Sunday, September 09, 2007

Islam and Football

Going back over the many posts here, I realize that I may have been a teensy bit unfair to Islam and football by twice harping on the quite goofy 2003 fatwa on football by Sheikh Abdallah al-Nadji. So I thought it might be useful to go over the record on Islam and football in some more detail.

Football is reasonably popular across the Muslim world, though it suffers in a few respects. In the world's largest Muslim country, Indonesia, football is very popular, but like other (non-Islamic) south-east Asian countries, the country punches far below it's weight in international competitions.

("punches below its weight", by the way, is the nicest euphemism for "crap" you will ever see me use).

In two other large Muslim countries - Pakistan and Bangladesh - football comes a distant second to cricket in popularity, though Bangladesh shares a strong footballing tradition with the neighbouring Indian state of Bengal. In Iran, football competes with wrestling; in Arabia, with camel and horse racing. Across North Africa, football is pretty much the dominant sport and has been for some time: Egypt - home of perennial Africa champions Al-Ahly - was both the first Africa country to obtain FIFA membership and to compete in the World Cup.

Nigeria, of course, is another major football power - a fact proved once again by the fact that the Baby Eaglets won the FIFA U-17 Championship earlier today in South Korea, the third time they have done so. But football has historically been a preoccupation of the country's more prosperous - and more Christian - south. In Northern Nigeria, the Islamic elite traditionally preferred games like cricket, field hockey and polo and so football did not really catch on until the 1950s. Post-colonial leagues have therefore tended to centre around Lagos in the Christian south.

Nigerian Islam can be quite conservative. In 2005, the state of Zamfara banned women's soccer as "unIslamic" shortly after adopting Sharia law. This would no doubt come as a shock to the rather devout (albeit Shi'a) Iranian imams, who see nothing wrong with women's soccer provided they are appropriately clothed and fans of different genders do not mix in the stands.

All this said, it is true that Islam appears to be the one major religion where football has become an issue of religious controversy. The mainstream religious take on football - which can be seen at Islam online and fatwa online, is pretty harmless: so long as football does not distract one from any obligations (religious or otherwise) and one remains modestly clothed, football is all right. Even earning significant sums of money from football is seen as OK, because it is a fruit of one's own labour, but that one's use of said income should not be ostentatious (a right-on statement to be adopted by all PFAs around the world, as far as I am concerned).

However, those Muslims who are what I would call in serious denial about engaging with the modern world have a very different take on football. The Iraqi radical Muqtada al-Sadr, for instance, has denounced football as being "something Americans and Jews do" (has the man seen the MLS?) and that "all the running around after a ball" just distracts Muslims from their duties towards jihad.

And there is of the course the Saudi imam's bizarre football fatwa which I have mentioned on a couple of occasions, but which is reproduced in full here. Intriguingly, this article in the Washington Post suggests that the Saudi newspaper al-Watan, aware of the damage this fatwa was doing to Saudi Arabia, printed a half-hearted (and as it happened, untrue) denial in an attempt to make the story.

Why try to deny the story? Because, I suspect, I suspect that radical Islamists know how dumb it sounds and how it hurts their standing among Muslims. If there's one riff on modernity that even the harshest zealot can groove to (remember, bin Laden is allegedly a Gooner), it's football. When Somalia's Joint Islamic Courts tried to ban people watching the World Cup in 2006, it led to violent protests and two deaths (and, arguably, to an erosion of public support that six months later made it much easier for the Ethiopian Army to sweep the JIC out of power).

Another reason, of course, was to avoid prosecution within Saudi Arabia. As this article makes clear, Senior Saudi ulama called for the prosecution of those involved in issuing and publicizing the fatwa and many senior figures used it as an extreme example of what was wrong with the country's religious discourse.

Even where football proceeds with official sanction, though, it's not exactly the game everyone knows and loves in the West. Women remain banned form attending matches in Iran despite President Ahmadinejad's decree to the contrary last year - the country's Supreme Islamic Council intervened to counter-mand the order by issuing a religious ruling to the effect that it is un-Islamic for women to see strangers' bare legs.

For the anti-capitalists out there, some might like the odd Islamic take on the game, such as hte occasional ban on advertising. In 1993, in the home game in the Asian Cup which matched the Tehran team, Pirouzi, against a team sponsored by Japan’s Nissan, there were no advertising hoardings on the pitch. Instead there were large placards reading "Down with the USA!" and "Israel must be destroyed!". I imagine North Korean matches are much the same...

Some have tried to use football as a way of reconciling faiths. Imams vs. priests games have been popular: one in Leicester ended in a 6-0 win for the imams; an imams vs. Lutheran pastors match in Berlin just before the World Cup ended up 13-1 for the pastors, a scoreline that doesn't say much for Christian charity. However, even here there can be problems. A similar proposed match at an interfaith conference in Oslo last year had to be cancelled when the Christians chose to field a mixed-gender team, forcing the Islamic side to pull out on religious grounds.

And speaking of inter-faith dialogue, I see Taribo West, formerly of (deep breath) Auxerre, Inter, Milan, Derby County, Kaiserslautern, Partisan Belgrade, Al-Arabi and Plymouth Argyle (no, really) has signed for the Teheran side Paykan. I'm wondering what kind of discussions were had about his extra-curricular activities as a Christian pastor and evangelist, neither of which would presumably be welcome in Iran. On the other hand, if they can overlook his brutal lack of pace and inelegant tackling (neither of which, I am sure, have improved with age), perhaps attempted conversions can be overlooked, too.

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