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Dion Waiters, Islam, The NBA And The Star-Spangled Banner

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I was 14 years old in 1996 when Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf brought Islam and patriotism together as a topic for debate at America’s dinner table.

The Denver Nuggets point guard, one of the best pure shooters in the NBA at the time, stepped under the spotlight of controversy when it was revealed that he had been routinely sitting out the traditional pre-game playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” due to his religious beliefs as a Muslim.

Across the nation, pundits of print and television media weighed in on this suddenly-famous basketball player and his allegedly disrespectful act that to some resembled treason against the United States of America. Talk-radio airwaves went wild. This story transcended the sports page. Hate mail and death threats were sent to Abdul-Rauf. The NBA suspended him for one game before Abdul-Rauf agreed to compromise and stand for the national anthem while saying a prayer to Allah (SWT).

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Having just converted to Islam three years before the anthem incident, Abdul-Rauf was a relatively new Muslim in ’96. And I, still many years away from my own conversion, was in the relatively early stages of studying Islam. But even back then I held a deep respect and admiration for Muslims, and I can say now that back then I knew deep down that Islam was the right and true path. And so I sided with Abdul-Rauf throughout his ordeal. I hated that he was treated so badly for exercising the same freedom of expression that his tormentors would claim made America great, and I hated that Abdul-Rauf seemed to be blackballed from the NBA in the years that followed the anthem incident.

But truly, I expected no less from the public and from the media in the country in which I was born and raised.

As I grew up and got into the media business myself, Abdul-Rauf’s story has been one that I’ve often wondered about in a modern context. How might things have been different for Abdul-Rauf, for the NBA, and for Muslim Americans had this happened in today’s social and media climate?

I thought we were going to finally find out following the events of Nov. 7, 2014.

On that day, at around the same time the Nuggets and Cleveland Cavaliers were tipping off in a nationally-televised game, news wires were lighting up with a breaking story about Cleveland shooting guard Dion Waiters citing his Islamic faith as the reason why he hadn’t stood with his team for the national anthem at a game in Utah earlier that week.

“It’s because of my religion,” Waiters was quoted by Northeast Ohio Media Group reporter Chris Haynes. “That’s why I stayed in the locker room.”

Haynes wrote that Waiters said he was a Muslim, that he had been rededicating himself to his faith, and that Waiters “appears to be in a happier state” even though the third-year pro had recently lost his spot in the Cavaliers’ starting lineup.

Haynes’ initial story on Waiters skipping the national anthem was not released in time for the live crowd in Denver that night to see it before the Nuggets-Cavs game began, and hence Waiters was not greeted with the boos and verbal venom you’d expect had the crowd known. (Waiters did stand with the Cavs for the anthem prior to the game against the Nuggets.) In the first half, when Waiters was on the receiving end of a flagrant foul by Nuggets forward Darrell Arthur and fell hard on the court, there was no cheering the potential injury nor applauding Arthur for acting as de facto defender of America.

But outside of that arena, the bell had been rung, and there Dion Waiters was getting the venom you’d expect when a racial or religious minority expresses the slightest displeasure with conditions in the US of A. (“Get out” and “Go back where you came from” are popular responses, ironically from a nation of immigrants and their descendants.)

This was a story that promised to grow into something bigger and uglier as long as it had America’s attention. Dion Waiters, a well-known professional athlete whom almost no one would have assumed was Muslim had they been judging books by their covers, had become an overnight representation of all Muslim Americans. And he assumed this role while performing an act that would certainly inspire more anti-Muslim rhetoric.

This was about to become the Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf story transported to 2014.

But on the next day, things got confusing.

On Saturday, Nov. 8, Waiters went on Twitter to refute Haynes’ report, claiming “whoever made that up about me & the national anthem is a (expletive) lie.” He added, “I can’t believe yall believe everything yall hear … I love everything about America!!!!!!” and finished with, “Dnt believe that BS!!!”

What was America to believe now? What was the Muslim-American community to believe now? What were Waiters’ supporters and newfound haters to believe?

Because Twitter doesn’t ask follow-up questions, it was unclear if Waiters was simply saying his decision to sit out the anthem had nothing to do with religion, or if he was saying he never said what Haynes wrote in his article. It was unclear if Waiters was simply saying he hadn’t told the reporter he is a Muslim, or if he was denying the report that he is a Muslim.

And then later Saturday night, Waiters and Haynes publicly cleared the air. From an article by Haynes that reads like a correction from the Northeast Ohio Media Group:

I never recalled Dion missing a national anthem performance before, but he did mention he is rededicating himself to his religion. I then asked if he planned to continue this pre-game ritual the remainder of the season, and he replied, “Yes, I do.”

Thus, the story was born.

Dion and I had a long conversation on Saturday and we came to the realization that we were thinking two different things.

When I asked if he planned to continue his pregame ritual, I meant did he plan on skipping the national anthem from here on out. He said he was under the impression that I was asking if he would continue his prayer and meditation before games.

On Sunday, Nov. 9, Waiters addressed the media again following a Cavs practice.

He said that on the night he wasn’t on the court for the national anthem, he was doing his “normal routine” in the locker room and simply lost track of time as his routine took longer than expected. Waiters clarified that his routine does not include praying and has “nothing to do with religion.” He did allow, however, that he might have mentioned his Islamic faith to Haynes on Friday.

If these claims from Waiters makes the rounds like the first story did on Friday, perhaps this controversy may cease to exist by the time the Cavs play at home against the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday, Nov. 10. Or at least by the time the Cavs have their next road game, on Friday, Nov. 14, against the Boston Celtics.

Whether or not the Waiters controversy lives long enough to see the lights of Boston, it nonetheless brought a few questions to mind:

What does Islam say about standing for a national anthem or honoring one’s national flag?

I have found that there appears to be two prevailing philosphies or interpretations on this topic among Muslim scholars. The first comes from the Permanent Committee of Research and Verdicts, and reads in part:

It is not permissible for the Muslim to stand out of respect for any national anthem or flag, rather this is a reprehensible innovation which was not known at the time of the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) or at the time of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs (may Allaah be pleased with them), and it is contrary to perfect Tawheed and sincere veneration of Allaah alone. It is also a means that leads to shirk and is an imitation of the kuffaar in their reprehensible customs, and following them in their exaggeration about their presidents and in their ceremonies. The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) forbade imitating them. And Allaah is the Source of strength; may Allaah send blessings and peace upon our Prophet Muhammad and his family and companions.

The second philosophy or interpretation comes from Sheikh Faysal Mawlawi of the European Council for Fatwa and Research. It states in part:

Muslims living in non-Muslim countries are to respect the symbols of those countries such as the national anthem, national flag etc. This is part of what citizenship dictates as per modern customs. I’d like to make it clear that there is a far cry between this simple form of showing loyalty and the other forms acts that imply a blind loyalty to un-Islamic regimes, overlooking the hostile trend adopted by those regimes against Muslims. It is worth mentioning here that the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, spent more than thirteen years in Makkah without showing any form of disrespect to the symbols of polytheism. For him, it was enough not to participate in the pagan rites prevalent in that society and he warned the people of Quraysh against worshipping them.

Thus, standing up for the national anthem is not a form of prohibited loyalty. If a Muslim is to change a wrong action in a majority non-Muslim country, let him do that through Da`wah, wisdom and fair exhortation. At the same time, he should not obey any rules that involve disobedience to Allah.

In perusing the fan and media reactions to Waiters and even going back to Abdul-Rauf, I’ve noticed that there is a common misperception that Muslims who oppose standing for “The Star-Spangled Banner” are doing so because of the song itself or its lyrics. Since there’s nothing in the national anthem about God, people ask, what are these Muslims complaining about?

Hopefully the scholarly responses would clear up that misperception. It’s not the lyrics of the song, it is the act of standing out of respect for anyone or anything other than Allah (SWT). The lyrics are irrelevant.

My next question:

Why is it socially acceptable for some American citizens to loudly oppose the country’s government, insult the President, dismiss and disrespect about one-half of the House and Senate, complain about taxes, spin their own election and voter-fraud conspiracy theories, protest or just openly refuse to follow certain laws … but it is socially unacceptable for others to sit out “The Star-Spangled Banner” or refuse to salute the flag?

If it’s OK for the Tea Party-types — who are often America’s loudest critics — to express their displeasure with things that are wholly American dating back to the days of the founding fathers, it should be OK for racial and religious minorities to express themselves without being called anti-American.

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf took a silent stand for his Islamic beliefs and against the tyranny and oppression he felt defines the U.S., and he may have paid for it with his NBA career. That was in 1996.

In the post-9/11 era, when Islamophobia is at an all-time high and Western media outlets consistently fail to present a fair and balanced view of Muslims — and in an era in which social media and online anonymity has become the new pointed hood of ignorant and hateful individuals — Dion Waiters faces a much different world. Abdul-Rauf received threats because he is a Muslim who challenged an American tradition. Waiters lives in a world where it’s likely he’ll receive threats simply because he’s revealed that he is Muslim.

If it turns out to have only lasted for a day or for a weekend, the Dion Waiters national anthem controversy at least shed a brief light onto what could have happened if Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s story were retold in 2014.

It gave us a glimpse of how mainstream America’s view of Islam has changed since 1996, and how this country responds to when those who live outside of the box have the nerve to do something outside of the box.

As an American, were you proud of what your country showed you?

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Amaar Abdul-Nasir was born and raised in Seattle, Wash., and received his B.A. in Journalism from Seattle University. A sports writer and editor by trade, Amaar founded UmmahSports.net, which focuses on Muslim athletes and health and fitness in the Muslim community, following his conversion to Islam in 2013.

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Pingback: Dion Waiters, Islam, The NBA And The Star-Spangled Banner | NEWYORKUSTAN: American Muslim Series

  2. Zeba Khan

    November 11, 2014 at 4:21 PM

    “Why is it socially acceptable for some American citizens to loudly oppose the country’s government, insult the President, dismiss and disrespect about one-half of the House and Senate, complain about taxes, spin their own election and voter-fraud conspiracy theories, protest or just openly refuse to follow certain laws … but it is socially unacceptable for others to sit out “The Star-Spangled Banner” or refuse to salute the flag?”

    That’s a great question to ask, and having grown up in the US at the same time you did, the double standards have always rankled. “Regular” Americans can call POTUS any number of expletives and be within their rights as American citizens to criticise the government by the people, for the people, as they are its people. But if a Muslim has a respectful difference of opinion that he privately exercises in a discreet way supported by the type of freedoms America is supposedly founded upon- then well- he doesn’t deserve to live here.

    And he should go back to A-rab where here came from.

    ‘Murica.

    • John Howard

      November 12, 2014 at 4:33 AM

      WE here in the west always criticize and harangue our leaders It is part of our culture. It is our way of letting them know that they are our employees and we not theirs. It is the sign of a virile democracy. But some things are sacrocanct as citizens whether America Canada UK or Australia etc The National Anthem and our Flags represent us all Not any party religion or colour they represent every one from atheists to Muslims They identify us as a nation You claim you are an American Muslim and yet as a Muslim you do not accept these precious symbols of your country In fact I get the impression that you sneer at them. You want all the freedoms that the US or the UK my country can offer and that includes respecting their values and symbols. It is not double standards It is their standards Remember that in a Muslim country a non Muslim would be expected to respect those country’s values and indeed have to without any of the leniency of the west

      • Release the Kraken

        November 13, 2014 at 7:35 PM

        I think what she meant is that why should we be expected to perform the same actions if we dont receive the same treatment as nonmuslims. Sort of like working the same job as someone else but for much less pay. Personally i dont think it is a problem to stand for the national anthem as i would probably be insulted if someone in Egypt didnt stand for our National Anthem. It is my understanding that we shouldnt say something is haram unless we provide a verse from the Quran forbidding it or a hadith of the prophet forbidding it. Those who refuse to stand for the anthem could be misinformed or extra informed.

    • Release the Kraken

      November 13, 2014 at 6:17 PM

      I think its unfair to generalize an entire population by the actions of rude vocal minority. Not everyone has the same feelings toward us Muslims and the media’s incorrect portrayal of Islam, on US tv, doesnt necessarily reflect most citizen’s actual belief. Who is funding the media? THEY THINK THEY KNOW WHAT WE ARE ABOUT BUT THEY DONT, THATS WHY THEY ARENT MUSLIMS. AFTER ALL, WHO WOULD WANT TO SUFFER IN HELL? You shouldnt waste your time getting angry from people’s ignorance. #MostMuslimsAreAgainstISIS

    • UnitedAmericana

      June 16, 2016 at 2:00 PM

      It’s my belief that a person that decides to be Muslim and even the ones who were born into being Muslim and stay Muslim, have perverted minds………why I say this is because at some point in their growing up their minds had to at least compare their destructive religion to life enhancing,life loving, life in Grace such i.e. Christian Beliefs and KNOW they are wrong………so if they stay Muslim; that’s a bad choice. My opinion.

  3. snl4

    November 11, 2014 at 5:20 PM

    Islam teaches that Muslim should be loyal to the country. In Holy Quran chapter 4 verse 60 Allah says, ““O ye who believe obey God and obey the Prophet and obey those in authority from among you.” The Arabic expression “in authority from among you” should not mislead anyone into thinking that loyalty to authority is limited only to Muslim authority. No, the verse teaches obedience to authority no matter which religion. It clearly shows that to salute the flag or respect national anthem of the country is not forbidden in Islam. Please visit http://www.alislam.org

    • salam

      November 11, 2014 at 10:25 PM

      That link is to an Ahmadiyya website.

    • John Howard

      November 23, 2014 at 5:33 PM

      The fact that so many people gave this comment such a low rating begs the question Are Muslims loyal to the United States or any country that they live in that is a non Muslim state?

  4. Abu Noor Abdul-Malik Ryan

    November 12, 2014 at 9:01 PM

    This article makes many good points, but I think analyzing the issue simply as a question of fiqh is misleading. Although there are certainly general points that can be made about nationalism in general, or standing for any anthem, for Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf as well as for many other Muslims part of the issue is whether the United States, and particularly the kind of right wing, forced symbolic displays of patriotism version of the United States which can be symbolized by the anthem and the flag does in fact represent a history of oppression, genocide and aggressive imperial war that is part of the history of this nation.

  5. snoozer

    November 23, 2014 at 4:15 PM

    Waiters is brown/black, so he is oppressed, being a Muslims makes him more oppressed, so he can do what he wants and its fine. On the day of judgment he can tell Allah them white people were the reasons for his sins. This isn’t my views, but the view of the brown/black skin contingency on Muslim Matters.

    My opinion is Waiters is being a hypocrite here, there is a lot more anti Islamic about the NBA and professional sports then just the Star Spangler Banner. The players, like nations when the National Anthems are sung, are being worshipped. The players are running around half naked, the cheerleaders are almost entirely naked, the crowds are boozing, the sexes are mixing, the music is blasting. The NBA preaches an egalitarian message. That everyone is equal, gays and straight, all ethnicities, all religions, etc. If Waiters was serious about his religion he wouldn’t be making his living playing in the NBA.

  6. Mustafa Siddiqui

    September 17, 2016 at 9:04 AM

    Salam,

    The reaction of the public to Dion Waiters then, and now Colin Kaepernick reflects something at the root of the American psyche. It’s not often revealed as explicitly as David Brooks did in his NYT article entitled “The Uses of Patriotism”, but the fact is, patriotism (or rather “Americanism”) is the real national religion of the United States of America. From the comments there, many disagree with him, but many others echo his sentiments.

    He uses terms such as “civic religion” and “idea system”, and he glorifies an “American creed” that bonds people from identities together. He bemoans the fact that the “civic religion” is under assault by a “multiculturist mind-set” and that Amercians are lest “fervent” about it. To him and other thought-leaders, rituals (he uses that word too!) such as the national anthem the 4th of July are meant to re-inforce that creed.

    It is shocking, even more so when you realize that substituting “aqidah” for “American creed”, “salah” for “rituals”, “Islam” for “the civic religion”, “salaf” for “ancestors”, etc. and the article still wouldn’t lose much meaning. It also underscores the fact that Americanism is meant to supplant your loyalty to any other religion or identity. That is how you can make a cartoon joke of Isa عليه السلام or make irreverent jokes about religion all you want and the common Christian American will laugh with you, but if you choose not to stand for the anthem, he’ll curse you for all the days until you mend your ways.

    My advice is to make sure that we understand that it’s not necessary for something to be named as a “religion” in order for it to actually be a creed and mindset. Stick to Islam completely in your mindset and your actions, otherwise you will unwittingly find yourself on a religion that the devil is happy with.

    Nationalism is a disease, but one step to fight it is to change the words we use about ourselves. There is a slight difference between “American” and “American citizen”, one is credal and one is circumstantial.

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