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Turkish goal celebration: Who are the Gray Wolves?

July 5, 2024

Merih Demiral celebrated Turkey's winning goal at Euro 2024 with a so-called wolf salute, a symbol of the Gray Wolves. Who are these Turkish ultranationalists, and why are they under observation by German authorities?

Turkey defender Merih Demrial runs while pointing to the sky after scoring the decisive goal against Austria
Turkey's Merih Demiral could face a ban for a gesture he made while celebrating a goalImage: Michael Taeger/Jan Huebner/IMAGO

Turkey's national football team was triumphant on Tuesday, defeating Austria in a Euro 2024 round of 16 match in Leipzig, Germany and qualifying for the quarterfinals. But defender Merih Demiral, who scored both of Turkey's goals in the 2-1 win, drew attention for non-sporting reasons when he celebrated his winning strike with a hand gesture associated with far-right, ultranationalist symbolism.

UEFA, European football's governing body on Friday, suspended Demiral from Turkey's next two games — including the quarterfinal match against the Netherlands on Saturday. This is because the so-called wolf salute — pinching thumb, middle and ring finger together to imitate the shape of a wolf's head — is the symbol of the Gray Wolves, an ultranationalist Turkish group also known as the Idealist Hearths or Ulku Ocaklari. 

The gesture is legally prohibited in Austria but not in Germany, where a similar ban is being discussed.

Turkey defender Merih Demrial holding up both of his hands in a wolf shape, his thumbs pressed against his middle and ring fingers
Turkey defender Merih Demiral made this contoversial gesture while celebrating his match-deciding goalImage: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP Photo/picture alliance

Who are the Gray Wolves?

The symbol made headlines in Germany nearly a year ago after Mesut Özil, a former German national team star, caused a stir when a photo with his fitness coach revealed his tattoo of a howling wolf and three crescent moons — typical Gray Wolves symbols. The design was at the center of discussions in Germany, where he was born and raised in a Turkish immigrant family.

The animal is an important symbol for Turkish right-wing extremists. In mythology, a gray wolf saved the ancestors of the Turkish people from their enemies and helped them ascend as a great power. For many, the wolf represents power. The wolf hand gesture also traces its meaning back to this myth.

The moon crescents trace their meaning back to the war flag of the Ottomans, which depicted three arranged in a triangle. Today, they form the party logo of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which has been the main ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for years.

Gray Wolf ideology

German authorities characterize the group's ideology as ultranationalist, anti-Semitic and racist. The group holds hostile views toward KurdishArmenian, Jewish and Christian people, and believes in the superiority of the Turkish nation. In the past, members of the Gray Wolves have committed numerous acts of violence, including murder, particularly in the 1970s.

According to Germany's domestic intelligence services, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), the aim of the Gray Wolves is to establish a homogeneous state of all Turkic peoples under Turkish leadership — from the Balkans to western China.

A boy waves a flag with three crescent moons on a red flag in front of a crowd
The logo of ultranationalist party MHP: three white crescents on a red backgroundImage: AP

There are two main currents within the Gray Wolves: the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Great Unity Party (BBP), the extremism researcher Kemal Bozay at the Cologne Center for Radicalization Research and Prevention finds.

Germany's BfV traces the origins of the far-right Gray Wolves organization back to the ultranationalist MHP.

Gray Wolves in Europe

Gray Wolves are organized throughout Europe. A regional umbrella organization, the Turkish Confederation in Europe, was founded in the German city of Frankfurt in 2007 to bundle the various European offshoots.

Across Europe, there have been repeated clashes involving Gray Wolves, particularly with Kurds. Austria prohibited Gray Wolves symbols in 2019, and France banned their offshoot in 2020. Later that same year, the German parliament resolved to consider a similar banbut has not passed a law on the matter.

Security authorities in Germany believe there are some 12,500 Gray Wolves members in the country, around 10,500 of them organized in associations.

The association with the largest number of members is the "Türkisch Demokratischen Idealistenvereine in Deutschland" (Turkish Democratic Idealists Associations in Germany), known as ADÜTDF from the Turkish-language acronym. It represents the interests of the ultranationalist MHP, Erdogan's ally. With over 7,000 members in Germany, ADÜTDF is the largest known umbrella organization among the Gray Wolves. It is organized into 200 local organizations in 15 different regions of Germany.

The second-largest association is ATIB, the "Union der Türkisch-Islamischen Kulturvereine in Europa" (the Union of Turkish-Islamic Cultural Associations in Europe). According to the BfV, it has 2,500 members and is organized into 24 local chapters throughout Germany. It was founded in 1987 by a well-known Gray Wolves member, who is said to have provided the hitman's weapon and wages for the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II.

A man with a shaved head wears a red headscarf with symbols of the Gray Wolves
The Gray Wolves are also known as the Idealist Hearths (Ulku Ocaklari)Image: Boris Roessler/dpa/picture-alliance

Germany's third umbrella organization is the Federation of World Order in Europe (ANF). Nationwide, it has some 1,000 members in about 15 local chapters, according to German authorities. ANF represents the interests of the Islamic-ultranationalist Great Unity Party (BBP), which is also a member of Erdogan's electoral alliance. Numerous political murders in Turkey have been attributed to the BBP. Its members are also alleged to have been involved in the murder of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in Istanbul.

According to estimates from German authorities, there are around 2,000 unorganized members of the Gray Wolves movement. That includes individuals and members of smaller structures. 

"They all adhere to the right-wing extremist Ulkucu ideology to varying degrees and express it predominantly on social media, where they openly express their mostly racist and antisemitic enemy stereotypes. Some individuals achieve considerable reach," the current report from the BfV states.

The unorganized Gray Wolves often display weapons and other threatening gestures, which is intended to project strength, superiority and a preparedness to fight. They also have shown a greater propensity for violence in recent years, especially during confrontations with political opponents or government critics at demonstrations and other events. They have also formed greaser-like gangs in recent years, but these didn't last long.

Gray Wolves dispute Israel's right to exist

After the October 7 attacks in Israel, unorganized groups associated with the Gray Wolves sided with Palestinians and Hamas, the militant group that led the attacks.

These groups have denied Israel's right to exist and justified the attacks by Hamas, which is considered a terror organization by the US, Germany, the EU and others. Turkey does not follow this designation. 

Amid Israel's ongoing military campaign in the beleaguered Gaza Strip, which has led to looming famine and killed over 38,000 Palestinians, the groups have also called for a boycott of Israeli products, collected donations for Gaza, and participated in anti-Israel rallies.

This article was originally published in German on July 27, 2023, and was updated on July 3, 2024, after Turkey's quarterfinal victory against Austria at Euro 2024 in Germany and on July 5, 2024, to reflect UEFA's two-match ban on Turkish defender Merih Demiral. .

Elmas Topcu, sitting next to a bookcase full of books
Elmas Topcu Stories on Turkey, German-Turkish relations and political and religious groups linked to Turkey.@topcuelmas