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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Aimed at bringing athletes from rival Gulf countries together to compete in an atmosphere of solidarity, the Islamic Solidarity Games (ISG) have not produced much solidarity as yet, and the competition is not set to begin until October.
The friction began when Iran unveiled the medals for the upcoming games, on which the event administrators' have used the controversial term "Persian Gulf." Twenty-two Arab states gathered in May to voice their objection to Iran using the term, and demanded instead for "Arabian Gulf," or just "Gulf" to be used. ISG executive secretary Hassan Mirza Aghabeik responded by rejecting the request.
The fight over linguistic ownership of the body of water between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula has endured for several decades, and drastic steps have been taken by governments on either side almost every time a publication or organization has publicly recognized one name over the other. The Iranian fervor for the term 'Persian Gulf' grew after a rift with the Arab states over the Iran-Iraq war in 1980. Despite the Ayatollah Khomeini leading the Islamic revolution in Iran-strengthening its ties with other Muslim states-irreparable damage was caused when most Arab nations sided with Iraq during the war.
The Iranian government claims that the widespread use of incorrect names for the Persian Gulf by the Arab states became prevalent during the 1950s as a political attack against Iran.
"The term 'Arab Gulf' started with Jamal Abdul Nasser, the president of Egypt," Dr. Soli Shahvar of The Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies at the University of Haifa, told The Media Line. "As part of his promoting the parliamentary regime against the monarchy and his agenda of pan-Arabism, he needed some 'gluing tools' to bring the Arabs together, and an enemy that was not an Arab."
"It became some kind of a national issue - Iran against Arabs - so then Khomeini started to move to an Iranian position rather than a wide Islamic call," said Shahvar. "This is an ethno-cultural and religious [conflict] between Iranians and the Arab Gulf States, and its intensity has much to do with relations between the two sides. From time to time it emerges and resurfaces."
In 2006, Iran banned UK weekly The Economist after they referred to the body of water as "the Gulf" in a map published in the magazine.
The United Nations issued an editorial directive in 1994 entitled "Use of the term 'Persian Gulf'", which stated that the proper term used in reference to the body of water was indeed "Persian Gulf," and the abbreviation "Gulf" was not to be used, even with other names preceding it.
The governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, and several other international bodies have declared the term "Persian Gulf" to be the only accurate name for the body of water.
According to Dr. Shahvar, history sides with Iran.
"Going to the true name of this region, if you do research you see that the name Persian Gulf has pre-Islamic precedence and the name Arab Gulf is much more recent."
In a large majority of maps dating from the 16th century, drawn by Swiss, French, German, and British cartographers, the body of water is called the "Persian Gulf," rather than the "Arabian Gulf."
"There is no doubt that the true name is Persian Gulf," Dr. Shahvar said.
Despite the official stances taken by the international community in favor of the name "Persian Gulf", many Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, still insist on the validity and usage of "Arabian Gulf."
The controversy over Iran's use of the name on medals and publicity materials has caused strife between the competing countries, who were hoping instead to strengthen solidarity.
The first major pan-Islamic sporting event was originally hosted by Iran in 1993, when the event was exclusively for female athletes of Islamic nations. In its inception, the Islamic Women's Games were only attended by eight countries. Notable performances came from Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, and Tajikistan.
Teheran hosted the same all-female sporting event four years later in 1997, which gained popularity throughout the Muslim world. In attendance were delegations from 24 Islamic countries, including for the first time Bosnia and Herzegovina, Indonesia, and Sudan.
While participating in the events, women were required to wear the hijab, except in instances when male spectators and coaches were barred from the sporting arena.
The Islamic Solidarity Games was Saudi Arabian initiative, meant to emulate the widely attended pan-Islamic event, hosted traditionally by longtime political and economic rival, Iran.
The difference, however, was that the Games would be exclusively for men. The first Islamic Solidarity games were hosted by Saudi Arabia in 2005, and attracted 6,000 athletes from 55 different nations.
The 2005 ISG also included events for the disabled, including two derivations of soccer: futsal for the mentally handicapped and goalball for the blind.
When the Islamic Solidarity Sports Federation decided that the host for the 2009 ISG would be Iran, it was a great source of pride for the nation, as they had initiated the concept for the ISG years earlier. However, what Iran initially considered as a small victory over its rival has quickly become a pivot of controversy over its use of the contentious appellation.
For the first time ever, the 2009 Islamic Solidarity Games will allow both male and female athletes to compete. However, instead of setting a new precedence in Islamic competitive sports, the controversy over the name on the medals may well lead to the cancellation of the October 2009 Islamic Solidarity Games. If this happens, it will be a major blow to the athletes preparing to participate, to the future existence of the games, and to international relations and solidarity between the already edgy countries of the Persian/Arab Gulf.
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