Arabs and the Olympics (Majid)

Anouar Majid writes in a guest column for Informed Comment

The 2012 Olympics in London gave us a golden opportunity to assess the condition of the Arab world in its natural state. Sports is one occasion when political slogans and self-deception are useless. One either wins or loses.

The performance of Arabs reflects the dismal condition of the Arab world, as documented last decade in several Arab-authored United Nations reports. The Arab world is comprised of 22 nations, with a combined population of approximately 350 million. That’s more than the population of the United States. Yet all these nations together were not able to get more than 12 medals, mostly bronze ones (8). Only three medals were silver and one gold. One.

Small countries like Kazakhstan, Cuba, New Zealand and Jamaica did better than all the Arab nations combined. Even Iran, a nation often maligned by Sunni Arabs, did better, with 4 gold medals out of a total of 12.

How do we explain such a performance? The Arabs are as eager as anybody to see their athletes win. When they do, they wave huge flags and cheer loudly. Their weak performance, therefore, is not due to lack of interest or to defective genes. It reflects the condition of the Arab world as a whole. Arab authoritarianism went in the direction of selfish cliques and family cartels, depriving ordinary citizens of public resources such as facilities for athletic training– in contrast to Chinese authoritarianism, which still has at least some populist elements. Still, I don’t think that politics explains everything. Religion plays a role, too.

One of the issues that consumed a lot of time during the Olympics was whether the athletes should fast or not. Because the games coincided with the holy month of Ramadan, when able-bodied Muslims are required to fast from dawn to sunset, fatwas authorizing the Olympians to break the fast were issued, although not all players chose to abide by them. This dilemma exemplified the powerful place that Islam holds in the lives of many Arabs (especially those of Egyptian, Jordanian and a few other nationalities), though had the Olympics been held in Lent or on Yom Kippur similar dilemmas might have arisen for adherents of other religions.

The real problem is not personal piety but the magical thinking of the fundamentalist project. Muslim fundamentalists of various denominations are all promising reform if Islam were to be implemented correctly, yet no one has outlined a project of society or issued a document that inspires and motivates to build and innovate. There is a rush to write new constitutions, but such documents are long and legalistic; they don’t have the power of a Thomas Paine pamphlet, a Declaration of Independence, or even the leadership of a Steve Jobs. Piety alone is supposed to cure all ills and fix centuries of delays in development.

There is a general correlation between high per capita income and a nation’s Olympic performance, but those countries with high standards of living in the Arab world often come by it artificially, through hydrocarbons, the profits of which are hardly evenly distributed. Oil wealth hasn’t done much to change the condition of Arabs, except by making a handful of countries and princes supremely wealthy. Oil-rich nations may build fabulous cities and import many global treasures, including brand name museums and universities, from Europe and the United States, but they produce practically nothing, not even the simplest device used to broadcast their programs on their ubiquitous satellite television networks.

Instead, Arabs have turned into the best consumers of Western products—from oil pipelines to skyscrapers—while smugly believing that they are in possession of religious truth. In other words, the only thing left the Arab world is its conviction that Islam is better than other religions or beliefs and Sunnis are better than Shiites. Such convictions may help one feel good but they don’t help nations progress or win gold medals.

Just as political systems need to change, the Arabs’ relationship to Islam needs to be reformulated for the times if they are to move ahead. They need to make a concerted effort to keep the spheres of religion and politics wholly separate. This, however, requires active dissent from within. Muslim-majority Arab societies need heretics, people who are not cowed by the fear of hellfire and the popular condemnations of moralists to nudge their fellow coreligionists out of their paralysis. They need to instigate a cultural revolution, not just a political one, if there is ever any hope for Arabs and Muslims to have a real place in contemporary civilization. Magical thinking about reviving 7th-century Islam is not going to get them gold medals at the Olympics, a soccer world cup, give them the knowledge to invent new technologies, improve their universities, cure dangerous illnesses, overcome poverty and illiteracy, and temper the flames of extremism. Only a well-defined secular, contemporary project can get them there.

Anouar Majid is author of many books on Islam and the West, the latest of which is
Islam and America: Building a Future Without Prejudice.

21 Responses

  1. What makes Islam great as a tradition, in my view, is illustrated in the continuity between Al-Miskawayh ‘The Refinement of Character’ (Tahdhīb al-akhlāq) and Hazrat Inayat Khan’s ‘The Art of Being and Becoming’. Each text is aimed at a different audience, but both are essentially about spiritually inspired character building. Islam has a tradition that could help direct humanity to evolve culturally, through individual moral development. Fasting and piety are not infrequently detached from that tradition among zealots, but among in the best of Muslims, these things are always the brother of good character. And living that kind of Islam matters much more than mimicing Western models of economic development or winning gold medals.

    • I agree with you whole heartedly. True Muslims would rather observe their required fasts than take part in the Olympics. I love the games, truly I do, but when it comes to necessary acts of worship in Islam we should know which takes priority. Islam is supreme and goes beyond any of this national pride that is displayed during the Olympics. Nationalism is not part of Islam and has no place in it. Further, please don’t compare Ramadan to Lent unless you are intentionally seeking to appear foolish. Giving up chocolate for 40 days isn’t going to affect ones performance.

  2. I don’t think I can buy this. While the Arab world has some cultural problems in addition to its deep political ones, its problems cannot be boiled down to religious supremecism. Earlier in your article itself, you mentioned Iran as a model for at least Olympic success, despite religious supremecism being enshrined in its very government. You ignore the large number of non-Sunni Arabs such as myself. This article is a crude mess of oversimplification and an aberration to the excellent analysis that is usually found on this blog.

  3. Israel got no medals this year, even though it’s a wealthy nation.
    Egypt’s best Olympic performance was at the 1948 Summer Games in London. They won 2 gold, 2 silver, and 1 bronze. But their performance at the games was not reflected in their performance in the war with Israel.
    I think the rise of fundamentalism is due in part to the failure of earlier secular, modernist projects. Nasserism, neoliberalism, Baathism…none of these delivered the goods to the masses.

  4. The article is not very well thought out.

    Firstly India, with a population of 1.2bn only got 6 medals, no gold’s and just ahead of Mongolia. India would seem to fit into the neat criteria that the author seems to indicate is the recipe for medal success. Brazil, another democracy with a population of 200m only got 3 gold’s and 17 medals in total, less than North Korea in gold terms.

    While it is simple and very popular to blame Islam, it is more complicated and much more profound to write about the underlying currents that run through the Olympics, mainly the power and the prowess of countries. The countries at the top of the medals table are almost a complete reflection of the UN Security Council or indeed the G-7. The top 20 of the medals table is also a reflection (although not completely, Czech Republic!) of countries that have strategic influence, independent foreign policies and are confidant international players. Sadly Arab countries are not there, not because of Islam, but because the leadership of these countries is lacking and the Arab world is often a battle ground for external actors. If you wrote something about this, it would make for an interesting article.

    In this year’s Olympics 10,500 Olympians competed, 3,500 were Muslim. I don’t think this is an issue of Islam, I think Islam is an issue for the author.

  5. As a track fan, I’m used to seeing the North African countries, such as Morocco and Algeria, excel in the middle distance events. This year was no exception, as Makhloufi from Algeria won gold in the 1500 and Iguider from Morocco took bronze, as well as doing well in the 5000m final. Bahrain had a bronze in the women’s 1500, although I think that runner (Maryam Jamal) was originally from Ethiopia. A local sport culture usually starts with the success of exceptional athletes and good coaching. Kenyan success started in the 1960’s when the government brought in a great coach from Germany (if I’m recalling properly).

  6. It’s marvellous to be topical, but there just isn’t enough evidence in this post to make the argument stick.

    “The Arab world is comprised of 22 nations, with a combined population of approximately 350 million. That’s more than the population of the United States. Yet all these nations together were not able to get more than 12 medals, mostly bronze ones (8). Only three medals were silver and one gold. One.”

    It’s not good enough to compare the US with the Arab world by population.

    A quick search reveals that the US allocates 1bn $ per year to recipients of athletics scholarships and that these students make up 1-2% of the total student population (20 million), so that’s 200 – 400,000 individuals enjoying excellent facilities and engaging in strong competition with one another.

    The Arab world has an enrolment rate of 21% in its universities and it seems these do not offer comparable facilities for sports.

    There is also the fact that the sport the Arab countries are most fanatical about, football, sucks up much of the best athletic talent and only offers two gold medals in what is one of the most fiercely contested sports.

    It’s not clear how the second part, interesting as it may be, relates at all to the issue of the Arab countries’ performances at the Olympics.

  7. Olympic medal counts are mainly determined by a nation’s commitment to winning medals. The Soviet Union was a perfect example of sport for propaganda and if you added up medals won by Russia and all the former Soviet nations would still be #1. Nations try especially hard when they are hosting the games, which is why China was #1 in 2008 and Great Britain #3 this year.

    On the other hand Germany was supposed to dominate medal counts after reunification but their wins have been rather modest. East Germany used to win far more medals than all of Germany does today, but without the Cold War rivalry the old incentive may not be there (also drug testing has advanced in the last 20 years).

  8. This is one of the most simple-minded opinion I have read on this column, and Dr. Cole, it reflects badly on you to select this drizzle as a must read on your blog. There are so many holes in this piece it will take so many books to list all its fallacies, but let me take a few of his points and try to make sense of this none sense. Mr. Majid tried to find some reason for this poor Olympic performance by the Arab nation by touching lightly upon several factors (again fallacies which I don’t want to touch right now because Mr. Majid needs to educate himself extensively on Islam and the Middle East before jumping to piece his half-baked opinion) but settled on the faith as the main cause of the problem. Let me directly quote the central point of his piece, “… the Arabs’ relationship to Islam needs to be reformulated for the times if they are to move ahead. They need to make a concerted effort to keep the spheres of religion and politics wholly separate. … Muslim-majority Arab societies need heretics, people who are not cowed by the fear of hellfire and the popular condemnations of moralists to nudge their fellow coreligionists out of their paralysis. They need to instigate a cultural revolution, not just a political one, if there is ever any hope for Arabs and Muslims to have a real place in contemporary civilization.” Mr. Cole, is this really something you find worthy of our attention to include it in your blog? Let me try to jot down some of the simple truths that come to mind immediately.

    1. Atheletic performance and one’s faith are not co-related, period. There is no evidence whatsoever that athletes were negatively impacted by adhering to the tenet of the Islamic faith. Akim Alajuan was a super-star basketball player who never skipped a day of fasting even while playing a very demanding game. Mr. Majid, just do a little reading on the power of mind over body and you will understand the process better. I don’t have a position one way or another if a Muslim athlete breaks his fast to compete in these games, the point is there is evidence that indicates that athletes who chose not to break it were not impacted negatively at all; they performed according to their ability.

    2. According to Mr. Majid, the Arab nations tally of few medals is a by-product of the religious baggage they are carrying. Ten percent Egyptians are Christians and there are another four to five million Arab Christians in different Arab nations. If Mr. Majid discounts the performance of the Muslims Arabs because of their faith, how do you explain that of the Christians? Even though nothing to brag about, how about the performance of Iran and Turkey, who earned 12 and 5 medals respectively? And how about the performance of India? With a population of more that 1.2 billion, ( which is more than four times the size of the Arab population – in fact, the Arab population is not 350 million, Mr. Majid. it is approximately 280-290) – India finished up with 5 medals. And I am quite positive, Mr. Majid, you know that India is the largest democracy in the world and its poor showing in the Olympics is not the result of the system of the government, but can we jump and conclude that it is because of their faith? Since you tried to make the Muslim’s faith the central point of your argument – “…Islam needs to be reformulated for the times “, would you like to brush the Hindu religion in the same way you did with Islam?
    3. Islam and Civilization. Mr. Majid, you tried to equate Islam with backwardness and you did not mince words to do that. I know we are in a time frame that the powers that be are trying hard to demonize the faith and attribute anything and everything negative in the world on Islam. And you are just one of the cogs in the wheel that is following the wagon and throw as much dirt as you can on Islam. All I can say to you about this matter is try to open your eyes and get out of the shallow viewpoint you have subjected yourself to appease those who are bashing Islam. You talk about “reformulating Islam for the times” ignorant of the fact that it is Islam that brought light and science to the doorsteps of Europe when the whole continent was wallowing in darkness. I suggest that you read about the Abbasid, the Fatimid dynasties and the multiple Crusades that were sent to destroy Islam and we will start talking about world civilization. There are books that fill a whole library about civilization brought to you by Islam and I strongly recommend to you to just read a couple and that will be a start for you.

    Mr. Majid, you have said so much none sense in so short an article and it is time consuming to deal with all the junk. Again., let me repeat myself and say to you once more, try to learn and educate yourself before giving analysis that is based on false premises.

    • Thanks for trying to sort this post out; I wouldn’t touch it. It did somehow remind me of the maybe pertinent perspective amongst some, that in the 1967 War, “their God beat our God.”

      Best to close this post down.

  9. The article’s concludes by hoping for a magic solution of its own, separate religion from politics and the Arab and Muslim world will move forward! Why exactly this will happen and how? What does this separation means? Secularists appear to conveniently leave such questions unanswered. The Islamist led governments in Tunisia and Egypt barely started to function and there is a lot unknown at the moment as to how they will actually act as politicians. I agree that, clerics whose training and job is to answer purely religious questions and provide moral and spiritual council may not best suited government work or politics in general. However, regular citizens, inspired by a certain religious moral code have the right to advocate for their views in and outside the government. Every body of law is inspired by local customs, experiences and moral values. Why shouldn’t the laws in Muslim majority countries be the same?
    Peace to all.

  10. Anouar Majid correctly highlights the overall plight and weakness of modern Arab culture and attitude. However, his conclusions which seem to point to the root causes as relating to:

    “They need to make a concerted effort to keep the spheres of
    religion and politics wholly separate.”


    “Only a well-defined secular, contemporary project can get them there.”

    …totally contradictory what has been observed of the success of their neighbouring Iran. That is, if the root cause of Arab humiliation and failure at the olympics (and other spheres) relates to ‘religion’, then the example of Iran’s success invalidates that assertion outright. Iran had its most successful olympics this year, achieving more medals that all M.E. countries combined – including the staunchily secular Turkey. Therefore, contrary to the Anouar Majid’s proposition, it is NOT true that “Only a well-defined secular, contemporary project can get them there.”

  11. “Small countries like Kazakhstan..” Kazakhstan small country? look at the map man!

  12. Im glad others had articulated the thoughts bubbling in my head when I read this. Its unusually superifical in content, and Im a bit surprised Prof. Cole decided to even publish it!

  13. Arab nations do not emphasize nor to any great degree finance sports involvement.

    Further it would be kind of difficult to focus as an athlete in areas such as Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, or the West Bank when there is near constant civil disorder.

    America, Russia, China, Cuba, and Germany all have had sports extensively supported by their respective governments and citizenry as well as heavy private corporate sponsorship in Western countries and ,also see medal performances as a matter of national pride. The rest of the world, including Middle Eastern states, do not.

  14. I don’t have a problem being an observant Muslim and working for a household name’s R&D division. My religion teaches me that if I have to do something I should do it well. I have quite a few other interests all of which I do try pursue with this in mind, with varying results. Any number of Muslims will tell me this – but many of the ones that consider themselves particularly religious will endlessly talk about that but not actually embark on any practical project.
    They are more yaktical than practical.
    Too concerned with milking the kudos they can get by being endlessly seen to be more religiously knowledgeable or outwardly pious than the next guy.
    Interestingly this same disease can be observed in the entirely secular world of work. People with endless PHDs in non-PHD subjects like engineering that literally do not own a screwdriver.
    There is a lot to Islam – to pick and choose from – unfortunately. Let me pick something. What Muhammad said he feared most for his ‘ummah’ was ash-shirk-ashagir (The Lesser Idolatry. He described it as something that can creep up on you unawares like “a black ant on a black rock on a black night”.
    He was talking about showing off.
    The Muslim world fails because it is filled with useless show offs.

  15. Mr. Majid has done a very poor job of presenting an idea that has some merit.

    To begin with I have a problem with equating Olympic success and medal count with some kind of advancement in society. However, if that is the standard we are going to apply then there is no doubt that the exclusion of women pretty much proves his point and there is no breaking the bridge between the faith and that one.

    As for Iran doing well, yes we did well in sports that are considered faith appropriate like wrestling and weight lifting and the Iranian government coverage of those event was heavily combined with religious pre match and post match propaganda. After one gold medal ceremony they cut right to some weird coverage of people visiting shrines in Karbala and discussion of the first Imam who was pretty athletic being murdered while he was praying.

    There is nothing in the Islamic faith that is anti sports but there is no doubt that in practice, religious leaders have defined a lifetime in pursuit of sports excellence as frivolous, not quite as bad as music or entertainment but still definitely discouraged.

    • I think Ahmad has raised the important point of the exclusion of women from many Olympic events in the Arab world — which is both a cultural and a religious phenomenon.

      The many defensive posts in response to what Anouar Majid wrote seemed to have missed his qualification “Religion plays a role, too.” One cannot avoid the fact that religion does indeed play a role. As evidence, look at the recent stories coming out of Tunisia, where fundamentalists are calling for medals to be stripped from that nation’s medal winners for what they claim are violations of Islamic norms.

      Thank you, Prof. Cole, for this guest post — the only way comment will remain informed is if multiple points of view are represented.

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