Taking the Intifada to the Football Field

Times Staff Writer

What could be more American? Dozens of young men in Orange County have planned a football tournament for the New Year’s weekend in Irvine.

But this gathering of Muslim American athletes on the gridiron -- they say a first for Southern California -- is being flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct by religious leaders dismayed by some of the team’s names.

Monikers for the flag-football teams include Mujahideen, Intifada and Soldiers of Allah and are accompanied on the league’s Web site,, by logos of masked men, some with daggers or swords.

An organizer of the Jan. 4 event, geared for American Muslims in their teens and 20s, said the names are a sign of football bravado and a show of support for Muslims in the Middle East.

“A lot of the kids on our team are from Palestinian origin,” said Tarek Shawky, Intifada’s 29-year-old captain and quarterback. “We are in solidarity with people in the uprising. It’s about human rights and basic freedoms.”


“I think they should be more sensitive and show respect to other people’s sensitivities,” said Muzammil Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Society of Orange County and a national Muslim leader. “The words themselves do not have bad meanings, but people associate them with what’s going on in the world around them.”

But others say Palestinian fighters in the Intifada are terrorists and shouldn’t be glorified. Another provocative name, Mujahideen, means “holy warrior,” and is associated with a variety of Islamic resistance movements, including two on the U.S. government’s list of terrorist groups.

“What exactly are they honoring here?” asked Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. “The continued targeting of innocent women and children by homicide bombers deserves to be condemned across the board. It’s deeply, deeply disturbing.”

In the post-Sept. 11 era, the idea that American-born Muslims in suburbia would give their football teams militant names hurts the image of Islam in the United States, interfaith leaders say. And it doesn’t matter whether the reasons for the choices are youthful zeal, football machismo, family connections to the Middle East or religious convictions.

“I think they spoil [a good thing] by politicizing it,” said retired Rabbi Bernie King, who lives in Irvine.

“Something like this undermines [those working with Muslims] and tends to support those in the community who have suspicions about the real intent of Islam.”

But one Islamic scholar said she wonders why the team names should be controversial.

“Who cares? Why are people so sensitive?” said Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, a professor at Georgetown University. “Intifada is something that Muslims and Palestinians all approve of. It means ‘just get off my back.’

“Is the only way we accept [Muslims] is if we devalue their faith?”

Shawky and Sabih Khan, 18, organized the eight-team tournament as a way to strengthen ties among young American Muslims who often feel isolated by their minority faith and background.

Islamic youths in the U.S. have played in other Muslim-only sports events, such as basketball and soccer. But the embrace of football, that most exclusively American of sports, shows the steady assimilation of the second-generation of Muslim immigrants.

“All the kids who are involved are sincere Muslim kids, but just as American as everybody else,” said Shawky, adding that they’ve grown up watching football on television and eating at McDonald’s. “They’re just like your run-of-the-mill, white, Christian kids. It’s easy to get lost in the group and forget about who they are. We try to build that sense of who they are, to be proud of being Muslim.”

The Muslim athletes aren’t the first Americans to choose controversial team names. The NBA’s Washington franchise, for example, renamed itself the Wizards in 1997 after Bullets was deemed too violent. In 2000, Wheaton College replaced its Crusader label after 70 years, with the more politically correct Thunder.

Twenty miles down Interstate 5 from Irvine, where the football tournament will be held, a new Catholic high school in San Juan Capistrano changed its name before it opened last year, from the Crusaders to the Lions, a move applauded by local Muslim leaders.

Some of those same officials say they oppose the controversial names for the Muslim football teams, but emphasize that they reflect youthful hyperbole more than any dark meaning.

“They tend to be a little more on the emotional side, and they also look for something that will raise eyebrows,” said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Southern California chapter. He said he would advise the players to change the names.

Khan said he realized the names could be a problem and asked the teams to reconsider them.

“It bothers me a little bit,” said Khan, an 18-year-old Saddleback College student and former Irvine High defensive end and linebacker. “They were just trying to be cool.”

But Intifada’s Shawky said that his team’s name won’t change. He says it describes a righteous fight against oppression, whether it’s in the Middle East or in America.

“To the kids, it’s more of an uprising for basic dignity,” said Shawky, adding that in competitive sports, players try to “find as aggressive a name as they can get.”