By James M. Dorsey
Nowhere does football enthusiasm involve a greater act of courage and defiance than in the war-ravaged, football-mad Arab nation of Somalia. With large chunks of the country controlled by al Qaeda-linked al-Shabab jihadists, football is often a question of life or death. Players and enthusiasts risk execution, arrest and torture -- and not just in Somalia. More than 70 people in neighboring Uganda were killed earlier this month when al-Shabab suicide bombers hit popular spots where fans were watching the World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands.
The bombings, the first major attacks by al-Shabab beyond Somalia’s borders, sought to persuade Uganda to withdraw its 3,000 troops from the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia and reconsider its plans to send reinforcements. But by targeting football, they also highlighted militant Islam’s love-hate relationship with the game -- a useful bonding and recruitment tool capable of competing with militant Islamists for hearts and minds.
Backed by radical Saudi clerics, some jihadists denounce football as a satanic game designed to take the faithful away from devotion to Islam. Somali jihadists see football as competition for recruits in the world’s foremost failed state where unemployment is rampant and youth have little to look forward to. Youngsters are rustled from the pitch and forced to join the ranks of the jihadis. Jihadists have repeatedly warned the Somali football federation to halt organization of tournaments. In the country’s only football stadium in the partly jihadi-controlled capital Mogadishu, Somalia’s national team clears the pitch of bullets and bodies before training sessions. Threats forced private broadcaster Shabelle to move its operations to Mogadishu’s African Union-protected airport from where it broadcast the World Cup opening ceremony.
In the Middle East and North Africa, a part of the world pockmarked by repressive regimes, football competes with political Islam as a venue to release frustration against authoritarian leaders. As a result, some Islamists seek to co-opt the game while others aim to suppress it. In a controversial religious ruling in 2005, militant Saudi clerics condemned football as an infidel invention and redrafted its International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) rules to differentiate the game from what they described as ‘the heretics.’ The ruling did things like ban the words “foul,” “goal,” “penalty,” and clothes like shorts and T-shirts, and ordered players to spit on anyone who scored a goal. “All fun is bootless except the playing of a man with his wife, his son and his horse,” said Sheikh Abu Ishaaq al Huweni-Huweni. “Thus, if someone sits in front of the television to watch football…he will be committing bootless fun…We have to be a serious nation, not a playing nation,” he said citing the hadith, the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, but ignoring the prophet’s endorsement of physical exercise.
The fatwa was condemned by more mainstream Saudi clerics, who recognize that Saudis are football-mad and passionate about their national team, which historically has fared well in FIFA competitions. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia’s religious police, afraid that believers would forget their daily prayers during the World Cup, rolled out mobile mosques on trucks and prayer mats in front of popular cafes where men gathered to watch matches. More sensitive is the issue of women’s sports, including football. With Saudi Arabia threatened with suspension by the International Olympic Committee if it does not this year create frameworks for women’s sports, debate is raging among the country’s powerful clergy and in the media. Physical education classes are banned in state-run Saudi girls schools and female athletes are not allowed to participate in the Olympics. Women's games and marathons are often canceled if the clergy gets wind of them. Clerics argue that women’s sports are corrupting and satanic and would spread decadence. Nonetheless, women have quietly been establishing their own football and other sports teams with the backing of members of the ruling Al Saud family and under the wings of hospitals or ‘health club.’
Football, despite the condemnation by militant Islam’s most radical fringe, has served Islamists well. Foreigners who fought in Afghanistan organized football matches after the Soviet withdrawal to maintain contact. The perpetrators of the 2004 Madrid subway bombings played football together and a number of Hamas’ suicide bombers trace their roots to the same football club in Hebron. “A reliable predictor of whether or not someone joins the Jihad is being a member of an action-oriented group of friends,” Scholar Scott Atran told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee in March. “It's surprising how many soccer buddies join together.”
Osama Bin Laden is said to enjoy playing center forward. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh played defense for one of the Gaza’s local clubs. Haniyeh recently employed football in efforts to heal the rift between Hamas and their secular rivals in Fatah. When Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, it also took over the administration of all Gaza clubs, prompting a rupture with the West Bank-based, Fatah-dominated Palestinian Football Association (PFA) that halted association football in the strip. In a tentative step earlier this year toward Palestinian reconciliation, Hamas and Fatah agreed to jointly administer the Gaza football federation. This allowed for competitive matches in Gaza for the first time in three years. For Gazans, football matches constitute a rare opportunity in a politically restrictive society to release pent-up emotions.
Nowhere is soccer more of a political football than in relations between the Egyptian government and the Islamist opposition. Football passions exploded late last year with violent clashes between Egyptian and Algerian fans on three continents and -- for the first time since the 1969 football war between Honduras and El Salvador -- brought the world to the brink of a soccer-inspired conflict. Egypt recalled its ambassador to Algeria while Algeria slapped Egyptian-owned Orascom telecom’s Algerian operation with a tax bill for more than half a billion dollars, prompting Libyan leader Col. Moammer Gadaffi to intervene to prevent the dispute from escalating. The Egyptian government was quick to fan the flames and ride the tide of emotion in a rare opportunity to bolster its image at the expense of the Islamists. “The violence expressed years of depression of a population that constantly witnesses social, financial and political failure,” said Ahmed al-Aqabawi, a professor at Azhar University. “Soccer is their only ray of light.”