Egyptian football’s pious turn

By Osama Diab

The national team is increasingly flaunting its Muslim religiosity. Where does that leave , let alone secular Egyptians?

4 February 2010

I am a big fan of 's team, and I have a jersey with six stars sitting in my closet that I take out proudly on days of decisive games to show support for them. The stars symbolise every Egypt has won since 1957, when it claimed its first. I hope that Egypt will be able to add a seventh title to its impressive record by winning the cup in the tournament currently underway.

But I'm facing a real moral dilemma here. The national team of Egypt is starting to symbolise everything I stand against, namely homogeneity and intolerance. Should I keep rooting for my team despite the fact that it has taken an uncomfortable ideological diversion? Or should I keep my beliefs separate from my team affiliation?

My quandary is rooted in a statement by Hassan Shehata, the Egyptian national coach, who said that his squad selection is not only based on skills and competence, but also on piety. Also, the team's nickname is gradually changing from the Pharaohs to Montakhab el-Sagedeen (literally the team of prostrators). Sogood, or prostration, is an Islamic religious act used to express gratitude for God after achieving something. After scoring any goal, the entire Egyptian soccer team put their faces against the ground to show their thankfulness.

“Without [piety], we will never select any player regardless of his potential. I always strive to make sure that those who wear the Egypt jersey are on good terms with God,” Hassan Shehata said, according to AP. Al-Shorouk also quoted Shehata saying that striker Mido, who once had a ponytail and dated Miss Belgium 2000, Joke van de Velde, was dismissed because he did not live up to the manager's pious ideals.

This will soon result in a situation where only practicing Muslims identify strongly with the team. Secular Muslims and religious minorities will feel indifferent at best. The team currently doesn't have a Christian player, in a country where at least 10% of the population are Christians. Hany Ramzy, one of the best defenders in the history of Egyptian football, was a Coptic Christian. However, the next time this happens, the Christian player will feel like an outcast if religious players, like Ahmed Fathy, force everyone to kneel after scoring a goal.

This phenomenon is just one small part of a bigger problem. Egypt is turning rapidly into a homogeneous society, where you need to be male, Muslim, physically able, young and from a middle-class urban area in order not to feel alienated.

I don't believe the phenomenon is just about religious beliefs. It is as much about sticking more than ever to traditional values to protect the fabric of society against cultural attacks from outside. It's a characteristic of weak societies to perceive anything foreign as a threat, including principles of equality, tolerance and justice.

This article will also be considered by some as one more evil attempt to impose western ideas on our pious eastern society, but diversity and tolerance should not only be western values but universal ones.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 29 January 2010. Read the related discussion.

Published here with the author's permission. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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