Who would have thought that the most controversial tweet I sent in years would be about the Turkish volleyball team? Just a congratulatory message because the team won the European championship, which was a great sportive achievement. Before I knew it, many Kurds were attacking me. And they were right – I hadn’t researched the team at all and would have not sent the tweet if I had. Still, the dynamics at play are very interesting, and at some level disturbing.
Some of the first reactions I received came from Kurds from Başur, so Kurdistan in Iraq. This made me giggle a bit initially, because I was criticized for applauding a Turkish team while the leadership of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq is Turkey’s biggest supporter and enabler in the ongoing occupation of Kurdistan and Iraq. But the comment I made about it was stupid, even more so because soon, Kurds of all colours joined the rejection choir.
Did I know who *this woman* was?, one person asked me, adding a picture of an Instagram post of one of the players who paid tribute to Sabiha Gökçen. Of course I know who Sabiha Gökçen is: she is the adopted daughter of Turkey’s founding father Atatürk, who was the world’s first female combat pilot who – and this is what many Turks don’t know or refuse to acknowledge – bombed Kurds to smithereens and used chemical weapons to do that, for example during the Dersim massacres in the late 1930s.
More than one person sent me the post with Gökçen, while others pointed out that the team may be named the ‘Sultans of the Net’, but often referred to themselves as ‘soldiers of Atatürk’. Hadn’t I seen those images of flag waving, of the full dedication to the national anthem (at least one player crying while it played), of their raving about Atatürk? Did I know there were Grey Wolves sympathies in the team?
Yes, I had seen some of it but I of course consciously didn’t choose any of those images in my tweet to congratulate the women. And I didn’t find those images reason not to congratulate, as flag waving and the national anthem are always part of sports on this level, unfortunately, and everybody knows Turkey is like this. I chose the ultra-happy picture of Ebrar Karkurt and Melissa Vargas, exploding with joy about their victory.
Karakurt is a role model for the LGBT community, and surely this community can use such a role model, with the AKP government explicitly targeting queer people and compromising their safety and rights under the guise of policies to enhance ‘family values’. Only then I realized that it was Karakurt who had shared the Instagram post with Sabiha Gökçen. Is it fair to hold that against her? A large majority of the people in Turkey support the ‘Sultans of the Net’, but there is also a section of society that has a problem with the openly lesbian player. Also among supporters of the team, homophobia exists. Imagine Karakurt resisting not only AKP rule, as she does, but suggesting in any way that she doesn’t love Turkey and its founder and the nationalist foundations of the state with the whole of her heart? Her nationalism protects her.
Don’t understand me wrong: I don’t know Karakurt, I don’t know how her different identities relate to each other, so I am not making any statement about how this works for her specifically. But when you are part of a marginalized group in society, strengthening the part of you that is closer to power can help you keep your head above the water or can even help you stay alive. It functions as a protection, whether it’s conscious or not.
And no, Karakurt doesn’t function as ‘pink washing’ of Turkey’s team, as somebody said to me. She’s not in the team because of being a lesbian, she’s in the team because she’s a great player. Nobody makes propaganda with her, let alone the government, who hasn’t protected her against homophobic slurs at all and should be called out for it.
Something else is at play. One of the Diyarbakır MPs for the Yeşil Sol Parti, Sevilay Çelenk, congratulated the ‘Sultans of the Net’ as well via Twitter and was subject to an outrageous wave of anger. When I spoke about this to a Kurdish friend, he said that many of the accounts attacking her were very new, anonymous accounts, with hardly any followers. He claimed that there is a social media campaign of the ruling AKP and/or intelligence service MIT to try to undermine the Kurdish political movement. They make normal criticism spiral out of control with harsh attacks, pretending to be Kurds voting for Yeşil Sol, making it seems as if the party is losing support.
Everybody knows how AKP troll armies have poisoned Twitter in previous years, and Musk having taken over the platform doesn’t help. Local elections are scheduled in Turkey for next year.
Still, for me personally, all these dynamics don’t justify my Twitter-congratulations. I didn’t have to share that tweet, it added exactly nothing but did hurt the people of whom I know very well how Turkish nationalism endangers them every day. And trust me, I wouldn’t have tweeted it if I had investigated the team – which is the least you may expect of a journalist, right?