German row over Turkish-born football players could deal setback for integration of Muslims

Erdogan is highly unpopular in Germany, especially since comparing German politicians to Nazis in a bitter political row last year.
Sunday 24/06/2018
Wrong photo op. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) poses with German footballers of Turkish origin Ilkay Gundogan (L) and Mesut Ozil in London, on May 13. (AFP)
Wrong photo op. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) poses with German footballers of Turkish origin Ilkay Gundogan (L) and Mesut Ozil in London, on May 13. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - A picture of two German football players of Turkish descent with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan provoked a row highlighting both the toxicity of Turkish leader’s image in Germany as well as the reluctance of German society to fully embrace members of its Muslim minority.

Ilkay Gundogan of Manchester City and Mesut Ozil, a player for Arsenal London, triggered an uproar in Germany when they met with Erdogan in London in May. The players, German citizens with Turkish roots, had their picture taken with Erdogan. Gundogan presented a Manchester City jersey to the Turkish leader and signed it, adding the words “to my president, with respect.”

Cenk Tosun, a member of the Turkish national team who plays at Everton, also attended but Emre Can, a German-Turkish midfielder playing for Liverpool, declined to meet Erdogan. German football officials and politicians say Gundogan, 27, and Ozil, 29, should have stayed away as well.

In a football-mad country that is continually bickering about the best composition for its national team and that was relatively late to embrace players of ethnic minorities, the episode has created a toxic mix of sports and politics. Erdogan is highly unpopular in Germany, especially since comparing German politicians to Nazis last year. The right-populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party said the two players should be kicked off the German national team.

Gundogan and Ozil, a member of the German squad that won the World Cup in 2014, have been accused of acting as pawns in Erdogan’s election campaign before parliamentary and presidential polls June 24 and of showing loyalty to Turkey despite playing for Germany. Reinhard Grindel, president of Germany’s football federation (DFB), said it was “not good that our international players have allowed themselves to be exploited for [Erdogan’s] campaign stunt.”

The two players were booed by fans during preparation matches for the World Cup in Russia. Following a lacklustre performance by Ozil during Germany’s opening match against Mexico on June 17, former German team captain Lothar Matthaus used a column in the mass circulation Bild newspaper to say the midfielder apparently was “not comfortable wearing the DFB jersey.”

Gundogan said he is hurt by accusations that he is disloyal to Germany. “As German internationals, we are behind the DFB’s values and are aware of our responsibility,” he said in a statement. He added the Erdogan meeting was not meant to be a political statement or part of an election campaign and pointed out that his Turkish roots meant that he still felt a strong connection to Turkey.

In an effort to limit the damage, Gundogan and Ozil visited German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The two players told him they wanted to clear up “misunderstandings,” Steinmeier said in a statement following the meeting. However, he also told the weekly Zeit the players should have known “that meeting the Turkish head of state would trigger criticism.”

The episode could affect efforts to integrate Muslims in general and people of Turkish descent in particular into German society, said Ozan Ceyhun, a Turkish-German columnist and a former member of the European Parliament.

“That will leave a bad aftertaste for many Muslims in Germany,” Ceyhun said in an interview. “Ozil, in particular, has been a role model for young Turks and young Muslims. Now they are watching as he is being clobbered.”

As a consequence, “Germany could lose its Muslims” as youngsters concluded that they would never be accepted by German society, Ceyhun warned.

Anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim prejudices were part of the outcry over Gundogan and Ozil, Ceyhun said. “If an American-born player had met [US President Donald] Trump, nobody would have cared,” he said, “but if we’re talking about a Muslim-Turkish player, it suddenly becomes a big problem.”

Germany, a country of 80 million people, has about 4 million Muslims, most of them of Turkish origin. Questions of integration and migration have become major political issues following the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and other Muslim countries in 2015.

Campaigning on an anti-immigration ticket, the AfD entered parliament in last year’s election with almost 13% of the vote. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has come under pressure in her own coalition government as her junior partner, the Christian Social Union, is pressing for stricter rules to reject migrants at the border.

Like Steinmeier, Merkel met with Gundogan and Ozil to calm the waters. She told a television interviewer she was convinced the players had not been aware of what would follow their meeting with Erdogan.

Cem Ozdemir, a leading politician of the Green Party and a German citizen of Turkish descent, said the uproar over Gundogan and Ozil had rekindled a debate about what it takes to be German. “Unfortunately, the Erdogan pictures have triggered this discussion about loyalty,” Ozdemir told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper. “That makes me really mad because it sets us back.” He warned the row was benefitting the AfD, because the populist party wanted to “decide who belongs [to Germany] and who doesn’t.”