Football has a unique way of crossing cultural, ethnic, and religious divides. But in recent months, some high-profile incidents highlight how football is not always immune from the miasma of Islamophobic abuse.
Last month, a Middlesbrough season ticket holder was fined £235 by magistrates after ripping up pages torn from a copy of the Qur’an. Mark Stephenson was among a group of twenty visiting supporters who were handed pages of the Qur’an by a woman who brought the holy book in her handbag. When questioned about the contents of the book, Mr Stephenson told a steward, “It’s the Muslim bible, we hate Muslims.” Amid a flurry of shouting and chanting, a steward overheard the words “Qur’an, Muslims and burning.”
Mr Stephenson’s solicitor maintained that his client holds no racist views against Muslims. But his Facebook page reveals that he “liked” the now defunct English Defence League (EDL) forum.
In response to the incident last December, more than 100 Middlesbrough supporters took part in an anti-racism march.
Yet the most alarming example of football-related Islamophobia took place a few months earlier. As West Ham played Man City at Upton Park, Twitter came alive with rumours that West Ham gave preferential treatment to Muslims with heavily discounted tickets. The ‘reformed’ ex-leader of the EDL, Tommy Robinson, was more than happy to perpetuate the myth.
What transpired is a sickening example of abuse, as a group of Muslim men had their sunset prayers disrupted with racist chants and shouts of ‘E…, E…, EDL.’ The blunt edge of this abuse was the physical breaking of prayer lines. This pocket of racist supporters sought violence but they found none on this occasion.
Whilst these examples remain a rarity, do other forms of Islamophobic abuse go unnoticed or simply unreported? A recent edition of Dispatches exposed indifference from sections of the police and match stewards to tackle homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and other forms of racism.
One example highlighted how a section of Millwall supporters chanted ‘Leicester, Taliban’ and ‘You’re a town full of bombers’ without fear of reprieve. One Muslim fan told me he had heard the ‘bombers’ chant at different matches a few years ago but complaints were met with the same level of indifference.
So how do we go about addressing this problem? For the anti-racism educational charity, Show Racism the Red Card, the solution is clear:
“Recent examples of Islamophobia from football fans highlight that this social issue is being reflected in a minority of people on the terraces and within football stadia.
The recent Dispatches programme ‘Hate on the Terraces’ indicated that there is still work to be done to create a joined-up and comprehensive approach to the reporting and policing of racism at football matches.
Individuals must also take responsibility for recognising contemporary racism such as Islamophobia and start to take a stand against it. That’s why it is fundamental that transparent reporting mechanisms are in place to ensure that individuals feel confident enough to report racist abuse.
Organisations such as Show Racism the Red Card and Tell MAMA are doing excellent work in trying to counteract the myths and misinformation about Islam that can lead people to behave in a prejudicial way.”
For other Muslims, the visibility of their faith has drawn both positive and negative reactions. For Farid, he felt welcome when a ticket tout greeted him with a Salaam and told him to keep growing his beard. After years of following Chelsea, he only sometimes feels subconscious about his Islamic dress. However, on condition of anonymity, one female Muslim stated that her choice of niqab meant she suffered abuse from other fans. Thankfully, she reported to the incident to the club and police. It is also worth remembering that veiled Muslim women disproportionately suffer verbal and physical abuse.
For Fiyaz Mughal, more is needed,”We need more work done on tackling Islamophobia in football grounds and we know that the target of hate moves with some individuals and groups who are involved with football. It is all well and good talking about tackling intolerance and bigotry in football if the work does not take into account the changing and shifting dynamics of hate which move between targeting Muslims, Jews and Black players.”