Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Tebow, football miracles, and Islam in America

by Salman Hameed

I have to admit, up until recently I had no idea who Tim Tebow was and why he was so popular. And I do follow the NFL. But this season, the discussion of his Christian faith has become more and more prominent, and we've had to hear about miracles on the football field (though, I think God would most likely reserve the name football for the game that involves primarily kicking the ball).  It seems that God was helping him win sometimes with a number fourth quarter victories, but then testing his faith with some humiliating losses (And Bill Maher summarized this as well). When (positive) miracles happened, Tebow - Tebowed, unleashing a nationwide Tebowing frenzy (even a cat Tebowed). Ultimately, God decided to let natural forces (and Tom Brady) decide the game and the Patriots won by 35 points.

On the heels of all this, an article in Salon asks the question: What if Tim Tebow were a Muslim? (tip from Leyla Keough). This is a fascinating question, especially in light of protests against various Islamic centers in the US, the pulling of advertisements from All American Muslim, etc. The article brings up some interesting points and ultimately uses the case of Muhammad Ali to run this experiment. But we have to realize that that the case of Muhammad Ali (who by the way just turned 70!!) is loaded with more variables than just religion and religious identity. For example, he was a prominent African American at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and had interactions with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. That was also the beginnings of anti-war protests in the US. Plus, and I don't think the author of the Salon article makes the distinction, but Muhammad Ali at the time was a follower of National of Islam, which is very different from Islam.

However, the other example of Denver Nuggets basketball player, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf is a better one. But then that too gets enmeshed with nationalism, since he refused to stand for the national anthem. For an apt comparison, we will have to ask Tebow to refuse to stand up for the national anthem. To be fair, when Hakim Olajuwon, in the mid-1990s, was fasting and playing for Houston Rockets during Ramadan, it was mentioned in a respectful/admiring manner by the television commentators. But then that was the 1990s. It will be interesting to see the reaction today.

In any case, here are some bits from the Salon article:
So I ask, what if Tim Tebow were Muslim? How would our society react if during every interview, Tebow said “Insha’Allah” or “Allāhu Akbar” rather than thank his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ? Or instead of falling to one knee and praying,  Tebow pulled out a prayer rug and faced Mecca? A recent study by the Pew Research Center suggests it would not be well received. While American Muslims in general tend be satisfied with their lives and communities in the United States, 55 percent report that being Muslim in the U.S. has become more difficult since Sept. 11. Twenty-eight percent report that people have viewed them with suspicion and 22 percent report having been called offensive names. The TLC show “All-American Muslim” has lost advertisers who were pressured by groups claiming that the show was Islamic propaganda. Yet Pat Robertson claims that the United States is a breeding ground for anti-Christian bigotry. 
I don’t have answers to these questions. We can’t know the answers until we are faced with a prominent Muslim athlete who is willing to be so visible with his faith. In a country that consistently prides itself on freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, freedom of religion – we can hope that Muslim athletes who are visible with their faith would find themselves just as revered as Tebow is for his.
But professional Muslim athletes are hard to find. Ahmad Rashād. Rashaan Salaam. Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. Hakeem Olajuwon. Rasheed Wallace. Most of these athletes are retired and went about their religious lives quietly. But it is to that list of retired professionals that we must look to find someone as outspoken about their faith as Tim Tebow – Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Muhammad Ali, for example.
And here is the bit about Abdul-Rauf:
In 1990, Chris Jackson was drafted by the Denver Nuggets out of Louisiana State University. In 1991,  Jackson converted to Islam. In 1993, he changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. In 1996,  Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the national anthem at an NBA game. A religious storm followed. 
Everyone had an opinion, from fans to sports writers to radio hosts. Sports Illustrated reported that some people suggested Abdul-Rauf be deported. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was born in Mississippi, however, and deportation from Colorado to Mississippi is rare. Two Denver-area radio hosts even walked into a mosque with a stereo playing the Star Spangled Banner. One was wearing a turban. And a Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf T-shirt. While broadcasting live, on air. 
Abdul-Rauf claimed in a 2010 interview with that “[a]fter the national anthem fiasco, nobody really wanted to touch me.” He played only three more seasons in the NBA before going overseas to play professionally. In that same interview, he discusses how his home in Mississippi was burned down just a few months prior to Sept. 11. He eventually left the state. 
So Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf stood up (or in this case, sat down) for his religious beliefs. He made his religion a visible aspect of his life and a visible aspect of his professional basketball career. Just like Tim Tebow. The difference of course being that Tim Tebow was satirized on “Saturday Night Live.” Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf had his home burned down and felt blacklisted from the NBA.
Read the full article here.


Ayman Hossam Fadel said...

The support for Tebow has a lot more to do with white supremacy and a form of religion which does not challenge the dominant social order in the U.S.

There are plenty of non-white athletes who openly profess their Christianity but do not receive the attention of white American evangelicals.

Athletes who expressed doubt about American Exceptionalism, regardless of race (although the darker you are, the more dangerous you appear) and religion.

The best authority on the broader meaning of sports in USA society is Dave Zirin.

As an FYI, Tebow is not a bad quarterback. Most NFL quarterbacks would have looked bad the way the New England Patriots played that night. And I definitely preferred him over the Pittsburgh Steelers QB, who pleaded consensual sex in a bar's bathroom in Milledgeville, GA when the victim accused him of rape.

Salman Hameed said...


Good point and I totally agree with you. He fits a particular Christian model. Do you think then the comparison with Muhammad Ali is apt?

And we can debate about the quality of QB Tebow some other time. He did have a horrible stretch of play right before the playoffs too...

Ayman Hossam Fadel said...

Dave Zirin has an editorial in the LA Times about the champ, Muhammad Ali.

Tebow is not like Muhammad Ali because 1) he hasn't achieved professionally what Muhammad Ali did and 2) he hasn't sacrificed for his beliefs.

Having said that, who today is like Muhammad Ali? Certainly not LeBron or Roger Federer or Tiger Woods.

In Egypt and Bahrain, athletes have died and been tortured supporting the revolutions.

Agnostic said...

This Tebow guy may be a good football player, but he is very arrogant for saying that it's God who has chosen him and is helping him win football games. Instead of giving credit to his teammates he is giving credit to an imaginary God.

If a God does exist why would he help a guy win a football game rather than helping out the poor, hopeless, needy people out there?

iPMM said...

I feel like if Tebow was a Jew and held up a mezuzah and wore a kippah under his helmet, people would consider it unacceptable and strange, just as they would if he were Muslim. I think that because Christianity is so mainstream, people find his religious expressions to be very nearly patriotic.

Salman Hameed said...

"Tebow is not like Muhammad Ali because 1) he hasn't achieved professionally what Muhammad Ali did and 2) he hasn't sacrificed for his beliefs."

Oh - I didn't mean to compare him to Muhammad Ali in that way. I meant the way the issue of race can be brought in to talk about Muhammad Ali of the 1960s, can it also be brought in to talk about Tebow (as in being White Evangelical Christian)?

"In Egypt and Bahrain, athletes have died and been tortured supporting the revolutions."

Absolutely. But the story of Tebow, I think, is not about athletes - but rather it says something about the role of Christianity in mainstream America. Comparing that to the brutality of Egypt and Bahrain, while absolutely deplorable, is a bit like comparing apples and oranges.

Salman Hameed said...

"I feel like if Tebow was a Jew and held up a mezuzah and wore a kippah under his helmet, people would consider it unacceptable and strange, just as they would if he were Muslim."

Good point. But perhaps add spooky in the case of a Muslim athlete in the current climate...

Asad M said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Asad M said...

very good points by Ayman, this Tebow mania is more of a ‘redneck’ thing than Christian/religious.

It’s not difficult to imagine a public & media outrage if Tebow were Muslim and expressed his faith as openly. If Tebow were Jewish then most Americans would see it as strange, but I’m also wondering if someone like Bill Maher had bashed him (like he did to a Christian Tebow) and not be branded an anti-Semitic? I think the media backlash against Maher (or someone else for that matter) would be even greater than it is now. The media certainly has not the same standards when it comes to accepting a criticism of Jews or even Israel.

Anonymous said...

Are you Muslim Salman?

Salman Hameed said...


Funny - you don't even list your name here...

But the answer to your question is yes.

AnotherAnonymous said...

I find it rude and annoying when someone asks me what my religion is. Anonymous, care to tell us why you asked this specific question? A persons religion is their own personal matter.

Anonymous said...

I just waned to know if he was a Muslim or an apostate. Couldn't tell. Sorry if I sounded rude.

AnotherAnonymous said...

^ That's fine. By the way, I'm an apostate myself. In the Pakistani community it's like suicide if you tell others you're an apostate. Immediately Pakistanis will start hating you and think you're this bad sort of guy. That's why I pretend and hide my apostasy.

Ayman Hossam Fadel said...

I'm a little caught up in Linsanity, which reminds me of the Tebow issue. Jeremy Lin is a Christian and has been open about it.

Other famous Christian athletes, from tennis, are Michael Chang and Andrea Jaeger.

In particular, Andrea's story is remarkable in that she ended her successful professional tennis career very early and became a nun.

With Tebow fever in its receding stages, I think that part of the tremendous prominence/scorn he received was due to his race, his sport (football, the most popular sport in the USA), his having been in the spotlight for 4-5 years (as QB of the National Champion University of Florida Gators) and his participation in the "pro-life" ad broadcast during one of those championship games. As with all social phenomena, it's multi-factorial.

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