As Euro 2012 kicks off across two nations exposed for racism, and after this year’s Eurovision Song Contest took place in a country with a poor human rights record, Martin Saunders asks: Why does being entertained mean we turn a blind eye to injustice?
Two black footballers warm up on the running track around a pitch; substitutes getting ready to join the game. As they do so, some of the supporters jeer at them by making monkey noises. In fact, a whole section of the crowd is abusing them in unison; thousands of men, women, and even children, joining together in a huge corporate act of racism.
At another match, on a different Saturday afternoon, one end of the stadium taunts the other with a chant. One of the teams has a Jewish heritage, so the chant of their fierce rivals is a hideous anti-Semitic slur. Elsewhere, this same behaviour is even more intensified – as thousands of supporters join together in chants of ‘Sieg Heil’, all of them performing a Nazi salute. And in yet another stadium, a large mob of fans join forces part way through a match, turning on Asian supporters who were getting behind their team, committing brutal acts of violence while stewards and police lamely attempt to intervene.
What I’m describing here isn’t taking place in European football’s Dark Days, the 1970s and 80s. It’s taking place in 2012, and according to footage obtained by the BBC’s Panorama, it’s taking place in Poland and Ukraine – host nations for this summer’s European Football Championships.
The documentary, Euro 2012: Stadiums of Hate, included footage of a senior Ukrainian police official strongly denying accusations of racist behaviour. He even claimed that what had appeared to be a Nazi salute was actually one set of fans pointing at another. In the context of the footage, he clearly has his head in the sand – although similar accusations have been levelled at UEFA, the organising body which awarded the tournament to these countries. In the wake of the documentary, the organisation has been quick to state that it takes a strong anti-racist stance, and is even instructing referees to take players off the field in cases of racist crowd behaviour. Yet Euro 2012 wasn’t awarded to Poland and Ukraine at random – they submitted a detailed hosting bid, and were subject to fact-finding visits which should have been stringent. So why did UEFA award its flagship event to two nations with such clearly manifested and apparently endemic racism?
Meanwhile, in a faraway corner of Europe, another cultural showpiece has taken place against a similarly dubious backdrop. The Eurovision Song Contest – believe it or not, the most watched nonsporting competition in the world – was this year held in Baku, capital of the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. On these shores at least, the competition is seen as a bit of a joke; a chance to laugh at silly costumes and the creative misuse of the English language. Yet this year the laughs should have stuck in our throats – Azerbaijan has one of the worst human rights records in the world.
The country ranks in the world’s bottom 20% for both civil liberties (source: Economist Intelligence Unit) and press freedom (source: Reporters Without Borders); it has 16 political prisoners behind bars according to Amnesty, and regularly imprisons peaceful anti-government protesters. Not exactly a fitting backdrop for a fun, family-friendly singing competition featuring Jedward. So why, when Azerbaijan won the 2011 contest and claimed their right to host the subsequent event, did the Eurovision organisers not step in? Why was a virtual dictatorship allowed to become the centrepiece of the most significant cultural collaboration of the European calendar?
Keen Eye for Justice
Britain’s media and man in the street seem to have a keen eye for injustice. We are rightly horrified by violence in countries far from our own; we have a strong collective sense that peace, democracy and human rights are to be prized; we agree that equality is important, and abhor prejudice. I’m proud, for instance, to live in a country which boasts the world’s biggest Fair Trade retailer (Sainsbury’s), and which has a Department for International Development which invests in countries that need help, even when they don’t have any oil.
The Church too is frequently at the forefront of the justice movement, at home and abroad. Whether it’s leading the way in the campaign against human trafficking, finding beds for the homeless, or lobbying manufacturers on ethical trading, today’s Church is picking up the baton laid down by generations of forefathers, and following the call of God himself toward justice (Deuteronomy 16:20, Psalm 106:3, Isaiah 1:17 for starters).
With all that in mind then, what do we do, as a Church and a nation, when entertainment and injustice collide? How do we respond when the things we enjoy and look forward to also carry an undercurrent of the things we stand against? What wins?
Here, some self-examination is required. When we gather friends to watch major sporting events, or tweet our way through Eurovision, we argue that we are engaging with the culture of the day. Of course we are – but there’s more to it than that; for most of us, saints apart, when we do these things we’re also partly buying into a way of life that prizes personal amusement. We live in an era of individualism and consumerism, in which the marketing men tell us ‘we’re worth it’; that happiness is found in the accumulation of shiny ‘stuff’, and that relaxation is found through entertainment. So is it any wonder that we feel torn when the pursuit of justice might mean missing out on pleasure?
In 1977, the film director Roman Polanski was arrested on suspicion of sexually abusing a 13-year-old girl. To escape the charge, Polanski fled to Europe, where he has lived and worked ever since. He has never been tried for the offence (although he has apologised to the woman involved and now expresses regret); more than that, he has been able to continue his film career and is a critically acclaimed talent. Not only have his films been released by major film companies and distributed internationally, but some of the world’s most high profile actors (Johnny Depp, Hugh Grant and Harrison Ford among them) have shown their support by starring in his films. And the key question is this: would Polanski have been offered the same support by celebrities and big businesses if he had been an office worker? Or rather, would he have been stigmatised for life as a child abuser?
It’s Not OK
The point is that God’s command to seek justice is not caveated by the cultural significance of the perpetrator. We can’t turn a blind eye to racist chanting in a Kiev stadium because we’re enjoying the barbeque or our team’s progress in the competition. Surely we stand for more; demand better than that?
The consistent quest for justice demands sacrifice. It’s not ok to ignore a manufacturer’s questionable ethics when its clothing is really cheap; or to drink in a coffee shop that puts profit above paying a fair price to farmers but sells the best muffins. If UEFA really do cancel a football match because of an act of racist violence, we must lead the applause – even if England were winning 1-0 at the time. Our ‘right’ to be constantly entertained is a modern consumerist lie; an appetite for justice a timeless Godordained virtue. As Christians, we pursue the latter, because the imperative to love our neighbour is built into our DNA.