Sectarian hatred took centre stage at the Lebanese Basketball Championship that concluded this week, with Christian and Muslim fans insulting each other’s religion and political leaders.
Divides born of the civil war that ended nearly 25 years ago prompted authorities to suspend the final series briefly before allowing the last two games to resume — but minus the fans.
The top two teams squaring off on the court were Christian hoopers Hekmeh (“wisdom” in Arabic) and the Sunni Muslim Riyadi (“sportive”) who eventually won the title but at a cost.
From the moment the best-of-seven series of games began on May 28, the fans went wild, belting out insults both religious and political.
From the bleachers, the Riyadi crowds — most of them Sunnis from Beirut and loyal to MP Saad Hariri’s Future movement — recited the opening verses from the Koran.
Hekmeh fans, most of them supporters of Christian Lebanese Forces party chief Samir Geagea, recited the Lord’s Prayer.
Christians hurled abuse at Muslim women and Sunnis insulted the Virgin Mary.
Riyadi supporters chanted: “God, Hariri, Tariq al-Jdideh!” — the name of a flashpoint Sunni Beirut neighbourhood — while Hekmeh fans shouted back: “God, Lebanese Forces, Geagea!”
Such abuse on the basketball court surprised many observers who noted that on the political front, Geagea and Hariri stand as allies against the powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah.
The divisions came to a head on June 3 when fans of Hekmeh, who won the fourth game in the series, stormed the court and one of them slapped a Riyadi player across the face.
The player, Egyptian Ismail Ahmad, chased his assailant and beat him to a pulp, with Riyadi supporters cheering him on as the scuffle degenerated into a generalised brawl.
Youth and Sports Minister Abdel Muttaleb al-Hennawi warned that “the government will not allow civil peace to break down, or any bloodshed”.
“Stadiums should be a place where the Lebanese come together, not for discord,” he said.
The interior ministry later banned fans from attending the last games in the series and the basketball federation fined the two clubs.
– ‘Morally bankrupt’ –
Politics and religion are thorny, divisive issues in Lebanon, where the president is a Christian Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shiite.
The sporting world itself is tainted: the football federation is run by Shiites, basketball by Christians and the chess league by Sunnis.
Basketball is not the first sport to have fallen victim to such sectarian violence in Lebanon.
Authorities have banned fans from attending football games since 2005, because of tensions between Sunnis and Shiites following the assassination of former premier Rafiq Hariri, which was blamed on Hezbollah.
Makram Ouaiss, who teaches political science at the Lebanese American University, said sectarian abuse on basketball courts and beyond is “a sign the Lebanese are morally bankrupt”.
“It shows just how charged the political atmosphere is, and the extent to which politicians have failed to find effective solutions,” Ouaiss told AFP.
He also said that while violence and hooliganism is a problem in stadiums all over the world, Lebanon is failing outright to put in place adequate measures to stem it.
An-Nahar newspaper sportswriter Naji Charbel agreed.
“The (sports) federation has proven itself incapable of managing Lebanon’s chronic problem of sectarianism. The issue is extremely sensitive, yet no one has yet shown himself capable of realising just how profound it is,” he said.
“Tough measures should have been put in place from the start, and troublemakers should have been forbidden from attending the games,” Charbel told AFP.