The beautiful game was truly left in shatters this week when a group of West Ham fans started hurling racial abuse at a small group of fellow Muslim football supporters who were praying in the concourse of the Sir Trevor Brooking Stand at Upton Park, in east London. On the Facebook page where the videos were posted, a number of comments made jokes about the incident. One comment made was: "I'm no racist but seeing bout 30 Muslims get their prayer mats out at half time in front of a loada west ham fans at the game in the concourse has to be one of the dumbest things they can do if they don't wana be targeted or stereotyped in society. # Not doing yourself any favours."
I am sorry but this person has already displayed a level of bigotry and stereotypes that has made English football a place of difference #Not doing yourself any favours. I mean what is so funny about a group of Muslim men praying? This type of 'them versus us' culture permeates throughout English football and indeed racism and anti-Muslim prejudice is rife according to the Professional Footballers Association. This level of noxious abuse is crystallised when we see incidents like the above. Indeed, there is anecdotal evidence of further levels of Islamophobia at football matches when fans are making both anti-Muslim chants and direct threats against those who practise Islam.
Watching a live football match is a real highlight. The atmosphere can be electrifying and there is real sense of passion and identity that can transcend race, gender, ethnicity and background. Football fans are an interesting group of people that bring a lot of colour and diversity to football games. That level of trust and loyalty is something which many of us could learn from. However, this incident really does strike at the heart of a wider problem within society and that is a problem with Islamophobia.
As a Muslim praying five times a day is considered to be an act of worship. Prayer is not confined to happening in a mosque and can take place in a football stadium, airport, a factory, MacDonald's or indeed a museum. The Muslim football player Demba Ba, who now plays for Chelsea, is often kneeling and bowing his head, in prayer once he scores a goal. And he is not the only one, the recent summer signing of Mehsut Ozil, a devout Muslim, who joined Arsenal, has also been pictured at numerous times with his hands in the air making a prayer before a match. Images of Frank Ribery, who was voted UEFAs Best Player in Europe, also show a Muslim deep in contemplation and with his hands in the air in prayer. This has led to many positive initiatives at football grounds where teams such as Newcastle United have announced a prayer room for its Muslim players, and Bayern Munich, the Champions League winners deciding to build a mosque.
But the real point is not whether they prayer in a room or outside but why they should face such racist bigotry. I think perhaps it's also because of the climate we live in now where Muslim women wearing the face veil are considered dangerous to national security and Muslim men with a beard are viewed with suspicion. The football kick it out campaign has been doing an excellent job in tackling racism but it also must now look at tackling anti-Muslim prejudice. These men were causing no harm to anyone and simply trying to practice their religious belief. As I have argued in the past the Muslim community are a new suspect community.
We should now start a process of tackling such racism, anti-Muslim prejudice and bigotry. The FA must do more to promote tolerance and punish those fans who think it is funny to chant racial abuse and anti-Muslim abuse. In yesterday's champions league match, the Manchester City football player, Yahya Toure was racially abused by opposing fans who were making monkey chants. This was a disgraceful and deplorable level of racist abuse and just like we won't tolerate such behaviour, West Ham football club, should come out and make a strong and profound statement against these football hooligans. Football has come a long way in tackling such issues however I do feel more needs to be done. As a keen football fan and a Muslim I think the both can go hand in hand, but this latest incident has made me question my stance. This incident just shows how the beautiful game can become unattractive and Islamophobic and a place where I certainly would think twice about going to.
Follow Imran Awan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ImranELSS