Mesut Özil’s decision to quit the German national football team in the face of widespread racial slurs reminds us of the Tariq Ramadan case for several good reasons. Ramadan, a professor at Oxford University and one of Europe’s most influential public intellectuals, is now a victim of its blatant racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia himself – (a very comprehensive account of his case is chronicled here) – after he has preached Muslim integration into the mainstream for almost 30 years. Before his incarceration, he preached that integration was a word of the past and that the word of today and tomorrow is and must be “contribution.”
One of the examples he frequently cited was the case of Zinedine Zidane – the French-Algerian superstar who is the fourth most capped footballer in French history. His two game-winning goals in the 1998 World Cup finals earned him the Légion d’honneur – the highest French order of merit for military and civil achievements. Using Zidane’s example, Tariq Ramadan asked his fellow Muslims to actively and civically contribute to their own European societies, the tacit assumption being that contribution will make space for Muslims as Europe will see the value in their addition, leading to a consequent overcoming of an “us vs. them” dichotomy.
Mesut Özil’s announcement that he will no longer play for the German national team comes after being the object of racial abuse by the German press for his Turkish origins, abuse that was arguably spurred by a photo of Özil with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. After Özil’s retirement, the possibility of post-integration Muslim contribution in Europe takes quite the hit, and calls into question the double standard that first and second generation immigrants in Europe face, earning the praise of their countrymen when successful, and facing the brunt of criticism upon failure. This was precisely articulated in Özil’s statements – “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose. This is despite paying taxes in Germany, donating facilities to German schools and winning the World Cup with Germany in 2014, I am still not accepted into society.”
The false and shallow logic of contribution leading to a solution is exposed. Muslims are consistently expected to be the goose that lays golden eggs, yet it appears that acceptance is contingent on success. In further comments, Özil pointed to the evident racism by illustrating that while his former teammates Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose were never referred to as German-Polish, he has been consistently referred to as German-Turkish in the German press throughout his career with the “Die Mannschaft.”
“Is this because it is Turkey? Is it because I’m a Muslim? By being referred to as German-Turkish, it is already distinguishing people who have family from more than one country. I was born and educated in Germany, so why don’t people accept that I am German?”
The question then becomes a matter of what it is that European politicians, media and civil society actually hope to achieve. Is it integration or assimilation? Why can’t a German football player with Turkish origins exercise his agency to meet, take a photo, or have a cup of Turkish coffee with the Turkish leader? Would a German player of Russian origin generate that level of anguish and questions regarding his loyalty if he met Putin? In fact, in his statement of early retirement, Özil did not defend his meeting with the president in a political sense, nor did he mention the rampant Islamophobia, racism and xenophobia that plagues Germany and Europe. Rather, he defended his meeting of the Turkish president as a matter of respecting the highest office of his ancestral homeland. His statement said that although the German media have portrayed something different as a cause of this meeting, the truth is that not meeting with the president would have been simply disrespecting the roots of his ancestors. The German press and civil society at large were not fond of this kind of agency or rootedness, not for a German-Turk at least. Europe indeed desires total assimilation in its occasional welcoming of immigrants and their contributions, devoid of any dissent or actual diversity.
After playing for the German national team in more than 90 matches for nine years, scoring 23 goals, being the best German player of the year five times, Özil was rewarded with the brunt of criticism following a disappointing World Cup exit. How many immigrants could contribute as much as a Mesut Özil? This is what Özil got as a reward. How many immigrants could contribute more than Özil did? In a similar vein, Ramadan might have already learnt the hard way that no matter how much of a gift he is to Europe, he will remain as “the other” as long as he is not willing to give up his critical political positions and completely assimilate into the dominant paradigm. This is the only option for even the most gifted of the immigrants like Özil or Ramadan. What is left for the not-so-gifted or struggling immigrants coming out of the shameful French colonial slavery or refugees fleeing wars that are chiefly Western artifacts is anyone’s guess.
* Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Political Science at Texas Tech University