Kazemi and Abdul-Qaadir: Recognizing the Courage of Muslim Athletes

Arsalan Kazemi and Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir have shown stunning maturity and perseverance. Even more stunning is the fact that the U.S. Basketball Writers Association has chosen to recognize them for their courage.
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In one of the most astounding polls I've ever seen, Gallup reported earlier this month that 69 percent of Americans were "following the events in Egypt closely," and 83 percent of them "sympathized with the protesters." When you consider the kind of rampant Islamophobia that's infected the body politic of this country over the last decade, this level of identification with the Egyptian masses is nothing short of, well, revolutionary.

We now have a sports equivalent to this Gallup poll, revealing that we don't need Sam Cooke to tell us that "a change is gonna come." The U.S. Basketball Writers Association just named men's player Arsalan Kazemi of Rice University and women's player Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir of the University of Memphis as the co-winners of their "most courageous award." They are being recognized explicitly for challenging Islamophobia, bigotry, and ignorance. No one will ever confuse the USBWA with the Council on American-Islamic Relations. But their recognition of what these two players have faced is a smack-down to every Peter King (the U.S. Congressman, not the sportswriter) and Fox News hack who thinks Arabs and Muslims exist only to be demonized.

The sophomore Kazemi is the NCAA Division I's first Iranian-born athlete. An NBA fanatic in his youth, Kazemi was a hoops prodigy in the Middle East but turned down offers to play professionally so he could take his chances in the States. Because Iran was ensconced as part of the "axis of evil," he had to journey 500 miles to Doha just to get his visa -- but it was all worth it if it meant playing in the same country as Kobe and LeBron.

Kazemi, however, received a rude education on being Muslim in the United States and ironically -- or appropriately -- enough, it happened at George Bush International Airport in Houston. After de-boarding his plane and stretching his six-foot-seven-inch body, Kazemi was greeted by three officials who took him into the bowels of the airport to question him for six hours. "I'm not a terrorist," he told them. "If you don't believe me, deport me."

Kazemi then took to hiding the fact that he was born and raised in Iran, just telling people he was from the Middle East. Then an incident at a gas station taught him that hiding wasn't an option. Kazemi told the New York Daily News, "[This guy walked up to me and] said, 'I am going to kill you.' Then he said he was joking. At first, I was scared. If you are me, wouldn't you be, too?"

After that, Kazemi came out of the ethnic closet, out and proud about his heritage. He also went public about his experiences off the court as an Iranian national. Now Kazemi leads Conference USA in rebounds and in field goal shooting. I don't know what's a more amazing feat: his journey, or that he's doing it at Rice University. Either way, it should inspire anyone who thinks Islamophobia needs to be challenged.

As for first-year guard Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, she is the first Muslim woman in history to play Division I basketball with her arms, legs and hair covered. The USBWA praised Abdul Qaadir for having to "deal with anti-Muslim sentiment."

"In high school, someone called me Osama bin Laden's daughter," she told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "It was at Holyoke Catholic. We beat them every time we played them."

As personally and politically confident as Abdul-Qaadir is off the court, she's even better with the ball in her hands. A blur baseline to baseline, Abdul-Qaadir was the 2009 Massachusetts Player of the Year, becoming the first player in the history of the state, male or female, to score 3,000 points. In her debut as an eighth grader, Abdul Qaadir dropped 43 points and never looked back. In her last high school game, she scored 51 of her team's 57 points. Yet still many people could only judge her appearance and not her game. By all accounts, Abdul-Qaadir displays a remarkable patience when questions about her appearance are raised. But she's very clear that they need to be raised with respect.

As she told Sports Illustrated during her senior year, "When some people come at me with, 'Oh, is that a tablecloth on your head?' -- it's like, really, don't. If you're going to have that kind of question, don't ask me. But some people are truly honest in asking a question, like, 'Oh, I don't want to be rude, but why do you wear that?' That's the kind of question I'd rather answer."

Kazemi and Abdul-Qaadir have shown a stunning maturity and perseverance. But even more stunning is the fact that the USBWA has chosen to recognize them for their courage. It's a sign that the Islamophobes may have had their day in the sun, but there are those much more suited to the light of day.

First run in thenation.com.

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