Munich Olympics give way to Soccer v. Jihad - II
by James M Dorsey on 13 Jul 2022 0 Comment

Political grievances v. religiosity


The jihadist dilemma posed by soccer as a recruitment and bonding tool on the one hand and a convenient target on the other was symbolized by expressions in stadia of the appeal of jihadist groups like the Islamic State that reflects more often than not on domestic political grievances or a conspiratorial worldview rooted in puritan interpretations of Islam such as Wahhabism rather than an ideological commitment to jihadism.


The dichotomy was evident when Turkish fans twice in late 2015 disrupted moments of silence for victims of Islamic State attacks in Ankara and Paris. Boos and jeers were also heard during a minute’s silence in Dublin at a Euro 2016 play-off between Ireland and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The interruptions demonstrated the kind of intolerance bred by religiously-cloaked authoritarianism in countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia that fails to ensure that all segments of society have a stake in the existing order.


The Turkish fans shouting of Allahu Akbar, God is Great, during moments of silence at the beginning of two soccer matches represented more than simple identification with the jihadist group or evidence of a substantial support base in Turkey. It signalled a shift in attitudes among some segments of Turkish society as a result of 12 years of rule by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one of modern Turkey’s most important leaders that increasingly has been infused with notions of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ In Turkey, them often refers to Kurds, who account for up to 23 per cent of the population. Kurds were prominent among the 102 victims in Ankara in October 2015 and an earlier Islamic State attack in July of that year in the south-eastern Turkish town of Suruc. The Suruc attack sparked renewed hostilities between the Turkish military and the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a low-intensity war in southeast Turkey since 1984 in which tens of thousands have died.


Erdogan’s  polarization persuaded Diyarbakir Büyüksehir Belediyespor, the Kurdish club in Diyarbakir, a city that is viewed as the capital of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to change its name in 2015 to Amed. Amed is the long-banned Kurdish name of Diyarbakir. The club also adopted as its identity the colours of the Kurdish flag, yellow, red, and green of the Kurdish flag. The move constituted part of Kurdish resistance to long-standing restrictions on the use of their languages and expressions of ethnic or national identity.


The Turkish fan’s provocative disrespect for innocent victims of political violence resembled tweets by conservative followers of Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s austere interpretation of Islam described by dissident Saudi scholar Madawi Al-Rasheed as “militarized religious nationalism.” On Twitter, these Saudis projected the downing of a Russian airliner in 2015 and that year’s attacks in Paris, including a stadium, as legitimate revenge for atrocities committed by French colonial rule in Algeria and Russia in its wars in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Syria.


Turkish fan disrespect for the victims of IS violence “reflects an alarming sense of estrangement from the victims and the communities to which they belong. This lack of empathy could well stem from the callousness of excluding ‘the other’ (and possibly lead to one’s own sense of exclusion being transformed into radical hostility expressed in violent action) … The whistles and chants, which continued during the Greek national anthem, demonstrate how Turkey’s political culture has changed since President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002,” said Al-Monitor columnist Kadir Gursel.


Supporters of Nacacililar Konyaspor, a club in the conservative Anatolian city of Konya, expressed that sense of estrangement in their justification of their disruption of the honouring of the victims during a soccer match. They published a video on their Facebook page that asserted “the moment of silence was not allowed in Konya.” It described the Ankara victims who died while participating in a peace march as “peace-loving traitors.”


Like many incidents of expression of sympathy for jihadism or jihadist activism, the Turkish soccer manifestations are shrouded in controversy that stems from governments in various Islamic countries viewing the militants as a force to be utilized for their own political purposes rather than a reflection of societal problems that need to be addressed. In the case of Turkey, which has long been accused of turning a blind eye to the Islamic State in the hope that it would check the revival of Kurdish nationalism in neighbouring Syria, Cumhuriyet newspaper reported that the youth wing of Erdogan’s ruling party whose members had been granted free access to the stadium had instigated the booing of a moment of silence for the 130 victims of the Paris attacks at the beginning of a match in Istanbul. Two of Cumhurriyet’s top journalists were indicted in November 2015 on charges of espionage for disclosing that trucks belonging to the Turkish intelligence agency MIT had been used to ferry weapons to Islamist opposition groups in Syria.


Turkish-American soccer blogger John Blasing said the fan disrespect represented “a nationalist / Islamist undercurrent within Turkish society that has occasionally raised its head with disastrous consequences, and one that now wants to equate all Kurds and leftists with the labels ‘terrorists’ and ‘traitors.’ It is, for lack of a better term, a dangerous latent Islamo-fascism lying just beneath the surface of Turkish society. It is the same undercurrent that expresses itself in the Turkish state’s ambivalence towards ISIS,” a reference to the Islamic State’s former name.


The alleged government connection to the Turkish incidents like a French decision in the wake of the Paris attacks to temporarily ban fans from travelling to their team’s away from home matches recognized the mobilization aspect of the sport that jihadist leaders see. French fears were grounded in a degree of alienation among segments of youth with an immigrant background that has prompted them to refuse to support the French national team in a manifestation of their sense that there is no equal place for them in French society.


French fears were also rooted in a history of immigrant soccer violence irrespective of whether the French team wins or not dating back to France’s winning of the World Cup in 1998 with a team that brought together a generation of players who all had their origins outside France and was widely seen as a symbol of successful French integration of minorities. Days earlier, police in France and four other European countries had arrested 100 people of Algerian descent associated with the Groupe Islamique Arme (GIA), a militant Islamist group fighting in Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s that left at least 100,000 people dead.


Eleven years later, some 12,000 youths of Algerian descent poured into Paris Champs-Élysées

for celebrations to celebrate Algeria’s defeat of Egypt in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum rather than support France which was preparing for a crucial World Cup qualifier against Ireland. The celebrations degenerated into clashes with police prompting a student to tell Andrew Hussey, a scholar who has charted French-North African relations and the soccer politics of French communities of North African origin: “I can’t believe it. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s not just about football. It has to be about something else.” Hussey argued that the riots were not simply about perceived racism in France but harked back to French colonial rule that viewed Algeria as an integral part of France but treated Algerians as second-class citizens.


It is those societal divisions that the Islamic State targetted with its attack on the Stade de France and its alleged plots in Germany. In doing so, the group was seeking to exploit a perception of prejudice, discrimination and abandonment that stretches far beyond France and is not restricted to communities that feel disenfranchised and hopeless. Ironically, that may have failed with French and other Muslims far more assertive in their condemnation of the Paris attacks than of the assault in January 2015 on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket.


However, mixed with the abhorrence felt by French Muslims at the carnage in Paris was a sense among many soccer fans that Muslims are being stereotyped and targetted whether at home or in countries far and near. That sense evident across Europe is reinforced by Europe’s military and law enforcement-focused response to jihadism and Islamist militancy. Said a French taxi driver of Algerian descent who supports Paris Saint-Germaine: “Nothing justified what happened. These people are beasts. But France and others can’t go round the world bombing countries and leaving ordinary people to pick up the pieces. It’s logical that there would be a reaction. This, however, was not the way to do it.”


The blurry lines between hardcore jihadists and soccer fans for whom the Islamic State constitutes primarily a symbol of resistance as well as the mix of rejection and a degree of empathy were also evident in a one-minute video clip on YouTube that left little doubt about support for IS among supporters of storied Moroccan soccer club Raja Club Athletic. A video clip on the Internet showed fans of the Casablanca club that prides itself on its nationalist credentials dating back to opposition to colonial French rule and its reputation as the team of ordinary Moroccans chanting: “Daesh, Daesh,” the Arabic acronym for Islamic State and “God is Great, let’s go on jihad.”


The clip appeared to reaffirm the Islamic State’s widespread emotional appeal to a segment of youth across the Middle East and North Africa rather than a willingness to actually become a foreign fighter in Syria or Iraq. “We have a high rate of unemployment. Young people want politicians to think about them… Some of them can’t understand… They are too impatient,” Moncef Mazrouki, the former president of Tunisia, the Arab country with the largest number of Arab foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, said in an interview with Al Jazeera.


While Raja Athletic’s management failed to respond to the video on its official website and Facebook page that has more than 3.1 million followers, supporters of the club sought to minimize the clip’s significance. Writing on their Facebook page with its 118,830 likes, supporters quipped: “We are terrorists… Our goal is to bomb other clubs. We do not want land or oil, we want titles” below a mock picture of Islamic State fighters with the inscription, “Raja’s Volunteer Championship.”


The supporters asserted elsewhere on their Facebook page that “we will not start to argue and beg people to believe that this is a sarcastic action and a joke.” Some supporters dismissed the video as a public relations stunt. They insisted that they were demanding reform, not radical change. To emphasize the point, the supporters posted two days after the appearance of the video an image of Osama Bin Laden with the words: “Rest in Pieces Motherf*****r.”


The Islamic State’s appeal as a symbol for Moroccan youth is rooted in the gap in perceptions of King Mohammad VI. The monarch, unlike most of the region’s rulers, neutralized anti-government protests in 2011 by endorsing a new constitution that brought limited change but kept the country’s basic political structure in place. As a result, foreign media have described Mohammed VI as the King of Cool. Moroccans however have seen little change in their economic, social and political prospects while journalists and activists face increased repression.




The 1972 Black September attack on the Olympic Village in Munich represents an era of political violence that has been superseded by religious militancy. Militants in the 1970s and the 1980s were driven by secular nationalist grievances and aspirations. Perpetrators of political violence saw their actions as a way to force governments and international public opinion to pay attention and recognize the legitimacy of their cause. They accepted the risk of dying but retained hope that they would survive the attacks they carried out. Arguably, Palestinian attacks in Israel, Europe and elsewhere and the hijacking of aeroplanes moved their aspirations centre stage.


By contrast, jihadist perpetrators of political violence that targets sports were seeking to exploit existing societal wedges and aggravate social tensions to attract frustrated Muslim youth and converts. Osama bin Laden’s 9/11 attacks succeeded in undermining multi-cultural policies in relatively ethnically and religiously homogeneous European societies that struggled with migration from other continents, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds. In doing so, the attacks reshaped global politics and attitudes towards large numbers of people fleeing political and economic collapse as “the other” – instead of viewing them as victims of misconceived Western policies that backfired in countries governed and mismanaged by corrupt politicians and political and economic structures.


Analysis of the different goals and approaches leads to the conclusion that groups like the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and various of its constituent elements successfully used violence in Munich and operations since to create political opportunities for fulfilling their aspirations and garnering mass support. By contrast, jihadists successfully exploited tensions, recruited marginalized youth, spread fear, and sparked revulsion but proved unable and/or uninterested in creating opportunities for solutions to social, economic, and political problems and failed to win hearts and minds among significant segments of Muslim youth.




This is an updated version of a working paper originally published by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the submitted-non-edited version of an article in Israel Affairs.

Courtesy The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer  

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