The "beautiful game" wasn't so beautiful at the West Ham stadium last Saturday.
A group of Muslim West Ham supporters were harassed by fellow fans of the football team as they took a moment to observe afternoon prayers in the concourse area of the stadium, ten minutes before halftime. A video shows the disturbing attack, which ironically occurred after West Ham invited local groups to watch the game with discounted tickets through West Ham United Community Sports Trust, which focuses on community outreach.
The video shows a small group of Muslims gathered for prayer in corner under the stands, when their worship sparked the anger of fellow fans.
"Are you f***ing serious?" shouted one man. "What is this? Hey! What is that?" Though some of the worshippers turned their heads to look, they didn't respond to the provocation, and continued praying. In response, the man filming started a chant of "Irons! Irons," the club's nickname, ostensibly to disrupt the prayer.
Aamir (last name not provided) told anti-Muslim hatred hotline Tell Mama that the angry fans got even more aggressive afterwards, shouting, "F***ing p*kis, go home!" and chanting "E..., E..., EDL," which stands for the English Defense League, a far-right group that is notoriously against immigrants and Muslims. He said that the incident got physical, as the abusive fans roughly broke up prayer lines and pushed people into corners.
In the wake of the incident an EDL Facebook post defended the actions of the aggressive fans, declaring, "A football club's religion is football, not Islam."
Security, who had allowed the small group of Muslims to conduct brief prayers there in the first place, had to radio for support as police and additional staff arrived.
As the video was shared online, social media flared up with conspiracy theories, claiming that the reason the prayers took place was because West Ham had offered specially discounted tickets to Muslims at only £5 versus the usual going rate of about £52.
A post on an EDL Facebook page claimed, "They charged their fans over £50+ to attend as always. For the first time however they decided to give 500 tickets to locally based Muslims at £5 a person and sold them via local mosques and Islamic centres without telling West Ham fans. Seems West Ham want to build up a Muslim support before moving to the 60,000 capacity Olympic Stadium up the road in a couple of years time."
In fact, West Ham has a well-established and highly commended foundation, the West Ham United Community Sports Trust, which offers discounted tickets to many groups as part of its 'Football for All" initiative. BBC reports, "Amir was among hundreds of organizations in East London who were offered discounted tickets to the match by West Ham. The club's been working really hard to make the game more inclusive, and to invite the local community to enjoy the games."
In response to the incident, local member of Parliament Jim Fitzpatrick called on Premier League clubs to invest in prayer rooms for fans, to better accommodate religious practices. A longtime fan of West Ham, he said, "“It’s pretty disturbing that people who were observing their religion appear to have been intimidated. It would be great for anybody who wishes to observe their religion to have somewhere to go so they’re not at risk of hugely insensitive behavior or worse.”
Newcastle United announced earlier this year that it was building a prayer room for its Muslim players, and Bayern Munich, reigning Champions League winner, has decided to build a mosque at its headquarters, reports Express.
"I would also love to sit down with those responsible, have a civil chat, and explain that I was there to support West Ham and did not expect any favors because I am Muslim," said Amir. "Dialogue is important. I hope it brings understanding."