Tim Tebow's profession of faith has thrust the mixture of sport and religion into the national spotlight in a way that few can remember.
Students have been suspended for "Tebowing" -- dropping to one knee to pray, even if you're the only one doing it -- in a school hallway in New York. Rick Perry claimed that he would be the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses. "Saturday Night Live" lampooned Tebow’s fan-boy love for Jesus. In response, Pat Robertson has claimed that the skit demonstrates “anti-Christian bigotry.” His supporters even called for a boycott of HBO after a Bill Maher tweet made fun of Tebow and his relationship to Jesus after his Denver Broncos lost to the Buffalo Bills.
After an overtime upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers last weekend, Tebow's Broncos play the top-seeded New England Patriots on Saturday. For at least one more media cycle, there will appear to be no way to separate Tim Tebow – the person, the quarterback, the Christian – from his religion.
But back in September, the cultural critic Toure asked a fascinating question in ESPN the Magazine. In a piece called “What if Michael Vick were white?,” Toure argued with those who said the quarterback would not have received a two-year sentence for dogfighting if he was white. Would he have been involved with dogfighting? Would an entourage have led him to the same mistakes? Would he have had a stronger paternal relationship?
So I ask, what if Tim Tebow were Muslim? How would our society react if during every interview, Tebow said "Insha'Allah" or "Allāhu Akbar" rather than thank his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ? Or instead of falling to one knee and praying, Tebow pulled out a prayer rug and faced Mecca? A recent study by the Pew Research Center suggests it would not be well received. While American Muslims in general tend be satisfied with their lives and communities in the United States, 55 percent report that being Muslim in the U.S. has become more difficult since Sept. 11. Twenty-eight percent report that people have viewed them with suspicion and 22 percent report having been called offensive names. The TLC show “All-American Muslim” has lost advertisers who were pressured by groups claiming that the show was Islamic propaganda. Yet Pat Robertson claims that the United States is a breeding ground for anti-Christian bigotry.
I don’t have answers to these questions. We can’t know the answers until we are faced with a prominent Muslim athlete who is willing to be so visible with his faith. In a country that consistently prides itself on freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, freedom of religion – we can hope that Muslim athletes who are visible with their faith would find themselves just as revered as Tebow is for his.
But professional Muslim athletes are hard to find. Ahmad Rashād. Rashaan Salaam. Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. Hakeem Olajuwon. Rasheed Wallace. Most of these athletes are retired and went about their religious lives quietly. But it is to that list of retired professionals that we must look to find someone as outspoken about their faith as Tim Tebow – Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Muhammad Ali, for example.
In 1990, Chris Jackson was drafted by the Denver Nuggets out of Louisiana State University. In 1991, Jackson converted to Islam. In 1993, he changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. In 1996, Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the national anthem at an NBA game. A religious storm followed.
Everyone had an opinion, from fans to sports writers to radio hosts. Sports Illustrated reported that some people suggested Abdul-Rauf be deported. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was born in Mississippi, however, and deportation from Colorado to Mississippi is rare. Two Denver-area radio hosts even walked into a mosque with a stereo playing the Star Spangled Banner. One was wearing a turban. And a Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf T-shirt. While broadcasting live, on air.
Abdul-Rauf claimed in a 2010 interview with HoopsHype.com that “[a]fter the national anthem fiasco, nobody really wanted to touch me.” He played only three more seasons in the NBA before going overseas to play professionally. In that same interview, he discusses how his home in Mississippi was burned down just a few months prior to Sept. 11. He eventually left the state.
So Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf stood up (or in this case, sat down) for his religious beliefs. He made his religion a visible aspect of his life and a visible aspect of his professional basketball career. Just like Tim Tebow. The difference of course being that Tim Tebow was satirized on "Saturday Night Live." Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf had his home burned down and felt blacklisted from the NBA.
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf pales in comparison to the outspoken nature of Cassius Clay. In 1964, Cassius Clay announced his membership in the Nation of Islam, and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. In 1966, Ali spoke out against the draft and became a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War based on his religious beliefs. In 1967, Ali was convicted of draft evasion.
But even before his conviction, Ali was causing controversy. Sports Illustrated dubbed Ali the most hated athlete in the world in April 1966. In the same article, Ali’s faith was referred to as being a part of his “fanatically religious side.” Instead of being something to admire, his faith was inconceivable fanaticism. No Christian leader supported Ali’s display of Islamic faith in the same way that Muslim leaders have supported Tebow’s display of Christian faith. Just like Tebow, though, Ali – the person, the boxer, the Muslim – could not be separated from his religion. This was never clearer than in his conscientious objection to the war in Vietnam.
By now, even casual boxing fans are familiar with Ali’s quote "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong ... No Viet Cong ever called me nigger." That one quote made Ali a social activist. And his social activism was based on his faith. Ali claimed that Islam prohibited war unless called for by Allah. That one belief made Ali’s religion a wider social issue. What followed was public outcry. Ali was stripped of his championship belt, had his boxing license suspended, and was convicted of draft evasion. The Supreme Court ultimately overturned it. But for four years, Ali, arguably the greatest boxer of all time, did not fight.
So Muhammad Ali stood up (or in this case, sat out) for his religious beliefs. He made his religion a visible aspect of his life and a visible aspect of his professional boxing career. Just like Tim Tebow 40 years later. Just like Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf 30 years later. Ali was an outspoken proponent of his religion, Islam, but was vilified for his outspoken religious beliefs. His Islamic beliefs.
Again I ask, what if Tim Tebow were Muslim? He’s not. So maybe it doesn’t matter. There is no way to separate the man and the religion. Some people praise him for it, others recoil. When this happens, avid defenders of Tebow invoke freedom of religion. But as Tebowmania makes its way into politics, sports, religion and the everyday life of the mainstream United States, it is important to think about how we approach religion in this country. How we approach religious freedom in this country. Do we accept freedom of religion, any religion? Or do we accept freedom of Christianity?