Led by pioneers such as Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Muslims athletes have helped introduce their faith to mainstream America. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, sports again helped break down some of the barriers and that surfaced in the wake of the deadly hijackings.
Kulsoom Abdullah, a weightlifter from Atlanta, recently fought for and won the right to compete in the nationals wearing a uniform that conformed to her Islamic beliefs. While she may still get the occasional disapproving look when competing with her head, arms and legs covered, she also finds tolerance when lifting.
“Definitely,” Abdullah said. “The competitions I’ve gone to, the people are generally nice. It’s a way for them to interact with me when they normally wouldn’t have.”
Much has been made of the role that games and the people who play them had in helping this country cope with its shock, anger and sadness after 9/11. But many Muslim athletes also were worried about whether they would bear the blame for a fanatical few.
Husain Abdullah, now a safety for the Minnesota Vikings (no relation to Kulsoom), heard disparaging remarks related to his name after that awful day. But, because of his accomplishments on the field, he was better positioned to educate those who were willing to cast all Muslims in the same light.
“It definitely sparked a lot of people’s interest. Nobody really paid attention to Islam that much,” he said. “But after that, they’re like, ‘What in the world are Muslims teaching? What are they studying?’ You get around a group of guys and they’re like, ‘You’re a Muslim, what’s going on?’ So you tell them. They get to know you and you tell them about the faith and what’s in the Quran.”
Sports has long been a great unifier for what ails and divides the nation. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball years before the landmark achievements of Martin Luther King Jr. and the end of segregation.
“Sports has always been further along,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for Sport in Society at Northeastern University. “When you really think about the sports language, there’s a commonality that’s similar to music. I think those are the two world languages that all people listen to. It doesn’t matter if you can speak a certain language. It’s a social movement. It creates a dynamic that can lead to social change.”