Saturday, July 26, 2008

Comparing football to religion

Opinion-Editorial, The Jakarta Post, Fri, 07/04/2008
Al Makin

Over the past few weeks in Jakarta, politicians and religious leaders have been touting the role of religion in creating peace and dialogue. But over in Germany, particularly in Mannheim and Heidelberg, all talks have revolved around football. Interestingly enough, the quarterfinal and semifinal matches in the Euro 2008 championship coincided with the second World Peace Forum in Jakarta, hosted by the second largest Muslim organization in Indonesia: Muhammadiyah.

Also interesting to note is both football and religion seem to drive people into a certain fervor. Harking back to the forum and the football, religious issues hold as much interest for many Indonesians as football issues do for many Germans.

Comparing religion and football might seem sacrilege at first, especially for those who view all aspects of religion as sacred in comparison to football, which to them is merely a pastime. However, it is worth contemplating the similarities.

Since they were conceived, religions have permeated into almost all layers of organization in society, including politics and the economy. And in present-day Indonesia, religion cannot be separated from the political or economic problems facing the country.

Football, similarly, has played an important role in today's society, particularly here in Europe. It is not a mere game, but a game involving true professionalism and management. Football, of course, has to do with life and money, and more importantly, with organizational skills.

In addition, TV football analysts are religiously heeded and their witty commentary repeated ad nauseum in offices and bars the day after the match. Much in the same way religious clerics are idolized and their (not so) sage words help up as shining beacons of righteousness.

Football players, too, must be as pious as pilgrims in obeying the rules of the game, otherwise they get penalized by the almighty Ref. The spectators watch with a seriousness akin to that of religious scholars reciting scriptures, afraid to miss the smallest detail.

Finally, fanatic loyalty to any football club is no less intense than faith in any religion. Football fans spend money on replica T-shirts or donations for a new stadium, while religious people spend money on prayer clothes or donations for a new mosque or church.

But can football really replace religion in people's lives? No, or at least not in Indonesia. Yet those who claim to be pious or religious could learn a few things about nationalism, tolerance and maturity from football fans.

Football in Germany is a unifying force for nationalism, particularly among the youth. This becomes evident not only during a game, but also before and after it. German flags abound, held aloft by youths chanting "Deutschland! Deutschland!". When Germany defeated Italy and Turkey, euphoria bubbled over. When Germany lost to Spain in the final, gloom and resignation settled like a thick fog. And in this despair, the faithful draped their flags around their bodies.

In Indonesia, on the other hand, religious radicalism has clearly eroded any sense of nationalism. Results from countless surveys indicate many Indonesian Muslims have a warped understanding of sharia law. And sharia is now frequently touted as a viable replacement for the state ideology of Pancasila.

Two Indonesian lawyers -- heaven forbid there are more -- believe in this twisted form of sharia. One of them is a regular on the TV circuit, while the other is in police custody. Ironically, these miscreants, responsible for safeguarding Indonesian law, have declared Pancasila is not an official state ideology as set out in the Constitution. Instead, the blessing of the One God (Rahmat Tuhan Yang Maha Esa), this lawyer argues, is the foundation of the country. What he means is, of course, his own interpretation of God.

In stark contrast to most Indonesians, most Germans accept defeat honorably. It is almost a certainty when Jakarta's football club loses, for their fans to run amok, accusing officials or the football association of being unfair. In Germany, I heard many fans gently murmur: "Sie verdient..." (the Spanish team deserves it...), an expression also found in many daily newspapers. I also heard: "Das ist nur ein Spiel, oder?" (It's only a game, isn't it?).

Compare the attitude of German football supporters to that of the Islam Defenders Front (FPI), whose members face trial after attacking another group in the name of religion. The leader of the FPI has made numerous TV appearances in which he blamed the victims for the violence. Equally ironic is the inordinate number of public figures who visited him. One even offered him a position as a legislative candidate for his party in the next general election. It takes one to know one, right?

All things considered, football fans are so much more mature, tolerant and honest than certain religious thugs. However, establishing a good football team is much more expensive and requires more paperwork than founding a radical religious group, for which the only prerequisite is a tendency for hooliganism, intolerance and hypocrisy.

The writer is a lecturer at the State Islamic University of Sunan Kalijaga, Yogyakarta. He can be reached at