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World Cup Sparks Islamist Debate on Rectitude of Soccer

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Ultra-conservative clerics are condemning soccer as a Jewish and Christian tool to undermine Islamic culture as millions of Muslims across the globe tune in to watch the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

The condemnations revive a long-standing debate among conservatives as well as militants about the rectitude of the world's most popular sport. They constitute one side of a divide among jihadis and Salafis, arch conservatives who seek to emulate to the degree possible 7th century Muslim life at the time of the Prophet Mohammed and his immediate successors.

On the other side of the divide are some of the world's most prominent jihadist and militant Islamist leaders, including the late Osama Bin Laden, Hamas' Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh and Hezbollah chief sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who are avid soccer fans. They recognize the sport's bonding and recruitment qualities. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the jihadist group making advances in Iraq, earlier this year used soccer as a recruitment tool.

In the latest salvo in the debate, Saudi Sheikh Abdel Rahman Al-Barrak warned in a fatwa, a religious opinion, that soccer "played according to (accepted international rules) has caused Muslims to adopt some of the customs of the enemies of Islam, who are (preoccupied with) games and frivolity."

Sheikh Al-Barrak is believed be close to the kingdom's rulers despite having been praised by Mr. Bin Laden in 1994 for opposing then Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdelaziz bin Baz's endorsement of peace with Israel.

The cleric issued his fatwa in response to a query by a reader of his website on how the faithful should view fans who admire foreign players.

He cautioned that soccer was responsible for multiple "abominable and corrupt acts," including befriending and admiring infidels, fandom which sparks hostility between supporters of different teams, cursing, profiteering and insulting others when one's team wins.

"In light of all this, liking and glorifying soccer is tantamount to engaging in a public abomination and encouraging it. It distracts sectors of society -- men and women, young and old -- from important matters, both religious and non-religious, and busies them with trivial matters that do not benefit the nation but only lead to a waste of energy and time. This means that it is forbidden to praise or glorify infidel players," Sheikh Al-Barrak ruled.

The cleric had earlier described soccer as "the mother of all crimes" because it was a waste of money and sparked "unwarranted displays of joy."

His views echo opinions of other militant clerics such as Sheikh Suleiman Al-Alwan, a Saudi cleric nicknamed Al Qaeda's mufti who is serving a 15-year prison sentence for endorsing suicide attacks.

"Soccer is a Masonic game meant to distance Muslims from their religion and faith, and most of those who follow (soccer matches) are loyal to the infidels... A man who watches a game, God forbid, is watching deviant criminals and sinful infidels, even if they are Muslims," Sheikh Al-Alwan argued in a fatwa two years ago. Moreover he warned that refereeing posed a serious problem because it implemented man-made rules rather than God's law.

While Sheikh Al-Alwan sees the game as a Masonic plot, Sheikh Al-Barrak and others, including Kuwaiti Sheikh Abdel Muhsin Al-Mutairi, argue that the beautiful game is a Jewish conspiracy aimed at distracting Muslims from their faith. Sheikh Al-Barrak last year condemned Muslim governments for investing in soccer and wanting to host mega events like the World Cup, a swipe at both his own government and Qatar, the host of the 2022 tournament.

Sheikh Al-Mutairi warned late last year that the Jews had been "successful in preoccupying the Muslim youth... with the most inane matters" in accordance with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a 19th century anti-Semitic plot detailing an alleged Jewish plot to control the world.

He quoted the tract as saying: "In order to keep the masses in the dark, oblivious to what is being planned for them, we will exert efforts to distract their attention, by creating means of entertainment and diversion, amusing games, and all kinds of sports, as well as things that feed one's desires. Then, we will make the newspapers promote artistic and sports competitions."

Sheikh Al-Alwan charged that "the Jews, the Christians, and their hypocritical, mercenary lackeys have invested great efforts in cutting the nation off from its glorious history. They want Muslim youths to fumble about in the darkness of Western culture, which is promoted by the sinful media."

Jihadist and Salafi proponents of soccer recognize that soccer brings recruits into the fold, encourages camaraderie and reinforces militancy among those who have already joined.

ISIS, the jihadist militants in Iraq in Syria, published a video earlier this year suggesting that an apparent Portuguese fighter in Syria was a former French international who had played for British premier league club Arsenal.

The video exploited the physical likeness of a masked jihadist fighter believed to be Celso Rodrigues Da Costa, to that of French international Lassana Diarra. Voice analysis suggested, however, that the man in the video brandishing an AK-47 weapon was Mr. Da Costa, a Portuguese national who had lived in East London and may have attended youth coaching sessions at Arsenal. Mr. Diarra played for Arsenal before moving to Lokomotiv Moscow.

A caption under the video posted on FiSyria.com, a website associated with ISIS, read; "A former soccer player -- Arsenal of London -- who left everything for jihad." Another caption said: "He... played for Arsenal in London and left soccer, money and the European way of life to follow the path of Allah."

Last October, Burak Karan, an up and coming German-Turkish soccer star, was killed during a Syrian military raid on anti-Bashar al Assad rebels near the Turkish border. Messrs. Karan and Da Costa were the latest examples of soccer players-turned-militants.

Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel traced their roots a decade ago to a West Bank soccer team. The 2004 Madrid train bombers played the beautiful game together and several Saudi players joined the anti-American jihad in Iraq following a fatwa or religious ruling by conservative Muslim preachers denouncing football as a game of the infidels.

In Russia, authorities three years ago arrested three men on charges of wanting to blow up the high speed Sapsan railway linking Moscow and St Petersburg. The three were childhood friends who traced their roots to the northern Caucasus, a hotbed of Islamist militancy, where they played soccer together.

Messrs. Karan and Da Costa fall into a category of players who were either born in or migrated to Europe that also includes Yann Nsaku and Nizar ben Abdelaziz Trabelsi, people who radicalized individually unlike the Hamas or Madrid bombers or the Saudi players who turned militant as part of a group.

Mr. Nsaku, a Congolese born convert to Islam and former Portsmouth FC youth centre back, was one of 11 converts arrested in France a year ago on suspicion of being violent jihadists and for "suspected Islamic terrorist plotting of anti-Semitic attacks," according to French police. Police said the group aimed to spark a "war across France" with the intention of imposing Islamic law.

A 19-year old, 6ft 2ins player, Mr. Nsaku was signed in 1998 by Portsmouth from Cannes FC but never made it into the 2008 FA Cup winners' first team. His promising career ended in 2011 when he suffered a knee injury.

Mr. Trabelsi, a Tunisian who played for Germany's Fortuna Düsseldorf and FC Wuppertal, was arrested and convicted in Belgium a decade ago on charges of illegal arms possession and being a member of a private militia. Mr. Trabelsi was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

In all cases, soccer proved to be a fruitful grooming if not recruiting ground even if Messrs. Karan, Nsaku and Trabelsi were not recruited off the pitch but instead reached out to individuals or groups who could help them join a militant cause.

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James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg's Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

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