James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He is also co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Wuerzburg in Germany. An award-winning, veteran journalist, James has covered ethnic and religious conflict in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Financial Times and The Christian Science Monitor. James is a columnist and the author of the widely acclaimed and quoted blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He sits on the international editorial board of The Middle East Studies Online Journal.
CHANGING TURKEY: Could you tell us about your new book The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer and your research in general?
JAMES M. DORSEY: The book fills a gap in research in both Middle East studies and the study of the nexus of sports, politics and society. In Middle East studies sports has been virtually ignored despite the fact that soccer in particular has played a key role in the development of the region since it was introduced by the Brits in the late 19th / early 20th century. Similarly, the social science study of sports has focused on all parts of the world except the Middle East and North Africa. Soccer to me offers a unique prism on the national, ethnic, religious, political and cultural fault lines in the Middle East and North Africa as well as its historic and current struggles. Given that soccer is one of the world’s most prevalent expressions of popular culture, it also is a way of attracting a readership that normally would not be interested in deeper analysis of the region.
CHANGING TURKEY: Thank you very much for attending the third Changing Turkey workshop and presenting your comparison of Turkish and Egyptian militant soccer fans’ place in anti-government protests. Could you provide our readers a summary of your comparison?
JAMES M. DORSEY: Turkish soccer fans were politicized and became militant at a time of repressive military-backed rule in which stadia were the only venue where people could rally and express their identity, pent-up frustration and anger. It was only 25 years later that Egyptian soccer fans went through a similar process. In that quarter of a century, Turkey returned to pluralistic, democratic rule albeit with a powerful military on the background that was only subjected to civilian rule in the late 20th and early 21st century. While Egypt three years after its popular revolt reverted to a security force-dominated autocracy, in Turkey mass anti-government protests prompted by plans to raze Gezi Park on Istanbul’s iconic Taksim Square sparked a period of political crisis and increased authoritarianism and government control. The ultras’ battle in Egypt for freedom in the stadia, their prominent role in the toppling of Hosni Mubarak and their opposition to the military rulers and the elected and then toppled Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi, made them political by definition. The same is true for Carsi and other Turkish support groups, foremost among which those associated with storied Istanbul club Fenerbahce who stand for greater political freedoms, opposed the hard-handed police and demanded an end to the corruption of the sport. Despite the communalities, there are also obvious differences. Post-Morsi Egypt has come full cycle. Repression with little more than a democratic facade could again put soccer fans alongside shady militant Islamists groups in the forefront and turn stadia into political battlefields against military control whether overt or behind-the scenes. Brutal and unaccountable security forces and autocratic government masked by hollowed out democratic institutions could also again unite fans in their confrontation with the regime. That too is not impossible in Turkey as Erdogan maintains a politicized judiciary and police force, fends off the worst corruption scandal in recent political history, battles a well-entrenched rival who heads the world’s largest Islamist network, and limits freedom of expression and access to information.
CHANGING TURKEY: Do you have similar research projects to be completed in the near future? Is there anything else you would like to add?
JAMES M. DORSEY: I am about to publish a monograph on Qatar-Saudi relations as well as one on Arab militaries, both of which are also chapters in a second forthcoming book on the Middle East and North Africa that is not soccer-related. My third book is again about soccer but more theoretical in that looks at things like the relationship between a stadium environment as well as the nature of football and protest, the impact of law enforcement on soccer fans in various stages of politicization and soccer’s role in nationalism.