Muslims, sports, and being an American
As I write this, today is the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, the end of the month of Ramadan. My kids, who go to a school district with a large Arabic population, know all about the holiday even if, as Christians, they don’t celebrate. For one thing, this means their friends at school can have lunch with them again.
Speaking of which, a little while back I did a post about how Ramadan affected the football team at Fordson High in Dearborn, Mich., a school with a nearly all-Arabic population. They had their preseason practices overnight, so the players could eat before practice. Tonight they face Belleville, and let me tell you, the Fordson Tractors are hungry for a win — but they’re not hungry anymore. The team went 1-1 during Ramadan, by the way.
Of course, given the charged environment on all things Muslim, Fordson’s Ramadan practice schedule wasn’t merely an interesting, passing thought. For some — particularly the type who say things like “All I need to know about Islam I learned on 9-11,” it was one more stick in the eye in all things American. Heck, Fordson’s mere existence as an Arab-populated school is a stick in the eye.
That’s where the above video clip, which I found on Goat Milk Blog, comes in. A documentary is being released about Fordson, and it focuses on two great American topics: sports, and the assimilation of immigrants. The movie, “Fordson” (where did they get that title!) looks like an inspiring tale of how the younger generation of immigrants uses sports to integrate themselves and their families into the American melting pot.
They are Muslim, they have ties elsewhere, but on the football field they carry on the Fordson tradition of hating rival Dearborn just as their non-Muslim forefathers have done. The story is not unlike other children of immigrants, feeling pressure from home to keep the customs of the old country alive, while they are just as interested, or more interested, in doing the things other American kids do.
Of course, as the trailer points out, this isn’t a simple plucky immigrant story. Not with 9-11, and not with the seething resentment of Muslims that President George W. Bush, in retrospect, helped keep under wraps as he — and I’m not trying to be political here — tried to walk the tightrope of fighting in Islamic countries without sending the message America was fighting a holy war.
Just in the last few months, it seems like the football players of Fordson have been sacked in their attempt to gain ground as Real Americans.
An anti-Islam whack job’s blogging about a Muslim community center close to, but not within sight of, the former World Trade Center (where from 1994-96 I worked, in Tower Two), turned into a political football, if you will, that allowed anyone with lingering resentments or stereotypes of Islam to unleash their crazy in the name of “the sanctity of Ground Zero.” This, even though no one in New York appeared to care much about it when the site was approved in 2009.
Then you have the alleged Rev. Terry Jones, leader of a tiny, goofy Christian church in Florida, sparking an international incident with his self-proclaimed “International Burn a Koran Day” on, naturally, Sept. 11. A guy punted by his own church in Germany for being “mad” is now, essentially, holding us all hostage as he threatens to set a Koran on fire unless he gets what he wants — or burns it to get what he wants, which appears to be holy war. Meanwhile, he incites hate and creates another figure around which anti-Muslim nuts can coalesce. You can say the media should have ignored him, but like with the slow growth of the Park51 controversy, someone like Terry Jones exists only because many believe what he has to say — and because many have let their fears of 9-11 take over their logical mind.
Over Labor Day I went with my four kids to the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, which has an exhibit about kids who changed the world — Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges and Ryan White. They were thrust into their position because of fear and mass hysteria: Frank, as a Jew during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands; Bridges, as a black girl intergrating a white school in 1960 New Orleans; and White, as the first child with AIDS to fight for the right to go to school like any other kid. In all cases, it’s easy to look back and see how wrong people were. But once fear gets the best of people, there is no telling them they’re wrong.
The American story of assimilating immigrants is one in which, often, a new group is looked at with fear and loathing, and that’s even without association with the worst act of terrorism ever on U.S. soil. But what we always learn is that those people — just like Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges and Ryan White — want to be normal, to be Americans. That is, if we let them.
And that’s why the players on Fordson’s team aren’t just football players. They’re political symbols, ciphers onto which people can project their images of Muslims. In my children’s school, I don’t get the sense the kids think too much about that. They’re just other kids. They play baseball (and coach it, as happened on one of my younger son’s teams). They play tag. They sing in the school play. Maybe they’re parents don’t quite understand it all. But in the end, they are kids who just happen to pray in a different way.