Boko Haram's war on the World Cup

AFP file photo

An attack presumably carried out by Boko Haram targeted viewers of a World Cup match Tuesday night in eastern Nigeria. Though the Islamic extremist group is against football, not all religious Muslims, or even jihadists, agree.


The bomb was hidden in a tricycle taxi parked just outside a World Cup viewing centre in the northeastern Nigerian city of Damaturu.

It exploded as dozens of locals watched the Brazil-Mexico match on Tuesday, June 17, killing 14 and injuring 26 others. The attack on civilians was the latest presumed to have been carried out by Boko Haram, a terrorist group that has been waging a deadly campaign to set up an Islamic state in Nigeria since 2009.

These days, football appears to be the target of the group’s violence. On June 1, more than 40 people died in the northeast of Nigeria when a bomb went off in a stadium filled with fans. Just over a week earlier, in the central city of Jos, a car bomb exploded right next to another football viewing centre.

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has said several times via Web videos that football is a Western perversion meant to drive a wedge between Muslims and their religion. But he has never pointed to any Muslim text to justify his position.

Moreover, many analysts familiar with Nigeria believe that Boko Haram’s condemnation of the sport is more about opportunism than conviction; the gatherings of people who turn out to watch football matches make for large targets, thereby allowing the group to do maximum damage.

Egyptian Salafist equates football with ‘intolerance’ and ‘wasting time’

The large majority of Muslim leaders, and most Islamist groups, have professed no hostility or opposition towards the sport. Indeed, only a few extremists say that “good Muslims” must not watch football matches, whether in a stadium or on television.

The known Egyptian Salafist Yasser Al Borhamy recently issued a “fatwa” forbidding Muslims from watching World Cup matches, reported news site Egypt Independent. Al Borhamy is quoted as saying: “World Cup matches distract Muslims from performing their [religious] duties. They include forbidden things that could break the fast in Ramadan as well as [other forbidden things] in Islam like intolerance and wasting time. Football lovers like disbelievers of foreign teams’ players and others, which is rejected.”

But Al Borhamy seems to be the only one who thinks so. Mohamed Raafat Othman, a distinguished professor at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, told Egypt Independent that Islam does not prevent people from watching whatever they like, as long as it does not feature anything explicitly forbidden by the religion. He added that the argument that watching a football match leads the viewer to admire disbelievers is invalid, since Muslims are supposed to be kind and open to non-Muslims as long as there is mutual respect.

Furthermore, online discussions and forums on this issue have found very few practising Muslims calling for other Muslims to avoid watching football. The one condition commonly articulated is that being a football fan, as with all other activities, must not lead a Muslim to neglect prayer.

Too popular a sport to oppose

In most Arab countries, football is in many ways like a second religion. In Nigeria, whose national team, the Super Eagles, won the 2013 African Cup of Nations, the population follows national and international football championships with a fervour that borders on fanaticism.

Other radical Islamist groups have grasped that it is strategically savvier for them to use the sport rather than oppose it. The Islamic State of Iraq or Greater Syria (ISIS or ISIL), for example, published photos of its members playing football with children in the street in Syria, international news site Vocativ reports – a way for the jihadist group to try to polish its image among local populations.

Vocativ also carried out an online poll of which football teams are favoured by jihadists on Facebook. The results show that many root for Algeria, but a significant number support Brazil, England and France, despite the fact that the latter two countries are among targets frequently cited by terrorist organisations.

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