Thursday, June 15, 2006

Radical Islam and Football

Just finished reading Chris Cleave's novel Incendiary, in which a cell of al-Qaeda suicide bombers attack an end of season Arsenal-Chelsea match. Not a brilliant novel, all around, though if you've ever brought your child to a footie match, it might give you pause.

Generally speaking, radical Islam has taken a dim view of the game. Earlier this week, Islamic courts in Mogadishu banned broadcasts of the World Cup, prompting riots that killed two. The Taliban did not quite outlaw football, but they did forbid the wearing of shorts, cheering and shouting during the match and introduced public executions as half-time entertainment, all of which tends to put a dent in the spirit of things.

In 2003, Sheikh Abdallah Al-Najdi of Saudi Arabia actually declared a fatwa on the game - not actually outlawing it, but saying that players should not acually obey such rules as having 11 players, rectangular pitches and having two halves, on the grounds that this was how Jews and unbelievers play. Colourful shirts and shorts were also declared an abomination to Islam.

Now, if you were paying attention to odd footie news in late 2001, you might think all this a bit odd. After, all, it was then that Adam Robinson's Bin Laden: Behind the Mask of Terror was published, which contained the claim that Osama bin Laden was an Arsenal fan, who had made it to Highbury on several occasions in the 1994 season, including the final of the European Cup Winners' Cup. The story led to Arsenal having to issue a statement to "in future, (Osama) would not be welcome at Highbury".

More amusingly, it led to a short-lived chant in the North Bank, (to the tune of Volare):

Osama - wo-o-o-oh
Osama - wo-o-o-oh
He supports the Arsenal
And he's hiding near Kabul

The story is, of course, complete horseshit. Most reliable sources put bin Laden in Northern Sudan rather than N5 during the first half of 1994 and he presumably would have found it difficult to travel to London for the final in May, given that the Saudis revoked his citizenship the previous month.

But among the younger group of Islamic militants, football still has a hold. The alleged leader of the Toronto cell that is accused of plotting terror attacks in Canada gained his leadership skills by leading his secondary school team both in goals scored and in Friday night prayers. And three of England's July 7 bombers met playing football at a community centre in Leeds.

It is a game that unites us with many people, even those with whom we might fervently wish to have nothing in common.

Finally - my apologies for a complete lack of a connection between the photo in the top left and football. I tried finding a photoshop of Osama in an Arsenal jersey, but thought this was much, much funnier.


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