Though the world of sports could be deemed a secular space, displays of 'religiosity' can be regularly observed. The best known examples are the: “Please God! Let Team X win, and I'll never ask for anything again” type prayers made by desperate fans of the losing side; the odd bearded Pakistani cricket player performing sujood on the pitch after winning a test match; and of course, the ardent enthusiasts for whom following a favourite sport is a religious activity, in and of itself.
Therefore, I should not have been so surprised to read the following questions, raised by the Conservative peer, Lord James of Blackheath during a House of Lords debate on the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, enquiring whether adequate arrangements were in place for the religious needs of competing athletes and their entourage:
The other issue concerning the Olympic Village, which was much discussed on numerous occasions, is whether the delivery unit has succeeded in getting satisfactory clearance from the Islamic religious authorities in this country as regards the compatibility of the dwellings being provided for private worship. Some seven different requirements had to be met.
Having built an Islamic village for a university campus in Libya 25 years back, I know to my cost that very sensitive issues are involved. I remember having to take Colonel Gaddafi on a guided tour of the finished product, at the end of which he said: “You've only got one bit right, why shouldn't I hang you?” I said, “Because you should hang the architect instead, Colonel”. He said, “Can't do that, did it last month”.
If the Government face a similar situation, they will be confronted with adopting the same solution I had to do, which cost millions. You have a lot of work to do to put it right. Therefore, will the Government please tell us whether they have Islamic religious clearance on the dwellings?
Moving from the problems of the dwellings to the issues of religion itself, we had a very strange Statement – I think that it was again made by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham – on the arrangements that were being made for the building of temples, mosques and buildings for Christian worship, but I have no recollection of being told that there would also be a synagogue. Are we omitting the Jewish faith from any religious representation on the site? What arrangements will be made to include them? It is not tactful not to include them in the present circumstances. I should like an update on that, please.
In terms of religious considerations, I would have predicted the provision of halal, kosher and vegan catering, to satisfy a potential variety of dietary requirements (though London is not short of specialist restaurants, if they had forgotten) – but never the building of mosques, temples, churches and synagogues.
Saying that, I am more than a little confused about the “seven different requirements” that are allegedly necessary for dwellings to be deemed “Islamic” by Muslim religious authorities. Further, why should fulfilling said requirements “cost millions” of pounds in taxpayers money? The discovery of such information would definitely lead to a few “Political Correctness Gone Mad!” tabloid headlines. Perhaps Lord James has been lead to believe that all new mosques should be lined with the finest imported marble, intricate mosaic designs, and inspiring displays of gold leaf calligraphy?
As far as I am aware, all that would be required of a Olympic Village prayer room is a large enough space to accommodate worshippers; some carpet would be nice. A clean bathroom for ablution. Maybe a book shelf for some spare mushafs? A reliable compass to work out the qibla direction. And of course, a nice, sturdy shoe rack – at the base of which shoes can be quickly thrown off to form the casual heap of randomly placed footwear that is the hallmark of every well attended jama'at. Am I missing something?
In terms of individual accommodation: I imagine all the rooms will be en suite, and will have sufficient floor space to walk around in, and thus would be adequate for anyone who wishes to pray in solitude. In fact, take a look at this computer-generated design of the athletes' quarters. That is just the living room. What else would one want? Unless they plan to use pig leather bed sheets, and run wine out of the bathroom taps, I really doubt there will be any complaints on the “Islamic requirements” front, inshā'Allāh.
Besides, if construction of the London Markaz (i.e, the 'mega mosque') is still going ahead (I haven't heard anything on the subject for a while), then any Muslims attending the Olympics should have access to a potentially awesome, shiny, new masjid to 'rock their ṣalāh' in.
So, Lord James: I sincerely thank you for considering the needs of Muslim athletes. But please do not waste precious money in their name – especially for an event that only lasts a few weeks – and during a recession, no less. Surely, of all the requirements that Muslims are purported to have, more bad press is not one of them.
Photo Credit: London 2012 Image Library