When asked whether winning the Olympic 10,000 metres gold last Sunday would have meant more had he won it for the country of his birth, Somalia, Mo Farah immediately responded: ‘Not at all, mate. This is my country and since I was eight years old this is where I grew up. This is where I started life. This is where I went to uni. This is where the people I know are, this is my country and when I put on my Great Britain vest I’m proud, very proud, that it’s my country.’ Mo Farah has been representing Great Britain from the outset of his running career and so even with all the talk surrounding ‘Plastic-Brits’ the question came as a surprise.
Identity is quite a difficult concept to define, but allegiance isn’t. Identity is determined by a number of variables – religion and ethnicity, for example. The suspicion directed towards British Muslims, in part, concerns their allegiance – is their allegiance to Great Britain or to Islam and a global Ummah? Or is to to fellow Muslims ‘back home’? Research carried out by the Institute for Social and Economic Research found that “Ethnic minorities living in the UK feel more British than white Britons”, but despite this Islamophobia continues.
The aura of suspicion directed towards British Muslims is not new and one that is prevalent in the UK, fuelling (along with naked racism and Islamophobia) the rise of groups such as the English Defence League. Their figurehead Tommy Robinson thinks all Muslim men are paedophiles and warns the world of #creepingsharia, but Robinson does seem to have a soft spot for one British Muslim – commentator Mo Ansar who invited Robinson to dinner at his home after a TV debate. Robinson after the dinner tweeted: “I swear mo ansar is reading a diff koran to most other muslims?”
Even ‘liberal Muslims’ are playing their part in aiding Islamophobia. The Quilliam Foundation, upon hearing news of the atrocities perpetrated by Anders Brevik in Norway in 2011, were quick to tweet that it was Muslims behind the attack and possibly backed by Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi. This is the same behaviour we’ve come to expect from the likes of the Sun and the Daily Mail and fuels distrust of Muslims. It took the Quilliam Foundation 15 tweets before they recognised that it could have been carried out by someone other than an Islamist. ‘Evidence’ tweeted by the Quilliam Foundation to support their view included “Gaddafi also recently threatened attacks in mainland Europe” and “Gaddafi does have a track record of setting off bombs in Europe and he is a desperate man”.
But who knows the intention of the journalist asking Farah that question – it may not have been sinister. See, even British Muslims are suspicious of non-Muslims!
But Farah’s victory and the question asked by the journalist, and of course Farah’s assertive response, provided a good opportunity for the issue to be raised in the media and especially during the Olympics. And so with the Olympics nearing their end I thought I’d profile four of Team GB’s British Muslim Olympians, starting with Farah himself. These profiles were originally written for MPACUK but are used here to form this one blog post.
Few and Farah Between: Mo Farah
Farah has been described as “the greatest male distance runner that Britain has ever seen” and is the only ever participant to beat ITV’s game show The Cube. Mohamed Farah, commonly known as Mo Farah, was born in Somalia in 1983 but moved to Britain at the age of eight to west London. A teacher of his noticed his running potential and guided him towards athletics ahead of Farah’s other loves of football and Arsenal. Farah won five English Schools’ titles as a teenager and finished fifth, aged just 16, in the junior race at the 1999 European Cross Country Championships.
Farah made his mark at the European Athletics Junior Championships in 2001 where he won the 5,000m and by 2006 he was winning silver in the main European Championships and gold in the European Cross Country Championship. Farah had a poor Olympic Games in 2008 when he was eliminated before the final of the 5,000m but in 2009 won the 3,000m European Indoor Championships and successfully defended it in 2011, whilst at the 2011 World Championships he won silver in the 10,000m and gold in the 5,000m before being named European athlete of the year for 2011 and coming third in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award. An impressive collection of victories and accolades and a hurt from the last Olympic Games which can only aid his pursuit for gold this time round on home soil.
His versatility in running has seen him compete in numerous distances including the 5,000m and 10,000m (which he’ll competing in this year) as well as 1,500m, 3,000m, the half-marathon and cross–country running, and Farah his sights on going up to marathon distance after the Olympics.
Farah is not shy of his Islamic faith and can often be seen prostrating after races. Farah also conducts charity work and is a supporter of the Muslim Writer’s Award, and his appearance and victory on ITV’s The Cube netted his charity, the Mo Farah Foundation which provides aid to people facing starvation and disease in East Africa, a cool £250,000.
And he’s in good shape leading up to the Olympics having won his last prep race, though his rivals also look good with a number of them having run faster than Farah’s personal best – that should make his races interesting.
Rocking the boat: Mohamed Sbihi
25 years old and 6ft 8in tall Mohamed Sbihi will represent Great Britain at the London Olympics in rowing. That’s right, rowing – not a sport commonly associated with Muslims – and in fact he is Britain’s first Muslim rower, a feat he recognises as an honour but goes on to say that he wishes he won’t be the last and, more humbly, wishes that he wasn’t the first either.
Like Mo Farah, Sbihi had a love for other sports ahead of the sport he’s representing Great Britain in this summer. He was identified as a potentially good rower through a talent identification scheme at school back in 2003 and has been rowing ever since despite falling into the water numerous times at the start – enough to put most people off. He is a silver medallist at two world championships and hoping to go one better this summer.
Sbihi has made the headlines for other reasons too. His decision not to fast during Ramadan but instead pay for meals for the poor through a charity in Morocco has raised some eyebrows. His decision differs from that of other Muslim athletes from overseas who can cite the fact that they’re travelling to delay their fasting – Sbihi is from London. However, Sbihi says convincingly that: “the opportunity is bigger than just for me. There are also eight other guys in our group and two coaches. What I have chosen is the right decision for me. There will be other Muslims at these Games who are fasting and that will be the right decision with them.”
Interestingly, he sought advice from scholars before making the decision and a precedent had been set previously – with Moroccan goalkeeper Badou Zaki who, though a Muslim, never fasted during his time at Real Mallorca in Spain’s La Liga. Instead, Zaki would go to Morocco each year to pay for thousands of meals for the poor.
The opportunity really is bigger than just him – imagine how good it would be for a British Muslim to win gold. To compromise the effectiveness of his rowing crew could have a lasting negative impression on Islam from his crewmates, and the opportunity to raise awareness of Islam also exists – through awareness of him making the decision not to fast and it being covered in the media – this should have a positive impact. The fact also that 1,800 poor people in Morocco will be fed this Ramadan is also a positive, but there will always be British Muslims somewhere who will question his decision and seek to undermine him, unfortunately, and not look at the bigger picture.
Sbihi is not unaware of his faith – quite the opposite in fact. He wants his performance in the summer to have a positive influence on young Muslims: “The one message I really want to get across is that there are positive role models among the Muslim community,” he said. “Islam’s got a lot of negative press, understandably, over recent years. But hopefully there’s going to be a procession of athletes highlighting the way for young Muslims.”
It is worth remembering that Mohammed was fasting when he rowed in the World Championships last year and won a Silver medal. Aside from his decision not to fast, Sbihi should be celebrated as a British Muslim that is going for gold this summer in a demanding sport that needs more British Muslim participation.
A discus’ throw away: Abdul Buhari
Such are the demands of professional sport that most athletes out there are full-time sportsmen and women. Focusing on anything else other than training and competing could compromise an athlete’s effectiveness, but that hasn’t stopped one athlete from juggling a job as a banker with being British discus champion.
30-year-old Abdul Buhari, who is of Nigerian descent, works for Credit Suisse two days a week and is one of Britain’s leading discus throwers but only took up discus throwing after injury forced him to reassess his participation in the 400metres. Since 2002 Buhari has been competing and building up experience in discus throwing and in 2008 he represented Great Britain for the first time. Numerous injuries throughout his career have seen him miss out on two Commonwealth Games and him nicknamed ‘the come-back kid’, but he came back stronger in 2011 and won both the English and British Championships and set a personal best of 65.44metres to let his rivals know that he was back. The fasting concerns that have affected other British Muslim athletes in these Olympics have also affected Buhari who has chosen not to fast to give him the best chance of a medal.
En garde, prêt, allez!: Husayn Rokoswky
Born to an English/Ukrainian father and an Egyptian mother, 21-year-old Sheffield-boy Rosowsky is currently a Maths student at Greenwich University and got into fencing aged 7, following in the footsteps of his older brothers who were both national champions and international fencers.
In 2008 he won bronze at the World Under-17 Championships in Sicily and followed this up with two bronze medals (in individual and team events) at the 2010 European Championships in Moscow. Rosowsky subsequently finished 6th at the 2011 World University Games in Shenzen. December 2011 was a busy month for Rosowsky and saw him win gold at the prestigious Leon Paul International Cup in London followed by the British National Foil title in his home town.
His performance at the Olympics so far has seen him struggle with a hamstring injury during the men’s individual foil event and lose his first-round match against Tunisian Mohamed Samandi.
Like other British-Muslim athletes the issue of fasting has also affected Rosowsky who has decided not to fast to give him the best chance of victory this summer. But considering he’s from Sheffield but competing in London, a distance of more than 160 miles between the two cities, he could probably cite ‘travelling’ as a suitable excuse not to fast.
So, there you have it. Four British Muslim Olympians all playing their part for Team GB in the Olympics and, hopefully, against Islamophobia too.
- Mohamed Farah wins Olympic 10,000m gold for Somalia & Great Britain. (somaliswisstv.com)
- Mo’s giant strides from war zone into the hearts of the nation: The uplifting story of a champion who succeeded against the odds. (somaliswisstv.com)
- Mohamed “Mo” Farah, Olympics Gold Medalist 2012 and British Muslim Runner (theislamicworkplace.com)
- How Mo Farah rejected the “plastic Brit” charge (newstatesman.com)
- BBC Announcers Went Absolutely Bonkers As Britain’s Mo Farah Claimed 10K Gold [Video] (deadspin.com)
- A boy called Mohamed (redbrickblog.wordpress.com)
- The Sikh Temple Murders: Islamophobia Unleashed (lawprofessors.typepad.com)
- Stop Islamophobia Week and #JumahLive (abdelxyz.wordpress.com)
- Did Michele Bachmann’s McCarthyism Inspire Death Threats Against Huma Abedin? (outsidethebeltway.com)
- When in doubt, there’s always Islamophobia (maddowblog.msnbc.msn.com)