In Germany, there are many people who criticize the policies of Recep Tayyip Erdogan — rightly so. Many of his toughest critics here are Germans with Turkish roots, who also denounce the German government's political deals with Ankara. And many of them are now expressing their solidarity with Mesut Özil, the German-Turkish player who resigned from the German national soccer team after attracting intense criticism in Germany for posing for photographs alongside the Turkish president, just before this summer's World Cup.
Are the two positions compatible? Can one be critical of the president while supporting the soccer star? Anyone who sees an irreconcilable contradiction here is, without realizing it, part of the problem.
Two points in Mesut Özil's resignation letter, which he shared on Twitter, appear to be crucial from the point of view of social and integration policy.
First part of German soccer star Mesut Özil's resignation letter — Source: Official Twitter account
First, there's his justification of how and why he came to take a photo with Erdogan in the middle of an election campaign. Özil writes that he has "two hearts' — a Turkish and a German one. This is understandable, though maybe still a mystery to a majority of Germans.
More difficult to grasp, though, is why these two hearts can't even talk to each other. How else can we explain that Özil doesn't mention, in his long statement, that he finds it wrong that fellow Germans, as well as Turkish opponents, were wrongly imprisoned for months? That he finds it wrong that tens of thousands of innocent Turkish citizens lost their jobs after the July 2016 coup attempt? Especially given that it all happened in violation of the principles of the rule of law, for which at least his German heart should beat.
Mesut Özil writes that he will always treat his ancestors and family traditions with respect. But you can, and must, look at it the other way around: Whoever feels connected to Turkey, whoever loves the country of their parents, should not merely respect the highest state office — they should also stand on the side of the people, in particular when so many are being brutally bullied and oppressed.
The second point, however, has a lot to offer and will hopefully continue to dominate the debate in Germany. Toward the end of his letter, the 29-year-old writes that he is resigning from the national team in the face of countless racist attacks.
He has never been a paragon of integration — which is not at all an accusation against him.
It is telling that the first reactions to Özil's statement chose to focus on the first half of his letter. Many critics indeed preferred to ignore the part about racism — worse, sometimes they even accused him of painting himself as a victim. Such reactions sent the following message to the German-Turkish minority: In Germany, it is still the unaffected majority that gets to define who is exposed to racism and who isn't.
The whole case, and its unfortunate conclusion, highlight one of the biggest misunderstandings around Mesut Özil's persona: He has never been a paragon of integration — which is not at all an accusation against him. His comments on the Erdogan photo provided more evidence of this. Özil never wanted to be this role model. He is simply one of the best soccer players of his generation, whom any national soccer association in the world — including Germany's — should be lucky to have. He is a member of the sport's global elite, ranking among stars who play in Madrid one day and in London the next, and who may sometimes lose touch with the challenges of integration back home.
But the fact remains that the German Football Association, the politicians and the fans wanted him to be a role model. They so badly wanted Özil, who really has nothing to do with politics, to set a shining example, that they showered him with awards and praise. "Look," the message was, "our sport is helping with integration."
And now Özil is being hung out to dry by the very German Football Association that brought him to the fore on every occasion. The fans who used to do nothing but cheer him are now insulting him and would rather send him away, while sponsors and media partners are taking him out of their campaigns.
All of this encourages the German-Turkish minority to feel exactly as Özil says: No matter how much effort you put in, no matter how good you are at your job, no matter how much you contribute to society, in the end, it's not in your hands whether or not you belong to it. In the end, you can always be reduced to your origins, or those of your parents. In the end, there will always be people who deny your being German. Even if you are one of the best soccer players ever to wear the national jersey.