The uproar surrounding Turkish footballer Merih Demiral’s celebration during the Euro 2024 match against Austria stems from a lack of understanding of Turkic culture.

According to a Turkish historian, the gesture, forming a wolf’s head with his fingers – known as the “Gray Wolf” sign – holds immense historical significance and “has nothing to do with racism.”

Urged by German officials, European football’s governing body launched an investigation into the sign given by Demiral during Tuesday’s Euro 2024 clash between Austria and Türkiye.

Ahmet Taşagıl, a professor at the Turkish Language and Literature Department at Istanbul’s Yeditepe University, emphasized the historical significance of the symbol for the Turkish people.

“The wolf symbol is one of the most important symbols of the Turks,” Tasagil told Anadolu Agency (AA).

“All Turkic tribes living in Central Asia used this symbol during the fourth and fifth centuries. It was first used by a Turkic tribe called the Wusuns in 174 B.C. By the A.D. fourth and fifth centuries, the wolf motif was adopted by the Turkic tribes known as the Kao-Ch’e.”

The symbol gained legendary status during the establishment of the Turk Kaganate in A.D. 552, he said.

“It was like the official document of the state. During the Gokturk period, princesses even used the gray wolf as a title. Therefore, it has nothing to do with racism; it is a historical symbol.”

He elaborated on the context in which the wolf symbol was used throughout Turkish history.

“In the Ergenekon epic (from around 330 B.C.), the wolf is seen as a guide and leader. There’s also a belief from the Gokturk period that the Turks originated from a wolf.”

Wisdom symbol

Tasagil highlighted that sources from the 12th and 13th centuries mention that the Turks, upon arriving in Anatolia, followed a wolf, according to Armenian, Syriac and other Middle Eastern legends.

“For the Turks, the wolf is a guiding figure, representing wisdom, strategy, and rescue in difficult times.”

“When the Republic of Türkiye was established (in 1923), the wolf appeared on paper money, in newspapers and on the emblems of national institutions,” he noted.

“Turkish state tradition has been very well represented by the Republic of Türkiye from past to present, and we never lost our independence, namely during the Seljukids, the Anatolian Seljuks – pre-Ottoman Turkic civilizations – the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Türkiye eras. So it’s normal for this symbol to still live on in the Republic of Türkiye.”

“However, other Turkic republics (in Central Asia) now don’t use this because they lived under the domination of Russians or other nations for a long time because of this.”

Europe’s far-right fuel

Tasagil said the controversy also reflects the dangerous rise of the far-right in Europe and its consequent political impact on various groups, fueling greater discrimination.

“I think the symbol is perceived politically today due to the rise of the far-right in Europe or policies against the Turks.”

“Otherwise, every nation uses its own symbols. European footballers comfortably use crosses or their national symbols on their jerseys. The French national symbol, the rooster, is prominently displayed on their jerseys, flags and banners. There’s no harm in Turks using their symbols either,” he added.

Türkiye hits back

UEFA announced an investigation into the gesture made by Turkish defender Demiral during Türkiye’s Euro 2024 match against Austria. After scoring a goal in Türkiye’s 2-1 victory, Demiral celebrated by making a hand sign resembling a wolf’s head.

The Grey Wolf sign is a profound historical and cultural emblem of the Turkish people, embodying Turkish identity rather than aligning with any particular political or social faction. The symbol has been occasionally used by leaders from various political backgrounds as a representation of Turkish identity.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry condemned UEFA’s decision to investigate Demiral, calling it “unacceptable.” The ministry pointed out that even a report last September by the German spy agency BfV said the Grey Wolf sign should not necessarily be linked to right-wing extremism and that it is not a banned symbol in Germany.

After German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said on X, “The symbols of Turkish right-wing extremists have no place in our stadiums,” Türkiye summoned German Ambassador to Ankara Jurgen Schulz.

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