When fanaticism rules the field

15-12-2011 09:06 AM

Robeir al-Faris

Goan fi Malaab al-Taassub (A Goal in the Court of Fanaticism); Nour Qaldas; Watani Printing and Publishing Corporation; Cairo; June 2010



WATANI International


18 July 2010
















“With the Islamist current steadily gaining ground in Egypt since the 1970s, the public domain was increasingly ‘religionised’, leading to an inevitable rise in discrimination against Copts. Egypt became polarised along religious lines, with terms such as the ‘Coptic MP’, the ‘Coptic journalist’, or the ‘Coptic player’ becoming all the more common. It was natural that the polarisation should extend to the sports domain; non-Muslim players were excluded from national teams or relegated to the sidelines. Out of 400 players registered to play football with Premier League teams in 2009/2010 only two were Copts. Individual games such as weight lifting or Judo see better Coptic participation, a fact which proves the point.”


These words were written by Mohamed Mounir Megahed, head of the Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination movement, in his introduction to the most recent Watani Book which was out last week. Under the title Goan fi Malaab al-Taassub (A Goal in the Court of Fanaticism) Nour Qaldas, editor of the Sports page in Watani, explores the issue of the discrimination against Copts in the Sports domain.




The worshippers


The book begins by a review of the participation of Copts in the public sports domain. In 1924, the Alexandrian Michel Gorgi participated in the Paris Olympic Games, together with runner George Fahim who competed in the 100m and 200m races. Discus thrower Girgis Bekheit was in the Berlin Olymic Games in 1936, and weight lifter Philip Nassif and swimmer Jack Fahim in the 1948 London Olympics. In addition, there are Albert Fahmy Tadros the only basketball player who was on the Egyptian team in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, the 1948 Games in London and those of 1952 in Helsinki. And from 1969 to 1976, Nagy Assaad was Egypt’s international hero in discus and weight throwing. These names of Coptic heroes are all unknown to the Egyptian reader; the Watani Book brings them back to light.


The book then moves to the most popular game in Egypt: football. Last year, the coach of the Egyptian national team Hassan Shehata made a public announcement to the effect that players were picked according to their ethics and religious values not their competence alone. As Mr Megehed remarks, this practically excluded all non-Muslims. When Mr Shehata was asked why the team included no Copts, he said that if there was a Copt like international [Coptic] player Hani Ramzi—who played for German teams then came back to Cairo and is today coaching Egypt’s second team—he would secure a place on the team. Does this imply, the writer asks, that Coptic players are more often than not substandard?


Mr Qaldas points out that Egypt’s national team, which was frequently termed “the Pharaohs”, has today gained the nickname “the worshippers” on account of the players kneeling down to thank God for every goal they score. The name, the writer insists, is a step in the direction of erasing the national character of Egypt in favour of the Islamic character.




Slim chance


The book tackles the thorny question of how Copts are kept outside the public sports domain. First, they are more often than not overlooked in the selection of players for junior teams. Several examples are cited of candidates who pass the assessment tests for new players but are rejected once it is discovered they are Christian. Other cases include players who are never promoted to the senior teams or, if they are, are never allowed to play on the first team. The predictable result is a widespread sense of frustration and bitterness among Copts. Is it any surprise then that many Copts simply opt out of the sports domain where, even if they excel, they have very slim chances? They simply recede into private or Church sports activities.


Finally, the book poses the all-important question: what is to be done if we are ever to overcome the problem of discrimination against Copts in sports? The magical cure, Mr Qaldas proposes, is the implementation of a secular State. Only then, he suggests, can religion and religious identity be relegated to the private domain, and competence alone be the factor upon which players are selected.


The book includes a collection of previously published interviews with some of the few Copts in the field including players Hani Ramzi and Mohsen Abdel-Messih, as well as renowned sports critic Benyamin Bassili who was founder of the sports page in Watani and its editor from 1958 till he died in 2002. It concludes with a series of articles by the author on ways to advance sports in Egypt.


Despite its small size, the book is invaluable since it fills a void in the Arabic library by discussing an issue that has been hitherto kept in the dark. 

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