2020: Too Soon for Turkey
Desire to pick a Muslim-majority host shouldn’t overrule other concerns.

Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan (top right) attends an Olympic event in London, July 28, 2012.


Michael Rubin

There is nothing wrong with a majority-Muslim state hosting the Olympics. Dubai, the major commercial city in the United Arab Emirates, is bidding for the 2024 Olympics. Dubai crown prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum rooted the city’s bid in regional pride. “Hosting the Olympic Games in the Middle East would be a dream come true for the entire region,” he explained, adding that the bid would go forward if Dubai could “host the greatest sporting event in history in a way that would add value to the Olympic movement itself, as well as the youth of the Arab world.” Casablanca, Morocco, is readying a bid for either the 2024 or 2028 Olympics. Qatar and Azerbaijan have held successful major international sports competitions, and will again be Olympic contenders in the near future. While Indonesia has yet to throw its hat into any ring, the world’s largest Muslim country could be a formidable candidate.

But to assign the Olympics on the basis of religion would set a dangerous precedent. If Erdogan envisions Istanbul 2020 as the “Muslim Olympics,” does that mean he sees Madrid 2020 as the Christian ones and Tokyo 2020 as the Shinto and/or Buddhist games? He likely does. “Thank God Almighty, I am a servant of shari’a,” he told Milliyet, a major Turkish newspaper, in 1994, going on to describe himself as “the imam of Istanbul.” To affirm Erdogan’s thinking would encourage the worst instincts of the “clash of civilizations” to which the Olympic ideals stand in opposition.

Erdogan is correct that much of the world has yet to host the Olympics. Durban is a perennial favorite to host the first games on the African continent, although Nairobi is also a contender. Should India one day bring the games to the subcontinent, the choice should be seen as affirming India’s status as the world’s largest democracy rather than filling a quota to select a majority-Hindu country.

Turkey today faces myriad problems. For the Olympics to be a showcase, journalists must be allowed to ply their trade freely. Yet Turkey today ranks below Russia in press freedom and imprisons more journalists than even Communist China. Nor can Turkey’s diplomatic problems be swept under the rug. After decades of ethnic cleansing in northern Cyprus, Turkey continues to occupy northern Cyprus, alone in the world recognizing it as an independent country. Turkey is also not secure. Its Kurdish insurgency is flaring anew, with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) seizing territory in the east, kidnapping tourists in central Anatolia, and detonating bombs in western Turkey.

Religious affirmative action should not trump the safety of athletes and spectators. Turkey’s construction industry is notoriously corrupt. The Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning recently found that one-third of Turkey’s 20 million homes might need to be demolished if the state were to enforce codes. Most of the deaths in the October 2011 Van earthquake in eastern Turkey can be attributed to illegal construction. Istanbul is a beautiful city, but until Turkey reins in corruption, it is also a potential death trap.

Make no mistake: Turkey should one day host the Olympics, but it should do so on the merits of tolerance, plurality, organization, and democracy, not on the basis of grievance or religion. It should do so as a modern nation-state, not as the perpetrator of Europe’s last occupation. In the meantime, perhaps Erdogan can be first in line for Dubai 2024 tickets.

— Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.