By James M. Dorsey
When Ramazan Kizil established Dalkurd FF, one of Europe’s most successful immigrant soccer teams, in a remote town in northern Sweden, he dreamt of one day raising the Swedish and the Kurdish flag alongside one another in a European championship. These days, Mr. Kizil’s goals are more immediate: aiding embattled Kurdish fighters fending off attacks by Islamic State, the jihadist group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq, in the Syrian-Turkish border town of Kobani.
Mr. Kizil’s Dalkurd sparked anger in the Swedish Football Federation (SFF), further fuelled debate within the international sports community about the relationship between sports and politics, and focused attention on the blowback of conflict in the Middle East and North African on migrant communities in Europe, when the club flashed a sign saying ‘Save Kobani’ during a recent soccer match. The club based in Borlänge, an iron and paper mill town 300 kilometres north of Stockholm, raised €3,000 during the match for Kobani that has been a focus of the US-led war on the Islamic State for more than a month.
Against the backdrop of efforts by International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach to acknowledge the intimate relationship between sports and politics in a break with the sport world’s long-standing insistence that the two are separate, Mr. Kizil described his club’s support for Kobani in an interview with Rudaw as “human solidarity.” In response to the SFF’s description of the support for Kobani as “political,” Mr Kizil retorted: „We do not care about their warnings or any eventual penalties.” Adil Kizil, Ramazan Kizil’s son and Dalkurd’s sports manager added: “We can’t just sit and watch while Kobani gets massacred. We must do something.“ Some 200,000 people have fled Kobani mostly to Turkey in the last six weeks.
The dispute over the nature of Dalkurd’s support for Kobani raises the question of what the border line is, if there is one, between humanitarian and political aid to groups in distress as a result of conflict as well as the double standards applied by some Western nations towards foreign fighters in the Syrian conflict. Most Western nations have sought to criminalize those of their nationals who join Islamic State as foreign fighters. Some like the Netherlands, however, appear to exempt those who join the Kurds in their fight against the Islamist group.
The distinction between good and bad foreign fighters is likely to loom ever larger. Dalkurd’s support for the Kurdish fight against Islamic State reflects a new resolve among Kurds across Europe as well as a revival of Kurdish hopes for independence. Across Scandinavia, home to many Kurds, groups have demonstrated for Kobani and sought to aid the US-backed Kurdish fighters trying to hold on to the city.
Scores of young German Kurds have joined the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group that long championed the ideal of a pan-Kurdish state that would be carved out of Kurdish regions in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. The group — condemned by Turkey, the European Union and the United States as a terrorist organization — has since lowered its sites to demanding full rights within Turkey in stalled negotiations with the Turkish government.
Sabri Ok, a PKK leader, recently told German magazine Der Spiegel: „The new generation is different from us older people. They are more radical. They have seen the war in Kurdistan and their brothers and sisters have died in Syria. It will be difficult to control them.“ For many Kurds, the battle for Kobani, once a secular, democratic Kurdish-governed enclave, represents their aspirations. The fall of Kobani, PKK officials warn, would fuel Kurdish resistance and could revive the Kurdish insurgency in south-eastern Turkey in which some 40,000 people have died since 1984.
The changing Kurdish landscape was highlighted this week with Turkey allowing a convoy of 150 vehicles carrying heavy weaponry and armed Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters to traverse its territory en route to Kobani to strengthen their Syrian Kurdish brethren.
Dalkurd, one of three Swedish clubs that have fielded Europe’s most successful immigrant teams, was initially launched as a project to create jobs for youth. Dalkurd’s Swedish identity is clearly identifiable on maps; its minority Kurdish identity is not. That makes Dalkurd as much a product of the social and economic challenges facing immigrants in Sweden and elsewhere in Europe as it is of the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century that turned Kurds into the largest nation without a homeland, and scattered them across the Middle East and the globe.
Dalkurd’s initial players were Kurdish migrants and refugees, and their descendants. Turkish Kurdish immigrants moved to Europe in search of more fertile economic pastures and to escape the suppression of their cultural identity and political rights in Turkey. Dalkurd co-founder Elvan Cicen said instinctively, the founders had thought of naming the club Kurdistan, but on reflection opted for Dalkurd: Dal for Dalarna, the region where Borlänge is located, and Kurd for Kurdistan. Dalarna’s famous wooden horses frame the yellow sun on the red, white and green Kurdish flag that the club adopted as its own.
“We are both Kurdish and Swedish. Football is our tool to integrate people. We took kids off the streets and away from the gangs. Everybody blamed the kids. But the real problem was the parents, who often were analphabets. The kids lived in different worlds in school and at home. The parents didn’t see what was happening and the kids weren’t integrated. We started involving the parents,” Mr. Cicen said. Dalkurd players have become role models in local high schools. They have sparked a cultural revolution, inspiring girls to form their own team with the support of Dalkurd managers who seek to overcome the objections put forward by conservative parents.
In interviews, Kurdish members of Dalkurd’s board do not hide their empathy for the PKK. Officials in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the PKK has bases, suggested that the group had helped fund Dalkurd, a claim the club’s executives deny. Nevertheless, Dalkurd chairman Kizil, a Kurdish immigrant from Turkey, was sentenced in 2010 in absentia to 10 months in prison in his homeland after giving a speech in his native Kurdish and campaigning on behalf of a pro-Kurdish political party.
Dalkurd’s leadership, much like that of other immigrant communities, draws a distinction between integration and assimilation. “Integration is not assimilation. It’s learning a new culture without losing one’s own. Even if we had Kurdistan, I wouldn’t move there. Sure, my parents didn’t come here to be Swedes. They socialise only with the Kurdish part of Dalkurd. I’m trying to learn from both cultures. Having two cultures is being richer. We would lose if we were only a Kurdish team. They call us the Kurdish national team. That is not a problem but we don’t close the door to other people,” Mr. Cicen said.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.
By James M. Dorsey