Originally published: https://nlka.net/eng/fascism-on-the-football-pitch-demirals-grey-wolves-salute/

05 July 2024 | The Kurdish Centre for Studies

Turkish footballer Merih Demiral giving the Grey Wolves salute on July 2nd, 2024, after scoring what turned out to be the game winning goal against Austria in the Euros.

One cannot separate sports from politics.

Though we like to believe football games are neutral apolitical spectacles, they are intertwined within a larger socio-political context that is inescapable (as all Kurdish fans of Amedspor are well aware). This past week, that notion was on full display, igniting a wider debate about the line between where celebratory self-expression ends and violent hate speech begins.

On the night of July 2nd, 26-year-old Turkish footballer Merih Demiral scored two goals for Turkey, leading them to victory over Austria in their Euro 2024 match in the German city of Leipzig. However, following his second goal, he celebrated by running towards the rapturous Turkish fans in the stands and proudly performed the Grey Wolves salute (Bozkurt işareti) with both hands. What followed was an international controversy involving everyone from football federations, ambassadors, national ministers, and presidents, leaving many casual fans to wonder about the wider context of Demiral’s hand signs?

Who are the Grey Wolves?

The Grey Wolves (Bozkurtlar), officially known as Idealist Hearths (Ülkü Ocakları), are the neo-fascist and virulently racist paramilitary youth wing of Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), who are in a ruling coalition with Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Their extreme right-wing political worldview is a combination of reactionary Islamism, anti-Semitism, and hyper-nationalistic mythical Turanism, which sees them as the shock troops to bring about a united Turkic world from the Balkans to Siberia. Their fanatical xenophobia towards non-Turks has led them to terrorize and murder based on ethnicity: Kurds, Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, and Arabs; religion: Alevis, Christians, and Jews; and politics: anyone on the political left. They fund their notorious criminal organization through a combination of arms trafficking, drug trading, human smuggling, extortion, and support from the Turkish deep state, which utilizes them to intimidate their opponents throughout Europe and Turkey.

As an Ankara-backed paramilitary death squad, the Grey Wolves have been given a free pass since their founding in 1968 to openly attack perceived enemies of the Turkish state. This blessing of the state to murder thousands of its opponents has led to a list of notable atrocities, including the Taksim Square massacre (1977)—where they murdered 34 leftists, the Maraş massacre (1978)—where they murdered over 100 Alevi Kurds, the Beyazıt massacre (1978)—where they blew up 7 left-wing students, the Bahçelievler massacre (1978)—where they shot 7 other students, the Çorum massacre (1980)—where they murdered 57 Alevi youth, and the Sivas massacre (1993)—where they burned alive 35 Alevi intellectuals at the Madımak hotel. In the case of the latter, it occurred on July 2nd, meaning that as Demiral’s hands made the shape of the Grey Wolf before thousands of roaring fans on the football pitch, he was doing so on the 31st anniversary of when a mob made the same gesture as they condemned 35 people to their fiery death.

Away from home in the European diaspora, the Grey Wolves infamously attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981 and can now often be found distributing Turkish versions of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, vandalizing Armenian Genocide memorials, or carrying out mob attacks against Kurds—as they recently did in March 2024 in Belgium against Kurdish families returning from Newroz celebrations.

It is for these reasons that many Kurds, Armenians, and other targets of the genocidal Grey Wolves came out immediately to say that Merih Demiral giving the Grey Wolves salute was similar to someone giving the Sieg Heil! and that the group should be seen as Turkey’s version of neo-Nazis. Interestingly, the Grey Wolves founder, Alparslan Türkes (1917-1997), who was an admirer of Hitler and the Nazis, described the wolf hand gesture accordingly:

“The little finger symbolizes the Turks, the index finger symbolizes Islam, the ring – or snout – symbolizes the world. The point where the remaining three fingers join is a stamp. It means, we will put the Turkish-Islamic stamp on the world.”

The Turkish football team gives the Nazi salute in Berlin, Germany, during the 1936 Olympics.

Germany Reacts to Demiral

In the Euros 2024 host nation of Germany, where showing any sympathy with Nazism is outlawed, the country’s Interior Minister Nancy Faeser immediately called on UEFA to punish Demiral for making the gesture, stating, “The symbols of Turkish right-wing extremists have no place in our stadiums. Using the European Football Championship as a platform for racism is completely unacceptable. We expect UEFA to investigate the case and consider sanctions.”

Her outrage was justified, but it also begged the larger question of why her nation has not outlawed the Grey Wolves as others in Europe have? Especially since the group is threatening enough to be under surveillance by Germany’s federal domestic agency, which monitors their activities. They are also currently the largest extremist group in Germany, with over 12,000 estimated members. Moreover, on May 20th, 2021, the European Parliament, which Germany is a part of, urged the European Union to designate the Grey Wolves as a terrorist organization. But the German government still has yet to do so.

Elsewhere in Europe, the group is currently outlawed in France and their hand gesture has been banned in Austria since 2019, where it is punishable by fines of up to €4,000. The fact that Demiral carried out his wolf salute against the only nation which specifically fines people for doing the gesture (Austria), was another irony in this overall drama.

Demiral Plays Innocent

Speaking after the game, Demiral defended using the gesture but pretended that it was a non-political expression of national pride, stating:

“It has to do with this Turkish identity, because I’m very proud to be a Turk. And I felt that to the fullest after the second goal. So that’s how I ended up doing that gesture. I’m very happy that I did that. I saw people in the stadium who were doing that sign. So that reminded me that I also had that in mind.”

When given a chance again to clarify himself about the gesture, Demiral replied, “How can I explain this? Of course, we’re all Turkish. We’re all Turks in Turkey. We’re very proud. I’m very proud as a person to be a Turk. So that’s what I did. That was the meaning of the gesture. It’s quite normal.” Demiral then expressed his hope for “more opportunities to do the same gesture again.”

Later that night, Demiral made a post on X showing him doing the salute with the phrase “ne mutlu Türküm diyene,” meaning “How happy is the one who says I am a Turk.” The phrase, coined by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (founder of modern Turkey), carries a sinister meaning for minorities in Turkey, such as Kurds, Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians.

In case one thought Demiral was just a confused athlete, history shows that he is no stranger to political controversy. He was also right in the middle of the last big Turkish football scandal, on October 11th, 2019, following a goal by Turkey against Albania in a Euro 2020 qualifier. On that occasion, Demiral was one of the Turkish players who participated in a controversial “military salute” celebration of Erdoğan’s latest assault on the Kurds. He then openly declared his support for the Turkish invasion of Rojava (northern Syria) on Twitter, which had led the Turkish military to invade the Kurdish cities of Serê Kaniyê and Girê Spî. Soon after, French officials called for sanctions on the Turkish national team.

Turkish army soldiers give the Grey Wolves salute in celebration of their impending military invasion of the Kurdish city of Afrin in Rojava (January 2018).

Demands for Accountability

After Demiral’s latest controversy, many journalists and observers demanded he be punished with a suspension or even ban from the sport. Austrian journalist Michael Bonvalot wrote, “He openly displays the symbol of the fascist Grey Wolves. These paramilitaries were responsible for thousands of deaths, and today they sit in the Turkish government together with Erdogan’s AKP. When will UEFA react?” Similarly, Duzen Tekkal, a German-Yazidi journalist, expressed outrage about the gesture, saying that she has received death threats from Grey Wolves members in Germany for years, lamenting, “The fact that Merih Demiral is showing the right-wing extremist wolf salute here is a mockery of the victims.”

The Turkish political expert Nick Ashdown gave his analysis of the situation, remarking:

“There’s obviously a huge Turkish diaspora in Germany, and I’m sure many within the diaspora would have been happy to see the wolf salute. But also, many more would have been kind of horrified to see it, particularly those from various minorities, such as the Kurdish minority or the Alevi religious minority. Those groups have often been targeted by the Grey Wolves and this violence plays out in Europe too, where you have often Kurdish groups and Turkish Grey Wolf groups clashing in the streets, especially when there’s sports matches or similar events.”

Ashdown further described the violent fascistic ideology of the Grey Wolves, noting:

“You could call it a fascist group in the sense that violence is really at the core. There’s an obsession with order and security and a sort of veneration of the state as maintaining that order and security, and idolization of security forces and the military. There’s hostility towards minorities and other sort of out-groups. It’s very nationalistic.”

Turkish nationalists hold up Turkey’s flag and give the Grey Wolves salute in front of an ISIS mural in the city of Jarablus (2016).

Turkey Defends Demiral

One group that unequivocally supported Demiral’s actions was the Turkish government. MHP leader Devlet Bahceli condemned UEFA’s investigation into Demiral’s gesture as “biased and wrong,” stating, that UEFA was participating in an “evil caravan” alongside “internal groups with obvious hostility towards Turks and Turkey.” Bahceli acknowledged that the gesture was “the Bozkurt sign” of his specific organization (and not an innocent national symbol of pride as many Turks claimed on social media), but proclaimed that “The Grey Wolf sign made by our son, Merih, after netting the ball is the Turkish nation’s message to the world.”

As for Erdoğan’s government, they summoned the German envoy to Ankara the following day, with the spokesman of the ruling AKP party, Omer Celik, calling the criticism of Demiral “unacceptable”. Looking to capitalize off of the controversy, Turkey’s leader Erdoğan cancelled his attendance at the summit of the Organization of Turkic States in Azerbaijan on Saturday (July 6), so he could fly to Berlin and attend the football match between Turkey and the Netherlands instead.

Demiral Suspended, Turkey Defiant

Following the incident, UEFA called Demiral’s actions “inappropriate behavior” and appointed an ethics and disciplinary inspector in accordance with Article 31 (4) of its disciplinary regulations to investigate the matter. On Friday (July 5), they officially suspended Demiral for two games, with their statement reading:

“The (UEFA) Appeals Body has decided to suspend Turkish Football Federation player Merih Demiral, for a total of two (2) UEFA representative team competition matches for which he would be otherwise eligible, for failing to comply with the general principles of conduct, for violating the basic rules of decent conduct, for using sports events for manifestations of a non-sporting nature and for bringing the sport of football into disrepute.”

The ban rules Demiral out of his team’s quarterfinal against the Netherlands on Saturday, and the semifinal, should Turkey progress.

Meanwhile, the decision was criticized within Turkey, with the Turkish Football Association appealing the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). For his part, Turkey’s vice president, Cevdet Yilmaz, denounced the decision as unacceptable and called for it to be “corrected.”

A Turkish militant Emrah Çelik gives the Grey Wolves salute while holding the decapitated head of a Syrian soldier in March 2020 (left), a Turkish man in Istanbul holds up a knife and gives the Grey Wolves salute while threatening to murder Arab refugees on July 1, 2024 (right).

Ban Off the Field as Well

The entire saga has opened up many wounds and spurred a debate about whether Germany and indeed the rest of Europe should themselves ban the Grey Wolves hand gesture as Austria has or outlaw the group like France has. As a Kurdish research organization headquartered in Germany, we at The Kurdish Center for Studies (KCS) unequivocally believe that both actions are necessary.

The ’wolf salute’ is not a harmless, playful gesture of “Turkish pride”, but an act of ethnic intimidation representing a specific notorious neo-fascist criminal gang that has terrorized and murdered thousands of innocent victims. If a nation like Germany is going to decide that allowing Nazi salutes is harmful to the social fabric because they act as a direct threat to others safety, then Grey Wolves salutes serve the same function. Furthermore, UEFA should decree that any future players giving the hand gesture will receive a lifetime ban, just as the Hellenic Football Federation did with footballer Georgios Katidis when he gave the Nazi salute in March of 2013 after scoring a goal. In that instance, the Greek football federation called it “a severe provocation” that insulted “all the victims of Nazi bestiality.”

Likewise, the Grey Wolves salute insults all the victims of Turkish ultranationalist bestiality, as this gesture continues to be used around the globe to celebrate their atrocities. In fact, just a day before Demiral’s on-field gesture, video emerged of a Turkish man in Istanbul wielding a knife and threatening to murder Arab refugees while giving the Grey Wolves salute. Furthermore, we have seen the Grey Wolves salute used by the Turkish militant Emrah Çelik in April 2020 after he decapitated a Syrian soldier, and by Turkish soldiers as they were invading the Kurdish city of Afrin in 2018, to install their now 6-year brutal occupation. Additionally, when Azerbaijani soldiers recently looted the Armenian city of Stepanakert in Artsakh, they proudly performed the Grey Wolves salute, just as Turkey’s jihadist mercenaries have each time they occupied a new Kurdish city in Rojava.

This is not a matter of free speech, but whether or not society is going to openly allow fascistic death threats against targeted minorities because of what ethnicity or religion they are. And in that case, we at KCS believe that the Grey Wolves salute (and organization) should be permanently banned both on the football pitch and on the streets of Europe.

About the Author

The Kurdish Center for Studies (KCS) is the general term given for articles which are collaborations by the Co-Directors, contributors, or staff from the KCS—where listing each of the specific authors is unnecessary. The KCS Editorial Board reviews and approves such pieces before publication.