Sports — one way of uniting Muslims and changing perceptions

Source: Arab News

I had the pleasure of attending the opening ceremony of the 4th Islamic Solidarity Games, or the Olympics of the Muslim world, held in Baku, the capital of the Republic of Azerbaijan, on May 12. It was a spectacular and awesome show that mixed the past and present in a wonderful display of music, dance, fireworks and a laser show.

The show followed a theme of togetherness in the Islamic world, which was reiterated in the speeches by the Azerbaijani First Lady, Vice President and Chairperson of the Organizing Committee of the Games Mehriban Aliyeva, and by Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Dr. Yousef Al-Othaimeen. “Our Games will send a message beyond the borders of Azerbaijan, that solidarity is our strength,” said Mehriban Aliyeva.

The secretary-general stated that the magnificent Games will contribute to the promotion of sports in the OIC countries and support youth in the Islamic world, as well as inter-cultural and inter-civilizational dialogue, and propagate knowledge of Islamic values globally through sports. Indeed, the feeling of excitement reverberating through the stadium, especially as the athletes from 54 OIC countries participating in the Games were parading to the cheers of spectators, was stirring.

It was an uplifting feeling mixed with pride and joy. I was particularly happy to see a female Saudi athlete as part of the Saudi team. Yes, the Islamic games included female athletes competing in different sports. Unlike the usual depressing, frightening news we hear and read about coming from the Muslim world, these Games were a breath of fresh air. It was nice to see athletes from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Yemen participating. Not that they did not participate in the Olympics or other international sports competitions, but it was reassuring to see them in a world-class event in a Muslim country.

Our youth need such messages of hope and togetherness. They represent around 60 percent of the Muslim population; their energy, creativity and enthusiasm should be harnessed for building nations, developing societies and leading toward peace, prosperity and creativity. Leaving them to be manipulated by destructive ideologies, devoured by emptiness, and frustrated by corruption and mismanagement is a sure way to more anger, emigration and terrorism.

The Muslim world needs to project its rich diversity, and it was in full display in Baku, Azerbaijan, at the recent Islamic Solidarity Games.

Maha Akeel

Today, unfortunately, simply saying the word Islam or Muslim conjures up negative images of conflicts, terrorism, extremism, oppression, poverty, backwardness, illiteracy, disease, famine and corruption. Only few glimpses of positive achievements and successes are ever in the spotlight. As much as we would like to blame the media for focusing on the negative and ignoring the positive, because bad news makes news, we still have to shoulder our own responsibility in changing these images into positive.

The Muslim world has an image problem and it needs to organize more events like the Islamic Solidarity Games. The potential for cultural events are enormous with the rich heritage, arts and literature of the Muslim world, not to mention science, innovation and medicine. People-to-people contact and communication is the best way to change perceptions and win hearts and minds. In other words, the Muslim world needs to use its soft power.

However, the Muslim world covers wide and extremely diverse parts of the world, and the perception and knowledge gap about each individual country or region is huge, from the overall positive to the mostly negative and everything in between on each issue, whether development, women, education, religion, democracy, human rights, science and research. So a one approach fits all would not work. Nevertheless, this diversity itself is a bonus because it negates the stereotypical image or perception of Islam and Muslims. This rich diversity is what the Muslim world needs to project, and it was in full display in Baku at the Islamic Solidarity Games.

• Maha Akeel is a Saudi writer. She is based in Jeddah.


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