Who's in charge on Turkish team: coach or Islam?

As Turkey prepares to face Brazil Tuesday, a national debate swirls in the country over role of Islam on team.

Has Turkey, with its embattled economy and its bedridden prime minister, finally found a panacea in football? Judging by the scenes on Saturday following the Turkish team's first-ever qualification for the World Cup semifinals – yes. In Ankara and Istanbul, sleep was nearly impossible as thousands of jubilant fans danced all night in the streets.

In packed bars, discussion mainly centered on Turkish striker Hakan Sukur's dreadful form. But the papers have been full of a controversy characteristic of the tensions between Turkey's secular elite and overwhelmingly Muslim population. Even football, it seems, is not enough to neutralize one of Turkey's most perennial bugbears: the fear of political Islam.

In two articles in the popular daily Milliyet, sports columnist Tuncay Ozkan accused the Turkish team of "suffering from the return of a disease that has plagued Turkish sport in general – the equation of professionalism with piety, prayer given precedence over skill." Turkey's soccer players, he claims, have fallen into the hands of a tarikat, or Islamic sect, led by Hakan Sukur. In the absence of a team manager who can control them, it is Mr. Sukur's group who decides who is sent home and who stays, who plays and who doesn't. Ozkan even suggested that the team doesn't pass the ball to players who don't pray.

Reaction to the articles was immediate and harsh. Ozkan wrote to say that angry readers had denounced him as a heretic. Writing in the liberal newspaper Radikal last Tuesday, Ahmet Cakir was more temperate. "The absurdity of this whole affair is that the only evidence produced for these claims is a group of players going to Friday prayers," he writes. "Yet the whole issue is portrayed as if they were caught fornicating and engaged in all sorts of debauchery."

For Rusen Cakir, journalist and author of several books on political Islam, this tendency to see all religious activity as fundamentalist is another kind of fundamentalism. "The Brazilian players are religious too," he says. "Does their press have discussions like this?" Because of such debates, he says that "the relationship between religion and society in Turkey is lived as a perpetual crisis."

Following the rapid rise of the Islamic Refah Party in the 1980s and '90s, rumors of political Islam's increasing influence on sport were taken seriously by Turkey's secularist establishment and press.

"Islam's first target was Turkey's traditionally rural and religious wrestling team," says Hincal Uluc, soccer commentator for daily Sabah. The next was Galatasaray, Turkey's most successful soccer club, of which Sukur was a member. "Florya, the team's headquarters, became an Islamic center," says Mr. Uluc. "While players insisted they should be allowed to fast during Ramadan, the management argued they couldn't, because it would affect their form."

Then, as now, Sukur was the most controversial figure. His role in the ongoing controversy puts a spotlight on one of Turkey's essential dilemmas: Although it's often described as being the only Muslim country to have a secular constitution, there are many here who believe that its particular brand of secularism needs an overhaul. "Turkish secularism is not, as is usually the case in Western Europe, a case of 'a free church in a free state,' " says Mustafa Erdogan, of the Association for Liberal Thinking. Religion here is emphatically in state hands.

Ultimately, the soccer tarikat dispute has its roots in the foundation of the republic in 1923. While the last sultans tried to hold their crumbling domains together by calling on Muslim unity, says Mr. Cakir, "Republicans preferred other national values to gather Turks together." Islam came to be seen as an obstacle to modernization. The tarikats, with their influential networks of social solidarity, were seen as rivals of central authority and repressed, but never totally eradicated.

"Both sides of the divide have to stop looking at each other down the wrong end of their telescopes," says Cuneyt Ulsever, a columnist for Hurriyet.

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