Soccer scores in Islamic world despite fatwa

Israeli scholars believe bid to outlaw sport is 'significant test' of radicals' authority.

soccer arab fan 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
soccer arab fan 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
In August of 2005, with the countdown to last summer's World Cup in Germany underway, three players from a well-known Saudi soccer club abruptly quit the team because of an anonymous fatwa, religious ruling, that led them to believe soccer was forbidden by religious law. One of those three, Majid al-Sawat, was later arrested while planning to carry out a suicide bombing in Iraq. As soccer is not just a sport, but also a social institution across the Arab world, many in the West are frightened by the power of a fatwa that can turn a professional athlete into a suicide bomber overnight. However, a study released this month by PRISM, a Herzliya think-tank on Islamic social affairs, alleviates such fears. It reveals that radical fatwas on soccer have actually had a very limited effect on the Islamic world. According to the study's author, Moshe Terdman, "the popularity of the soccer game among the Arab and Muslim peoples, as well as among the radical Muslims themselves, keeps [the sport] alive and beats all the Islamist attempts to dissuade Muslims from watching or playing it." The paper, entitled "The Ball Is Not Always Round," chronicles how little clout extremist Muslim forces have in the face of soccer's popularity. At the grassroots level, women's soccer is even thriving in the face of extremists' repression in Zanzibar and Sudan. Terdman says that soccer serves women there "as a tool by which to challenge the radical Islamists." He also notes that opposition to the fatwa exists even on online radical Islamic forums, and cites one man's post on such a forum: "I am an extremist, but I find no problem in watching the matches. Your calls to boycott the World Cup are doomed to fail." The fatwa also generated significant criticism from Saudi religious officials on the grounds that soccer is not an appropriate subject for a religious decree, as it is not mentioned in the Koran. The mufti of Saudi Arabia called on the "appropriate authorities to prosecute those involved in the publishing of these fatwas in a Shari'a court." In an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Sunday, PRISM's director, Reuven Paz, said this paper is proof that "the Islamists have failed... These fatwas really only effect a very small minority, even among the extremists." "The fact is governments don't follow these fatwas, and socially, they're out of bounds," said Paz, using a soccer analogy. He noted that Saudi Arabia and Iran, two countries one might expect to heed such a religious warning, still participated in the World Cup. Paz maintained that the true importance of this research was that it showed how "strict, dogmatic, and often times unpopular," Islamic rulings can be. "This is why we started the PRISM series to show people how ideologically anti-Western these clerics can be," he said. Terdman believes that this fatwa provided a "significant test case" for the ambitions of the Islamic courts, which seek to capitalize on soccer's popularity for their own cause. "Soccer is just one element, which the Jihadi-Salafi (radical Islamic) scholars exploit in their social-cultural-political fight within the Muslim world. Their challenge is greater and more interesting as a result of the popularity of soccer," Terdman states in his conclusion. The most alarming ingredient of the fatwa is its direct link from soccer to jihad: "You must play the entire game with the intention of improving your physical fitness for the purpose of fighting jihad for Allah's sake and preparing for the time when jihad is needed... you should speak about your body, its strength and its muscles, and about the fact that you are playing as [a means of] training to run, attack, and retreat in preparation for [waging] jihad for Allah's sake." The fatwa itself was issued anonymously by radical Islamic clerics, and published on August 25th, 2005, in a daily Saudi newspaper, Al-Watan. It is based on a hadith (prophetic tradition) that Muslims ought not imitate Christians and Jews, and as such, does not actually ban the sport. Rather it states that the sport is permissible only when played in a manner that in no way resembles the international game. For example, Muslims should not "play soccer with four lines [surrounding the field], since this is the way of the non-believers." It also rejected using "polytheist," soccer terminology, such as "corner kick," "goal," or "foul."