How Islamists Cope with Football: Qatar as a Transformative Event?
Panel IX-19, 2023 Annual Meeting
On Saturday, November 4 at 3:00 pm
Islamism has for nearly fifty years constituted not only the strongest political opposition movement in the Middle East, but also the strongest cultural movement. Yet Islamists have had problems coping with popular quests for fun and entertainment, as Asef Bayat noted in his “Life as politics”. One telling example of this is football, the world’s largest sport, tremendously popular throughout the Middle East, while regarded as morally corrupt by many Islamist clerics. The lack of adaptation to both local and global cultures of football has deeply alienated many Middle Easterners, especially young people. Recently, as in the discussion on post-Islamism by Bayat, Olivier Roy and others, questions have been raised on whether Islamism as a hegemonic ideological and social movement is waning in the region.
Post-Islamism or not, we will argue that a tendency towards re-considering football can be observed in the region, and furthermore, that football have become a field of increased tension between Salafism and wasatism, main stream Islamism. The World Cup in Qatar 2022, the first ever held in a Middle Eastern and Muslim country, has further aggravated this tension. The wasatism trend is towards reinterpreting football according to the principle of maslaha - public interests, the paramount importance of preserving unity among Muslims. Obstructing peoples’ access to football is considered a violation of maslaha. The World Cup in Qatar was in this regard in the Muslim world largely considered an event showing the benefits of being in a position to control and enforce moral norms within the football sphere, and at the same time exhibit public joy and pleasure within a Muslim framework. Thus, we argue that from striving to minimalize the role of football in the umma main forces of political Islam have adjusted to, increasingly endorsed, or muted opposition to female football, the mixing of sexes among spectators, the exposure of bare thigs of players, excessive partisanship and fanaticism in favor of a team, the missing of obligatory prayers and the like.
The cases include main forces of political Islam: Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood as well as political-ideological trends in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Methodologically the papers are based on local fieldwork while also including method of modern history.
The Lebanese Shia Islamist movement Hizbollah is the world’s strongest armed non-state military and political group. As all main Islamic movements Hezbollah is also a cultural movement, aiming to transform norms and values of the umma. One field where this has been observed is the Ashura ritual where the death of Hussein, prophet Muhammad’s grandson, in Kerbala 680 AD, is commemorated. For Hizbollah Ashura has become a way to express their political ideology, military order and discipline as part of their building of an Islamic community of resistance.
While several scholars have explored how Hizbollah connects ritual and politics during Ashura, peer reviewed studies on how Hezbollah cope with football are harder to find. Yet, regarding how ritual and politics are intersected, there are many similarities. Hezbollah has its own Sports Unit that has established around 150 football and sports schools in Lebanon. The aim is to “create a new sports culture” and to qualify young men “to further develop their military capabilities,” according to the leader of the unit.
Furthermore, Hizbollah has since 1992 had its own football club, Al-Ahed. The club is today the strongest in Lebanon. In 2019 they won the Asian cup for club-teams, the largest success in the history of Lebanese football. When the club returned to Lebanon, they were celebrated by supporters waving the flags of Hizbollah and pictures of their leader, Hassan Nasrallah, as well as the picture of one of the Al-Ahed’s most legendary player, Qassam Shamkha. Shamkha had quit playing for Al-Ahed to fight for Hizbollah in Syria where he was killed in 2016. Since that year all players of Al-Ahed have gone to visit the grave of Shamkha at the start of a new season. Martyrdom, struggle, and football are thus blended into one.
In the paper it will be argued that equally to the Ashura ritual, Hizbollah situates its symbolic universe on the football pitch. Hizbollah is in this regard a vanguard within political Islam, having adopted the game as part of their culture of resistance decades before the Qatar 2022 World Cup.
Methodologically the paper is mainly based on fieldwork; interviews and participatory observation including football matches in Lebanon from August 2019 to May 2020.
Since the early days of Islamism physical fitness has been part of the ideal set up for young Muslim men. Within Islamist-run sports programmes soccer quickly came to dominate. By 1946 the Muslim Brothers (MB) ran 99 football clubs across Egypt.
Later varying degrees of state oppression made it difficult for the Egyptian MB to run this kind of outreach activities. Still their bonds to the soccer community remained strong, and across the Arab world Islamist movements have integrated the beautiful game as part of their activities not least when it comes to recruiting youth.
The recent World Cup in Qatar, and not least the stellar performance there of the Moroccan national team, has boosted popular enthusiasm for football more than ever across the Arab world and beyond. Yet the increased visibility of the sport serves also to put into plain sight a number of societal tensions surrounding it, tensions which directly impact the relation of Islamism to the world of soccer.
State suppression has not remained the only challenge facing Islamist football activities.
On the one hand elements within the conservative salafi trend have criticised the playing, and not least the watching, of the game as a waste of time that could have been used purposefully in furthering the cause of the faith and improving the lot of society, and have warned against the exposure of the players’ bare skin during matches watched by thousands.
On the other hand the growth of a combative and flamboyant supporter culture associated with the ultras phenomenon challenges the norms of modesty and self-restraint always preached by Islamists, and is seen as carrying the danger of fanaticism and of splitting the umma by pitting people against each other according to which club they support.
Finally the emergence and rapid growth of female football in the MENA region has put in sharp focus how entrenched patriarchal ideas about the need not to expose the female body works as a brake on equal opportunities for physical exercise.
The paper will investigate how mainstream Islamists have navigated these conflicting challenges, and ask how they have affected the ability of Islamist movements to recruit youth. It will draw on historical evidence from Egypt, and on developments in Egypt and Morocco over the last couple of decades.
From a western perspective, the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar became one of the most controversial sport mega events of all times. The allocation of the tournament to Qatar back in 2010 caused widespread shock and took place under a large cloud of claims about corruption. Calls for boycott grew among European football fans and leaders in the years that followed, especially as news of the conditions for migrant workers at the construction sites for the seven new stadiums filtered through. The world cup kicked off with football fans, especially in Scandinavia and Northern Europe, claiming they would not watch a minute of the games. This stand was enhanced by images from the Qatari capital Doha showing groups of Asian migrant workers waving flags for national teams from South America and Europe in the days leading up to the world cup. These were largely portrayed as “fake fans” in Western media. However as a sport mega event, the 2022 world cup also provided a platform for other voices. This paper is based on field observations during the world cup in Qatar, with a particular focus on how Iranian fans made this event into an extended arena for protests against the Islamist regime in Iran. These protests were ignited in many Iranian locations following the death in police custody of the young woman Masha Amini in September 2022, after she had been arrested for not wearing her hijab correctly. Theoretically the paper will discuss the concept of neo-orientalism as a way to undertand the rhetorics around the 2022 FIFA world cup in parts of the western media.
During the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Saudi Arabia made headlines through performances both off and on the field. Not only did the national team secure a historic win against Messi’s Argentine, the Saudi supporters soon got a reputation as among the loudest and most energetic at the tournament. Football is immensely popular in Saudi Arabia, and waves of fans had travelled to the neighboring country to support the team – both male and female. Back home however, it was only four years since women supporters gained access to football stadiums and less than a year since the Saudi women’s national team played (and won) their first official game.
In just a few years, Saudi Arabia has moved from having no official games, teams or leagues for women football players to having a professional women’s league and a FIFA-ranked national team. Among western critics, the transformation of football from an entirely male domain to include women has been understood as sportswashing, a means for Saudi rulers to enhance the image of Saudi Arabia internationally and lead attention away from human rights abuses. As an analytical framework, such top-down approaches not only ignores dynamics on the societal level, but can contribute to obscure them.
This paper goes beyond the sportswashing/soft power paradigm in both popular and academic conversations on football in the GCC-states and examines the discourse and developments on women’s football in Saudi Arabia in the period leading up to recent reforms, during the reign of King Abdullah (2005 – 2015). Through Saudi media sources, official documents and qualitative interviews with women football players and officials in Saudi Arabia prior to and during the reform period it maps attitudes and arguments for and against women’s participation in football as fans and players. It argues that football in Saudi Arabia is a contested field reflecting broader struggles in society, including the role of women. While women’s football in Saudi Arabia was never banned, organized football was in a legal grey area and efforts at promoting women’s football met considerable resistance from conservative elites. Yet, there was a lot of support for women’s football publicly and privately. The success of recent reforms promoting women’s football comes after years of debate and is made possible by the previous efforts of pioneers.