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.

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