Özil row mixes soccer with geopolitics

By Fabio Massimo Parenti Source:Global Times Published: 2018/7/26 18:13:40

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Of Turkish origin from the mother's side, born and raised in Germany, Mesut Özil has played in many important teams, such as Real Madrid and Arsenal. He has been part of the German national team since 2009. He is a soccer player who has found national and international fame, like during the World Cup in 2014. Now he has decided to retire from international soccer. Others can speculate more than I can on his role and value as an international soccer player. Here I am interested in the political aspects of the events. Özil's case is indeed raising questions on the interaction between soccer interests, national-cultural identities, racism, migration policies and geopolitics.

The story started in May when Özil took a picture with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The controversial policies of the president during the last few years - he has been accused of human rights violations and moving the country toward authoritarian rule - have triggered criticism. The photograph led to Özil being criticized by many quarters. The attacks against him increased after Germany exited from World Cup. Özil hit back, accusing the official soccer bodies and some fans in Germany of racism: "I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose."

There are two viewpoints. Özil's supporters say his feelings for the country of his origin should be respected and support him against unjust attacks. Others say he discredited Germany by supporting the Turkish government.

What does this sequence of events imply? I do think that the root of the events traces back to human identity, its fragility and dynamism, and the political role of celebrities - no matter they come from soccer, cinema or other fields.

In the first case, anthropology says that each human being needs to create an identity, in order to recognize himself in the public domain. Moreover, the process of such identity formation is evolutionary and multiple. (I am reminded of Clifford Geertz's and Edgar Morin's works). In my work on the spaces of globalization (2004), I used Geertz's thought to analyze the contradictions of globalization between homogenization and its opposite effects. The existence of cultural identities and diversities is a fact we cannot ignore, both at an individual and societal level.

At the same time, we cannot neglect the evolution of this interrelated mosaic of cultural diversities, because of greater interaction between civilizations. In light of this, political practice should start - according to the analysis of Geertz - from the strength of facts and from a better interpretation of what gives meaning to the beliefs of mankind.

We do need a political power that before "ethnic, religious, race, linguistic or regional self-affirmation does not see a lack of archaic or innate reasonableness, to be repressed or overcome." We do need a political power that "does not treat these kinds of collective expressions as a despicable madness or a dark abyss, but knows how to deal with them, as it does with inequality, abuse of power and other social problems."

Divergence, variety and disagreement are what one must confront. The Third World countries have struggled to free their people from colonialism, highlighting the composite nature of culture and refusing to emulate European nationalism that those cultures denied.

Thus, Özil's words and feelings should be respected and not politicized by both German and Turkish nationalists. Herein we move to the second point: the political role of celebrities or "stars."

It is known that they are often used and exploited for political or economic purposes. I do consider it an abuse, a form of political marketization of celebrities. I could give thousands of examples, but it is enough to mention the role of Hollywood professionals in interfering in China's internal affairs in Tibet.

Being democratic does not mean exploiting the notoriety of stars for political purposes; it does not imply starting pointless debates on a celebrity's views on sensitive issues. We should respect the feelings of individuals, being able to discern between expert analysis and opinion of a citizen, such as Özil, with neither political role, nor political expertise or background.

I suggest Özil should be given the opportunity to answer all controversial questions. Making efforts at starting serious debates is a good media and political practice. The so-called democratic and multi-ethnic societies often confuse politics with market practices, policies and business, as Özil's case demonstrates.

The author is an associate professor of international studies at the Institute Lorenzo de' Medici, Florence, member of CCERRI think tank, Zhengzhou, and member of EURISPES, Laboratorio BRICS, Rome. His latest book is Geofinance and Geopolitics, Egea. [email protected]

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