A marathon has brought out tensions between religious and secular residents of Umm al-Fahm, one of the largest Arab cities in Israel. Under pressure from Islamic groups, including the imam’s association, a marathon that was supposed to take place on Friday was postponed until after the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, which begins next week. The reason given for the suspension of the race is that it would breach Muslim religious laws, among them the separation between men and women.
About 800 people were expected to participate in Friday’s race. The debate over it began last week and became more strident as the original date approached.
When the Umm al-Fahm marathon was held for the first time in April 2017, some 700 men and women took part. At the time there were no objections from religious figures because the race was routed through one of Umm al-Fahm’s newer neighborhoods. This year it was planned for the city’s main street, which sparked greater interest as well as criticism.
A member of a social action group in the city, Zakariah Agbariyeh, said that the race took all the religious rules into consideration and was coordinated with the municipality. Women were going to start 20 minutes before the men. The marathon, he added, was the initiative of 30 of the city’s physical education teachers and aimed to deliver a message of brotherhood and a sporting culture in the shadow of rising violence in Umm al-Fahm in recent years.
Agbariyeh said that despite the imams’ objections, there was no intention of canceling the race. “We made clear to everyone that it is our right to organize the marathon after Ramadan,” he said. “We agreed to postpone it so as not to cross the line and we won’t allow people who seek to hurt unity and the social fabric in the city to take advantage of this. If there is place for improvements and coordination, we will be happy to do this.”
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The imams released a statement saying that they were not against the event itself, but rather the lack of coordination with them to ensure that it did not contravene Islamic law. The statement also claimed that the race would have served as a platform for entities wanting to show the media that the city’s religious character was being abolished, which would have led to unnecessary tensions. “All initiatives must take the implications into account,” the association’s chairman, Sheikh Faud Mashhur said, adding: “There should be no activities whose purpose is to remove the city’s religious character, and all activity should be under the principles of the religion and Sharia [Islamic religious law].”
Despite attempts to keep the debate quiet, it was mentioned in Friday sermons in the city’s mosques and a discussion on religious coercion spilled over into social media. Prof. Yosef Jabareen of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, a member of one of the city’s prominent clans, posted on his Facebook page that the position of the religious figures and imams, as expressed in the statement and the sermons, is tainted by verbal violence so harsh that it constitutes intimidation.
“Why are you ashamed of the presence of women in the public sphere?” he wrote. “Don’t you know that Arab women are also present in the public sphere in the academic world, for example, at the Technion? There are thousands of female Arab university students in medicine, engineering, nursing and many other subjects, and they excel. The academic sphere is built on foundations of acceptance of the other and mixing between women and men. It is a very special sphere and I think that religion should preach these principles and not violence and extremism.”
Two years ago, Islamist circles in the Arab-Israeli town of Tira insisted on the cancelation of a marathon organized by a female resident who is a sprinter. The race was supposed to be part of an event called the Ramadan Market. Religious figures said it copied Western events that were unsuitable to traditional Arab and Islamic culture and society.