Sport

We Must Stand Behind Muslim Sportspersons in the Wake of Trump’s Travel Ban

Many American sports personalities have spoken their mind on Trump’s travel ban. They must now fight for the rights of Muslim athletes to compete on US soil whenever the opportunity arises.

(L-R) Lopez Lopong, Ibtihaj Muhammad, US President Donald Trump, Nazr Mohammad and Mo Farah. Credit: Reuters

(L-R) Lopez Lopong, Ibtihaj Muhammad, US President Donald Trump, Nazr Mohammad and Mo Farah. Credit: Reuters

The chaos of Donald Trump’s presidency is so widespread, it is putting other master manipulators to shame. Indeed, it is quite remarkable that his administration is able to generate new outrage almost every day. It takes a special kind of person to wreak havoc of this magnitude. But then, as Trump will tell you, he is a special man. Very, very special. Believe him, he’s special.

Following his abhorrent order to ban immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, I was reminded of one of his older tweets. As anybody who has followed Trump would know, he loves Twitter. So there’s no reason for us to not take his statements on the social media platform seriously.

In wake of the San Bernardino attack in December 2015, then President Barack Obama had urged his fellow citizens to not treat all Muslim Americans the same. While the spectre of a Trump presidency still seemed far-fetched, his divisive rhetoric had begun to resonate with many Americans. Obama seemed to recognise that as he spoke, “Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbours, our co-workers, our sports heroes…”

Trump, with his inimitable capacity for missing the point, responded with a tweet – “Obama said in his speech that Muslims are our sports heroes. What sport is he talking about, and who? Is Obama profiling?”

In a few minutes, Twitter was flooded with photos of Trump and Muhammad Ali. Of course, there are other legendary stars like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal. The list could go on. But Trump did not remember them. There was, as expected, no apology forthcoming. Trump’s selective silence has served him well, after all.

But forgetting the vital contribution of Muslim Americans to the country’s sporting sphere is one thing, passing an executive order that puts their security and livelihood at stake is far more dangerous. As the journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote last week, it would be foolhardy to see Trump as a “grand aberration” but his decision is still “uniquely shameful.” Trump is not the first American president to pursue primarily anti-Muslim policies but he is taking the country to “dark and foreboding places that are a step beyond what even recent presidents, in the name of protection against Muslims, have ushered in.”

As the Somalia-born British runner Mo Farah succinctly put in a statement released on Sunday, “On 1 January this year, Her Majesty the Queen made me a knight of the realm. On 27 January, President Donald Trump seems to have made me an alien.” While Farah would have been relieved to know that his legal residency rights allow him to return to his home in Oregon, the issue spreads beyond his personal privileges. By closing its doors on certain athletes of the international community and laying doubts over the status of those who ply their trade within the US, the Trump administration is guilty of state-sponsored discrimination.

Sportspersons and corporations are often hesitant about airing their political opinions in public. But such is the divisiveness wrought by Trump, the voices against the Muslim ban have been heard far and wide.

The US men’s national football team captain Michael Bradley said the decision was another example of “someone who couldn’t be more out of touch with our country and the right way to move forward.” NBA veteran Nazr Mohammad took to Twitter to air an emotional response –“It’s a tough day when u find out that so many ppl that u thought were fans or friends really hate u and everything u believe in.”

Sabre fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad also used the social media platform to criticise Trump’s order. She was the first Muslim-American woman to earn an Olympic medal when she won a bronze in Rio de Janeiro last year. Her faith marks her out as nobody else had worn a hijab before while representing the US.

It is not just the current athletes who are suffering, though. Lopez Lomong’s interview to Sports Illustrated is one of the stories that inspires and makes one despair simultaneously. “When I saw the news, I cried. I was very emotional about it. What if that document had been signed in 2001? Where would I be? I would have no career. I would have no degree. I would probably be dead.”

Abducted at the age of six during the Sudanese civil war, Lomong arrived in the US in 2001 after spending a decade in a Kenyan refugee camp. He went on to represent the US at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, with his proudest moment coming in Beijing when he was chosen to carry the American flag at the opening ceremony. It is unlikely there will be another Lomong unless Trump’s draconian measure is revoked.

What is perhaps more remarkable is the response of international corporations against the executive order. The multinational behemoths pride themselves on their “apolitical” manner of functioning. While that is obviously a deceitful exercise since there’s nothing as political as advancing a neoliberal, capitalist agenda, for once personal interests have forced companies to take a stand. Sample the email sent to employees by Nike’s chief executive Mark Parker expressing the corporation’s stand “against bigotry and any form of discrimination.”

The statement could have a wide resonance within the sporting sphere. It is common knowledge that Los Angeles has bid for the right to host the 2024 Summer Olympics. With the decision to be announced in September this year, it would be interesting to see how the International Olympic Committee (IOC) responds to the situation. If any country’s athletes are denied the opportunity to compete at the Olympics, it would put the Los Angeles bid in jeopardy. Moreover, the IOC is always receptive to its sponsors’ concerns. Although Nike is not one of them, others could follow its lead.

It is indeed remarkable that in the aftermath of the presidential election, as reported by The New York Times, David Wallechinsky (a member on the IOC’s cultural and heritage commission) was repeatedly asked, “What is wrong with your country?” Wallechinsky sought to assuage the concerns by quoting voting numbers and describing Los Angeles as “a multicultural, Trump-free zone.”

While the eminent status enjoyed the US in the sporting sphere would seem to rule out a boycott like the one experienced by South Africa during the apartheid regime, there remain other ways to hurt the country’s interests. The assumed bid for FIFA World Cup in 2026 might have to be thrown in the water while, in the more immediate future, it seems unsure that the US freestyle wrestling team would be allowed to compete at the World Cup competition beginning next week in Iran. No American citizen will be allowed to enter the country as a result of the Iranian government’s retaliation to Trump’s order.

With the overall contours of the executive order still being defined, professional leagues and other parties involved in sporting competitions across the US are still coming to terms with it. Interestingly, USA Weightlifting’s chief executive Phil Andrews called for a separation of politics from sport as the world weight-lifting championships are slated to be held in California this November.

While the sentiment needs to be appreciated as he opened the doors of competition to the seven countries in question, it is pretty naïve of someone holding an elevated position like Andrews to see sport as separate from politics. Perhaps, he needs to take a cue from the executives at Nike.

The sporting fraternity must not stay silent when the whole world rages in protest. It is important to stand by Muslim athletes who feel persecuted today. Indeed, it has been heartwarming to see many sporting personalities come out and speak their mind on the issue.

However, the next step would be to fight for the rights of Muslim athletes to compete on American soil whenever the opportunity arises. Over the past year or so, the likes of Colin Kaepernick, Gregg Popovich and Megan Rapinoe, among others, have attracted the public eye for their overtly political statements. The fire fuelled by them has laid the ground for other athletes to feel comfortable when they speak out on political issues. Considering Trump’s propensity to manufacture one outrageous act after another, the ground will remain fertile.

If Trump forgets the Muslim sporting heroes that the US has been lucky to have, it would be our duty to remind him. Because it is not just a function of his memory, rather the consequence of an Islamophobic world-view where they would rather be banished from the borders of the country he ostensibly protects. Such is the chaos fermented by the Trump administration, one fears that nadir is still some distance away. But before others like Farah are forced to compare themselves to “an alien”, it is important to demonstrate our support for them. Some within the sporting fraternity have already shown us the way. There remains a lot to achieve but the resistance has begun.