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Here are some sounds from the playing fields of Europe on an average Sunday: “Bin Laden! You know where he is!” “Have you got a first-aid kit or is that a suicide bomb?”
No, it’s not what Italy’s Marco Materazzi told France’s Zinedine Zidane in the World Cup final. It’s what a Muslim football team in Luton, just north of London, hears all the time.
British football’s annual “action week” against discrimination starts Thursday, and this year it should consider taking a new tack. All the conferences I have attended on racism in football have focused on abuse of black or Jewish players, and quite right too.
But racism has its fashions. Since September 11 2001, Muslims have become “the new blacks”. In French polls, twice as many respondents now declare antipathy towards Muslims as towards blacks or Jews. In Britain in 2005, a survey for the Home Office asked people which groups they thought experienced more racism than five years previously. Even before the London bombings of July 7 that year, nearly 12 times more respondents cited Muslims than named any other group.
Yet in football, Islamophobia is generally ignored. Nobody ever gets punished for it. After Newcastle supporters repeatedly chanted “Mido’s got a bomb” at Middlesbrough’s Egyptian striker in August, only one person was disciplined: Mido himself.
He got a yellow card for running to the jeering fans with his finger to his lips after scoring a goal. No supporters were arrested. As Middlesbrough’s manager Gareth Southgate remarked: “In terms of civil liberties, I find that strange.” Mido said: “I’m used to it from opposition fans.” The editor of one Newcastle fanzine explained the chants weren’t racist: “They were just a way of winding the opposition up but they didn’t work as Mido scored.”
Contrast this laxity with the multi- year ban on Blackburn fans caught abusing a black player, or with the anger in Britain when Chelsea manager Avram Grant experienced anti-semitism, or when black England players have been verbally abused abroad.
Versions of the jeers aimed at Mido are heard across Europe. Dutch fans often accuse Moroccan players of fornicating with goats – a “joke” popularised by Theo van Gogh, the filmmaker murdered by a Muslim fundamentalist in 2004. Nobody is ever arrested for that either. Nor were the English fans who, when England played Turkey in 2003, chanted: “I’d rather be a Paki than a Turk.” This is the contemporary equivalent of the bananas thrown at black players 20 years ago. Iram Sattar of the Muslim Women’s Sport Foundation says: “This problem could make Muslims feel unwelcome in the football community.”
Piara Powar, head of the anti-racism organisation Kick It Out, believes people are more likely to “shrug” when Muslim players are abused than when blacks are. Powar says that some think: “Maybe they brought it on themselves.” Muzzy Izzet, a British Turk playing for Leicester, discovered this in 2000 after getting racial abuse from Everton fans. David Mellor, the British Conservative politician-turned-talkshow host, said Izzet “was the author of his own misfortune”. Why? “Izzet chose to parade around Filbert Street after Leicester’s Worthington Cup semi-final win draped in a Turkish flag.”
We should be grateful that Mellor is not Roberto Calderoli, recently a minister for Italy’s Northern League, who sneered at the French losers of the World Cup final, describing them as “a team that, in the quest for results, sacrificed its own identity by selecting negroes, Muslims and communists.”
At least the French team does have Muslims. In all of Britain’s professional football, there are just a handful of British Muslims. Powar says some scouts and youth coaches fear recruiting Muslims, who might want a prayer space or suddenly start fasting. He says: “It may add to the sense of ‘they don’t fit into the culture around football’. ” Even Muslim spectators are so rare that when some north Africans and Iraqi Kurds bought tickets to watch Manchester United in 2004, it was assumed they wanted to blow up the stadium. Hundreds of police officers arrested the fans in dawn raids before the misunderstanding was cleared up.
Muslims are more common in amateur football – and so too is Islamophobia. A study in West Yorkshire several years ago found that every single Asian or Afro-Caribbean amateur interviewed had experienced racism. Just in case any religious Muslim women might want to play,
Fifa recently banned them from doing so in hijab, supposedly for safety reasons, though so far no footballers have been killed by flying veils.
It’s unfair to single out football. Zacarias Moussaoui, the “20th hijacker” in the September 11 2001 plot, played rugby for Narbonnne in southern France before racism prompted him to quit. Similarly, in Britain in 2002, the Conservative politician Ann Winterton was sacked from her party’s front bench for telling a Pakistani joke at a rugby dinner. The point is that, in that setting, she had assumed she could get away with it. Most people do.
They do so chiefly because the taboo on Islamophobia is weaker than taboos on other kinds of racism. But Butch Fazal, chair of Britain’s National Asians in Football Forum, suggests another reason. He says Muslim groups have been slow to mobilise against Islamophobia in sport: “After 9/11, after 7/7 [the July 7 2005 London bombings], we have become very insular – a community licking its wounds. Our initial concern was our own safety. The searching question we’re asking ourselves is: have we lost our sons to fundamentalists? Sport was pretty low on the agenda of stuff that really mattered.”