Today’s Independent carries a report on Newcastle United’s decision to sign a sponsorship deal with the notorious short-term loan company Wonga, which will involve the team’s players wearing the company’s logo on their shirts.
United’s decision has come in for strong criticism. Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes has stated: “I’m appalled and sickened that they would sign a deal with a legal loan shark. It’s a sad indictment of the profit-at-any-price culture at Newcastle United. We are fighting hard to tackle legal and illegal loan sharking and having a company like this right across the city on every football shirt that’s sold undermines all our work.”
The Indy‘s intrepid reporter Martin Hardy obviously felt that this wasn’t sufficiently controversial – so, having spotted that four of Newcastle’s players are Muslims, he phoned up the Muslim Council of Britain and asked them whether advertising Wonga contravened the principles of sharia law.
Probably the MCB should have steered well clear, given that they could have anticipated how anything they said on the subject would be twisted. However, MCB assistant general secretary Ibrahim Mogra gave Hardy a polite and thoughtful answer, which is quoted as follows:
“There are two aspects to this. We have the rulings of the religious law and we have the individual’s choice and decision on how they want to follow or not follow that rule. The idea is to protect the vulnerable and the needy from exploitation by the rich and powerful. When they are lending and are charging large amounts of interest, it means the poor will have short-term benefit from the loan but long-term difficulty in paying it back because the rate of interest is not something they can keep up with. The Islamic system is based on a non-interest-based system of transaction.”
Ibrahim Mogra pointed out that footballer Frédéric Kanouté had been given dispensation from wearing the logo of a gambling website when he played for Seville because of his religious beliefs: “Freddie was allowed to wear a top without the 888.com and that is a reasonable request to be made by the player. Assuming all four are on the pitch at the same time, if you have seven out of 11 [who have the advertising on their shirts] you have sufficient coverage. It is not asking too much, I believe.”
You’ll note that Ibrahim Mogra makes no demands on the players that they should refuse to wear shirts advertising Wonga, saying rather that it is down to their individual consciences. And instead of basing his objections to Wonga on the sharia principle of rejecting interest on loans, he emphasises that the main issue here is the loan-sharking practices of this particular company.
And how does the Independent report his words? The article is headlined “Newcastle’s Muslim stars told: Don’t play in new ‘Wonga’ tops” and begins: “Newcastle United’s £24m shirt sponsorship deal with Wonga was engulfed in fresh controversy last night when the club’s Muslim players were warned that wearing the new shirts would infringe Sharia law.”
Predictably this distorted account was taken up by papers like the Sun (“Newcastle’s Muslim stars ‘breaking Sharia law’”) and the Telegraph (“Newcastle United’s Muslim players told wearing Wonga-sponsored shirts infringes Sharia law”), while sports sites went with “Muslim Newcastle players warned against wearing Wonga shirts” (Goal.com) and “Newcastle’s Muslim stars told not to play in new kit” (Eurosport).
The Eurosport report prompted comments like these: “Whatever next! Someone should tell them we don’t have those stupid laws here and I hope we never will!”; “Sod their law this is britain we r christians and proud!”; “Newcastle is in England, I think British Law British people. According to Sharia Law shouild the players be getting paid all this money?”; “What a load of TOSH! In that case the Muslim footballers should be sacked and sent back to their country.”