Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan served as best man to German-Turkish soccer star Mesut Ozil at his wedding this weekend, the BBC reported. Ozil dramatically resigned from the German national team last year after posing for a photo with the Islamic leader, citing “racism and disrespect.”
Erdogan’s surprise appearance at the athlete’s wedding follows a month of bad press for Erdogan regarding his relationship with sports. His government appeared to have banned the broadcast of the National Basketball Association (NBA) conference finals nationwide because of the presence of Enes Kanter, a vocal critic of the president’s, on one of the four remaining teams.
The Turkish government news agency Anadolu ran a story about the wedding, as well as exclusive Turkish government photos of Erdogan with the newlyweds.
According to the BBC, Ozil announced in March, following his engagement, that he had asked Erdogan to attend the wedding as his best man. The move prompted some controversy as Ozil had long denied that his meeting with Erdogan last year, prior to the beginning of the FIFA World Cup, was intended as an endorsement of Erdogan’s policies. He has reportedly not made similar claims about Erdogan’s role in his wedding.
Ozil married a former Miss Turkey, Amine Gulse, in Istanbul, where BBC notes Erdogan is currently helping campaign for his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) to win the mayorship. His handpicked candidate, Binali Yıldırım, lost the race for the mayorship in a free and fair election to Mayor-elect Ekrem İmamoğlu of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP). Erdogan responded to the loss by forcing the city to vote again.
“Mr Erdogan … reportedly often attends celebrity marriages in Turkey, especially during election campaigns,” the BBC reported.
Yeni Safak, a pro-Erdogan newspaper, reported that “many statesmen and prominent figures” also attended Ozil’s wedding.
Ozil played on the German World Cup team until 2018, when publishing a photo with Erdogan on his profile sparked a backlash. Erdogan is responsible for one of the most dramatic crackdowns on freedom of the press in the world today, in a country that had enjoyed a stable democracy for decades. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has named Turkey the world’s worst jailer of journalists since 2017. Erdogan has shut down hundreds of newspapers, television and radio stations, and online outlets in the aftermath of the 2016 failed coup against him. When questioned on his human rights violations, Erdogan has claimed that, under his presidency, Turkey has “the world’s freest press.”
Erdogan has also imprisoned thousands for alleged ties to Fethullah Gülen, the Islamic cleric Erdogan blames for the coup. Gülen, who lives in Pennsylvania, has denied any links to the coup. The leaders of the coup identified themselves as secular constitutionalists.
Ozil smiled for a photo with Erdogan and posted it online, without any mention of the dire human rights situation in his country. Following the backlash, Ozil blamed “racism and discrimination” for the outrage and quit the German national team.
“I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” he said. “I used to wear the German shirt with such pride and excitement, but now I don’t. I feel unwanted and think that what I have achieved since my international debut in 2009 has been forgotten.”
Ozil excused the photo as a sign of respect for his country.
“Like many people, my ancestry traces back to more than one country. Whilst I grew up in Germany, my family background has its roots firmly based in Turkey. I have two hearts, one German and one Turkish,” he said in an extended statement. “For me, having a picture with President Erdoğan wasn’t about politics or elections, it was about me respecting the highest office of my family’s country.”
“My job is a football player and not a politician, and our meeting was not an endorsement of any policies,” Ozil said.
Erdogan, naturally, rose to Ozil’s defense last year.
“This statement by Özil and the stance he has taken is completely national and native. It is well beyond all appreciation. I congratulate him, because such a racist approach due to his religion toward a young person who gave everything for the German national team, contributing to its successes, was completely unacceptable,” Erdoğan said at the time.
Erdogan’s warmth towards Ozil stands in stark contrast to his government’s repeated attempts to silence and imprison Portland Trail Blazer’s star Enes Kanter, arguably the world’s most famous Gulenist. Kanter has publicly accused Erdogan of preventing him from seeing his family and threatening him and his loved ones.
Turkey prosecutors are demanding prison for Kanter for being a “member of an armed terrorist group” and “insulting the president,” a crime in Turkey. He is a member of Hizmet, the name for Gülen’s group of followers, who promote a tolerant form of Islam rooted in expanding educational opportunities. Gülen runs a global charter school network the Turkey government claims helps breed terrorists. While Gülen has not run into those accusations in the United States, the FBI has raided some Hizmet schools for alleged corruption.
As he is not a U.S. citizen and the Turkish government has repeatedly pushed to place an Interpol Red Notice on him – which would recommend his arrest to participating countries – Kanter has refused on several occasions to leave the United States.
To prevent Kanter from becoming popular in Turkey, Erdogan’s government banned Trail Blazer’s playoff games from national broadcast this year. S Sport, the broadcaster that typically airs the games, issued a statement this year saying they would “clearly” not show the team’s playoff games, adding as the only explanation, “this situation is not about us, but it is what it is.”