When conversation runs dry in a meeting with a stranger or long-lost friend, one question inevitably follows: “Did you watch the football?” or “What team do you support?”
Whether in England or Turkey, people stare back at me in utter disbelief when I respond that I never got into football. After five years being forced to play rugby in the rejects team at school, I belatedly discovered that I was quite good at football, but by then it was too late: I had been turned off sport for life.
I don’t mind the odd kick around in the park, but I would never willingly choose to spend an hour and a half watching a match on television. Sadly many a night, as a guest in Turkey, has been squandered watching two or three matches in a row, followed by the obligatory post-match reviews conducted with far more seriousness than BBC2’s Newsnight discussing war.
At a push, I might be led to venture Hull City as my team, when forced to nail my colours to the mast. But in truth, I have never actually watched Hull City play; I chose the team purely to spite my manager after her team lost to my hometown one afternoon, years ago. I support them to inject humour into boring conversations, but the reality is this: I don’t have a football team to call my own.
Perhaps I lack a competitive streak. Perhaps it is a consequence of always being chosen last when teams were picked at school. Perhaps the label of loner—or Billy no-mates—drilled into me as an adolescent in the corridors of school, never left me. Perhaps the nicknames Geek Kid and Loser, or the experience of looking in from the periphery, turned me into someone with little interest in teams or gangs or sides or tribes I could call my own.
Football is a religion for many. I don’t begrudge them: each to his own. It is their passion, their devotion, their pride. It animates them in conversation: they can speak for hours about their team, their players, their talents, their successes and failures. It is all real to them, and important too. My disinterest is as alien to them, as their passion is to me.
For most people, the real world is just like the realm of football, wherein the same rules apply. In life, you have to say where you stand: you have to choose your side and stick to it through thick and thin, good or bad. Be it nationalism, political affiliation, religion, sectarian identity—or a combination of all at once—you have to make clear where you stand and what you believe, and prove your loyalty to your side. If you’re a true team player, you’ve got to show it: now is not the time to dither or equivocate.
And so in life, we choose our sides. The methodology we follow is this: choose a narrative to believe in, and then sheepishly follow only sources which confirm that narrative. Or choose a side, and champion its cause come what may. In some lands, tribalism is alive and well, revealing itself in the loyalties that bind kith and kin. In other lands, modern forms take its place, with allegiances no less pervasive.
And so it is that we form alliances and choose where our sympathies lie. So it is that we decide when to express outrage and when to stay silent; when to express compassion and when to turn away; when to condemn and when to condone. So it is that we decide whose crimes matter, and whose can be explained, justified, talked away, ignored or denied. So it is that we decide whose victims matter, and whose can be ignored or disregarded.
In times of conflict, everyone demands to know where you stand. States demand oaths of loyalty. Nationalists demand that you stand up and be counted: your political affiliations must be scrutinised. And as for faith: it is not what your heart contains that matters, nor your creed, or the testimony of faith you once uttered. In times of conflict, it is the ever decreasing circles of sectarian legalism that define us, revealed in our loyalty to the team and our respect for the dogmatic truths which bind us.
In times of conflict, your job is to choose a side and stick to it, through thick or thin, whether they are right or wrong, good or bad. The side you have chosen defines the truth you will believe in. Only their sources or sources in their favour count; all others can be disregarded. Realities can never be complicated or messy: instead, they are simple and clear. The narratives you have constructed for yourself are the only narratives that matter.
So it is your witnesses that you rely on; your activists and foot soldiers alone. It is your media, and your scholars, and your trustworthy brothers on the ground. The other side is always partisan and biased; your side always objective and true. So the Right complain the media is left-wing and biased, while the Left complains it is right-wing and biased; it is simultaneously anti-white, anti-semitic, Islamophobic, anti-establishment and elitist. The truth is clear before us, for us all to agree upon together. There is no room for doubt or caution; no need to probe or ask for more.
Point out inconsistencies at your peril then. Individuals who for years championed the alternative media, have suddenly seen the light and now recognise it for what it is: unreliable propaganda and partisan readings of events proffered by rambling conspiracy nuts. Why the sudden epiphany? The greater objectivity of maturity which descends with age? Far from it; though once useful idiots providing the apparent substance to justify their political views, the conspiracists now side with the enemy.
The mainstream media, once condemned for its bias and politically motivated stance, is now championed as harbinger of truth. What it says happened is suddenly what actually happened; gone that heavy condemnation of the zionist head of news for censoring the events of the day in the midst of another conflict, when a different enemy held sway. And, ironically, the freelance journalist, championed in the midst of that conflict when she wrote for Electronic Intifada and the Palestinian Solidarity Movement in defense of the people of Gaza, is now an unreliable witness, to be castigated as a government stooge.
But the other side is playing for the team too. Only what their allegedly independent journalists say counts; all other narratives must be dismissed as Western propaganda. Nothing emerging from activists on the other side can be considered reliable; it is all the biased propaganda of activists with a vested interest in sowing the seeds of discord. There have been no atrocities and no innocent victims of aerial bombardment: the only casualties are amongst the terrorists, who are to blame in isolation for all that has come to pass over the past five years. Proponents of this team see no evil and hear no evil on their side. The benevolent State is the victim here, the regime beloved by the people.
The preposterous assertations of journalists claiming to be independent are rightly challenged by the other side. Their links to the government and its supporters of are rightly probed. Their alleged links to strange cults and conspiracists rightly highlighted. But objectivity would demand that all sides apply a critical eye to their own sources, whose videos and reports are freely disseminated too. Are we able to verify that all of those that we rely upon for information are independent and free from partisan leanings, unminded to produce propaganda in favour of one side or against the other? Do they report equally on the violations or negligence of those they support, as of their opponents?
The maxim liberally adhered to on all sides of this conflict—as in any other—seems to be that war is deceit, and so anything goes. Any method employed to gain a strategic advantage is considered ethical and fair. No doubt, such a position has a long inheritance, put to use in every conflict, both ancient and modern, and in every land, in an effort to gain the upper hand. But for observers far away, who are easily manipulated by a tragic turn of events, it is the antithesis of virtuous conduct. It flies in the face of true justice, in which truth, not partisanship, is the uppermost criteria of judgement.
Far from being called to stand for our team, come what may, we are called to stand firm for justice, even against ourselves, or our relatives, or our friends, or our tribe—if so necessary.
“O you who have believed, persistently stand firm in justice, witnesses for God, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, God is more worthy of both. So follow not your own inclinations, lest you fail to be just. And if you distort your testimony or refuse to give it, know that indeed God is ever acquainted with what you do.” — Quran 4:135
The partisanship which makes us blind to our own failings, or makes us find fault only in our enemy, is a construct of our own design. We have not been called upon to defend our team through thick and thin, whether it does good or bad. We have been called to hold ourselves to account before we are taken to account: to be witnesses to truth, however difficult or painful that might be. Our tribe or sect stands not by the labels it assigned to itself, but by its conduct in the theatre of life.
All manner of strange labels and titles have been invented to divide us into ever smaller and more exclusive groups, each one championing their own salvation. But life is not a football match. The answer to that question, “Which team do you support?” has no impact on your ultimate destination. But were you fair, and virtuous and true? Did you stand witness to the truth, though it pained you so? Did you stand for something greater than your team, though they hated you for it?
Here are the questions that matter, that nobody wants to ask.