Competição de Judo nos 6º Jogos Mundiais Militares. Foto: Sgt Johnson Barros

Judo player el-Shehaby Should’ve Kept Politics out of it
by Elijah Reynolds

At the Rio Olympics, Egypt’s star Judo player, Islam el-Shehaby, lost his bout to Israel’s Or Sasson who went on to win the bronze. At the end of the match, el-Shehaby refused to bow or shake hands with the Israeli, announcing later, “you can’t ask me to shake the hand of anyone from this State.”] That same day, his Facebook read “I believe in two things: 1) My Religion [Islam] and 2) That one day Palestine will be free. Allah Akbar!”

Athletes should know not to take their politics to the field.

Now, there’s no one more critical of the Zionist invasion and occupation of Palestine over the past century than me. After fifty years of covering up the abuses of the apartheid state, I believe it’s time Israel be suspended from competing in the Olympics. When Israel offered a soccer match of “reconciliation” between Israelis and Palestinians on expropriated Palestinian land, I joined the latter in protest.

But, despite all of my beliefs, I still believe in good sportsmanship and respect for your component and el-Shehaby failed on that end.

I earned my black belt in Judo at 24, the same year I became a Muslim, practicing one through the other. For me, Judo and Islam both engendered a systematic disciplining of the soul with their respective customs of salutation. Customs I came to acknowledge as the “greater jihad” against the self in deference to others. Every judoka is taught the principle of Mutual Benefit as taught by Judo’s founder, Jigoro Kano. His student, Kyuzo Mifune defined the word ju-do as “the way which is natural and accords with the truth of the Universe and the one the human beings have to follow” (Canon of Judo, 1958). In Arabic, we call this way the Shari’ah. For me, my Judo is my Islam.

I adored my sensei, Master Park. And he admired greatly my religion for its principles of respect, discipline, and humility. He himself often said Islam was like Judo. So whenever I was not living up to his ideals, he would chastise me in the name of my religion.

Master Park was born in Korea but raised in post-WWII Japan, at a time when the Japanese military were enslaving Korean women and children and torturing soldiers. He knew very well what it meant to live with the enemy. Nonetheless, he taught me the traditional Japanese arts that cultivated his spirit, disciplining him to overcome his human weakness to hate.

Park Sensei taught me to respect myself by respecting my opponent’s greatness, not hating his weakness. “The katame mat is a mirror for the soul”. I don’t know what kind of miseducation el-Shehaby received in Egypt, but I have a pretty good idea. I know academics who dream for their sons to become suicide bombers in Israel. I’ve listened to Egyptian imams shout from the pulpit “all Jews are our enemies” and “Allah hates the Jews eternally”. These are sermons in the largest mosque of the San Francisco Bay Area. If these sermons represent the hyper-educated liberal “Americanized” Muslims, I’m afraid to ask what el-Shehaby was taught. But what I am certain about is this — his behavior at the Rio 2016 Olympics was a travesty for both the spirit of Judo and the Shari’ah of Islam. You don’t need to be a mufti — or a sensei — to understand this.

I never once felt the need to apologize for the bad behavior of Muslims. For 15 years I’ve been speaking at schools, giving lectures, teaching at a Catholic university, and not once have I felt the urge to “condemn terrorism”. Despite what many Islamophobes believe, I am not responsible for the sins of Muslims. But it was el-Shehaby’s singular act that provoked a response in me.

I have practiced Judo for 20 years, and I’ve never seen a competitor refuse to bow or shake hands. I look up to and respect my fellow judo players, and I am genuinely embarrassed, because they know, and I know, that el-Shehaby should know better. Perhaps he was taught Islamist rhetoric growing up, and not Islamic etiquette. But a good Judo instructor should have taught him to respect his opponent.

Elijah Reynolds is a black belt in Judo and a devout Muslim. Reynolds is a Lecturer at Santa Clara University in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures and an affiliated faculty member to the Arabic, Islamic, and Middle East Studies Program.