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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Working group set to kick Islamophobia out of football

Crickets most famous anti-racism campaigner has called on English football to tackle prejudice against Muslims within the beautiful game.

Azeem Rafiq who continues to fight against Yorkshire County Cricket Club and the English Cricket Board for what he claims were many years of racist abuse towards himself and other non-English cricketers, is a part of a working group which has written to the football authorities.

His intervention comes as a father of three and NHS professional tells the Asian Standard about the arduous process of dealing with a local football association’s disciplinary process after his young players were racially abused. Saki Iqbal has had to recount his experience after a former sporting director at Norwich City, apologised for suggesting several Black footballers could have ended up in jail had they not forged successful careers in the game.

Stuart Webber referred to high profile players such as Chelsea and England striker Raheem Sterling in a podcast chat. Troy Townsend of Kick It Out branded Webber’s remarks an “absolute disgrace” and described them as being “racially profiling”.

The latest racism rows come as Rafiq alongside Muslim politician Baroness Sayeeda Warsi and broadcaster and sports journalist Reshmin Chowdhury, called for the Sport to adopt the working definition of Islamophobia after receiving a rise in reported incidents this season.

The trio are part of a ten person working group at Kick it Out, which was set up to fight racism in football in 1993, then expanded in 1997 to tackle all forms of discrimination. It also follows a four-fold increase in reports of Islamophobia in the first half of the 2023-24 season compared to the same period the previous season according to a Kick it Out report.

Warsi, who famously said that Islamophobia had passed the dinner table test said “’If you are of Muslim background, or perceived to be of Muslim background, football should be a friendly place to be.”

Whilst clubs have increased initiatives towards Muslim fans and communities these have not always been welcomed in football circles.

Former Manchester City midfielder Joey Barton lamented the use of Blackburn Rovers football pitch at Ewood Park for Eid prayers last year. When asked by a fan as to what his objection was, Barton said “It’s not a mosque. Not a Blackburn Rovers jersey in sight. No women fans either. Plus, they’re wrecking the football pitch.” The reference to the lack of woman is consider by some to be an Islamophobic trope employed against Muslims as it suggests a subjugation of women in Muslim culture.

In January 2023 a British Football Association (FA) panel described the behaviour of John Yems, the former Crawley Town manager who was found guilty of a dozen instances of using racist and discriminatory language towards players as “jocularity and banter.” The panel also said Yems was not a “conscious racist”, despite him likening Muslim players to bombers and terrorists.

Saki Iqbal, a senior professional in the National Health Service and volunteer football coach, told Asian Standard of how an incident of racism left him battling accusations of misconduct. Despite an opposing player hurling the slur “Paki” multiple times, which led to a straightforward finding of racism by a Lancashire County Football Association panel.

Despite an opposing player hurling the slur “Paki” multiple times, which led to a straightforward finding of racism by a Lancashire County Football Association panel, a subsequent appeal portrayed the major issue as Iqbal’s decision to take his players off after the referee abandoned the match when he was also racially abused. Although he ultimately won the case, he maintains that the incident opened his eyes to how the goalposts are shifted when racism is targeted towards Black people or Muslims.

“We are expected to just accept it, and unfortunately there is a liberal strain of thinking which has excused racism by the platitudes of ‘don’t let the racists win’, etc,” Iqbal said. “How about challenging them, so young players like those I coach know early on that if they are abused, justice is on their side.”

Saki Iqbal, Level 2 F.A. licensed coach, image: Saki Iqbal

The father of three also highlighted media coverage of football as a major vehicle of Islamophobia in the sport. He cites the football World Cup held in Qatar in 2022 which saw what many consider an upsurge in hostility and Islamophobia towards Muslims involvements in football. Hatem Baizan an academic based in America writes that “The World Cup coverage deployed the “barbarians” trope in discussing Qatar, the Arab and Muslim World, where every difference was magnified and essentialized so as to produce the most negative reaction and disdain.”

The working definition of Islamophobia proposed by the All Party Parliamentary Group  on British Muslims in 2017 has proved controversial, with many on the right describing it as a backdoor route to a blasphemy law. Proponents of the definition point to the fact that Islamophobia does not just affect Muslim but those who are thought of as Muslims or resemble them in some way.

Freedom of Information requests by the writer Hardeep Singh show how one in three victims of ‘Islamophobic’ hate crime in London (2015) were non-Muslims (or of no recorded faith), this was over one in four the following year (2016). Such a startling fact gives credence to the  definition which describes “a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or PERCIEVED Muslimness.”


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