Faith, Fit and Fun – Islam & Sports

Although sports appear to be a secular leisure activity there is a relation with religion as well. Many sports ceremonies and rituals resemble religious ceremonies and rituals and both involve bodily exercise. Furthermore both the strong emotions, the extraordinary status given to major sport events such as the football World Cup have led many to compare it with religion and to use religious phrases in relation to sports such as ‘sacred ground’ for the football field and ‘sons of God’ for players of the Dutch football team Ajax (in the past). Like religion sports is used to generate some sense of belonging, representation and recognition.

Both sports and religion have socializing institutions and sports is often used as a means to socialize and educate people, also by churches and other religious communities. In the Netherlands some interesting research has been done among Moroccan-Dutch girls and kickboxing by Jasmijn Rana and in Israel research is done by Sorek among the Islamic Movement that created an independent Islamic Soccer League and uses football as a way to promote and nurture an identity based upon a moral code and moral boundaries. In Europe Salafi networks have also organized several sports events ranging from football tournaments and to ‘Salafi boxing’.

Recently there has been some debate on women wearing hijab and playing a football. A Dutch designer created a sports-headscarf, Capster, and a facebook page ‘Let Us Play‘ was created to support players who want to wear a headscarf. A Dutch women’s team, VV Hoograven, consists of Moroccan-Dutch girls and some wear a headscarf:
BBC News – Dutch design challenges Fifa’s football hijab ban

But Naima Loukili, who has come to see her daughter play for VV Hoograven, says it is a social rather than a religious barrier:
Girls from the mainly Muslim women’s football team VV Hoograven Amal Loukili (L, pictured with her mother Naima) has high hopes of playing at the top level of football

“It’s not something Islam says. It’s just our culture. Islam supports women to go out and do sport or do whatever they want. I’m happy my daughter has the opportunity to do this.”

And 10-year-old Amal Loukili is not letting any cultural considerations interfere with her ambitions. “I want to play for Barca one day or maybe even Holland,” she says.

Since last year the FIFA declared the hijab was a cultural rather than a religious symbol there is an opening now for women who want to be veiled; generating new debate of course in particular coming from nativist anti-islam politicians. In 2008 ESPN showed a short film on the Lady Caliphs of W. Deen Mohammed High School in the US, an all Muslim high schools where hijab is obliged for girls.

Last year Fordson: Faith – Fasting – Football was released; a documentary film that follows four talented high school football players from Dearborn Michigan during the last ten days of Ramadan when they prepare for the rivalry game:
From both films it is clear how the whole issue is framed within the idea of conflict and clashes in relation to the current political context of Islam:
As such it is clear that in particular Muslim women challenge many boundaries: secular-religious, sports for man – sports for women, Muslims vs. non-Muslims, and so on. World-class fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad hopes to compete in the 2012 London Olympics. If she qualifies, it is believed that she will be the first practicing Muslim to represent the U.S. in women’s fencing, and the first American to wear Islamic head-covering while competing. She speaks with host Michel Martin at NPR. Besides research covering those political issues would be interesting to see some research for example into how sports relation to the body is looked upon from a religious point of view.

It appears that part of the thing that has to be controlled is youth having fun. Whether it is fundamentalist movements, (secular) governments and sports associations ‘people having fun’ has to be controlled.As Asef Bayat explains:“Islamism and the Politics of Fun” in Volume 19, Number 3 • Public Culture

Fun is a metaphor for the expression of individuality, spontaneity, and lightness, in which joy is the central element. While joy is neither an equivalent nor a definition of fun, it remains a key component of it. Not everything joyful is fun, such as routine ways of having meals, even though one can make food fun by injecting joyful creativity in preparing or consuming it. Thus fun often points to usually improvised, spontaneous, free-form, changeable, and thus unpredictable expressions and practices. There is a strong tendency in modern times to structure and institutionalize fun in the form of, for instance, participating in organized leisure activities; going to bars, discos, concerts; and the like. However, the inevitable drive for spontaneity and invention renders organized fun a tenuous entity.

Fun may be expressed by individuals or collectives, in private or public, and take traditional or commoditized forms. Fashion, for instance, represents a collective, commoditized, and systematic expression of fun, yet one that is constantly in flux because it deems to respond to the carefree and shifting spirit of fun. […] For instance, whereas the elderly poor can afford simple, traditional, and contained diversions, the globalized and affluent youth tend to embrace more spontaneous, erotically charged, and commodified pleasures. This might help explain why globalizing youngsters more than others cause fear and fury among Islamist anti-fun adversaries, especially when much of what these youths practice is informed by Western technologies of fun and is framed in terms of “Western cultural import.”

While religious movements either tend to set up their own competitions in order to shield their youth from the deviations and temptations of everyday life or try to be part of the mainstream competitions on their own terms, sports associations are concerned with safety issues and with the question whether religion or religious symbols have a place in sports, governments are concerned with preserving social cohesion. Different modes of good islam and bad islam and of good society and bad society are invoked in these debates. But, as Bayat suggests,

at stake is not necessarily the disruption of the moral order, as often claimed, but rather the undermining of the hegemony, the regime of power on which certain strands of moral and political authority rest. By “moralpolitical authority,” I refer not only to states or governmental power but also to the authority of individuals (for instance, sheikhs or cult leaders) and social-political movements — those whose legitimacy lies in deploying a particular doctrinal paradigm. The adversaries’ fear of fun, I conclude, revolves ultimately around the fear of exit from the paradigm that frames their mastery; it is about anxiety over loss of their “paradigm power.”

Something that seems to missing in all these accounts is how faith, sports can have a similar relation with fun. Often the high Islamic traditions (as practised by salafists but also others) are contrasted with sports and popular culture; the former one being strict, serious and with a focus on discipline and the latter seen as creative, playful and joyful. And, in particular in popular debates, the religion as something concerned (or needs to be restricted to) mind and sports with the body. But of course also sports is about mind, seriousness and discipline while the accounts of the Muslims I work with are also filled with joy, jokes, playfulness when they talk about Islam. Being Muslim makes them happy and many of the meetings I attended are full with people sharing jokes and all kinds of conducts that are the expression of and provide people with fun. Both religion and sports, at least in their view, can be seen as celebrations of body, mind and the expressiveness that comes with it. In circles of fundamentalists but also in those who perform sports at a very high level, it does not so much celebrate mind and body by breaking free from normative obligations and organized power, but through it.

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