lipstick. This was after the company had already banned flight attendants from sporting dyed red hairstyles, bleached platinum blonde hairstyles, and silver make-up. Later, in December 2014, a Turkish Airlines flight attendant was fired for “sexy” photos and videos that surfaced of her that were taken while she was off the job. The president of the airline’s labor union said that it was “totally down to Turkish Airlines management’s desire to shape the company to fit its own political and ideological stance” since Turkey was becoming “more conservative and more religious”. It is these motives also led to an attempt to change the cabin crew’s outfits earlier in 2013 which, thankfully, never came to fruition (I say that as someone with a modicum of fashion sense, and many designers agree. The outfits in question are below).

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1974. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/25/world/europe/new-uniforms-for-turkish-airlines-create-uproar.html?_r=0

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In 2013 it was back to the….(Ottoman) Past? Images Courtesy Of: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/25/world/europe/new-uniforms-for-turkish-airlines-create-uproar.html?_r=0 AND http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/new-turkish-airlines-uniforms-raise-eyebrows.aspx?pageID=238&nID=40810&NewsCatID=341

 

It is clear that Turkish Airlines, despite being partially privatized, still receives massive amounts of government support—a third airport is being built in Istanbul just so that the national carrier can continue its unprecedented growth as one of the world’s top airlines. What separates Turkish Airlines from the other airlines on the list, however, is the work it does for the government in the shadows.

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Turkish Airline’s Unprecedented Growth from 2003-2013. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.economist.com/news/business/21649509-advance-emirates-etihad-and-qatar-latterly-joined-turkish-airlines-looks-set

 

Back in November of 2011 the victims of a Mogadishu suicide bombing were flown from the Somali capital to Ankara on a Turkish Airlines plane in order to receive treatment. It was part of the beginning of what the BBC termed an “unlikely love affair” between the two countries. For Turkey’s ruling AKP party it seemed to have grabbed the low hanging fruit; reaching out to an impoverished Muslim country forgotten by the west allowed Turkey to step into an unoccupied vacuum and gain influence in the horn of Africa—a strategic geopolitical location.

The move hasn’t made Somalia a top tourist destination yet, however, and many Somalis used the opening Turkey provided to travel to Europe on fake passports, something that Turkish officials were either unaware of or turned a blind eye to. After all, before Turkish Airlines, no major airlines flew to Somalia; they had a monopoly.

In May of 2014 the problems with Turkey’s vision of Muslim solidarity hit hard when a Turkish Airlines security official was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in Mogadishu. This followed a July 2013 attack by al-Qaeda linked al-Shabaab militants on the Turkish embassy in Mogadishu that left several special-forces police injured. Pro-government writers in Turkey claimed that it was Western powers backing al-Shabaab out of jealousy for Turkey’s new role in Somalia that led to the attack. In January of 2015 Turkish nationals were again targeted in Mogadishu days before President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was set to visit.

All the violence suggests that Turkey’s attempts to woo Somalia haven’t been accepted by all parts of Somalian society, despite the best of support from Turkey’s national airline. Still, four years on, this partnership is continuing in the name of “muslim solidarity”. Jason Mosely, from the think tank Chatham House, explains that “Turkey’s efforts in Somalia are much different than the Western approach in the country. It has much more legitimacy and popularity…Turkey has the support of the grassroots of Somalia. They have appreciation because Turkish involvement is only business, no counter-terrorism or anything else.”

Meanwhile just across the horn of Africa, in the sands of another impoverished and country forgotten by the West, Turkish Airlines is serving their country. The place this time? Yemen. On February 10 2013 Yemen and Turkey mutually lifted the entry visa requirement for their citizens travelling between the two countries. With the conflict in Syria raging, it was certainly interesting timing. Before that, in October of 2012, Turkish Airlines started flying four flights a week direct from Istanbul to the cities of Aden and Sana’a—hardly high volume international tourists destinations. Even without Business Insider explicitly stating the connection, it wasn’t hard to connect the dots. It seems that Turkey’s national flag carrier was transporting young Jihadis from Yemen to Turkey, where they made the trip overland to fight in Syria against the Assad regime that Turkey had—and still is—taking a hard line against. These flights were stopped in April 2015 following unrest in Yemen, but it all amounts to too little too late. The damage has already been done.

Turkey’s main geopolitical rival in the region, Iran, also focused on Turkish Airlines and through the Fars News Agency published stories claiming that weapons were being delivered to Yemen under the guise of humanitarian aid and that Taliban fighters were being transported from Pakistan to Turkey’s border with Syria. Although Fars News is known for its sensationalism, these stories did not come out of a vacuum. In February of 2015 some Arab commentators also noted that the reverse has started happening, with Turkey transporting Sunni fighters from Syria to Yemen in order to fight Iranian-backed Shiites:

“Media in Yemen recently reported that Turkey is using this process to repeat the scenario that played out in Syria, when it helped in bringing extremist Sunnis to fight Bashar al-Assad. Now Ankara is trying to do so under the pretext of trade and tourism exchanges in Yemen. Abdullah al-Shami, a senior politician in Yemen, said that Turkey is trying to take advantage of the current political vacuum in southern Yemen to help terrorist organizations operating in its territory.”

The veracity of such claims is, of course, debatable. In the world of Middle Eastern politics events are rarely clear, and the competing interests of those involved mean that reporting is often biased. What is clear—at least for me—is that Turkish Airlines is actively serving the interests of the Turkish government above and beyond its role as a partially privately owned business. Even in an airline magazine’s harmless interview with a football player the subtext is clear: The image of Turkey that is to be presented to the outside world is that of a conservative Muslim country that also likes its football. Unfortunately for the Turkish Airlines security official that lost his life in Somalia al-Shabaab’s terrorists did not accept that image…