What anti-Israel Olympic Athletes Can Learn From a Pakistani Tennis Star

Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, Pakistan’s No. 1 tennis star for more than a decade, partnered with Israeli and Indian athletes, using sports to bridge differences between states.

Pakistani tennis player Aisam-ul-Haq-Qureshi, who partnered with Israel's Amir Hadad at Wimbledon 2002.
Wikimedia commons/si.robi - Qureshi RG16 (20)

The ongoing Olympic Games have been tarnished by multiple instances of Muslim athletes showcasing anti-Israeli bigotry in Rio de Janeiro. First it was the Lebanese delegation that refused to travel on the same bus as Israelis to the opening ceremony.

Two days later, Saudi judo competitor Joud Fahmy pulled out of her first-round match, because she could’ve met Israeli champion Gili Cohen in the second round. 

The most high-profile incident saw Egyptian judoka Islam el-Shehaby refuse to shake his Israeli opponent Or Sasson’s hand, after losing the fight. The International Olympic Committee has since sent El-Shehaby home, deeming his behavior “contrary to the rules of fair play and against the spirit of friendship embodied in the Olympic Values.”

In June, before the games were even underway, Syrian boxer Ala Ghasoun refused to participate  in the Olympics qualification saying, “my rival was Israeli, andrepresents a Zionist regime that kills the Syrian people.”

There have been occasional incidents of anti-Israeli behavior in other Olympic games in the recent past – not to mention the Munich massacre at the 1972 games – but the hike this year suggests that the animosity between Muslim states and Israel is as hostile as ever.

However, this antagonism self-manifests as façade, considering the behind-the-scenes alliances that Arab states – notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt –are forming with Israel to ward off Iran as a common enemy.

Many – not only in the Muslim or Arab world – have tried to justify these athletes’ actions as “solidarity with Palestinians.”

However, not as many seem to have discerned the irony in a Syrian overlooking his own President’s war crimes or a Saudi woman ignoring human rights abuses while fighting for a country she couldn’t have represented before the 2012 Olympics owing to her gender. El-Shehaby’s case is all the more striking, considering Egypt’s (fragile) peace treaty with Israel.

Others find the argument that politics should be set aside for the Olympics too quixotic in a world where human rights are being ubiquitously abused.

Even so, not only is making a citizen – a sportsperson at that – the target of your protest against their country of birth counterproductive, singling out one state for crimes that others might be guiltier of is a reflection of one’s prejudice. When the target is the solitary Jewish state in the world the bias can be perceived as anti-Semitism.

But here one must ask why Muslims are expected to monolithically toe the anti-Semitic line while making political statements?

There are prominent pro-Palestinian Jews who go as far as to question Israel’s existence, so where are the Muslims willing to stand with the Israeli people being targeted for their religious or national identity?

Unfortunately, we must look back 14 years to find a story of a Muslim athlete shunning pressures similar to what El-Shehaby faced and standing with a fellow Israeli athlete.

When Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, Pakistan’s No. 1 tennis player for well over a decade, decided to partner Israeli friend Amir Hadad for Wimbledon 2002, few took notice back home. In a country obsessed with cricket, no one knew that Pakistan had someone representing the nation at tennis majors.

After winning the qualifiers and the first two rounds of the main draw, the Qureshi-Hadad duo found itself in the third round at Wimbledon.

Qureshi became the first Pakistani to reach that far at a Grand Slam, and finally got some attention back home – for having the audacity to partner an Israeli.

The first reaction that Qureshi got for becoming the most illustrious tennis player in Pakistan’s history was the local tennis federation threatening to ban him for his choice of partners. (It didn’t, as he was simply irreplaceable.)

Not only did Qureshi go on to team with Hadad in the U.S. Open 2002, reaching the second round this time, their partnership continued till the next year, eventually culminating in the ATP Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award.

What started off as a strictly sporting decision to succeed on the grass of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, became a political statement for Qureshi. His message was clear: not all Muslims are hostile toward Israelis, and together we can bridge differences created by our states.

A little over a year after the 2008 Mumbai attacks that threatened to bring nuclear-armed India and Pakistan to war, Qureshi decided to partner India’s Rohan Bopanna.

The “Indo-Pak Express,” as they were fondly dubbed, made the U.S. Open 2010 final with Qureshi launching the “Stop War, Start Tennis” organization, aiming to ease tensions between the two neighboring countries and encourage reconciliation in conflict zones.

Aisam was not only an inspiration for us as a tennis player, he has always strived to be a role model for Pakistanis and Muslims off the court as well.

During training camps he would urge his juniors to find strength in their beliefs, but told us never to expect divine favors owing to our religious identity. “Allah would never discriminate on the basis of religious or national identities,” he would say.

He has never worn his beliefs on his sleeves, but has never felt any less of a Muslim because of a lack of overt religiosity. “I don't like to interfere religion or politics into sport,” he told the New York Times when first asked about his partnership with Hadad.

Eight years later in the post-match ceremony after the U.S. Open final, his first message was to wish everyone “Eid Mubarak’” going on address misconceptions about Pakistanis being terrorists.

Qureshi is a shining example of not defining patriotism or pride in one’s religious identity through animosity toward others.

The Muslim athletes ostensibly standing up for oppressed people should know that they aren’t helping the cause of the Palestinians, or their own states, by exacerbating already ominous divides.

The Muslim world needs more Aisams who refuse to succumb to threats issued by those shouting the loudest, claiming to spread solidarity for one community through brazen displays of hatred for another.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Pakistan-based journalist. He is the Editor (online) at The Nationand a Correspondent at The Diplomat and Newsline Magazine. His work has been published in The Guardian, The Independent, Foreign Policy, Courrier International, New Statesman, The Telegraph  and MIT Review. Shahid played tennis at Pakistan’s domestic circuit from 2006-2011.