At the Games

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 November, 2010, 12:00am

The sign held up by the Games volunteer says 'Corban Festival' - the Feast of Sacrifice, which in the Islamic calendar concludes the pilgrimage to Mecca. Millions of Muslims around the world celebrated it yesterday, including thousands in Guangzhou.

Four of us get on the bus for the drive from the media village to the mosque in downtown Guangzhou. Two journalists from Egypt, one from India and I have heard about the special arrangements laid on by the Games organisers, but by the time we get to the city, the main sermon is over.

Thousands of people are streaming out of a cavernous exhibition hall specially made available for the festival by the authorities. We see many athletes and officials from the Islamic nations but cannot spot Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, the head of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), who hails from Kuwait.

Our disappointment at having missed the sermon is lifted when we bump into Imam Younus, the head of the mosque. He sees our accreditation passes hanging around our necks and comes over for a chat about the Games. When he hears of our plight, he tells us a second sermon is about to start in the mosque, hidden behind the exhibition hall.

We are delighted we can make our peace with God on this important day. We pray on revered ground. The mosque is the oldest in China. It was built in memory of Abu Waqqas, a maternal uncle of the Prophet Mohammed who was sent in 651 - 20 years after his nephew's death - by the ruling Caliph to spread the word in China.

Emperor Gaozong, from the Tang dynasty, was the head honcho of the Middle Kingdom at the time. He must have been a liberal and progressive type of guy, for he welcomed the Muslim delegation and ordered a mosque be built in then-Canton. Over the centuries, Islam has been treated ambivalently in China, some emperors allowing it to flourish, others not.

Today, there are more than 20 million Muslims in China, with some estimates reaching 100 million. The central government has been grappling with Muslim separatists in Xinjiang province for a long time. Before the Beijing Olympics, Beijing revealed there was a serious threat to the Games from Uygur terrorists.

But, thankfully, that menace hasn't reared its ugly head this time. Sport and politics always mix, and sadly the main go-between on many occasions has been religion and jingoism.

Ahmad, a liberal himself, was faced with this the other day when an Iranian journalist asked him what steps the OCA was taking to address the 'slur' made by organisers against his country during the opening ceremony.

He was referring to when the Iranian contingent marched into the amphitheatre and the map of the country on the giant screens was marked as the Arabian Gulf - and not Persian Gulf. Iranians, who say they are Persians and not Arabs, were incensed.

The Iranian National Olympic Committee is up in arms. So are the 40-odd travelling journalists from the country, one of whom begged the sheikh to address the issue.

Tolerant and open-minded, he said that question was not within the remit of his sporting body. He said if it should be taken up, then it must be done in another forum, perhaps with the organising committee itself.

The Iranians have promised to take it one step further with their National Olympic Committee asking the president of the country, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to take it up at the highest levels in Beijing.

But all this just goes to show how uptight some people are when it comes to politics, religion and nationalism. Many of the problems in the world would be solved in a jiffy if everyone knew there is a place and time for all.

Or maybe not at all for nationalism, especially in today's global village, where we are all part of one family. Yes, it is okay to root for your country in sports, but going over the top at apparent slurs to your flag or country is just too much.

Today, the Games organisers went to extra lengths to accommodate their visitors from Muslim countries. They made special arrangements for this special day. But that is not all. At both the athletes' village and the media village, they provide special halal food for athletes and media.

Like that emperor, who welcomed Islam more than 1,000 years ago, Guangzhou, too, has opened its arms and welcomed all. Let's hope this leaves a lasting impression of goodwill on all, Muslims and others, and everyone can live in harmony.

Eid Mubarak.