Friday, July 17, 2009

Hope, denial and collective amnesia

Perhaps this is an outdated scandal by now. It has been a month since the heart of the FIFA Confederations Cup and in the midst of that drama brewed a scandal: Egypt’s football team players, a group of lady prostitutes and thousands of stolen dollars. At a press conference the morning after the thunderous victory of Egypt over Italy Egyptian team players were questioned about a South African police report that was purportedly filed by the Egyptian players themselves, claiming that a group of prostitutes stole thousands of dollars from their rooms the night before. No comments were made.

The next day, following a sorry loss to the US, the Egyptian press got hold of the story and were fuming. Soon enough the news spread throughout Egypt. The Egyptian coach and team players of course denied the accusations that they were partying all night in the midst of the tournament. They are good Muslims after all.

Too bad for the Egyptian team that that same night the Brazilian players had also been robbed by a group of prostitutes and had filed a complaint with the South African police. For a second I delighted in the fact that women had stolen the spotlight, if only briefly, in the midst of this football mania, this spectacular show of manly manliness. But then again, I quickly realized, the women had entered the stage through the “back door”, ei ah la.

When I talked to a group of Egyptian friends about this, they were a bit frustrated with the journalists who were making very loud noise about it. Plus, it couldn’t be true. Not likely the Egyptian team would be so stupid as to be partying right before an important match in the semi-finals. If only it were unbelievable for those with some public authority, bestowed with public trust – and funded (at least partly) by the public, – to be acting irresponsibly!

This scandal of decadence (did anyone ask why they would be holding thousands of dollars in their hotel rooms, anyway?!) and disregard for the public (it is difficult to claim national football teams as ‘national’, anyway) seemed so fitting in this age of massive private wealth accumulation and an elite global class gone mad. At least for me as an American this scandal – and the simultaneous societal outrage and denial it provoked – reminds me of the hope of Obama mania. And the overwhelming collective amnesia built around it.

Obama did not have much of a background at the federal level to substantiate his proclamations during the presidential election campaign, but surely he had an enduring presence and eloquent speech to back them up (cough...). Well, in fact, more than that: Obama’s minimal record in the US Senate actually sufficiently refuted his campaign promises. I will give two simple examples.

There was hope that Obama and his administration really would take an anti-war stance. Obama boldly declared he was against the war in Iraq, and there was a collective will to believe this declaration, even though he was not even in the Senate when the initial US attack on Iraq was launched. Further, one would not have to look very far to confirm that during his short term in the Senate he actually did vote for the continuation of the occupation as he consistently approved the budget for military appropriations. And now there is still hope that the Obama administration’s escalation of war in Afghanistan will lead to a quick resolution (on US terms, of course) and that the US military really will leave Iraq soon. Really, the Obama administration must be outmaneuvered by the Pentagon guys!

On the campaign trail Obama took a hard stance against the public-private revolving door: There will be no lobbyists in my administration, he declared! This was a particularly outrageous promise in that at that very moment he was receiving millions of dollars worth of contributions from Wall Street firms. And again, just a couple years before, in 2005 while in the Senate, in one of the few votes against his fellow Democrats (Clinton, Kerry and the gang) Obama voted in favor of the passage of the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005, under which “citizens are denied the right to use their own state courts to bring class actions against corporations that violate these state wage and hour and state civil rights laws, even where that corporation has hundreds of employees in that state..” (from Pam Martens’s 2008 ZNet article on “Obama’s Money Cartel”).

And of course months into the Obama administration and after the appointment of cabinet and department heads, the public-private revolving door keeps revolving. As Matt Taibbi points out in his new Rolling Stone article “The Great American Bubble Machine,” about the entrenchment of Goldman Sachs in the US political and economic infrastructure, a month into office Obama appointed Mark Paterson as number two in the Treasury, who had been a year earlier one of the head Goldman Sachs lobbyists. The list of financial heads in key government posts is long, as is the history of the ‘revolving door’. (Full access to Taibbi's article is available on Rolling Stone's website. You can also check out a series of interviews of Taibbi on the BreakRoom through youtube. And of course Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine documents this history that dates back long before the Bush administration.)

And the hope in the Obama administration seems to continue with all the declarations of the “hard road” ahead for Obama, his need to rethink, he needing to be pushed, his smarts.

Grasping for reasons to hope. And denial, plain and simple. Just about any kind of change would have passed through the collective amnesia in the US that Bush did not act alone. Not even did his administration act alone. And surely the blatant imperial stances and policies of the fear-ridden Bush years were not such a departure from the history of US imperialism.

Continued denial will only perpetuate elite excesses, gross injustices and bad policies. Nor will growing cynicism help. But surely what can help is a hard look and open/public confrontation like the journalists and commentators gave here by not letting the football team just get away with it. And like all of us who try to remain vigilant and speak truth to power.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Footballing the Gods

These past couple weeks have been at face a religious firestorm. This past week riots and ongoing violence has erupted in China between the minority Muslim Uighur community and the state security forces, leaving more than 150 dead (according to latest reports). A week before last a Muslim woman was stabbed to death in a hate-inspired attack in Germany.

This violence and the slew of similar violent incidents against religious-ethnic minorities and between religious-ethnic groups have marked this era with a steady stream of blood and tears. And oddly what compels me to write this entry is that this particular outburst in violence has occurred at an apex in the season of football (aka "soccer" for the American reader) – and a quite "religious" season at that. The FIFA Confederations Cup 2009 in South Africa just ended and the world of football is in the throes of trials for the cups of nations – the continents cups, the World Cup 2010.

Throughout the Confederations Cup players were seen entering and leaving the field while signing the cross in prayer. After scoring a goal the Egyptian members bowed down with their foreheads to the field, as if in prayer. When Brazil won the Final, the 'most expensive' of all footballers in the world – Kaka – threw off his jersey to reveal a "I belong to Jesus" undershirt. Several of his teammates displayed their "I love Jesus" undershirts. And when the Brazilian team members huddled together to take the cup, the player positioned to take it and raise it above, strapped his "I love Jesus" shirt to his waist for the final picture of victory – and for the entire world to see.

But surely I can not be suggesting that the religious paraphernalia and general goodwill on the football field has anything to do with the killing and persecution of a religious-ethnic minority group in China?! The fact that such violence immediately followed the Confederations Cup must be coincidental!

Well, what happened during the Confederations Cup has drawn some attention. Some. And the debate generated generally concerns whether team members should make evident their religions. Denmark Football Federation Secretary-General Jim Stjerne Hansen has apparently pointed out that such religious displays violate FIFA's rules of engagement.

It would be a good course of action to enforce the rules and bar such religious ceremonies and paraphernalia, but by limiting the debate to an issue of religious expression (and its limits in public spaces) we fail to see that such open religiosity on the football field is not merely a matter of displaying one's identity or even taking an opportunity to propagate one's beliefs. Rather, it is testament to the predominance of a particular type of religiosity. Religions as organizations of membership and reward. If you belong to Jesus too, you could be like Kaka. And if you cant be like Kaka, you are at least still a winner because Kaka, like you, is on the side of God. Those who love Jesus turn out on top.

The intimacy between religion and sport reflects the tide of us-versus-them religiosity. Of course during the Confederations Cup it was not just footballers sporting their religion, but fans were shown praying, pleading, with their gods to be on the side of their team. Here in Egypt talk of football is very wrapped up in the will of Allah. When Egypt won a match against Italy, the streets of Cairo were lit with excitement and supporters were interviewed by television reporters praising Allah for the victory. The victory against the football giant Italy was sure evidence that God is on their side.

And what if your team loses? Is God no longer on your side? One of the great Egyptian intellectuals of the 20th century, Farag Foda, bemoaned the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt in the 1980s and once lamented the raising of the Quran (instead of the trophy) by a basketball captain and argued that the Quran is not a flag or banner to be waved. Foda was later assassinated for his harsh criticism of rising fundamentalism.

Since Farag Foda's death there has not been a public intellectual as critical of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt. A reason is that not only has the rise of fundamentalism been on a steady upward trajectory since his time, but in many ways it has become mainstreamed into religious discourse. In a recent article on "The rotten-state of Egypt," Robert Fisk sharply criticizes the new religious façade (of appearances determining one's religious devotion) and its implications in deep societal corruption. What was once a rising trend Farag Foda commented on has now become the main face of religiosity in Egypt.

Religiosities of personal commitment, devotion, contemplation, love and compassion, commitment to justice are being sufficiently overwhelmed by a type of religiosity that is exclusionary, self-congratulatory and competitive. And indeed what other religious trends might we expect in such a competitive world – and one between very unequal players? Perhaps the world of football is one of the few competitive realms in which Egypt can beat Italy, Brazil can be the champion of the world and the little ones have a shot to go to the World Cup. Yet again, commercialization of football as of life has led to very definite and often predictable winners and losers. If God is on your side, it doesn’t matter how much you lose.