On Friday, Özil, who is usually quiet on social media, posted a message on his Instagram profile describing Uighurs in the far north-western region of China as “warriors who resist persecution”.
Posting the words against the backdrop of the flag of the short-lived East Turkestan republic, an area that is now Chinese-controlled Xinjiang, he wrote: “[In China] Qurans are burned, mosques were closed down, Islamic theological schools, madrasas were banned, religious scholars were killed one by one. Despite all this, Muslims stay quiet.”
His comments have prompted a wave of anger in a country where Arsenal is hugely popular. Özil, who has more than 4 million followers on the Chinese microblog Weibo, is affectionately known as “272”, numbers that when pronounced sound like his name. China’s foreign ministry said on Monday that Özil had been “deceived by fake news.”
“Do you know how Arsenal fans in China have spent the last two days?” one former fan posted on his Instagram profile. “They are struggling to understand how the club and idol they once loved has turned out to be a rumourmonger. Of course, if you intend to attack China, you are as insignificant in our hearts as dirty ants.”
Another said: “As a Chinese football fan, I’m very disappointed. Why can’t you just focus on playing football? As a public figure, you should know what you can say, what you can do and be aware of the consequences.”
On Weibo, a fan posted a video of football shirts bearing Özil’s previous numbers lit on fire. Others said they too planned to burn their shirts, while some said they planned to trash theirs. Some posted photos of Arsenal shirts or Özil’s jersey and wrote: “How disappointing.”
Attempts over the weekend by Arsenal to distance itself from Özil’s comments failed to calm the situation, as fans said the midfielder should be fired. Several Chinese football fan sites have said they will stop posting news related to Özil, according to the Shanghai-based publication The Paper. A Chinese football simulation game said it would no longer produce Özil player roles or cards.
The footballer’s comments and use of the national flag of East Turkestan, now used by independence activists, have triggered condemnation from the Chinese state, underlining the possibility that the club or the Premier League could be punished in the same way the NBA and the Houston Rockets were over general manager Daryl Morey’s support of anti-government protests in Hong Kong.
Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said the athlete should come to Xinjiang and “have a look”.
“As long as he has common sense, can make a clear distinction between right and wrong, and upholds the principles of objectivity and fairness, he will see a different Xinjiang,” Geng said at a regular press briefing on Monday afternoon.
Censors blurred out images of the flag in Özil’s post while the state broadcaster CCTV cancelled a broadcast on Sunday of Arsenal’s Premier League game against Manchester City. State media have criticised Özil’s comments as “disappointing”. The Chinese Football Association told local media it was “outraged and disappointed”.
In a comment that has since been deleted, the editor of the Global Times, Hu Xijin, accused the footballer of essentially calling for global jihad against China. Asking Özil to provide examples of his allegations, Hu wrote: “This man is full of nonsense. Does he just want to encourage global jihad, using Xinjiang as an excuse?”
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