The criticism of Ilkay Gundogan and Mesut Ozil for meeting with Erdogan is justified, but the debate is about more than just human rights in Turkey. The real question is: how diverse does Germany want to be? Essay by Rene Wildangel
In mid-May, two German national-team football players – Ilkay Gundogan and Mesut Ozil – together with the likewise German-born football pro Cenk Tosun, who opted to join the Turkish national team, met with Turkish President Erdogan and handed him strips from their clubs. Gundogan's jersey bore a dedication: "For my president". Erdogan's AKP Party used the images for their social media campaign, because presidential elections are coming up in Turkey at the end of June and Erdogan apparently needs to work harder than planned to mobilise support.
Ever since the meeting, the two national players have faced massive criticism, which dominated the German press for several days. During the last two World Cup friendlies against Austria and Saudi Arabia both players were whistled and booed at by their own fans – despite Ozil's early goal against Austria. Are these reactions really only about the Turkish president's human rights record, or are there perhaps other factors at play?
The two German football players have to acknowledge the legitimacy of the following charges: they naively supplied campaign support for a presidential candidate who has increasingly restricted the freedom of the press and human rights in Turkey in recent years.
Since the coup attempt in 2016 and a constitutional amendment in April 2017, Erdogan has expanded his own power base, thrown human rights activists and regime-critical journalists in jail, fired tens of thousands of alleged government opponents from the civil service and prosecuted his opponents under false pretexts, especially politicians in the Kurdish HDP opposition party.
All of this has, however, by no means made Erdogan, president of the third-largest NATO member, a persona non grata on the international stage – in London, his meeting with the footballers was a mere sideshow for a state visit during which he was received by the British head of government, Theresa May, and Queen Elizabeth II.
When Erdogan's bureau contacted Gundogan and Ozil to set up the short photo-op, the national players were therefore probably unaware, despite strained German-Turkish relations, of the ripples the encounter would cause. Due to their origin and identity as well as many relatives and friends in Turkey, Ozil and Gundogan obviously have a different take on the Turkish president than most of their German compatriots.
But the media-seasoned athletes should have realised that the AKP would exploit the meeting for its own ends. Ozil is after all one of the most prominent social media multipliers worldwide with a record 31 million likes on Facebook; self-marketing is part of the daily routine for the highly paid pro athletes and their advisors.
Prime example of "integration"?
The fault-finding in Germany was not set off only by the boost given to Erdogan's campaign and his authoritarian tendencies; another theme seemed to shine through here, namely, a questioning of the German national player's loyalty to their country.
This fits in with a social climate in which some on the political scene are trying to return to a monolithic understanding of German identity and culture once believed to be a thing of the past. Horst Seehofer as "homeland minister", for example, wants to enforce German Leitkultur, or "dominant culture", in which he sees no place for Islam.
Deviations from the assumed norm are undesirable and "integration" has become a buzzword that is increasingly being co-opted by opponents of a society characterised by cultural diversity.