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Anti-Kurdish racism stains soccer pitch in western Turkey

The attacks raised the specter of inter-communal violence ahead of watershed elections that are due to be held on May 14
Water bottles, knives and other objects are thrown on the pitch in the Bursa Timsah Arena in Turkey.

Members of a second division local soccer team were greeted like heroes by thousands of fans in Diyarbakir, the unofficial capital of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast region, today after enduring racist attacks during a match Sunday in the western city of Bursa in which one player was injured and several fans were viciously beaten.

Opposition Kurdish politicians and other notables joined jubilant citizens in circle dances to the beat of drums as Amedspor players made their way home on a bus from the airport. “Kurdistan will be a graveyard for fascism. Stand tall, don’t bow,” the crowds chanted.

The attacks raised the specter of inter-communal violence ahead of watershed elections that are due to be held on May 14. Kurdish voters are likely to determine the outcome as they did in the 2019 municipal race, which saw the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lose Istanbul and Ankara along with several other large cities to the opposition.

Images of the rival Bursaspor fans hurling sharp objects, empty bullet casings and bottles at Amedspor players while shouting racist slogans sent shockwaves across the country as it reels from the effects of last month’s massive earthquakes. Amedspor president Selahattin Yildirim said, “Throughout the game, objects including knives, bullets, pieces of metal and water bottles were thrown onto the pitch.” Yildirim told the independent Bianet news outlet, “It’s as if the referee was waiting for someone to die. He did not stop the game.” One Kurdish youth, who dared to hold up an Amedspor banner, was brutally beaten by Bursaspor supporters.

Another Kurdish youth was encircled and forced to kiss the home team’s pennant. Footage of the fear-stricken youth caused an uproar on social media.

Yildirim announced today that his club would seek disciplinary action by the Turkish Football Federation against Bursaspor. Separate complaints will be lodged with international soccer federations UEFA and FIFA, Yildirim said. Hours later, the Turkish Football Federation said that it would be delivering requisite punishment for the “malign” and “provocative actions and rhetoric” during the match. It did not mention Bursaspor or its fans by name.

The Bursa Chief Prosecutor’s office said an investigation had been launched and nine people had been detained so far in connection with the incidents. They include three members of the security forces. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu called the attacks “unacceptable.”

Amedspor has long been targeted by far-right nationalist vigilantes. But Sunday’s violence marked a new and chilling level of hate. Giant banners emblazoned with images of a notorious killer who carried out extrajudicial murders of Kurdish dissidents throughout the 1990s at the height of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) insurgency were unfurled. Others depicting a white Renault Taurus model car were also on display. Shadowy counterterrorism operatives would cruise around in them, abducting hundreds of Kurdish dissidents who were never heard from again. “PKK’s bastards,” the home team roared as Amedspor players filed onto the field. The assaults continued throughout the game, with the referee apparently not deeming it necessary to end it even when Amedspor goalkeeper Cantug Temel, an ethnic Turk, was struck by sharp objects.

Amedspor players claimed they were also harassed by “private security supervisors, club security officers, club staff and police officers" in the locker room corridors.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party, which is courting Kurdish votes, called the attacks “a dark stain” on the history of sports in a statement on Sunday.

Trouble was already brewing the night before when a large group gathered outside the hotel where Amedspor players were staying. They sang Ottoman military songs and shouted obscenities and threats while setting off scores of firecrackers simultaneously to create a ball of fire outside the hotel.  

Their actions should have led to greater, stricter police scrutiny at the entrance of the stadium the following day. “It's unthinkable fans could have brought in those banners and knives without police complicity,” said Welat Kilincaslan, former manager of DalKurd, a soccer team founded by Kurds in Sweden. He told Al-Monitor, “Moreover, in any normal club those banners could not have been flaunted in that way without the management’s permission. The match should have been halted immediately the minute they appeared."

Amedspor fans were banned from the match by authorities for alleged misconduct during a previous match against Bursaspor in Diyarbakir. Their crime was to have carried the red, white and green banner that is the national flag of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The colors are usually hoisted at official venues when Iraqi Kurdish leaders meet with their Turkish counterparts.

Yusuf Ozmen, the local representative for the left-wing Turkish Education Workers’ Union, Egitim Sen, said anti-Kurdish sentiments run high in Bursa, a city of 4 million that is home to some 200,000 Kurds — mainly textile and agricultural workers. Ozmen told Al-Monitor that teachers at local schools encouraged such feelings. “They paste Turkish nationalist stickers on the stairs of the schools,” Ozmen told Al-Monitor. “Either speak Turkish or get out,” reads one of the stickers in an image posted by Ozmen on Twitter.

“It’s clear who is being targeted: Kurdish students. And the teachers believe that their actions will be rewarded with promotions,” Ozmen said.

State-inspired racism toward Kurds is nothing new. “The events in Bursa are a microcosm of everyday racism toward Kurds. Stadiums and competition between football teams are important mediums for observing the manifestation of these hate crimes and racist slurs, which often go unnoticed or unprosecuted. This, in return, creates a system of impunity empowered by the justice system and security forces,” said Mashuq Kurt, an assistant professor of sociology in the department of law and criminology at the Royal Holloway University in London. Kurt, who has written extensively about the Kurds in Turkey, told Al-Monitor, “It is not that authorities are unable to prevent such violence — it is that these crimes are normalized.”

He added, “Kurdophobia is integral to Turkish supremacy, which needs to invoke racism against Kurds to sustain its superior position, even if they lose a football game.” Bursaspor won Sunday’s match 2 to 1.

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