Thursday, February 4, 2010

Play football, not Islam

Written by Joseph Mayton
Bikya Masr
2 Feb 2010

When a staff member for the Egyptian national football team pushed a Qur’an into the camera following one of Egypt’s four goals in Thursday’s thumping of Algeria in the semifinals of the African Cup of Nations, I couldn’t help but cringe. This overt showing of religion was only one of dozens of displays Egyptian players and staff gave in the match and it makes one wonder how this goes down with the Egyptian population.

Religion has always played an important role in sport. American and European athletes often give praise to God for their success – although rarely praising the divine for failures – but here in Egypt, the situation is different. There are widespread sectarian tensions between the majority Muslim population and the minority Coptic Christians. This hit a head in a Christmas Eve massacre on January 6, at an Upper Egyptian church that left 6 Christians and one Muslim dead.
When, upon netting a goal, the entire Egyptian national team gathers together, dropping to the ground and “praying” in the Islamic fashion, how can this not alienate the Coptic community?

Sure, Copts will say they support the Egyptian team and are happy with the victory, but when post-match interviews invoke the name of Allah repeatedly and thank God for the victory, it has to eat at the minds of the Coptic community, who have long pressed for equal rights in the country.

Manar Ammar, who first broached this subject in a short post-match critique for Bikya Masr, said “it all seemed too Islamic than national.” She is right, it is too much religion being pushed on what is supposed to be a secular endeavor to bring a nation together. She questions how the country would react if an “imaginary Coptic player crossed himself after scoring a goal? Not a very happy scenario I am sure.” Exactly. Egyptians need to look at the double standards they level at their country. Faith can be strong, but when it comes to sport, there is no place for it when chasms persist daily.

Islamic prayer on the pitch can’t bring together the roughly 10 million Copts who see these displays of on field prayer as yet more “Islamicization” and religion.

A victory is a victory one might argue, but as in the United States, it can be disturbing to many when, following a goal, or a touchdown, the player kneels to the ground and prays to God. This only creates divisions among fans, a nation and its citizens.

In Egypt, where Copts are continually pushed to the edges of society, unable to erect houses of worship, are allegedly persecuted by radical Muslims and a government that does little to intercede, religion on the football pitch is the last thing they want to see.

Religion, namely Islam, has become the litmus test for political life in the country. Secular Muslims are being pushed aside in favor of the more “pious.” A bruise mark on the forehead reveals how hard one hits their head on the ground during prayer, and has become a symbol of the religiosity of a country.

Football can bring a nation together, but it can also divide a people. George Ishaq, a leading Copt and leader of the political opposition group Kefaya, routinely talks of the need for the idea of citizenship to be part of the social fabric of Egyptian society.

“We all need to understand that we are all Egyptian and we are in this together,” he told me recently. “All Egyptians, Copts or Muslims, live under the same tyrannical government.”

What about the tyranny of the people? Muslims, and for the most part they are right, are not prejudiced against the Coptic community. But, violence does arise between the two groups in spats that leave people dead, injured and shops destroyed due to religious lines being drawn. For an Egyptian football player – who is representing all Egyptians – to kneel down and pray during the match, this further alienates the minority community.

It is as if the player is saying that in order to be Egyptian one must be Muslim. In a country that has allegedly prided itself on religious tolerance, there seems to be little in this regard.

Copts are forced to listen to Islamic quotations and statements ahead of political leaders’ speeches on a daily basis, the call to prayer five times a day and the constant demands made by the conservative Muslim community for the most Islamic leader. Now, it is a part of football, with players jockeying for position atop the Faithful’s praise. It does little to create a cohesive society based on citizenship.

Egyptian players should stick with what they know: football and leave the religion for the religious leaders.

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