It’s ok. He’s one of ours…

It’s always about perspective.  Two headline stories over the last weekend, both involving high profile Muslim men; two very different perspectives.

In the aftermath of the Rugby World Cup Final, Sonny Bill Williams handed his winners’ medal over to a young fan who had run on to the field to celebrate with the All Blacks and had been tackled to the ground by a security officer.  The pictures that quickly circulated on the internet showed the young boy getting brought down as he ran towards the New Zealand rugby team during their lap of honour.  Sonny Bill is the first to react, lifting the young boy off the ground, placating the security guard and ensuring the boy is alright.  Nehe Milner-Skudder also approaches the scene, calms the security guard and walks away.  As the security guard backs away, cameras swarm around Williams, the boy and Steve Hansen, who has also joined the scene to see whether the boy is ok.  Williams walks the boy back to his friends and family and then hangs his medal around the boy’s neck.  The gesture is spontaneous, gracious and heartfelt.  The boy is amazed.  When asked about his actions, Williams said:

“He’s just a young fella obviously caught up in the moment.”

Asked about the medal gesture, he said: “Why not try and make a young fella’s night? Hopefully, he’ll remember it for a while. I know he will appreciate it, and when he gets older he will be telling kids. That is more special than it just hanging on a wall.”

Williams’ words speak immensely to this man’s character.  Later he received a replacement medal and in subsequent interviews has spoken about himself and the national team he plays in.

“I just don’t want to fail, to be honest. I don’t want to let my family down, I don’t want to let myself down. That’s probably the biggest thing I fear.”

Of his teammates, current and future:

“We’ll never have those players, they’re legends in their own right. But the talent in New Zealand is crazy. There’s going to be players who step up without a doubt. We just have to wait and see who those names are but I can tell you those guys are going to be special as well.”

Insightful, compassionate and forthright.  Beautiful words that demonstrate the maturing mind of this incredibly talented sportsman.

*

Shaker Aamer has been held in Guantanamo Bay for 14 years.  He was released this weekend.  He is returning to his family a man in turmoil.  The words of his doctor and of hostage captives ring in the ears.  He is mistrustful, he is damaged both physically and psychologically and he will be returning to a situation that has now become alien to him: a family and a child of thirteen who he has never met.  He will have the scars of torture imprinted on him but he will be expected to reintegrate and go about his business.  A minor casualty in a major war.

The press reporting this man’s release have spoken about the changed nature of the country he is returning to.  The subject of trust has been raised and it is a subject difficult to comprehend how it will play out.  Clive Stafford Smith raises some interesting points in his article from The Guardian.  He foretells further horrors for Shaker Aamer – of being spun against by the very people now releasing him without charge.  Already the Spectator is framing the discourse on the subject. The notion of being innocent but guilty shrieks of Orwell.  Aamer will forever walk with the word “suspect” hanging around his neck.  The men who tortured him, who force-fed him, who held him captive without charge for fourteen years will never have to wear a sign.  They will never have their role in the “War on Terror” feature so prominently about them.  They won’t have to face the questioning face of their thirteen old child and have their integrity doubted.  And what of this boy?

What happens when this boy hears of his father’s incarceration and starts to rail against the machine that put him their?  Will he be lauded and championed like those who fought and challenged authorities for mis-imprisonment in the past – in my lifetime I’m thinking of those who protested against false-imprisonment of IRA “Terrorists” – now we celebrate the fact that these mistrials were brought to justice.  Will Shaker Aamer’s son ever receive this satisfaction should he challenge the state who put his father in prison for so long?  Rather, will he face opprobrium and be snarled at for raising his voice?  Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s Independent article highlights the society Aamer is returning to; one in which his son’s teachers are expected to report “troubling behaviour”.  The spiral of conflict is one that is difficult to pull out of.

So.  Another weekend dominated by stories about Muslim men.  The perspectives, however, could not be more different.  Interestingly, The Guardian’s story about Sonny Bill handed over his medal to the youngster included a short description of his conversion to Islam –

It was the sort of unlikely gesture All Blacks fans might expect of Williams, who began his career in rugby league in New Zealand before controversially leaving the Canterbury Bulldogs mid-season in 2008 for French rugby union side Toulon. It was in France that Williams converted to Islam, telling CNN in 2013 that he had been touched by the contentment of a Tunisian family he got to know who lived in a one-bedroom flat with their five children.

(A more detailed version can be found here: NZ Herald – Sonny Bill Embraces Islam.)

It may sound trite but, in the face of constant abuse and vilification and hatred and distrust and prejudice and misinformation – to read such inspiring words about a religion disabused around the world is heartening.  It gives one hope – something we all crave.

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