Don’t Be a Hypocrite. What Your Outrage About the Saudi Soccer Team Missed.

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.
— Jesus son of Joseph

Performative religion and large displays of solemnity have always been popular in sports. Indeed, sport was closely related to religion since people groups coalesced around gods and traditions. Across cultures, the first sports competitions were held as part of religious celebrations — from the Greek Olympics to deadly Aztec games in honor of the wind god.

Today, the games are played for the benefit of huge corporations and wealthy “nonprofits” called FIFA and the NFL. In one of the more poignant lines of the Will Smith film, Concussion, Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks) notes the conflict of football and religion:

The NFL owns a day of the week. The same day the Church used to own. Now it’s theirs.

But religion and sports are not in direct conflict (with the exception of that time Homer Simpson listened to the big game on a radio during church) they are more like an uneasy alliance. Religion and memorials make frequent appearances with players praying after every score, or even simply when they come on the field.

You could certainly make the argument that religion and memorials, like arm bands or moments of silence, are separate. An atheist isn’t likely to fold their hands in prayer before a big kick, but they will probably remove their hat and remain quiet during a moment of silence.

But in an era where the Supreme Court rules on praying before a high school football game, memorials have replaced public prayer as the accepted form of group worship. Indeed, the decision of who and which news events receive a moment of silence is intensely political and clearly tied to religion.

The New York Yankees still sing “God Bless America” at every home game, a tradition that started in the weeks after 9–11. U2’s massive 9–11 memorial is considered THE BEST Superbowl halftime show of all time.

Religion and sports…the true agony and ecstasy of life and death go hand-in-hand, right?

The unforgivable sin

Apparently, somebody forgot to tell the Saudi Arabian national soccer team that nothing is more sacred in western culture than our sporting venues where we hold somber ceremonies for those who have died in the most high-profile ways. Then we tweet about it.

Saudi Arabia faced off against Australia in a World Cup qualifier this week, and were roundly criticized for not observing a minute of silence for the victims of the London attacks.

It’s bloody disgraceful, I’m so angry about this.
—Anthony Albanese, Senior Labor MP

Two Australians died in the attacks, and the country is of course part of the British Commonwealth. This seemed like a non-controversial moment of silence, an exercise so commonplace (and ultimately meaningless) that nobody could be opposed. It was controversial for the Saudi players.

#WWMD (What Would Mohammad Do?)

It’s easy to pile on. Who could be against a wee bit of solemn remembrance. right? Well, Saudi religious scholars for one. Here’s what actually happened.

The Australian association proposed the minute of silence for the two Australian victims of the London Bridge attack, and Saudi soccer officials agreed it should go forward. However, they added that their players would not take part as it is against Saudi custom.

FOXSPORTS was informed of the decision, presumably so they could keep their cameras on the Australian players and supporters, avoiding controversy. They did not.

Reading headlines and social media, you’d think the players celebrated the attacks. In truth, they dispersed to their positions and some stretched. One dared tie his shoe. The internet was not pleased.

Angry fans pointed to supposed instances of Saudi players observing moments of silence and praying after goals. “You see, they are hypocrites!”

Vice Sports noted that these examples are misleading:

Several websites, including the Guardian, have tried to demonstrate the Saudi’s act as hypocritical by pointing out that moments of silence were in fact held for the death of former Saudi King Abdullah. However, those examples are misleading. Two were held in other countries — Qatar and the UAE, to be precise — which have different prevailing interpretations of Islam that allow for such silences. Also, none of those instances actually involved Saudis.

Theology Matters

This may shock you, but interpretations of the Islamic faith are NOT uniform. Crazy, right? Imagine if some sects of Christianity took literally biblical passages about not observing holidays, or debated if the bread during communion was really “The body of Christ,” or just a symbol of his body — to the point of war?

Saudi Arabia follows a strict version of Wahhabiism. Here’s what a scholar on political Islam at Australian Catholic University told The Advertiser:

Wahhabiism is a very puritanical form of Islam so honouring deaths within Wahhabi doctrine is considered ‘bidah’ or impermissible
 — Dr. Joshua Roose

Dr. Roose notes that the football federation and players likely did not receive permission from the Ministry of Religious Affairs to observe the moment of silence. You may have heard that The Kingdom is not exactly noted for it’s acceptance of individual religious interpretation.

We Won!

Don’t worry, Australia won the match 3–2. To top it off, the Saudi football association also apologized. They were cowed by the pressure. Hooray!

The Saudi Arabian Football Federation condemns all acts of terrorism and extremism and extends its sincerest condolences to the families of all the victims and to the Government and people of the United Kingdom.

Players will continue with their public mourning. They’ll lie prostrate towards Mecca after scoring goals, or bless themselves and point to the sky…just as our respective prophets have commanded.

But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.
— Jesus son of Joseph

In a totally unrelated note: 30 people died in a terrorist attack at a market in Iraq today. 150 were killed by terrorists in Kabul a few weeks ago and over 300 were injured.

There will be no moments of silence at international sporting events for those souls.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.