As with many of yesterday’s international soccer matches, Turkey-Greece began with a moment of silence in remembrance of the victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris last week. Things quickly went off the rails, when the home Turkish fans interrupted the silence with boos and chants. But it might not be as simple as it seems.
You can hear the whistles (in much of the world, whistling is the equivalent of booing) throughout what was supposed to be a moment of silence in the video below. Accompanying the boos were reportedly chants of “Martyrs never die, the country will never be divided” and “Allahu Akbar,” according to Today’s Zaman, an English-language Turkish paper.
This was the second occurrence of ostensibly rude behavior on behalf of the fans, who had also whistled while the Greece national anthem played. Which, owing to the long, fraught relationship between the two countries, was pretty much inarguably meant as an insult.
The negative response was immediate. As the boos rang down, Turkey captain Arda Turan and other players gesticulated to the bleachers in efforts to get the fans to cut it out. After the match, Turkey’s manager Fatih Terim took the fans to task for their inconsiderateness. From L’Équipe:
“First, it is unacceptable that the Greek anthem was booed. Who did that? How do we justify to the world what happened here? Our custom is to respect our neighbors. If we were the victims of those whistles abroad, we would be devastated. I grew up in an area where it is mixed and where we respected each other.”
Then, continuing to the violated minute of silence, Fatih Terim showed even stronger: “These whistles damage the image of our country. There were two matches on Tuesday canceled because of this terror. This is not child’s play. Terrorist threats are very serious. We must think. We can not remain passive in our country facing what is happening. It’s not us. You realize there is not even a minute’s silence. My God. I cannot justify what happened. But if we act together, we can prevent the sport from being sacrificed to terrorism.”
Similarly, the European media hit out against the boos, as many Turkish publications made note of. Papers in France, Spain, England, Greece, and beyond decried the lack of compassion on display. As Today’s Zaman notes, one Greek paper went as far as to say “Turks do not care about the Paris attacks.”
Because of Turkey’s complicated political entanglements, there are real reasons to see this kind of behavior and suspect that some fans may have had malicious motives. Though Turkey is nominally an ally in the war on ISIS, there is, among certain factions in the country (largely the right, from which many ultras draw their membership), the sense that ISIS is the enemy of Turkey’s enemies. Turkey still considers the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad its greatest regional threat and rival, and would not be opposed to seeing the turmoil topple him. Simultaneously, ISIS is fighting the Kurds, who have long waged their own occasionally violent separatist movement in and outside of Turkey. It’s probably not wrong to assume that some Turks find common ground with some of ISIS’s goals, if not necessarily its methods.
However, there has been something of a backlash against this characterization of the events as wanton heartlessness by Turkey’s fans. Take, for example, this article on Turkish-Football.com. It makes two cases as explaining the Turkish fans’ behavior that paints it in a less negative light.
First, the writer notes that in the aftermath of the bombing of Turkey’s capital Ankara that took over 100 lives and injured more than 400 others just over a month ago, there weren’t any similar shows of solidarity during international matches. The boos, as distasteful as the writer admits they were, could’ve reflected Turkish fans’ frustration of that lack of consistency. This sentiment was echoed elsewhere on social media.
Furthermore, the article points out that during a moment of silence in Turkey for those very Ankara bombings, fans also chimed in by booing. The point being, fans there rarely sit through moments of silence quietly, and the boos of yesterday weren’t necessarily any more callous or mean-spirited than usual.
(Now, these explanations don’t quite hold water. The Paris attacks were especially prone to memorialization during soccer games since it happened so close to—and might have intended to hit—the Stade de France in the middle of a game. The Ankara bombings did not have that temporal and physical proximity to the international game, which makes it understandable why the response was so public here as opposed to in lieu of the Ankara bombings. And at any rate, whistling at that moment was tacky at the very least no matter what the reason.)
The more important clarification the article makes is that the chants of “Martyrs never die, the country will never be divided” and the reported cries of “Allahu Akbar” were in no way meant to show support to the perpetrators of the Paris attacks. According to the writer, the former slogan is actually a common anti-terrorism chant expressing a sentiment that no matter what kind of attacks Turkey faces, it will remain as one. It too was chanted during the moment of silence after the Ankara bombings. As for “Allahu Akbar,” the article points to another popular chant that, while nationalistic in origin, has become a typical “Let’s Go Team!” type of thing.
The article closes with this, pointing out how the behavior of the fans—as intentionally insulting or not, and to potentially varying degrees—doesn’t mean that the country as a whole was silent on the suffering of those in Paris:
Turkish folk are no stranger to acts of terrorism having lived with the problem for decades. Many will be fully aware of the trauma Parisians are currently going through and sympathise with French people.
There were countless vigils held across Turkey for the victims of the attacks in Paris and the Bosphorus bridge was lit up at night with the French Tricolore. May the victims of terrorism in France, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and all other countries in the world rest in peace.
The impossible thing here is in trying to surmise the intentions of a limited number of people behaving in culturally specific, potentially ambiguous ways. It’s practically impossible to fully explain what happened without speaking to the booers and chanters themselves—and if we could, each would likely offer differing motivations.
And so we’re left with more questions than answers. Worst-case scenario, some of those fans in Istanbul cruelly displayed their sympathies for ISIS’s aims. Best-case scenario, some of them were just impatient assholes. In the middle lie those upset that the world doesn’t care as much about Turkey’s own terrorist attacks as it does about the West’s. In the end, that some soccer fans are major dicks isn’t all that shocking a revelation.