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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Turkey’s anti-Gulen campaign: Strengthening militants and jihadists

Pakistan founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk adorn the wall of a Gulen school in Pakistan (Source: Aamir Baig/Dawn.com)

By James M. Dorsey

A Turkish demand that Pakistan close 28 primary and secondary schools associated with controversial, self-exiled Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen has put the government in Islamabad in a quandary as it attempts to get a grip on an education sector in which militant Islamists and jihadists figure prominently.

Turkish Ambassador to Pakistan S. Babur Girgin’s demand for the closure of the schools operated by PakTurk International Schools and Colleges was part of a global effort to dismantle the network of Mr. Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based head of Hizmet, one of the world’s largest and wealthiest Islamic movements with businesses, schools and universities in scores of countries.

PakTurk schools have an estimated 10,000 students and are viewed as some of Pakistan’s better educational institutions. PakTurk has denied being part of any political or religious movement but admits to sympathizing with Mr. Gulen’s philosophy.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has blamed Mr. Gulen for this month’s failed military coup attempt and has demanded that the United States extradite the preacher to Turkey. The president has in the last week closed some 1,000 schools and 15 universities in Turkey that he says were associated with Hizmet, and has arrested or dismissed from public service some 60,000 people alleged to be followers of Mr. Gulen. Responding to Turkish demands, Azerbaijan earlier this week closed a university that allegedly was founded by Gulen supporters.

Compliance with the Turkish demand would complicate already feeble Pakistani government efforts to not only assemble an accurate inventory of institutions in the country’s education sector but also impose regulation. Senior government officials concede that they have no accurate overview of how many schools exist in Pakistan, particularly when it comes to Islamic seminaries or madrassas.

Estimates by government officials and non-governmental experts run the gamut, ranging from 25,000 to 88,000 madrassas or one to 50 percent of all educational institutions and one to 33 percent of all students in a country in which up to 50 percent of school-age children are not enrolled in an educational institution.

The one thing officials and experts do agree on is the fact that the majority of madrassas receive foreign funding, including substantial amounts from Saudi Arabia that often go to larger institutions. Funding from Saudi Arabia that adheres to Wahhabism, a puritan interpretation of Islam, is part of a decades-old public diplomacy campaign, the largest in history, that is designed to propagate ultra-conservative versions of the faith.

“If there is one segment of the population which has complete freedom of expression in Pakistan, it is the Muslim religious theocracy – they can say whatever they like - there is no curtailment, there is no retribution and there is no blowback to them from the state. The rest of us pay the price,” warned author and policy advisor Najma Minhas.

Minhas’ view echoed by many in Western governments as well as a host of academics, pundits and journalists is countered by scholars critical of assertions that madrassas constitute breeding grounds for militancy. Critics emphasize the welfare and educational impact of a majority of madrassas in terms of the benefits of a boarding school accrued by poor families who see their food and housing costs diminished and would otherwise be unable to give their children any education.

The impact on Pakistani society of the pervasiveness of Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism is nonetheless evident across the country.

A recent study conducted by the Pakhtunkhwa Cultural Foundation, a Peshawar-based group that aims to confront the erosion of culture, concluded that “the Wahabi school of thought gained influence in the society due to political developments and state patronage, and particularly in the wake of the war in Afghanistan. Ideologues of the Wahabi school consider artistic expression against Islam…declaring songs, films and anything artistic to be obscene… The sharp decline in socio-cultural life has created a vacuum that is being filled by religious missionaries,” the study said. 

It documented in Peshawar the end of public concerts, the demise of scores of families of artists, the closure of almost 200 CD shops and dozens of cinemas and the professional death of actors and performers.

Notions of inertia if not complicity in government branches in which Saudi-backed worldviews have made significant inroads are fuelled by the fact that security forces seldom capture the killers of artists and cultural workers or bombers of shops and cinemas. On the contrary, those branches of government frequently adopt policies that contribute to an environment of increased intolerance. Victims and their families are left to their own devices and often reduced to abject poverty.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reported earlier this year that Pakistani public school textbooks circulated to at least 41 million children contained derogatory references to religious minorities. The perception of minorities as threats was reinforced with the enhanced Islamization of text books in the decade from 1978 to 1988 in which General Zia ul-Haq ruled Pakistan.

“In public school classrooms, Hindu children are forced to read lessons about ‘Hindus’ conspiracies toward Muslims’, and Christian children are taught that ‘Christians learned tolerance and kind-heartedness from Muslims.’ This represents a public shaming of religious minority children that begins at a very young age, focusing on their religious and cultural identity and their communities’ past history. A review of the curriculum demonstrates that public school students are being taught that religious minorities, especially Christians and Hindus, are nefarious, violent, and tyrannical by nature. There is a tragic irony in these accusations, because Christians and Hindus in Pakistan face daily persecution, are common victims of crime, and are frequent targets of deadly communal violence, vigilantism, and collective punishment,” USCIRF report concluded.

“By imposing the harsh, literal interpretation of religion exported and promoted by Saudi Arabia, we have turned Pakistan into a drab, monochromatic landscape where colour, laughter, dancing and music are frowned upon, if not entirely banned. And yet Islam in South Asia was once characterised by a life-enhancing Sufi tradition that is now under threat. More and more, we are following the example set by the Taliban,” added Pakistani writer Irfan Husain. 

”We teach students the aqeedah (creed) of every sect and tell them as to how and where that aqeedah is wrong so that we can guide them to the right aqeedah,” said Umer bin Abdul Aziz of the Jaimatul Asar madrassa in Peshawar. 

“People who claim that we brainwash children are American parts. Students are taught the path of virtue and jihad. They learn that humans are temporary guests in this world and that they have to contribute to their religion and next life. They learn Islamic principles among which jihad and the need to defend the interests of Islam and satisfy Allah,” added a teacher in a militant, Saudi-funded madrassa in Pakistan whose students largely hail from Afghanistan.

Based on textual analysis of madrassa texts, scholar Niaz Muhammad warned that “no one should claim that their statements about the madrassa curriculum have nothing to do with sectarianism or other forms of religious militancy.”

The dilemma for the Pakistani government is stark. Turkish prime minister Binali Yildirim has warned that Turkey would be at war with any country that cooperates or aids the Gulen movement. Yet closing down schools that prepare their students for a modern society and economy is something Pakistan’s deeply troubled education sector can ill afford.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a just published book with the same title.


Saturday, July 23, 2016

Why do Middle Eastern countries fail at the Olympic Games? A lack of female athletes (Guest column)


By Danyel Reiche

Middle Eastern countries are among the least successful nations at the Olympics. Four years ago at the Summer Olympic Games in London, only 2 Middle Eastern countries made it into the top 50 of the final medal ranking: Iran won 12 medals and was ranked 17th  and Turkey won five in position 32. Egypt, a country that has been participating in the Summer Olympics since 1912 and had some Olympic success in the first half of the 20th century, won just two silver medals, and finished 58th in the medal table.

One reasons for the Middle East’s poor performance is lack of support for female athletes. Six of the nine countries with the lowest all-time female participation in the Summer Olympic Games are Muslim-majority countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Qatar. Sports scholar Gertrud Pfister noted that “whereas male athletes were more or less socially accepted in most Islamic countries, women participating in sports competitions were a contradiction in terms for most of their rulers and (religious) leaders, as well as for the largest part of the population. (…) Muslim women were tiny minorities at the Olympics – if they were present at all”.

Until 1980, among Muslim majority countries, only women from secular countries such as Turkey, Indonesia and pre-revolutionary Iran, were able to compete in elite sports and the Olympics. Turkey is the most successful Muslim majority country in the Olympics and Iran is second. While men won the vast majority of the Turkish medals, Iranian men were the sole only winners of 60 medals earned in Summer Olympics appearances until 2012.

Even relatively progressive Arab countries such as Lebanon only recently started including women in their Olympic squads. Lebanon has competed with one exception in all the Olympic Games since 1948, but over 90% of the athletes were men. Lebanon’s Olympic team did not include women until 1972. However, at the London Summer Olympic Games in 2012, Lebanon’s delegation consisted of more female than male athletes for the first time, making the tiny multi-religious country a best practice case for gender equality in sports in the Middle East.

Three delegations -- Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait -- consisted of men-only teams at the Beijing Games in 2008. The games were the first in which Oman and the United Arab Emirates sent women to compete. At the 2012 London Summer Olympics, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Brunei included women in their Olympic squads for the first time.

One hundred years after the first Olympic Games, Lida Fariman from Iran became the first Muslim woman to carry the flag of her country, at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Not only is the participation of Muslim women low, but the same is also true for their success rate. It was not until 1984 that a Muslim woman won an Olympic gold medal with the success of Moroccan hurdler Nawal El Moutawakel. According to Gertrud Pfister, only six of the 381 medals for women at the 2008 Games were won by women from Islamic countries. It “clearly points to the marginalization of this group in elite sport,” Pfister said.

A study by Qatar Olympic Committee on women’s participation in sports and physical activities found that just 15% of Qatari women ages 15 and older regularly participated in sports,”

Sociologist Geoff Harkness concluded in a study of Georgetown University Qatar women’s basketball team that “families who do not support sports-related activity for women serve as a major barrier to participation.”  Women were also hampered by  “the belief that women should not engage in heavy physical activity in front of men,” Harkness added.
Moreover, he said, some Qataris believe that males who witness females involved in bodily motion will interpret their bodily movement as sexual and be unable to control their lust.

In an interview, Qatar’s national female soccer team said that only of 30 girls invited to practice with the national team after watching an internal tournament was allowed by her family to play football in public.  

External barriers to participation of Muslim women at the Olympics include the dress codes of international sport association that set the rules of sports. World soccer body FIFA addressed the issue when it agreed to lift its ban on the hijab in 2014.

The ban particularly affected the Iranian national women’s soccer team. In June 2011, the Iranian team attempted to play a qualifying game for the 2012 Olympics against Jordan in Amman, while wearing the hijab. The Bahraini FIFA official overseeing the game banned them from doing so and Iran’s coach decided to forfeit the game. Jordan, in accordance with FIFA rules, was awarded a 3–0 victory. Iran also forfeited the remaining three games of the second round of the Asian Football Confederation’s qualifying tournament for the 2012 Olympics. As a result, it did not qualify for the London Olympics.

For philosophy professors Douglas McLaughlin and Cesar Torres, the banning of the hijab contradicts the Olympic Movement’s principle of inclusiveness, enshrined in the words of Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the Olympic movement that “world peace depends upon the celebration of human diversity and not the eradication of it”. In a paper entitled, ‘A Veil of Separation Intersubjectivity, Olympism, and FIFA’s Hijab Saga,’ McLaughlin and Torres argued that “the practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sports, without discrimination of any kind.”

There are huge differences in the dress codes enforced by international sport associations. Whereas some associations, such as shooting, have no restrictions and allow women to be covered, beach volleyball, for example, obliges female players have to wear shorts with a maximum length of 1.18 inches above the knee, and sleeved or sleeveless tops. “When guided by Olympism, the ISFs should not make policy restrictions regarding what women wear unless they have strong and compelling evidence that safety or fair play are compromised,” McLaughlin and Torres said.

The different dress codes mean that sports such as shooting are more accepted in Muslim countries than beach volleyball that is played in a bikini. However, the fact that more and more Olympic federations are allowing Muslim women to wear the hijab and the increased availability of sports clothes that meet Islamic requirements such as the burkini and the hijood are likely to increase female participation from Arab countries.

All in all, Middle Eastern countries are likely to find Olympic success more difficult to achieve if they do not promote female sports as the number of women’s events increases and mixed gender teams become a fixture of the tournament.

Danyel Reiche is Associate Professor for Comparative Politics at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon and author of the book “Success and Failure of Countries at the Olympic Games”, published by Routledge in 2016.


Get over it and Move on! (Response to Charles Kestenbaum


By Tilman Engel

There can be no doubt about that the United States is the best place in the world to stage just about any mega-sporting event there is. As a product of both the US college and professional sports systems, I can testify to this.

By this standard, and looking around the rest of the world, there are less than ten countries, which could potentially stage such a mega-event without much ado. With the exception of Australia and Japan, all of these countries are in Europe.

If, however we adopt the notion that premium sports tournament should also be held in regions with less than perfect conditions, then Qatar is a prime candidate. Unlike diplomats with the advantage to comment on everything from the sanctuary of their privileged status and immunity, I have worked within the kafala or sponsorship system for three years and certainly had my personal share of intense and forbidding personal experiences.

As an of official of a Qatari sports organization and later as a private consultant, I have frequently visited large labor camps in Ras Laffan Industrial City, Doha’s newly constructed Labor City, and various desolate accommodations for workers. There has been significant progress in the treatment, housing and recognition of labor in Qatar. As a result, neither the International Labor Organization, nor Transparency International among others, are calling for a relocation of this World Cup. It is quite the opposite: there is a clear call to keep it in Qatar, as unbiased observers recognize the force of this event to effectively change and improve the labor system. 

Let us not add another miss-perception here: next to the native Qataris and the migrant workers, there are over 1.5 million expatriates mostly from other Arab and Asian countries living in Qatar. Many are there with their families, as Qatar provides them with the opportunities, safety and reliable public service system which most do not enjoy in their countries of origin. Among these groups, the strong identification with Qatar can best be observed during National Day, National Sports Day or on any given day in Souq Waqif. This rebuild traditional bazaar is the premier tourist and location in Doha.

The expanded Souq and Mushereib districts, Katara Cultural Village as well as The Pearl, will be among the World Cup fan hotspots in six years. More areas need to be developed to accommodate the fans, yet the foundation is there already.

It might well be that some of the de-constructed former World Cup stadiums will not be used by any of the 30 teams in Qatar’s Divisions I-III. Unfortunately, this is the sad story of any mega-sporting event dating back at least to the 1976 Olympics in Toronto. In Greece, the 2004 games became one of the cornerstones of its fiscal crisis. Yet spending on stadia in Qatar will account for less than five percent of all the infra-structure investment in Qatar envisioned in the country’s National Visions 2030.  The bulk of spending until 2022 will go into sustainable structures vital to the development of a knowledge-based economy that does not solely depend on fossil energy. By comparison, neither the mega-events in Brazil, nor the Winter Games in Socchi accomplished much sustainability for their countries or their people.

The notion of two or more Gulf countries hosting a World Cup is an utterly futile fret. FIFA moved away from joint bids already in 2004 as a result of the experience of the 2002 Cup in Japan and South Korea. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states’ efforts several years ago to ostracize Qatar had to do with regional power politics that are still in play.

Despite claims to the contrary, there are little if any verifiable leads for official Qatari support for subversive groups. There is however vast evidence of Qatar contributing billions of dollars to assist refugees, charity organizations and relief organizations that facilitate humanitarian relief, medical care and education. And those numbers can be tracked easily.

Qatar, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, is among the top 14 global donors to humanitarian relief based on a percentage of GDP. The United States and Australia trail behind. This year alone, Qatar committed USD 10 billion to humanitarian and development programs at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul.

The last thing the world needs in this era of multiple crises in politics and sports is a reopening of the bid for the 2022 World Cup. The selection rules for the bidding for the 2026 World Cup have been altered and FIFA seems to have started to clean up its bidding procedures and practices. As we say in America: Get over it and move on!
And may the next World Cup be yours.


Tilman Engel is a senior sports business executive and media consultant for national leagues, including the U.S. National Football League and the Qatar Stars League. He also advises NATO’s CIMIC Center of Excellence in The Hague on positioning and communication of civil-military cooperation in collective defense Tilman can be reached at tilman.engel@sc-international.de 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Awarding World Cup to Qatar is insanity (Kestenbaum responds to Engel)

Dear Mr. Engel

I read your response to my blog on the insanity of the 2022 World Cup being awarded to Qatar.

Your response was well written, well thought out and quite compelling in some aspects. However, you have done a couple things that simply do not stand the test of scrutiny.

1.      You totally discount the weather. Have you been to Qatar in June? I have. I played soccer there as long ago as 1980. Holding the event whether at noon or midnight makes little difference. It is brutally inhuman. And not just for the players. Ever try to sit for 2 hours in that heat and humidity? Oh, they decided to move the dates to...? December?
2.      You seem to totally ignore the stunning waste of money the whole thing requires, even now 6 years in advance the construction is going crazy. Think of the millions of helpless Syrian refugees and then think of the sheer waste for billions by Qatar on stadiums for an event 6 years in the future.  And the thousands of labourers you seem also to totally ignore? They are suffering and dying by the dozens in virtually slave labour conditions. Ever seen these work camps? I have MANY times. So we have Qatar wasting literally Billions of Dollars and using thousands of virtually slave labourers to – what? Build a half dozen 60,000 seat stadiums that will be used 4 or 5 times in 2 weeks and then – what? Mothballed? Torn down? Shipped to” Mali? Chad? Gambia? Where? How? Why?

3.      You seem to completely ignore the issue of what tens of thousands of visitors will do before and after the matches – as my blog pointed out, What do they do?

4.      You say Qatar represents an important demographic of the world fans. Yet the ideal situation would have been to engage the GCC as host, or at least Qatar and UAE – where there are stadiums, hotels, bars, airports, desert camping, beaches, theatres...But NO. Qatar had to do it all by its tiny self.

5.      You yourself acknowledge that the WC has been held in Japan, Korea, S. Africa, Brazil (and Russia) since 2002. Hardly N. America and W. Europe domination, eh? So why make such a point if it is completely irrelevant and its demands already have been met?

6.      You mention that Qatar is Wahabi Muslim. The Qataris have given refuge to the Muslim Brotherhood and funded billions to extreme violent Islamic terrorist groups such as Jebhat al Nusra and Jaish Al Islam – not the kind of Samba-dancing Brazilian-friendly Jihadis. Seriously even the Saudis (the REAL Wahabis) and UAE have withdrawn their Ambassadors in the past year because of Qatar support for these violent extremist Islamic groups. Mr. Engel, I have been involved with Qatar since 1979. I have yet to meet a US Ambassador, diplomat or business executive who can explain what the Qatari leadership is doing in the region to bring calm, peace and reduce conflict. Just the opposite. Ask James Dorsey to explain what the Qataris are doing. James, if you know, please tell us!

7.      Finally and MOST IMPORTANT is the fact that the award was corrupted by bribery. Virtually the entire senior hierarchy of FIFA officials who had a voice in the voting process has been jailed or banned from any link to FIFA or Futbol. WHY? Because of bribery and corruption including and especially in the World Cup Bid Process. It is widely acknowledged now that most if not all WC Awards since 1994 (and perhaps well before that) has been corrupted by bribery and extortion. INCLUDING AND ESPECIALLY THE 2022 BID. Not to mention the fact that after the award, FIFA had to acknowledge that it is impossible to stage the 2022 cup in June/July and would have to be moved to Nov/Dec – NOT part of the bid criteria and clearly demanding a rebid based on now very different criteria.

I was expecting your rebuttal to my blog to be much more compelling. But it just repeated the same tired and discredited pap (no offense personally) about reaching out to the developing world, reducing Euro domination and sharing the WC with the world...I cannot even in honesty say “good try”. If that rebuttal was the best that Qatari sympathizers can offer, I stand fully confirmed.  If Qatar is such a compelling venue, a rebid with just Qatar and US and Australia (top 3 finishers) should be quick, transparent and product the right, fair result.

Charley Kestenbaum

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Qatar World Cup viewed from the other side of the globe (Guest Commentary)


A response to Charles Kestenbaum

Where one stands in the debate on Qatar’s hosting on the 2022 World Cup depends on from where on the globe from which one looks at it. There are cross-cultural and other striking reasons, why the 2022 FIFA World Cup should be played in Qatar despite outcries and claims that staging the tournament in the Arabian desert would be its demise.  

The awarding of the Cup to Qatar reflects the fact, that despite soccer’s European origins, it has over the past century become the globally dominant sport. Leagues, clubs and players across the globe have accepted rules and regulations laid down by Europe-based institutions that remain dominated by Westerners. Those rules and regulations govern international competitions.

In many non-European countries, soccer constitutes one of the few accepted activities outside the narrow boundaries set by traditions, religion, family, clans, society or political power. Because of higher birth rates in Asia and Africa, fandom outside of Europe is growing exponentially. This is not reflected in the geographic distribution of World Cup hosting rights.

With few exceptions, Japan/South Korea in 2002 and 2010 in South Africa, the World Cup has largely been absent in North and Central Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South East Asia despite the fact that they represent a significant percentage of the world’s population. Fans in those regions have been reduced to watching the tournament on television.

Moreover, the requirements for hosting a World Cup laid down by world soccer body FIFA make it unlikely that the tournament will be hosted in any of some 100 countries that suffer from under-development, poverty, instability, turmoil, cultural restraints or simply a lack of general football culture. This effects both Muslim and non-Muslim countries.

Qatar is the exception to this rule given its financial muscle, political will and projected ability to stage a World Cup. It is determined to live up to the expectations associated with a mega-media extravaganza of this size. If Westerners question Qatar’s intentions and ability, many on the other side of the globe are elated by the fact that for once it is not another Western, or highly developed country that will be staging the event. Qatar’s hosting give these fans a sense of belonging, participation and engagement. European concerns about culture, climate or league schedules are utterly irrelevant to these fans.

No doubt, Qatar is a small country with a citizenry the size of new European football miracle Iceland and a total population of some two and a half million. Qatar’s geographic size demands new logistical and infrastructural approaches to engaging the local population as compared to giants like Brazil or Russia. Small size in the case of Qatar means that the World Cup will affect all aspects of life, work, and society in the Gulf state.

In preparing and hosting the World Cup, Qatar is attempting to bridge the gap between its Bedouin and Wahhabi heritage and the corporate and accessibility requirements of a global event. In the run-up, multiple and at times seemingly contradictory processes attempt to merge valued traditions with the challenges of globalization.

Hosting the World Cup is part of Qatar’s National Vision 2030 development plan for a diversified knowledge economy that involves long-term economic and social re-structuring and the reform of an outdated social fabric. Qatar has already begun to address contentious issues such as migrant labour, inclusivity for all domestic groups and empowerment of women. This may not yet happen at the speed desired by Qatar’s critics but then modernization in Western countries during the era of industrialization lasted well into the 20th century.

Contrary to urban myth, organized football has been played in Qatar since the 1950s. Founded in 1960, the Qatar Football Association is as old, or even older than the next 74 national federations established at that time. Compared to its total population, more fans attend leagues matches than in many so called football power nations. In Germany, for example, on average one five hundredth of a percent of the population attended Division I Bundesliga games during the 2010 / 11 season compared to three tenth of a percent for Qatar Stars League matches in the same time period. Football fandom is as fervent among Qataris and expatriates as it is elsewhere.

Soccer has the power to sway national governments and dominate regional and global news. That power extends to the staging of a World Cup in a small market located at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and Asia.

Tilman Engel is a senior sports business executive and media consultant with for national leagues, including the National Football League (WHICH ONE?) and the Qatar Stars League. He also advises NATO’s CIMIC Center of Excellence in The Hague on positioning and communication of civil-military cooperation in collective defense Tilman can be reached at tilman.engel@sc-international.de


The views in this commentary are those of the author rather than the blog. The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer welcomes discussion and multiple perspectives


Who is Fethullalh Gulen? A modernizer or a wolf in sheep’s clothing?


By James M. Dorsey

Believers say he preaches a new, modern form of Islam. Critics charge he is a power hungry wolf in sheep's clothing preparing to convert secular Turkey into an Islamic republic; a conspirator who has created a state within the state and attempted this weekend to topple democratically elected Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a failed military coup.

That was not how past Turkish governments or for that matter Mr. Erdogan in his first eight years as prime minister saw Fethullalh Gulen, the leader of one of the world’s largest and wealthiest Islamic movements.

Back in the 1990s, secular prime ministers Tansu Ciller and Mesut Yilmaz and other prominent political leaders viewed Mr. Gulen as their weapon against the pro-Islamic Refah (Welfare) Party, the predecessor of Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), that advocated Turkey's divorce from the West and a return to its Islamic and Ottoman roots.

Mr. Erdogan too initially saw Mr. Gulen as a cherished ally. The two men worked together to force the staunchly secular military in line with one of the European Union’s demands for future Turkish membership to accept civilian control. It fit both men’s goal of lifting French-style laicist restrictions on freedom of religious expression that had long been resisted by the military. Mr. Erdogan had at the time no problem with Mr. Gulen’s followers establishing a power base in the police force and the military.

This weekend’s failed coup suggests that elements of the military still believe in a non-constitutional role of the military. Yet, at the same time, it is to the credit of Messrs. Erdogan and Gulen, that significant parts of the military, the opposition and the public backed Turkey’s democratically elected president and helped foil the coup irrespective of what they thought of his politics and leadership.

Mr. Gulen’s moves into branches of government, a version of German student leader Rudi Dutschke’s march through the institutions, reflected his long-term strategy. Mr. Gulen preaches obedience to the state and recognition of the rule of law while at the same time inserting his followers into key institutions of the state and educating a next generation in his ideological mold.

Indeed, more than half a century after he first became a government employed imam, Mr. Gulen adopted the role. He often dresses in a crumpled sports jacket and slacks, looking the part of a modern religious leader rather than a fervent Turkish nationalist or a militant Islamist. A doleful 75-year-old, he moreover talks the talk, evading language often employed by Turkey’s right-wing nationalists and Islamists.

As a result, Mr. Gulen’s modernist approach appealed to urban conservatives and some more liberal segments of the middle class. His approach contrasted starkly with that of Mr. Erdogan, who targeted the more rural conservatives and the nationalists.

It was indeed Mr. Gulen’s advocacy of tolerance, dialogue and worldly education as well as his endorsement of Turkey's close ties to Europe that endeared him to the country’s secular leaders of the 1990s and subsequently to Mr. Erdogan.

"We can build confidence and peace in this country if we treat each other with tolerance," Mr. Gulen said in a first and since then rare interview at the time with a foreign correspondent. "There's no place for quarreling in this world… By emphasizing our support for education and the media, we can prove that Islam is open to contemporary things," he added sprinkling his slow and deliberate speech with old Ottoman Turkish words regarded as quaint by modern Turks.

A diabetic with a heart ailment, Mr. Gulen has devoted himself since officially retiring in the early 1990s to writing tracts on Islam. Yet there is little in his writing or the administration of institutions linked to him that points in the direction of theological renewal.

Mr. Gulen among other things takes a conservative view of the role of women and has said that the presence of women makes him uncomfortable. It was something he had felt since he was a young man, he said. Not surprisingly, Mr. Gulen’s movement operates separate schools for boys and girls.

Yet, even Mr. Gulen has evolved. When in the mid-1990s a woman visitor asked directions to a toilet at the Istanbul headquarters of his Zaman newspaper, officials said the multi-story building wasn't equipped for women visitors. A member of the staff was sent to check whether a men's room was free. That has changed and women’s toilets were installed long before Mr. Erdogan sent his police in March of this year to take over the paper.

Critics charge that Mr. Gulen professed moderation may not be what he really hopes to achieve. "Fethullah's main project is the takeover of the state. That is why he was investing in education. They believe the state will just fall into their lap because they will be ready for it, they will have the people in place. That is their long-term plan," said a prominent liberal Turkish intellectual.

Indeed, Mr. Gulen’s movement, despite the imam’s long-term vision, effectively sought to undermine Mr. Erdogan’s government in late 2013 with charges of corruption against ministers in the then prime minister’s cabinet and members of his family. The charges and alleged evidence to back them up were never tested in a court of law.

Mr. Erdogan made sure of that. For him, the charges were the straw that broke the camel’s back. What had been an increasingly public parting of the ways that started with a soccer match fixing scandal in 2011 turned in late 2013 into open warfare with Mr. Erdogan firing or moving thousands of judiciary personnel and police officers to other jobs, shutting down the investigation, and seeking to destroy Mr. Gulen’s religious, educational and commercial empire.

The fact that the police played a key role in foiling this weekend’s coup attempt bears testimony to the degree to which Mr. Erdogan has succeeded in erasing Mr. Gulen’s influence in the police. This weekend’s dismissal of almost 3,000 judges and the issuance of arrest warrants for 140 of them on allegations of involvement with Mr. Gulen suggests that Mr. Erdogan believes that his efforts to destroy the imam’s infrastructure were more successful in the police than they were in the judiciary.

None of this amounts to evidence of Mr. Erdogan’s assertion that Mr. Gulen engineered this weekend’s coup attempt. Like so much in recent years, Mr. Erdogan has used the alleged threat of a state within a state as well as increasingly authoritarian measures to remove his critics from the media and academia and to attempt to cow the parliamentary opposition to turn Turkey into an a more authoritarian state.

Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly illiberal version of Turkish democracy in which the public is invited to protest on his behalf but not against him makes uttering unsubstantiated allegations relatively easy. Mr. Erdogan will however have to produce hard evidence if he formally goes ahead with a request that the United States extradite Mr. Gulen, who is a green card holder resident in Pennsylvania.

Even if those that staged the failed coup turn out to be followers of Mr. Gulen, Mr. Erdogan would still have to prove that Mr. Gulen was aware and involved in their plans. That may be easier said than done.

Back in 2011, during the soccer match fixing scandal, the first public indication of the growing rift between the two Islamists, Mr. Gulen apologized to one of the involved club executives. The preacher said if his followers were involved in prosecuting soccer executives and players, he was not aware of that. It was a rare suggestion that Mr. Gulen, a by now frail old man, may no longer be in control of the empire he built.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a just published book with the same title.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Port Said emerges as Egypt’s focal point of soccer-driven protest


By James M. Dorsey

Port Said, the Suez Canal city associated with the worst incident in Egyptian sporting history, is emerging as a prime locus of soccer-driven protest in a country that does not brook dissent.

Repeated protests in the city are laden with soccer’s tangled involvement and key role in the 2011 popular revolt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak; subsequent opposition to the military regime that succeeded him; deep-seated polarization over the role of Islam in public life evoked by the 2012 election of Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president; and the 2013 military coup that removed him from office.

In the latest incident, hundreds of supporters of Port Said’s Al Masri FC known as Green Eagles marched this week near the city’s Maryam Mosque in protest against the detention of their coach, Hossam Hassan, a legendary player and Egypt’s all-time top scorer. Local media reported that 30 protesters were arrested.

Mr. Ibrahim was accused of assaulting a policeman at the end of his club’s last match of the season. A video camera caught Mr. Hassan running after the policeman and punching him in the face. The policeman was reportedly a plainclothes photographer working for Egypt’s feared interior ministry. The Egyptian Football Association (EFA) penalized Mr. Hassan by suspending him for three matches and fining him $1,100.

The incident involves a twist of irony given that Mr. Hassan was a fervent supporter of Mr. Mubarak, who built the interior ministry and its police and security forces into a powerful, corrupt and feared force that is a law unto itself and became Egypt’s most despised institution.

Mr. Hassan, together with his twin brother, Ibrahim Hassan, an equally storied player, led demonstrations against the anti-Mubarak protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February 2011. Militant, street-battled hardened soccer fans were prominent in and played a key role in those protests. Messrs. Hassan urged Mr. Mubarak at the time to cut off food and medical supplies to the square.

Things have gone from bad to worse since Mr. Mubarak’s departure with repression of opposition having reached unprecedented levels under general-turned-president Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi, the military officer who toppled Mr. Morsi, outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, and has arrested tens of thousands of his Islamist and non-Islamist critics.

Human rights group Amnesty International charged this week that Egypt’s National Security Agency (NSA) was abducting, torturing and forcibly disappearing people in an effort to intimidate opponents and wipe out peaceful dissent.

“Hundreds of students, political activists and protesters, including children as young as 14, vanish without trace at the hands of the state… Many are held for months at a time and often kept blindfolded and handcuffed for the entire period,” the group said in a report.

Thousands of people led by Al Masri fans and members of parliament from Port Said marched through Port Said in February after Mr. Al-Sisi, in an unprecedented gesture to some of his opponents reached out to Ultras Ahlawy, Al Masri’s arch rival and the militant support group of storied Cairo club Al Ahli FC, once Mr. Hassan’s soccer home.

The gesture came as Al Ahli fans commemorated the death of 72 of their members in a politically loaded soccer brawl in Port Said’s stadium in February 2012. The fans were either beaten, stabbed or crushed to death in Egypt’s worst sporting incident by supporters of Al Masri and unidentified men believed to have been thugs who are regularly employed by the security forces.

The incident was widely seen as an attempt by the security forces and the military that got out of control to teach Ultras Ahlawy a lesson because of its prominent role in protests against Mr. Mubarak and his military successors. A Cairo court initially sentenced 21 lower class Al Masri fans to death in a case in which 73 people, including nine police officers were charged with being responsible for the incident. Egyptian stadiums have been closed to the public ever since.

The verdict sparked a popular revolt in Port Said and other Suez Canal cities. In appeal, the number of death sentences was reduced to 11. Some 40 people were killed during protests in January 2013 after the initial verdict outside Port Said prison where the convicted were being held.

This February the protesters were upset with Mr. Al-Sisi’s invitation to Ultras Ahlawy, made in a surprise phone call to a local television talk show, to name ten of its members who would be allowed to investigate the brawl. The ultras rejected the invitation, saying they could not act simultaneously as accuser and judge, and demanded that Mr. Al-Sisi allow for an independent investigation. Mr. Al-Sisi failed to respond.

Many in Port Said feel that their city has for decades been neglected by governments in Cairo and that it was being scapegoated in the wake of the soccer incident for what was in their view a manipulative move by authorities that went badly wrong. Port Said’s sense of being the government’s afterthought comes to life whenever Al Masri and Al Ahli lock horns on the soccer pitch.

Leila Zaki Chakravart, a London School of Economics scholar who spent 18 months in Port Said for research, recalled in an article in Open Democracy six weeks after the Port Said incident “how the coastal Mediterranean city’s self-styled laissez faire lifestyle of almost sleepy monotony abruptly changed gear on the day each year on which the Al-Masri/Al-Ahli fixture was scheduled. Tension rose rapidly before the event, and a self-imposed curfew descended ensuring that only the city’s male population patronised its streets and public spaces,” Ms. Chakravart wrote.

She noted that all Egyptian cities were soccer-mad but that “Port Said is a city which takes its football fervour to the extreme. Boys learn to dribble from the time they can walk, and street football games are played out as passionately as the city’s sole professional football club is supported. Even the club’s choice of name (Al Masri means The Egyptian) provides telling evidence of how the city’s distinctive regional brand of martial patriotism, forged during the (1956) Suez invasion and later wars with Israel, is concretely rooted in and expressed through the tribal loyalties which football brings out,” Ms Chakravart said.

It’s those tribal loyalties that are again sparking protest. The protests have as much to do with soccer as they have to do with fault lines in Egyptian society that have been sharpened in the five years since the downfall of Mr. Mubarak.

Egyptians have since watched as the Tahrir Square revolutionaries proved incapable of translating their initial victory into a sustainable transition, the military contributed to the impasse by focusing on retaining its decades-long grip on power and the perks that come with it, and the Muslim Brotherhood failed to successfully manoeuvre a minefield populated by ancien regime institutions seeking to salvage what could be salvaged and many ordinary people demanding economic improvement and political change.

Egyptians are left with Mr. Al-Sisi who appears to believe that brutal repression is the solution. Yet, even Mr. Al-Sisi appears to be groping for a way out of the malaise. His gesture to the ultras was a first attempt. Persistent reports of Mr. Al-Sisi and the Brotherhood feeling their way towards a potential reconciliation is another. The protests in Port Said suggest that for many a breaking of the impasse cannot come soon enough.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a just published book with the same title.