The Olympics and the Muslims

The Olympic Games are rooted in an ancient Greek custom, but they were revived in the 1890s very much in the framework of the emergence of a world of nation-states. Athletes are envisioned as representing their nation, and the abstraction, that everyone now has a nation-state, covers up a lot of cultural conflict that besets the games. The first revived games were all-male. Women were gradually allowed to compete, at first in ‘gentle’ sports such as croquet. Just as the games have gradually accommodated women (except in the Decathlon), so they have gradually opened up to more multi-culturalism. As with many supposedly global or ‘universal ‘ institutions they were latently white, Christian and male, only later challenged by multi-culturism and women’s rights.

In the 1890s, there were few independent modern Muslim nation-states. Even they could not have been accepted as equals by the European organizers. Most of the Muslims in the world lived under European colonial rule. The Dutch had Indonesia, the largest concentration of Muslims in the world. The British had the Indian subcontinent and much of Africa, ruling over hundreds of millions of Muslims. The French empire included places like Algeria and Senegal.

Some 50 of the world’s nations are now Muslim-majority, and they compete in the Olympics, with less controversy than might be imagined. (Muslims may well make up 1/3 of humankind by the end of the 21st century.)

This year, the Olympic games fall in the fasting month of Ramadan. During that month, observant Muslims refrain from drinking or eating during the daylight hours (which are long in London during the summer). Since the Muslim calendar is lunar, it advances about 11 days a year through the solar calendar.

So is holding the summer Olympics during Ramadan controversial? I think a case could be made for not holding them during Ramadan, a case that will be strengthened if Muslims do achieve the kind of demographic weight in world affairs some population scientists suggest.

But, it doesn’t seem to matter to most Muslims. Many governments and athletes of Muslim heritage are secular. But even most of the observant can deal with it. Those who demonize sharia, or the Muslim interpretation of their religious law, may be surprised to discover that it is a flexible and pragmatic, living tradition. The muftis, or official Muslim jurisconsults, of most Muslim nations have given their athletes permission not to fast while they are competing at the games. It is a principle of Islamic jurisprudence that you don’t have to face on long journeys, and since most athletes will journey to London for the games, they can be considered exempt from fasting during them. Muslims exempted from fasting in Ramadan often make up the fast later. Other jurists consider that having a particularly grueling form of work to do can exempt the toiler from fasting. By analogy, Olympic athletes can be exempted. Malaysian religious authorities are encouraging some categories of athlete to fast nevertheless (i.e. if neither their travel nor their sport is particularly taxing, why invoke the exemption?).

But what if multi-cultural considerations contradict key roghts? I would argue that rights trump mere sensitivity.

A small group of Salafis or hard line Muslim fundamentalists had threatened to protest the Olympics in London, in part because they are being held in Ramadan, in part because they’re being held near a neighborhood of London that is heavily Muslim, in part because of a ruling that a Saudi female athlete competing in judo could not wear a headscarf. But they have now decided not to hold the rally, apparently because they fear arrest. (I’m not clear why; they appear to have been given permission to hold a stand-only rally; it seems to me possible that they called off the demonstration under pressure from local Muslim shopkeepers eager for the Olympics trade; or because they got no support and didn’t want to look foolish by having 24 people show up).

There have also been women’s issues. These 2012 Olympics are the first in which all 200 nations participating have sent women athletes. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei are sending at least some women athletes. Saudi Arabia tried to get out of it, but the Olympics committee rightly threatened not to allow their men to compete if their women were kept home. In the end, Saudi Arabia is sending just two women. One, Wojdan Shahrkhani, a competitor in judo, has been told that she cannot wear a headscarf for safety reasons. Those negotiations are still going on, but if the decision holds, it could prevent Shahrkhani from competing. Muslim women competing in Tae Kwon Do are allowed to wear headscarfs.

Women soccer (football) players had been told the same thing (no headscarfs), causing the Iranian women’s soccer team to pull out. But now that rule has been changed, and headscarves are allowed in soccer. Judo is a contact sport with a lot of pulling involved, and you could genuinely understand some of the committee’s concerns. But still, they may be exaggerated.

The modern history of observant Muslims and the Olympics shows two processes. Most Muslim jurisprudents have been tolerant and pragmatic in accommodating the international and universal framework of the games. And, Olympics officials have also been forthcoming, at least over time. The sticking points have come from the Wahhabi and Neo-Salafi traditions, i.e. from hard line fundamentalists. They are a small minority of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. Saudi Arabia’s gender Apartheid is unacceptable, and here is one area where world opinion needs to challenge local custom. No other Muslim nation puts obstacles in the way of women competing in sports the way Saudi Arabia does. It needs to abandon some of its sectarianism if it is to flourish in the contemporary world.

Global institutions such as the Olympics are a negotiation between local custom (some of which feeds into national success) and universal norms. Since Muslims account for nearly a sixth of the world and may become a third, they are part of both. For most Muslim athletes, the secular national framework or a flexible Muslim legal tradition removes most obstacles. Only the most fundamentalist traditions experience conflict with the universal norms, assuming flexibility also on the part of the Olympics officials (as with female observant Muslim athletes being allowed to wear headscarves). There, a rigid tradition like Wahhabism or hard line Salafism has to decide if it wants to partipate at all. Saudi national pride drives it to want to. But then it cannot be excluding women from opportunities to practice in high-powered gyms, and cannot go on sending token women representation. Here, the international norms must protect women’s rights where these are contradicted by a narrow local Gulf culture.

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