KUWAIT CITY—One of the weirdest mashups in recent history is going on right now, as World Cup 2014 plays out in the middle of the Sunni/I.S.I.S. blitz across the plains of Central Iraq.
If you were bouncing around online, you were sure to go from stories from Brazil—with pounding music, women in fabric-saving costumes, and booze flowing in the streets—cross-cut with grimmer images from Iraq, as I.S.I.S., which considers everything about the World Cup sinful, zoomed south and east over the dried-mud plains toward Baghdad.
Rivalry between the two stories was inevitable. And from what I can see, the World Cup beat jihad easily among Muslim media-consumers. In fact, it was no contest. We were in perfect position to see what our neighbors cared about, and it was football all the way.
Let me set the scene here. We live in Mangaf, a working-class tenement district of Kuwait. Like every other Kuwaiti neighborhood, it’s overwhelmingly Muslim. The only non-Muslims are Katherine and me, a few Filipinos and a dozen or so misfit ESL teachers. And yeah, if you want to be rude about it, I probably should just class me and Katherine among those misfits rather than mentioning us as a separate category, you smartass. Anyway, the point is that everyone else is Muslim, a remarkably cosmopolitan sampling of the entire Muslim world—or at least the parts without oil deposits: Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Afghans, Javanese, Keralans, and Gujaratis.
It not only sounds like classic jihad-fan turf, it LOOKS that way, too. You could take a camera downstairs right here and film background shots for a typically xenophobic Chuck Norris “git them terr’rists” movie. We love Mangaf—but when we send photos of it to people back in the prissy, hyper-cautious North they tend to ask questions like, “Are you guys OK there?” After getting several messages like that, we looked at our street with prudish Anglo goggles and saw what worried everybody: piles of stinking garbage, scowling men walking through dust fields as half-dead stray cats scrounge for a little rotting meat, pickup trucks zooming by, missing pedestrians by a millimeter or two without even slowing down. And over it all, the call of the muezzin, the classic soundtrack of Hollywood-shorthand for “Scary Muslim place you’d never want to go.”
Which is all total bullshit. This is a Muslim working-class neighborhood, that’s all. It has more in common with Jersey City in 1940 than it does with Chuck Norris’s fever dreams of Muslim terror—with the difference that you’d be much more likely to get punched in the face for venturing into my father’s Clerk Street, Jersey City slum than you would in Mangaf.
Once you understand streets like ours, you can never watch those stupid movies that open with a long shot of a Middle Eastern city shimmering in the heat, with the muezzin call soundtrack, again. The people who live in those cities are, on average, a lot less aggressive than the people of any North American city you can name. They just do things a little differently and, above all, have different sensitivities, so that they don’t notice some things that shock you. And vice versa. Believe me, vice versa. Vice versa squared—cubed, even.
All those stinky piles of trash rotting in the streets? You don’t really see them after you’ve been here a while. It’s just part of living with the poor immigrants rather than among the native Kuwaiti elite in Salmiya. Kuwait, like America, is divided into rich and poor. And Mangaf is a poor neighborhood, which in Kuwait means “a South-Asian immigrant neighborhood.” So the “real” Kuwaitis—one-third of the population but all of the cash—don’t exactly prioritize trash disposal in immigrant neighborhoods like Mangaf. The chicken frames and surplus biriani pile up until the stink annoys someone who actually matters—usually a Kuwaiti slumlord, the guy making money off these wobbly concrete tenements. Til then, you learn not to walk too close to the dumpsters, and to avoid any area where those mutant cats are skulking around. Oh, and by the way—that cliché that “cats are clean”? Live in Mangaf for a month. You’ll be cured of that notion once and for all.
The same thing applies to every supposedly scary feature of these neighborhoods: The more you know, the less scary it all is. It’s just the working poor, those people everyone pretends to love but nobody actually does.
So when you see those “scary,” scowling, swarthy men picking their way through the trash, remember that they just did a 12-hour shift in the 114 degree heat, chopping weeds along the oleander patches by the Kuwaiti freeways. You’d scowl too, if you made it through the shift at all.
When you talk to them, you find some who really are pissed-off, but jihad is the last thing on their minds. Their hatreds are the same you find with working-class people everywhere, mainly the fact that people with more money cheat them out of their miserable wages every chance they get. There are a million ways to cheat an immigrant worker, and the same scams you find used to keep Hispanics poor and desperate in Lubbock are in use to make sure no Bangladeshi janitor every makes it out of poverty in Mangaf. What’s amazing is that they don’t kill their bosses more often. There’s a lot of quiet heroism here—and in Lubbock too, I’d guess—but jihad has nothing at all to do with it.
Most of the bits that seem scary to a pampered Northerner don’t even register. The traffic? It’s a condition of existence here. Nobody wears seatbelts here – little kids stand up in the moonroofs of Dad’s Lexus while he texts at the wheel. Cars don’t screech to a stop in horror if there’s a pedestrian within ten meters like people do in Vancouver. And when you go back to Vancouver after living here, it’s those over-polite drivers who seem weird to you.
People in Mangaf have one, and only one, obsession: To somehow save a few dinar every month, send it home, and have a house for their kids. The moment somebody actually trusts you is when they show you their real dream: photos of a half-built concrete cube in an Egyptian provincial town, or the deluxe bathroom of an Islamabad apartment they’re a decade or two into paying off. That house, that gleaming deluxe toilet and shower stall, are items one through a million on their lists. Jihad doesn’t make the list at all, unless you’re Dick Cheney and you clomp in on big anglo boots and force it to the top.
Our street is noisy 24/7, as everybody scrambles to make a few dinar and send it home. The way you can tell something very unusual is going on is when our street goes silent, and that’s only happened once. Most nights, the taxi drivers honk right through, dusk ’til dawn, and the truck drivers honk at the taxis. You keep the fan and the AC on max, not just to cool the place off but to drown the noise. Silence just doesn’t happen, not even at three in the morning.
We’ve been here for several serious religious festivals, and they didn’t even slow down roaring up from our street all night. We’d just assumed that noise would never stop.
Until the night of June 12, 2014. We didn’t know there was anything special about that night. I’m an American and Katherine’s a New Zealander. We represent two of the few nations on this planet that don’t take football very seriously. Both call it “soccer” rather than football– “and mean it to sting,” as Wodehouse would say.
But on the night of June 12, we both woke up around three in the morning. It was the silence—total silence, for the first time. We whispered in bed about what could produce such an apocalyptic silence, and Katherine finally remembered that people at her job had mentioned they planned to watch the World Cup opener that night–a game between Brazil and Croatia.
That explained this miraculous silence. Every one of the overworked, exploited, exhausted South Asian men who sleep four to a room in our crowded slum was glued to a rented TV that night, cheering for Brazil; Croatia had no takers.
The whole concept of Brazil is thrilling to workers treadmilling away their lives in Kuwait. The green-and-yellow Brazilian flag promised lush forests, dancing, money to burn—every immigrant’s dream world.
That dream kept our whole neighborhood up all night on June 12. As for the rival story—the jihadis’ blitz across Iraq’s plains, a few hundred miles north of us—nobody cared much. That story was fun only to a few rich kids in London and Brussels and Riyadh. It meant nothing at all to Mangaf.
And you could tell that the jihadis knew they were in a deadly serious ratings competition with the World Cup. They admitted it themselves, in a strangely envious tone, in a video they made just as the World Cup was kicking off. This video—almost an hour long, a real feature film–shows the decapitation of an Iraqi police official by I.S.I.S. in Central Iraq. It’s an interesting film in many ways, which I’ll discuss in another article I’m doing on jihadi video evolution—but what’s most interesting about it is the bitterly ironic message I.S.I.S. tagged their video with. The last scene, showing the cops’ sawed-off head dumped on his own legs, was accompanied by a subtitle saying, “This is our ball…it is made of skin #WorldCup.”
At about the same time I.S.I.S. was posting this jibe at ordinary Muslims’ obsession with football, another jihadi group more than 2700 miles/4300 kilometers away was showing its displeasure with the Muslim masses’ football obsession in an even gorier manner.
On June 17, Boko Haram put a bomb in a bike outside a café in Damatura, a town about 100km west of Boko Haram’s HQ in Maidaguri in NE Nigeria. Hundreds of local people were gathered in this building to watch the Brazil-Mexico World Cup match. Fourteen fans died, dozens were burned or maimed.
All those people, all the casualties, were Muslim. All were male. All were no doubt properly attired, and most would have been from Boko Haram’s dominant ethnic group, the Kanuri.
Groups like Boko Haram resent the World Cup because they’re in the publicity business, just like FIFA. It’s a business rivalry we’re seeing, even if one of the rival firms uses beheadings and explosives to discourage the competition. After all, FIFA plays pretty rough too.
In irregular warfare, the aim is not to decimate your enemies, Stalingrad- or Gettysburg-style. The goal is to control the media narrative and use it to your advantage. So you’re not aiming for mass casualties. What you want is a single incident or two that’s so perfectly filmed or told, so that it spreads across the global cellphone network in a matter of minutes or hours. That’s why I.S.I.S. spent an hour doing snuff-porn with that beheading—they want that video dominating the airwaves.
And when your best beheading videos go up against the World Cup…well, you’re gonna lose the prime share of what PR people call “the sought-after 18-34 age-group.”
It’s no coincidence that that demographic also happens to be what used to be called “military age,” prime recruiting territory for irregular-force recruiters. You want that group watching a video of I.S.I.S. zooming over the Iraqi plains, or Boko Haram bouncing over the Northern Nigerian wasteland—not watching a group of millionaires kick a ball around. Especially when those millionaires are doing it in Brazil, Thailand’s only rival for most invitingly sinful country on earth.
Which raises the question of whether watching football/soccer on TV is, in fact, haram (forbidden) in Islam. Maybe the best way to introduce that question is with a classic exchange from The Simpsons. Marge asks Reverend Lovejoy if divorce is a sin. Lovejoy, hoping to get home at a decent hour for once, says, “Marge, just about everything is a sin,” then holds up a Bible, saying, “Y’ever sat down and read this thing? Technically we’re not supposed to go to the bathroom.” In cultures which have had to live under the scowling surveillance of an Abrahamanic deity, people learn to shrug off rules that get in the way. How many American Christians do you know who’ve been divorced? They don’t spend their lives worrying about Matthew 19:9, where Jesus yells with unusual ferocity against the whole idea of divorce. Serial monogamy is part of American culture; if scripture disagrees, then scripture goes to the wall.
That’s really the best answer to the murky question of whether watching the World Cup is haram or halal. In all cultures, even the pious pick and choose in order to have a normal, bearable life.
Ordinary Muslims love football, and aren’t interested in destroying one of the few pleasures life offers by looking up Quranic verses to prove it’s sinful. If you tried to preach against the World Cup to the tired, overworked Muslims in our neighborhood, they’d flinch, nod, and watch it anyway, like humble people always do when confronted with high-handed scolding.
Jihadis object to football because it’s a distraction from their group’s effort, and the effort of groups like this always comes down to a local grudge, not simple piety. In Iraq, for example, jihadis are fighting against a very recent, catastrophic loss of group power. The Sunni of Iraq ruled the country completely until 2003; in the decade since, they lost almost everything. Jihad is a way of mobilizing to restore the group’s lost power, and football is a nuisance, a distraction.
Then there’s the naivete, fanaticism and sheer ignorance of the convert (or “revert” as they’re called in the Ummah) to consider. Converts are a pain, whether they’ve taken up Game of Thrones or religion (BTW, getting really sick of you amateurs who never read a Jack Vance novel in your life telling me about GoT). And unfortunately, I.S.I.S. is disproportionately stacked with converts, often from countries without a Muslim majority. Converts from those places have no real idea of how people integrate their Muslim faith into steady, everyday working life—and don’t particularly want to find out, either. They tend instead to have the convert’s arrogance and excessive zeal, always trying to compensate for their recent discovery of the Faith by being more-Muslim-than-thou. Naturally those guys are eager to proving the sinfulness of World Cup games.
There are sites devoted to this topic, often in English—pitched to converts, in other words.
These sites are full of rhetoric like this:
Shaykh Ibn ‘Uthaymeen (may Allah have mercy on him) was asked: What is the ruling on watching football matches that are shown on television?
What I think is that watching matches that are shown on television and other events is a waste of time; a smart and wise man would not waste his time with such matters that bring no benefit at all.
This applies if it is free of other evils; if it is accompanied by other evils, such as if the viewer begins to venerate a kaafir player for example, then it is undoubtedly haraam, because it is not permissible for us to venerate the kuffaar at all, no matter how far they have advanced. It is also haraam if the thighs of young men appear, which may result in fitnah. So the correct view in my opinion is that it is not permissible for young men when they play football to let their thighs show, because that involves fitnah, even according to the view that the thigh is not ‘awrah. So I do not think that young men should ever show their thighs. If we say that the thigh is ‘awrah, which is a well-known view of the madhhab of Imam Ahmad, then the matter is clear: it is not permissible in any case.
In other words, until Ronaldo and Messi convert to Islam, you can’t cheer when they score a goal.
I’ve never met a single Muslim who would go along with this crap—not even the pretty scary dude they called “Taliban” at one place I worked. In fact, come to think of it, he was a major football fanatic. The only person I’ve encountered in the Middle East who might buy the Sheikh’s anti-football argument, even for a second, was this white Brit I met here who insisted on introducing himself to me on the work-bus, shaking hands, and then ostentatiously pulling his hand back and refusing to shake hands with Katherine.
There’s some verse or other about this, of course. But we’ve lived in the Middle East for a long time now, mostly in places where there were very few other non-Muslims, and I never saw that kind of rude, passive-aggressive BS from a real, born-and-raised Muslim. Never. A real Muslim who’s obeying that prohibition on shaking hands with a woman will bow his head and smile with his hands behind his back, like any decent polite person would.
The kind of rudeness we got from Colin—and the name tells you all you need to know anyway, Colin the Salafist with his Essex accent—only comes from insecure converts who are eager to rub your face in their new identity.
I didn’t slam Colin’s head against the bus window, unfortunately—it was our first day and I was hoping not to get fired for once. Some hope. I was pre-emptively fired anyway, one day later, after a fellow American googled me and sent photocopies of my War Nerd articles to the Kuwaiti Ministry of Defense. Ah well…it’s not the lost income you end up missing, you know? It’s the fact that you didn’t bounce Colin’s head off that bus window. Coulda, shoulda, woulda—story of my life.
You would never get this sort of obnoxious behavior from the hardworking Muslims in Mangaf. They just want to make a little money and have a little fun, which is why they all stayed up on the night of June 12 cheering for various kaffir football stars. I mean, imagine these normal, busy guys watching a goal and then saying, “But wait! Is Ronaldo a Muslim? If not, I must not cheer!” They’d toss you out a ninth-floor window if you talked like that.
Only a tiny, tiny fraction of young men in the Muslim world are looking for that kind of trouble, and most of them are far too rich and pampered to live with us here in Mangaf. But Mangaf is the Muslim norm, too sensible and quiet to make the news.