Over the past few weeks, the Turkish-German footballer Mesut Ozil has been mired in controversy regarding a photograph he and his Turkish-German teammate Ilkay Gundogan took with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in May a month before the 2018 Turkish presidential elections.
The incident stirred some criticism at the time from German fans and pundits, and some leading football figures in Germany, among them Oliver Bierhoff, went on to say that neither Ozil nor Gundogan should be allowed to play for the German national team in the football World Cup.
However, these calls were ignored by the vast majority of German fans, who were focusing on the build-up to the 2018 World Cup in which Germany was seeking to defend its title.
The World Cup then came and went, and Germany saw its worst performance in the tournament since 1978 after crashing out in the group stage.
One month after Germany’s catastrophic defence of its title the photograph issue resurfaced. While Gundogan decided to stay silent on the issue, Ozil responded to the criticisms, making him the focus of the campaign.
This was ironic as Gundogan’s original post on social media had featured the caption “my president” under the photograph with Erdogan, something which should have made him a bigger target for allegations of questionable loyalty towards Germany.
Ozil explained his photograph with the Turkish president by saying that he had met Erdogan at a charity event in London and that this had not been the first time this had happened since the two men had met multiple times since 2010.
He went on to say that his meeting with Erdogan was not a “political statement” but was merely a meeting with the occupant of the highest office in his parents’ home country.
He insisted that despite his loyalty towards his ancestral background, he was still loyal towards Germany, “I have two hearts, one German and one Turkish,” Ozil said.
The controversy has since culminated in Ozil’s early retirement from international football and his statement that this decision was a result of “racism” within German football, a stance that the German football association has rejected.
While it is unfortunate that such a talented footballer should have felt he had no option but to take early retirement, it is not unfounded to question Ozil’s loyalty towards Germany.
When the German national anthem had played before football matches, Ozil had earlier not joined in singing it with his fellow countrymen.
Other German players of immigrant backgrounds, such as Jerome Boateng and Sami Khedira, had participate in the singing.
Both these players had used to be silent during the anthem in the past, but now they sing for their country.
The same cannot be said for Ozil who in the last World Cup did not sing the German national anthem.
No one should be forced or pressured into singing a national anthem. However, when it comes to a player like Ozil, who already had question marks hanging over his loyalty towards Germany and German values, his decision to stay silent during the national anthem even after the Erdogan debacle has made him an easy target for criticism.
Ozil should not be surprised that his meeting with Erdogan has caused some to question whether he believes in German values, among them the freedom of speech and democracy.
This is because by meeting Erdogan he did not merely meet with the “occupant of the highest office in Turkey” but also with an authoritarian leader who has given himself powers while cancelling checks and balances, thus driving the once democratic Turkey into dictatorship.
He has imprisoned journalists for holding opposing views and has had his supporters buy out opposition news publications. A recent example was when the pro-Erdogan company Demiroren Holding bought out the liberal publication Hurriyet.
Moreover, while Erdogan was on a state visit to Washington, some Turks living in the US protested against his visit outside the White House and were attacked by Erdogan’s thugs for so doing.
Erdogan has also launched attacks on the Syrian city of Afrin so that he can destroy the Kurdish stronghold in the area. According to an article in the UK newspaper the Independent, the Erdogan government has been accused of recruiting and training ex-Islamic State (IS) group members to carry out attacks on Afrin.
Erdogan has also appealed to the nostalgia some people in Turkey and the Middle East may have for the former Ottoman Empire, a state known for its violent and bloody history and for treating religious minorities as second-class citizens, even going as far as kidnapping Christian children and forcing them to convert to Islam so that they could be recruited into the Empire’s Janissary forces.
Erdogan has created diplomatic disasters for some European states, and just this year he threatened Austria with a “Crusader-Crescent war” after the Austrian authorities shut down seven foreign-funded mosques and expelled their imams after a government investigation found them to be conducting illegal activities (one of the mosques was funded by Turkish Islamic cultural associations).
By threatening a war of this sort Erdogan was channeling rhetoric used by Islamist terrorist organisations.
Furthermore, last year Erdogan tried to undermine Dutch sovereignty by attempting to send Turkish ministers to rally Turks living in the Netherlands to vote in the Turkish constitutional referendum.
After the Dutch authorities refused to let the Turkish ministers enter the country, Erdogan supporters rallied in the streets and clashed with the police.
Erdogan then added fuel to the fire by calling the Dutch authorities “fascists” and “Nazi remnants” as well as accusing them of taking part in the massacre of Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995.
This was ironic considering that his government has actively denied Ottoman Turkish involvement in the 1915 Armenian Genocide in the former Ottoman Empire that cost the lives of 1.5 million Armenians.
In meeting a leader who in many ways embodies the antithesis of German and European values, both Ozil and Gundogan foolishly and irresponsibly showed their support for non-German ideals, meaning that neither can play the role of the victim in this situation.
Erdogan’s accusation of “Dutch fascism” is also uncannily similar to the way Ozil has branded German football fans and organisations as “racist” in order to become a victim in people’s eyes and to divert attention away from the larger issues at hand.
It is also a tactic that some members of Muslim communities in Europe have used to deflect criticism of unlawful practices they may be engaged in, such as female genital mutilation.
It must be repeated to those who are sympathetic towards Ozil or believe that Western Europeans are fascists that Germany is not a racist society.
Racist societies do not give people of migrant and minority backgrounds the opportunity and the means to succeed, both of which have been used by Ozil.
Racist societies do not welcome refugees from differing cultural and racial backgrounds with open arms, and racist societies do not elect people from minority ethnic backgrounds to parliament.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Football and assimilation