December 11, 2003
Muslims Fumble on Team Names
"Intifada." "Mujahadeen." "Soldiers of Allah."
These names of teams in the all-Muslim flag football tournament in Irvine have upset Southern California Jewish leaders, but engendered varying reaction from local Muslim leaders.
"You pick something shocking as a young football player," said Hussam Ayloush, the Anaheim-based executive director of Southern California chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). "On face value, from a Muslim perspective, none of those names mean anything negative or aggressive against people. At the same time, we're not naïve to miss [that] those names have negative perceptions by many people."
The amateur league's Web site (muslimfootball.com) had listed team names with logos that included masked men looking similar to Palestinian culture's black-masked Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists.
"Team names like 'Intifada' and 'Soldiers of Allah,' especially when accompanied by logos of masked men depicting terrorists, are distasteful reminders of the thousands of lives lost on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict," Amanda Susskind, Pacific Southwest Region director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement.
But following a Dec. 7 article in the Los Angeles Times, the team altered its Web site, removing some team names like "Soldiers of Allah," as well as the masked-men logos. "Soldiers of Allah" will change its name soon. But other teams are no so sure.
"It's all blown right out of proportion, the players are being labelled because of these names," Quarterback for the "Intifada" team Tarek Shawky of Lake Forest. "It seems ridiculous to have to change the names. We haven't even spoken about it yet. This is just about football."
At the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, Communications Director Sarah Eltantawi said she did not think that teams should change their names.
"It's a free country," she told The Journal. "I think people need to accept it. Just because the Jewish community or some other community doesn't like it, I'm sorry."
This is not the first time that names of sports teams have caused an uproar in America. Native Americans have often expressed outrage over what they call derogatory names, and have even taken their battle to court against the The Washington Redskins football team (The Redskins are allowed to keep their name.).
In college sports, there is a long tradition for the removal of offensive team nicknames from sports teams. Dartmouth College in New Hampshire dropped the nickname "Indians" and an offensive chant. Stanford University changed its team nickname from "Indians" to "Cardinals."
Jewish leaders say that the names may reflect a lack of understanding rather than ill-will.
"Let's find other ways to express the macho," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "I'm not sure that in the first go-around that these names were picked for political reasons. 'Mujahadeen'? We have to go to them to explain why 'Mujahadeen' is inappropriate with hundreds of thousands of American soldiers in Afghanistan in harms way. This doesn't need an emergency meeting between Jews and Muslims. This needs adult leadership from their own [Muslim] community."
Along with the Web site change, the site also included a statement that reads in part, "This is about local youth playing. This is not a political controversy or conflict."
In explaining the "Intifada" team name, the statement describes Palestinian reactions to Israeli countermeasures in the current Al-Aqsa Intifada, saying, "the nonviolent struggle of the indigenous people continues daily ... civilians stand in front of tanks and bulldozers to protect their homes from demolition. This is the 'intifada' that participants glorify enough to choose as their team name."
Shawky reacted to the controversy on "Middle East in Focus" on Los Angeles radio station KPFK-FM on Dec. 9.
"There are many organizations in the United States with the word 'Zionist' in their name," host Don Bustany said. "But for the Arabs in the Middle East who have been victimized by the Zionist movement, uh, the term is not a happy term."
Ayloush said CAIR was "very unhappy with the titles.... But at the same time, we didn't think [the players] had any evil intention against people. I told them, 'Pick neutral names.' Still pick macho names, the Bulls or whatever, the Tigers, the Lions, but do not pick names that might be misconstrued. Muslims today are under extreme scrutiny and anything Muslims say or do could be misinterpreted by people. This shouldn't provide more ammunition for these people."
Ayloush and Eltantawi said Arabic words such as "intifada" have layered meanings.
"'Intifada' really indicates standing up against injustice," Ayloush said. "Literally, if you want to describe the Jewish uprising on the Warsaw Ghetto against the Nazis, in Arabic you would call it the intifada."
Cooper disagreed, saying, "'Intifada' in 2003 invokes one image: homicide bombing."