Pride and prejudice
Tuesday 24 Oct 2006
Newcastle's Emre, the Beckham of Istanbul, is aware that his position as a prominent Muslim means his sporting life must be a balancing act as Emre Belozoglu is no ordinary footballer.
His natural charisma and talent have made him revered in his native Turkey, where he is known as 'the Beckham of Istanbul'. In four seasons in Serie A with Internazionale, he earned the sobriquet 'the Maradona of the Bosphorus'. A quiet though engaging personality, unaffected by his fame, he reads history books, talks with knowledge and understanding of the Ottoman Empire and admits to a fear of being alone, a fear of the dark.
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He is also one of the few Premiership and Football League players today who are Muslim. Like Amir Khan - who is no ordinary boxer but a 19-year-old boy from Bolton whose autobiography ends with an insightful chapter about his religion and the place of Muslim sportsmen in a multicultural, fractured society - Emre appreciates the role he can fulfil in what political leaders call 'community cohesion'.
It is not a role he aspires to take up, for his religious beliefs are sincerely held and deeply personal. But he recognises that with his status comes a certain responsibility. When phrases such as 'voluntary apartheid' and 'mark of separation' are commonplace and major issues in the land, sports and sportsmen can no longer be covered by a veil that precludes them from critical questions of faith.
Emre has never shirked responsibility. When he was involved in an accident six years ago in Istanbul in which the car he was driving to the mosque collided with and killed a pedestrian, he vowed to help the victim's family. The experience, he says, made 'a definite impact'.
On signing for Newcastle United in July 2005, just weeks after four suicide bombers in London killed 52 people and injured more than 700, he condemned the attacks towards the end of a press conference without even being asked about them.
He is loyal to his homeland and proud of his roots and of the way his parents, Mehmet and Fatma, brought him up, but he knows he has to make his voice heard 'because of the times we live in'.
"According to my religion, from my own point of view, terrorism in the name of Muslims or the Islamic faith is wrong," he declares passionately. "We can't be terrorists. If you have been to Turkey (a predominantly Muslim country) you will have experienced a loving, kind and gentle people. We are as against terrorism as English people and the English government. We have experienced (terrorism in our streets), too.
"People experience hardships, whatever their religious background. But it is important to speak out about my country, my people and what I believe. I always say to people here, go to Turkey, experience the hospitality, see it, and when I speak to people on the streets of Turkey they tell me, 'You are an ambassador for Turkish people abroad'. So this is no problem for me because I understand I have not only my football career. Football is not the whole of my life. I am also a representative of Turkey and what Turkish people stand for. I am a human being here as well as a footballer."
Sometimes these roles are not so easy to reconcile. For followers of Islam, the holy month of Ramadan is a time of religious fasting between the hours of sunrise and sunset. Last year Abraham Moss Warriors in Manchester were fined by the FA and expelled from the Lancashire League during Ramadan when the boys' team, made up of young Muslim players, refused to participate in morning games. Club officials, concerned about the potential effects of dehydration on the boys - who could not eat or drink throughout the day - lobbied for a change in the rules to respect religious diversity and were eventually successful. For Emre there has also had to be compromise. "Like everyone else (who is Muslim), I'm trying to be as moderate as possible in this holy month," he reveals.
"But the job I do is physically very hard, so on the day of a match and for one or two days previous I don't fast. No one puts me under any pressure but I don't want to show disrespect to my teammates when we are in camps, so I eat with them. I know that people here are respectful towards a person's faith but I have a job and I know what I'm required to do. I don't fast on these days because I don't want anyone to be able to put the blame on my religion if I perform badly in a game.
"I don't want people to be able to say, 'It's Ramadan and Emre played badly because he's a Muslim and hešs fasting'. I don't want people to say this. Honestly, my religion is not making it difficult.
"Do I feel guilty that I do not fast on these days? No. This is my job and I get paid to do this job by my club. I have a commitment and must carry out my duties. The Premiership, to me, is like the NBA to a basketball player. It is the place for any footballer to be. I am happy here in Newcastle. I want to achieve with this team and I honestly believe that I can. This is important to me.
"I did not go to the mosque for Friday prayers. I had to train. Since leaving Istanbul, my way of life has changed. My job here is more difficult than the job I had in Turkey. The competition, the quality is so much better and I have to be better, too. Back in Turkey I fasted on match days (during Ramadan and, believe me, this was no hardship, but in life you have to make compromises. This is what I have had to do."
Khan's candour on the subject of his faith and how it affects him day to day belies the reality that he is still a teenager. A couple of weeks ago he had his own private audience with the most famous Muslim athlete of all, Muhammad Ali, at the Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky. As he recounted the experience at ringside in Manchester last weekend, his eyes lit up. "Ali didn't say a word," he said. "He didn't have to. Just with his presence and spirit, he was able to communicate." In his recently released autobiography, A Boy from Bolton, Khan credits Ali for being his inspiration but his faith, he says, "is as important in my success as my talent as a boxer".
The son of a scrap-metal merchant who arrived in Britain from Pakistan with his family as a small child, Khan is a British Muslim unafraid to address challenging issues. "If Islam says violence is wrong, how can you box? A lot of people say the two don't go together. That's not how I see it," hemaintains. "Boxing is a sport. It has rules. It teaches discipline and respect. In that way learning to box went hand in hand with learning the Koran.
"Learning the Arabic way of praying was tough. You had to sacrifice your time. It taught me discipline. It gave me a different outlook on life. All those things helped me with my boxing when I was growing up - sacrifice, discipline, respect.
"There are loads of important lessons I have taken from the Koran into my life as a professional boxer. At 17, I felt I understood the teachings of the Koran much better. I had read it twice and had a more mature understanding of the holy book. That helped me all the way through the Olympics (where he won a silver medal in Athens and now when I fight. I pray before every bout. I pray with my mum in the hotel before going to the venue and again in the ring before the fight. I just ask Allah for strength in the fight, then when the bell rings I get on with it.
"Because of what is happening in certain parts of the world, people have come to see Muslims as religious maniacs, people to fear. This is the opposite of the everyday reality of Muslims. Islam is a peaceful religion, yet when you turn on the TV you only hear about the fighting, the bombs, the deaths.
"You see pictures of men in beards carrying guns, talking about holy wars, jihad. What happened in America in 2001 and in London in 2005 changed everything in lots of ways. I know what it felt like for me, people looking for me to say something, to make sense of a mad situation for them. You feel responsible in a way, when really it has nothing to do with you. If people knew more about Islam and what it is to be a Muslim in Britain, they would realise that there is nothing to be scared of. The Koran preaches peace and respect. As far as I understand it, there is nowhere in the Koran that tells you it is okay to kill.
"You cannot commit a greater sin than to take an innocent life. That message is drummed into us from an early age. I consider myself a religious person. I believe in my God, Allah, and try to follow his teachings. Basically, that means being a good human being. Nothing more complicated."
Muslim footballers in this country, such as Nicolas Anelka, Abdoulaye Faye, Mido, Papa Bouba Diop, Mohamed Sissoko, Kolo Toure, Zesh Rehman and Emre are a small minority, as are Muslim athletes in general. "But I have never experienced any difficulties here," Emre insists, while Khan suggests that while media coverage of Muslims "tends to be negative, when it is about me it is always positive. That's very important for the Asian community in Bolton and the rest of the country". Positive role models in their respective sports, Khan and Emre both have messages that are encouraging.
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"In a world where there are so many problems, it is great to see football bringing people together and helping to breakdown the negative stereotypes that exist in society."
Gordon Taylor, PFA Chief Executive